How to run a great unconference session

It’s easy to assume that unconferences, the popular trend in tech-sector events, require little thought on the part of session organizers. The myth is that by choosing to do an unconference, special magic will trickle down into all the sessions, blooming into dozens of beautiful flowers of enlightened communal experience.

It’s not true: All unconferences have good sessions and bad. Ask anyone who has attended one – they’ll tell you about dud topics, confused session organizers, and the guy who kept taking the floor to talk about his company in session after session. For all their benefits, unconferences have their bad moments too.

One trick with unconferences is not to bet the farm on self-organization: people running sessions have a job to do, and it’s up to them to make the sessions work. The event planners do carry the heavy burden of setting the tone, creating the environment and inviting the right people, but the session creators themselves are part of the the front lines for delivering value to attendies (and themselves).

Running a good session is easy – it just take some effort and awareness of what can go wrong.

Things to do

  • Create both a topic and an angle. It’s one thing to say “lets talk about AJAX”. It’s another to go with “AJAX war stories: the good and the ugly of real AJAX development”. It’s the same basic topic, but a theme calls people to action, or opinion. It lets everyone know what thoughts to stew over before the session begins, increasing the odds people will have interesting things to share.
  • Don’t be scared to pick tough topics. The only filter at an unconference is you. One trick is to pick topics you always wished they’d talk about at big fancy conferences, but never do. Now is your chance. Odds are high you’ll hit on surprisingly popular themes.
  • Emphasize interactivity. Make it easy for people to participate, ask questions, and use the group to add to your expertise on the topic. This is called facilitation and its a skill: pay attention the next time you see a meeting or brainstorming session run well. Use the whiteboards if there are any, writing down key points, suggestions or references you know people will want. (Or ask someone to volunteer to take notes at the begining of the session).
  • Be a good host. Like throwing a party, good hosts are friendy, introduce people, and set the tone. Be friendlier and more extroverted than usual, just like you would if throwing a party at your house. If you know a few people in the room, use them to your advantage (tasking them with seed questions or early participation). If you think you’re a lousy solo host, partner with someone to run the session.
  • Take advantage of the unique opportunity. There’s a special mix of experience and opinion in the room and that’s the unconference magic. Throw questions to the floor often, probing for expertise is in the room: “Who knows about X? Has anyone done Z with Y?”
  • Relax and have fun. If you have fun with the session idea, and show up smiling, everything will go easier. Remember: you set the tone. If you’re friendly and relaxed, people will tend to be friendlier and more relaxed. If you’re scared and quiet, people will be cautious and tentative.
  • Continue the conversation. Get people’s names and e-mails and follow up with any notes or photos to help continue the conversations. Often people are torn between two sessions and miss yours despite their interest: post to the conference wiki afterwards, leaving people who missed your session a way to catch up and still make connections (or contributions).

Things to avoid

  • Don’t disapear as the organizer. If you wrote the session on the board, you need to assert yourself if the conversation devolves into a shouting match, a soloiquoy, or dead silence. Be the shepherd – visible, as involved as necessary, a beacon of sanity (or insanity depening on the topic). Put your name on the session board so people can track you down later.
  • Don’t walk in without a position. Conversations need seeds: offer a position, or a set of questions, to get the ball rolling. Many start with a 5/7 minute presentation by the organizer on a topic, followed by completely open and free-flowing conversation and debate. Those 5/7 minutes, if interesting, give enough fuel and grounding for everyone to build a session around. A list of thought provoking questions can be a great, low cost bag of seeds.
  • Never assume people in the room know more / less than you. You never know who you’re going to get: ask for a show of hands on how long people have worked with, or studied, whatever the topic is. Then you’ll know where you stand (expert or idiot?) before you waste everyone’s time talking at the wrong level.
  • Never get bummed that only 2 people show up. If you meet 2 people at a conference who actually share your interest in something, that’s a win, isn’t it? The smaller the number of people that show, the less structure you need. It’s easier to chat and share stories with a handful of people than it is with 15 or 20.

Basic session patterns to copy

There are definite patterns you’ll find at tech-sector unconferences. Even though they’re self-organized, some basic shapes are easy to make and work ok.

  • The group discussion. Someone picks a topic they’re into, writes it on the board, and forms an interesting discussion around it.
  • The semi-talk. Mentioned briefly above, this is a 5/15 minute presentation by the organizer, used as fuel for the session.
  • The show and tell. The organizer has a cool project, demo, beta, or something to show and let people play with. It’s the springboard for all the conversation in the session. Alternatively, individuals are asked to bring their own thing to show and tell (perhaps with a theme), and the session works round-robin.
  • The interactive game or thing. Many sessions are based on social games, or the learning of how to play them. Mafia (aka werewolf) is currently all the rage, but anything goes. Some people do game shows or competitions (e.g. Halfbaked): these are awesome but require some preperation on your part (what are the rules? Who are the judges? Did you dry run it at all before inflicting it on a group of strangers?)
  • Learn how to do X. If you’re inclined to teach, this can be simple and awesome. Teach folks how to juggle, do basic yoga, magic tricks, you name it. Just make sure you bring whatever gear you need, and that you have some plan for teaching 5, 10 or 15 people how to do something all at the same time.
  • The lecture. This is tricky, as the basic format is low-interactive. But if you’re a rock star, or have a big, well developed idea (a book in progress, a manifesto) you can pull this off. If only 10 people show, you should switch gears to something more interactive.
  • Non-session interactive thing. Why be bound to the tyrany of the session? Set up a demo in the hallway. Put a machine you’ve made by the couches. Write up an essay and tape it on the doors to the restroom stalls. There’s no reason you have to run a session at all to contribute. Be creative. These are often the most memorable things at unconferences.
  • Something new. There are other ideas worth trying – but whatever you do, let people know the ground rules in the first 2 minutes. If they don’t like it or had different expectations, give them a chance to bail before they feel obligated to stay.

