Events Wrangling Basics For Unconferences

What Is An Unconference?

Unconferences are participant-driven and participant-organized events.

As a consequence of being participant-organized, there’s a definite possibility that none of the organizers are events wranglers or otherwise experienced in planning and running an event with the potential to be as large as many unconferences are.

This post is intended to help first-time unconference organizers and people who are considering organizing an unconference-style event. Future posts about unconferences on this blog will provide more background on this type of event and cover topics how people should get ready for an unconference, what to bring to one, how to lead a session, etc.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of unconferences and want to learn a bit more about them, read the Wikipedia entry for that term and Dave Winer’s 2006 post “What is an unconference?” What he said is no less true today than it was in 2006, including this excerpt:

“…First, you take the people who used to be the audience and give them a promotion. They’re now participants. Their job is to participate, not just to listen and at the end to ask questions. Then you ask everyone who was on stage to take a seat in what used to be the audience. Okay, now you have a room full of people, what exactly are they supposed to do?…

Real reporters are often the best discussion leaders. Put your DL at the front of the room, with a mike in hand. A couple of people roam the room with handheld wireless mikes to put in the face of the people who are speaking. No one lines up for a mike. Think Donahue or Oprah. The DL’s job is is to craft a story from the expertise in the room. Everyone is a source, about to be interviewed by someone who’s listening. The DL may actually call on people, so no one should get the idea that they can fall asleep or daydream. Pay attention, you might be the next speaker!…”

Step 1: Do Groundwork; Clarify What, Why And Who For Event

An unconference starts out as an idea in one person’s brain, or maybe the desire to have an unconference occurs to a couple people at pretty much the same time. The first step after the idea pops up is to do a lot of thinking and a little work on the what,why and who of the event. If the unconference being worked on is a repeat event, a lot of those details were figured out for the previous version of the event, but you still want to think about what, why and who, and make sure those aspects are clear for the event organizers and for others outside the core group.

When the unconference is a first-time event, the person or people who want the event to happen must crystallize what the event should be and what it can be.

What the event should be is the ideal embodiment of your unconference idea.

“Should” happens when 150 smart, funny, gracious, respectful, creative, like-minded and complementary-minded people in the top of their fields with a wide range of experiences and accomplishments who enjoy creating and building cool things want to spend two or three days together learning from each other and sharing their knowledge, skills and ideas about an overarching theme that is relevant to each of them, and that experience is facilitated by skilled practitioners of Open Space Technology or similar meeting processes that enable equal participation by all and strong relationship building.

Or at least that’s my version of should. Not asking for much, huh? That sort of describe what I imagine Tim O’Reilly’s early FooCamps to have been like. I don’t know if they really were, but I think that’s what he was aiming for.

Defining “can” for your unconference brings your idea closer to reality. If you don’t have the money and the connections to get your ideal group of 150 people together, you need to take a look at which people you can invite to your event and what knowledge, experiences and personalities they will bring with them. The reason I’m ok with the transition from an ideal event to what’s actually possible is that I’m not one of those 150 ideal people for any unconference theme that I can think of. And a lot of other people who would enjoy an unconference would probably not be listed in a group of 150 ideal people for an unconference theme. But there are still a lot of not-150 people who are fantastic humans who make wonderful participants at unconferences and will build strong relationships with people they met at the event.

What you design your unconference to be ought to be based on who you can invite and reasonably expect to participate in the event. Early registrants tend to be personal friends or close acquaintances of the core organizing team. If the core team has strong connections to lots o people involved with the core theme of the unconference, they should be able to get a good group of participants to register without a lot of work. When the core team has good relationships with event supporters who are well-connected with people involved in the event theme, those supporters can encourage their connections to participate in the unconference. One of key factors in deciding whether to invest time and energy into organizing and putting on the unconference is whether the core team and event supporters have enough connections to people who will participate in the event.

