The Unconference Session: What to do?

Scott Berkun has a great blog post about how to run a good unconference session. If you are thinking about doing ‘something’ at a forthcoming unconference this is the post for you. It is really comprehensive and goes into both what to do and what not to do. I have put some of the content here but the whole post is worth looking at for all the details.

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.

Things to do:

  • 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.
  • Create both a topic and an angle.
  • Don’t be scared to pick tough topics.
  • Emphasize interactivity.

Things to avoid:

Don’t disapear as the organizer.

  • Don’t walk in without a position. Conversations need seeds: offer a position, or a set of questions, to get the ball rolling. * Never assume people in the room know more / less than you.
  • Never get bummed that only 2 people show up.

Basic session patterns to avoid:

  • The poorly disguised product demo.
  • The introvert with a microphone.
  • The zealot with a microphone.
  • The doing of things best done on e-mail or wikis. .
  • The bad rendition of a bad blog post.
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