Peer Learning

Introducing the Unconference Day

Bart Doorneweert

As  an unconfernce facilitator, your job is to start off the event. Right  at the beginning you’re facing the biggest hurdle for launching the  event: A great deal of the audience doesn’t really know what an  unconference is, nor understands how it works. So, what can you do to  level up the audience, and at the same time create the mindset, and set  the rhythm of the unconference day? In this post we’ll give you some  pointers for creating momentum.

It all starts with a story

The  key message to kick off with is that the unconference is about them,  the audience, the members of various tribes, who want to learn, share,  and build the social fabric of a community. At Source we have various  examples of these stories. For instance about how:

  • LeanCamp brought together the discourse of Lean Startup, Business Models, and User Experience Design,
  • Source Summit is contributing to the regionally emerging identity for technology startups on the African continent.

All  of these events have initiated new connections, and conversations,  which opened up tremendous opportunity. You probably have a similarly  unique set of connections that you want to bring together at your event.  That’s where the value starts for building community, and that’s where  you need to start your story!

various spheres of interest that are brought together
What  generally helps to support this story, is by showing the various  spheres of interest that are brought together at the unconference in the  shape of a Venn diagram. Create a visual in the form of a circle for  each of the groups that is active during the day, and overlap them in  the middle to indicate the chemistry that is likely to take place.

On to the mechanics

Now that you’ve shown the raw chunk of value that’s already in the room, the question becomes how people can access it.

Unlike a regular conference, where the delivery of value is the responsibility of the organisers, the unconference has flipped that responsibility to the audience. The first principle of “how this  will work” is to address the audience’s responsibility to take hold of  its learning curve. Participants have to flock to where each knows they  can add, or obtain value.

The  unconference will support participants to achieve their outcomes, by  creating options with the different types of sessions they can  participate in, and thus the people they can meet. The unconference  scheduling grid provides the engineering to make this happen.

As  facilitator it helps to emphasise the pivotal role of the grid, by  presenting your story in front it. At the start, the grid is empty, but  it won’t be empty for much longer.

Add some lubricant

Before  you start with the invitation to the audience to pitch, you need to  provide some guidance for participants on organising their session, and  drive it towards an actionable outcome for all involved. You can do this  by presenting some of the session formats that are generally used. The  most common ones are:

Fish bowl:
On-stage  discussion where there is always one seat empty. The session host  introduces the topic, and invites the first people up who want to start.  If someone from the audience wants to jump in, they can take the empty  seat. This also implies that one of the current discussion participants  needs to step back, and offer their seat. Alternatively you can do this  an an open-interview setting, where the key interviewee remains seated,  and the rest switch.

Ideastorm Post-up:
Ask the participants a really compelling question. Stimulate them towards a brainstorm for solution directions.

Show and tell:
Present something great you’ve made. Make people aware of what it is. Then open up for questions, and deeper discussion.

Ask an expert:
Present  yourself as an expert, or request that expert if you need help from  them. As the session title indicates, ask them what you need. Also  request other similar or complimentary experts to step up to  participate. During the session the experts could tag each other to  relay between different perspectives on the problem owner’s position.

Of  course this selection of methods is not exhaustive. The idea is that  you as facilitator introduce the main ones to participants, and suggest a  fitting method when a session host needs some help to select an  approach. We’ll go more in-depth on choosing appropriate session formats  for different session types and audience sizes in a next post (sign-up for the Facilitation Guide Update if you find this useful, and be sure to secure learnings in you email inbox).

Fire-up the engines!

Ok,  now that you’ve set the scene, it’s time to pull in the audience.  You’ll do this by inviting them to pitch their session topic. In order  to pitch you’ll need a session card that session hosts can fill in. This  session card is what will end up on the planning grid. Below is an  example of a session card we use at Source.

example of a session card we use

Remind  people to think about their intent for proposing a session. Is it a  call out to the group about a lesson they’ve learned, and want to share,  or is it regarding help that they’re seeking? Make them become explicit  about the reason why they’re pitching.

This  being said, you can now point to the table where participants can find  the session cards, and call out the first people up to start filling  them in. Instruct the session hosts to line up at one side of the  planning grid once they have their cards ready, and invite them up one  by one to pitch. Before they pitch remind the hosts that they have just  30 seconds to do so. Get them to state their name, what the session is  about, and who they hope to see joining in. Keep it snappy and concrete!  This is where you start getting the event into gear!

Pitching  may be daunting for the some of the participants, but once they see the  first people come up, more are sure to follow. What helps to encourage  people is to remind everyone that pitching is not a popularity contest.  Even if the participant is introduced to that one person through their  pitch, and spends their session time with her, we already can officially  register this as a win for the event.

Populate the grid

After  someone has held their pitch, the facilitator closes off with a  one-sentence summary of the session topic, maybe with a clarifying  question if it’s not completely clear. Also get a sense from the  audience who would be interested to attend, by asking for a raise of  hands or a volume vote for that topic. Based on the feedback, you can  allocate the session card to an appropriate time slot, and a session  space that would fit to the size of the group that’s interested.

We’ll have a follow-on post dedicated to preventing trade-offs when allocating posts to the planning grid: get notified by signing up to Facilitation Guide Update

Warm-up for a round

As  with many things in life and learning, people never completely get it  until they’ve done it. The unconference is no different. It makes sense  to start off with a practice round of planning. Just plan for the first  one or two time slots. Build on some key speakers you, or the  ambassadors you have mobilised. Get people into the flow. Rally the  participants after these sessions, and then fill the grid until the next  big break.

planning grid

Now drop the flag!

That  is pretty much it. It takes about 45 minutes to get to this point. You  are ready to signal for the start. Repeat out briefly what session  topics people can choose from, and which rooms these will take place in,  and then unleash the crowd. The self-organising conference has begun.  It’s now the time to join in the game, and become part of the community  bustle.

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