How 2 Real-Life Unconferences Started

barcamp logoOne real life example of these connections is the original BarCamp. That unconference was held in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2005 by a small group of developers working at tech startups. Because they knew a lot of other developers, and because the Bay Area had a large population of developers, designers and other tech people, the core team was able to quickly contact many potential participants for BarCamp. In the words of Tantek Çelik, one of the BarCamp cofounders, here’s how the first BarCamp unconference went from an idea to reality:

“It was the morning of Saturday August 13th and Chris Messina found me on IRC and reminded me about the idea of BarCamp. We decided to convene at Ritual Roasters and talk about it, was it even possible? In a matter of hours the BarCampFounders registered a domain, and started cloning the structure and logistics from the Foocamp wiki. Andy Smith blogged the announcement and added it to Craigslist, upcoming, and evdb. The list of planners, volunteers, and helpers grew quickly and details got sorted out in mere days. Six days later the first BarCamp took place and the rest is history.”

barcamp milwaukeeThe first BarCampMilwaukee (BCMke) happened in somewhat the same way, although not as quickly. Although I love technology, I’m not a developer. And I loved both the concept of BarCamps, having thoroughly researched them after reading about the inaugural one in the Bay Area, and the reality of them, having participated in BarCampChicago in the summer of 2006. One of the other BCMke cofounders was a developer who participated in BarCampChicago with me. The other cofounders were developers, we all knew more developers, the Milwaukee metro area had a fair number of developers, and we were pretty sure we could talk a few developers into coming from further away, like Madison and Chicago. So the can for BCMke was: yes, we can get a pretty good group of people interested in computers, the internet and all kinds of other technology!

If you talk to people who organized the first version of other unconferences, you’d probably get similar stories, where they heard about the concept of unconferences, they decided they wanted to organize one, and they found other people to help them do just that…

Moving From Idea Toward Reality

So the first step in moving the idea of an unconference toward reality is to find at least one other person who agrees it’s a good idea. Then the two of you have to connect with other people who might help you organize the event and make it happen. From your conversations with those potential organizers, you have to pull together a core team that loves the unconference idea and wants to make it happen.

With the core group of people passionate about the unconference, develop a written summary of the event, blending what the event should be and what it can be, come up with a draft name for the event, and a one-page proposal explaining the unconference. Coming up with a written summary, name and one-pager helps the core team refine the initial idea, gives the event a certain credibility and legitimacy, and provides a clear description for potential participants and supporters to read over.

After you create a clear picture of what the event is, the next step is to talk with potential participants about the event and have conversations with potential supporters for the unconference. If potential participants get really excited when you explain what will happen at the unconference, and they indicate they definitely want to come and will bring other people, that’s a good indication there’s a real need for your event. When you talk to potential supporters, if they are enthused about the event and offer to help by connecting you to potential participants, by connecting you with other supporters and by helping with funding or in-kind support, then you know you’re well on the way to making the event a reality.

Your early stage thinking, writing and conversations about what the unconference will be and why it should be held will culminate in a decision about whether to continue the planning efforts for the event. If reactions from potential participants and supporters convince you it’s worth continuing to work on the event planning, the unconference still won’t be a reality until you’ve got a complete core organizing team, confirmed key participants and supporters, and a confirmed venue which is being provided gratis or is covered by guaranteed sponsor funding. Until those steps have been completed, your unconference is still just an idea, a possibility.

If you didn’t get an excited and enthusiastic response from prospective participants and supporters, either you didn’t explain the event well, you didn’t talk to the right people, or your unconference isn’t an event which will be successful in the way you’ve designed it.

Enthusiastic Buy-In From Prospective Participants And Supporters

In the event that potential participants and supporters are excited about your unconference and want to be involved in it, you now have to take it to the next level. Future posts will cover the other steps in events wrangling basics for unconferences, as listed below.

[Edit: Based on reader feedback, the “Unconference Basics” series of post listed below was revised to allow shorter posts, which means there are now more Steps with more-focused topics. — BW]

Step 2: Build Core Team To Get To Next Level
Step 3: Confirm Key Participants And Supporters
Step 4: Work On When
Step 5: Work On Where
Step 6: Start Publicizing
Step 7: Begin Personal Invitations
Step 8: Organize Equipment
Step 9: Organize Supplies
Step 10: Run The Unconference
Step 11: Follow-up After The Unconference


Posts in this “Unconference Basics” series:

Events Wrangling Basics For Unconferences” — today’s post
Unconference Basics — Step 2: Build Core Team To Get To Next Level
Unconference Basics — Step 3: Confirm Key Participants And Supporters
Unconference Basics — Step 4: Work On When
Unconference Basics — Step 5: Work On Where
Unconference Basics — Step 6: Start Publicizing
Unconference Basics — Step 7: Begin Personal Invitations
Unconference Basics — Step 8: Organize Equipment
Unconference Basics — Step 9: Organize Supplies
Unconference Basics — Step 10: Run The Unconference
Unconference Basics — Step 11: Follow-up After The Unconference


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