Basic session patterns to avoid

  • The poorly disguised product demo. Most unconferences I’ve been to are shy about demos – so follow the policy of your particular event. If you’re going to do a demo, make it obvious. “Fooby 2.0 demo” and don’t hide it behind some other topic, making people wonder why you keep steering the conversation back to a product you’re waaaay too excited about.
  • The introvert with a microphone. If you’re really not suited for facilitating a group of 15 people you don’t know, partner with someone that is. Or pick a format better suited to your comfort zone. (Hint: if you are a good facilitator, run a session teaching others how to get more comfortable presenting / facilitating / being in front of the room. Doublehint: If you know a good presenter, ask them to run this session).
  • The zealot with a microphone. If you can’t stand to listen to people who disagree with you, get a talk show, or start a podcast – but don’t run a session. Unless you set the ground rules, or describe the session in a way that makes your stance known, expect people to either challenge you, or leave the room in frustration. More fun: find a zealot with the opposing view, get a moderator, and have a debate.
  • The doing of things best done on e-mail or wikis. Having 20 people in a room making a long list of programming languages / cool websites / favorite bands is a waste of everyone’s time. Very little of that process benefits from being in a room together.
  • The bad rendition of a bad blog post. Rants are great if people volunteer to listen: so if you really just want to vent to an audience for an hour, imply that in the session name. But don’t let yourself dominate a room or force the conversation back over ground everyone else has hapilly left behind. Also, the unconference spirit tends to be more about “60 second rants” where everyone gets to chip in, than it is about geek soliloquy.

More on unconfernces:

Have an unconference tip? More advice on running good sessions? Leave a comment please.

50 Responses to “How to run a great unconference session”

  1. Justin Martenstein

    This is a great post, Scott. I’ll make sure this gets in front of the Mind Camp folks, to help prep the attendees. Thanks!

  2. pdq

    Typo in the first sentence: assume assume

    Why is the Mafia link going to Filibuster?

  3. Ben Tremblay

    Back in a time when popular education on development and social justice issues was actually funded a lot of people found themselves in the deep end of the pool. We came up with something called “co-couselling”. I think that’s from RD Laing, but it doesn’t matter because that’s not where I’m headed.

    With that sort of experience under our belts my cohort engaged informal community activity with a new insight: the “agenda” didn’t have to include the key issue in order to address the core problem, if the process was flexible. What we came up with was a set of dynamics that were proof against hi-jacking, so that nobody could monopolize the space (a defense mechanism) or shut others down (likewise).

    What it came down to, for me, was an appreciation of Paolo Friere’s pedagogy: the skillful agent of extension (like small government?) is the one who intervenes least. But it’s like splitting diamons: shilly-shallying isn’t the same as sensitivity. A pragmatic recognition of social pathology (we are, after all, just human … and this is actually and really a hard time) enables us to nip things in the bud. As any gardener knows, that’s what allows fresh growth to flourish.

    There are all sorts of social utility to steering things onto the rocks. My biggest MIL-SPEC avionics R&D project was sabotaged by management who saw a quick profit by maximizing federal funding. Destructive practices don’t have to be conscious to be sociopathic; most times they aren’t.

  4. Scott (admin)

    Ben: Fascinating, yes, but I’m not sure I get your point (Nor did I follow the RD Laing, Friere methedology, or MIL-SPEC references). I’m guessing you’re saying that when unconference sessions go foul, it’s not because of willful intent on anyone’s part?

    1. samina

      good to read your views after 18 long years.

  5. Scott Ruthfield

    This weekend’s Foo Camp reminded me of another important rule of running a session: Don’t be afraid to regain control.

    In both sessions I led, I had one person who (well-meaningly) took the topic off onto a tangent: in one, the person argued with my co-presenter and everyone else on a small point for ~5 mins until we finally agreed to disagree (and the person admitted he didn’t know the details of the problem); in the second, a person kept sharing stories that were all slightly off-topic.

    In both cases, it took some polite but clear steering to get the session back in order. Your job isn’t just to make sure the room stays orderly – the conversation should stay orderly as well. (If the group doesn’t want you to do this, they’ll tell you.)

    This of course doesn’t mean you should walk in with a script and stick to it – what’s the point of having an unconference session that’s all lecture? – but listen for ratholes and tangents and steer it back. The others will thank you for it.

  6. Carbon Microphone

    it is always a good idea to get event planners when you want a good outcome for your planned event -*`

  7. Algernon

    I’m carrying out a thing of the identical interest and will be taking be aware about this .Many thanks.

  8. Baron

    I am constantly searching on line for thoughts that will help me. Thanks a lot!

  9. Mike Riversdale

    Thanks Scott for linking to my humble post. I’ve noticed an upswing in hits because of it recently – are barcamps/unconferences making a resurgence? (I hope so)

  10. Hagen

    typo: “the session creators themsleves”

    …or did you mean “themslaves”? ;-)



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