Why and how an unconference might work for your community

In May this year I ran an unconference for the DVB Project. It was my first time putting together an event of that kind and it was a big success. Many people have asked me for more information about how it worked and what was involved in planning it. I hope this rather long post will help others who are exploring alternative ways to have community members meet each other post-pandemic.

It’s a three-part post. Firstly, I share the story of how I built the case for an unconference. Skip ahead to the second part if you’re more interested in practical details on how the day itself went. The third part includes some logistical and communications tips that may be helpful if you decide to run an unconference.

Part 1: Building the case for an unconference

The DVB Project is an industry consortium that creates technology standards for digital television. The previous edition of its long-running annual conference, DVB World, was held in Dublin in 2019. It followed the pattern that had been established over the previous two decades: two days of presentations and panel sessions in a big room with about 200 attendees sitting at rows of desks, most with a laptop in front of them. It was well received and we were on track to organise something similar in Valencia in March 2020 when… well, you know what happened next.

We decided not to revert to running it as an online conference; DVB World would return as a physical event as soon as conditions allowed.

In discussion with my colleagues in the DVB Project Office, we agreed that we should take the pandemic-enforced break as an opportunity to do something radically different when our event returned. We knew we wanted something more interactive and dynamic, but the question was how to do that. With May 2022 set as a target, I was given the task of coming up with a proposal.

What kind of event should we run?

We had no idea how many people would be able and willing to travel to a conference, which would make things complicated both in terms of logistics (venue, catering, etc.) and getting commitments from speakers in order to build a programme.

It was clear from past conferences that interaction, networking, and opportunities to have meaningful conversations were what attendees valued most of all. Also, we had learned during the pandemic that the presentation of information in a one-way context doesn’t require physical presence or even live attendance. For many of us, watching a webinar on demand at a time of our own choosing – and often with the playback sped up – can be a more efficient way to pick up new knowledge.

So, taking all of this on board, the criteria became clearer. We needed a format that…

  • could be planned and implemented in around three months.
  • would work whether there were 40 attendees or 140 attendees.
  • would not require firm commitments from speakers several weeks in advance.
  • would be primarily focused on interaction and meaningful conversations rather than the one-way broadcast of information from a stage to a darkened room of people sitting in front of their laptops.

“You’re talking about an unconference!”

I wondered if there was a format that would bring participants together and, with a minimum of structure, allow them to discuss whatever topics were important to them. I mentioned the idea to my friend Lizzie Crudgington who said: “Oh, you’re talking about an unconference.”

It was the first time I’d heard that word. She told me more about the concept and I went off and did further research, finding lots of useful blog posts like this, this and this. I was quickly convinced that we needed to run DVB World as something like an unconference. This was at the end of 2021.

In January I had lunch with Gillian Martin Mehers, another friend with lots of experience in participatory process design. Talking through the possibilities with Gillian, I moved from the idea that we needed to run something like an unconference to the firm conviction that we needed to run an unconference.

All or nothing

I put together a pitch for my DVB Project Office colleagues and a few others whose endorsement or approval would be needed. There was certainly some hesitancy, but they were also intrigued by the idea. Some voices wondered whether we might combine an unconference with a more traditional conference element, but I was adamant that it was all or nothing. For the idea to work, we had to commit to it and trust the process. And so, the journey began in earnest.

We had already done some venue research during 2021 and I remembered that Pia Kroon, who was supporting us in this task, had highlighted an unusual venue in Brussels. Knowing that we would need multiple rooms and that we wanted to hold the event somewhere people could get to very easily from around Europe, the Maison de la Poste seemed like a good option. We picked a date – 18 May – and I got to work with building a new website for the event and setting up a registration platform (see below for more on that).

Professional guidance

I knew I would need specialist help to design the event. While I’ve been running conferences of all kinds for two decades, I had never been to an unconference, let alone run one. My wife is in the Art of Hosting network of professional facilitators, and she put the word out that I was looking for someone who could help run an unconference in Brussels.

I was extremely fortunate that the first person to respond to the call was Michaela Sieh, an experienced and respected practitioner of open space technology, a method for running highly interactive meetings. She had run unconferences previously and regularly works with the European Commission on participatory events. We could not have found a better person to accompany us for this project.

I travelled to Brussels to visit the Maison de la Poste, along with Pia and Michaela, and knew straight away that it would be perfect. It was probably the most impressive event venue that I had ever visited: an old building, tastefully refurbished, with a warm welcoming atmosphere and a variety of rooms, each with its own character. It sits right next to the Gare Maritime, a huge former railway station that boasts a breath-taking wooden atrium. The food market it hosts would be the perfect venue for our pre-event icebreaker. It was all coming together nicely.

Tight turnaround

We launched the website and opened registration on 18 March, just two months before the event. The venue contract was finalised around that time too, and it took several more weeks to put the catering arrangements in place. I mention all of this to show that this is a format that can be delivered in a very short time compared to a traditional conference.

Michaela happened to be in Switzerland in early April and took the time to visit us at the DVB offices in Geneva. This was time well spent, as it gave our core team a chance to meet in person and talk through some of the many uncertainties that remained around how the day would run and what needed to be in place in advance.

The four to six weeks before the event were spent either finalising the design of the day – more on that below – or in discussions with potential participants about why they might want to attend and what to expect. The registrations were coming in slowly but steadily, and we were confident that we’d have at least 80 people.

Part 2: At the unconference

On the evening before, the team from the DVB Project Office met with Michaela, our unconference expert, at the venue to get everything ready. Several participants were mounting technology demonstrations that needed to be installed, so there were tables to move into place, internet connections to set up and equipment to test. We also ensured there were sufficient chairs, tables and flipcharts in each room.

We rented a couple of Neuland graphic walls, using one to create the all-important blank agenda that participants would fill the following morning. Michaela did this using ribbon and tape to mark out a grid, labelling the rooms and timeslots. The other board would be used for session reports, a floorplan and other notices as required. (Having a printer on site was extremely useful.)

The agenda at an unconference can also be created on a wall, but it’s often not possible to stick paper to venue walls and we also had the possibility of moving the boards around as required.

We did one final run-through of the plans for the following day, before heading next door to the Gare Maritime where the early arrivals were enjoying an icebreaking drink. We had reached just over 120 registrations in the end and around 80 of those attended the icebreaker. Many of them questioned me about what would happen the following day: how would this conference without an agenda or speakers work? My response was that, like me, they should trust the process.

Arrival and opening circle

Participants were invited to arrive at the venue between 09:00 and 10:00 on the day itself. We had a light breakfast available in the coffee lounge and people were free to wander through the various rooms we were using. We had simple name badges – just a sticker with each participant’s name and company – and used the check-in app of our registration system (Tito) to keep track of who had arrived. In the end we had only four no-shows – we expected many more.

At 10:00, we invited everybody to gather in the biggest room we had available to us in the venue, which was just about big enough to host our opening ‘circle’. This simply means having everybody sit around the sides of the room to maximise visibility of all participants. We ended up having two concentric circles so that everyone could fit, and the same arrangement when we gathered again at 17:00 for the closing circle. One fundamental requirement for an unconference is having at least one space that can hold all attendees in a circle, along with several other spaces where sessions can take place.

Michaela ensured that the centre of the circle was marked with a pretty vase of flowers – this raised some eyebrows, but I saw that if it had not been there, we would have lost an important focal point. These small details make a difference. (And you can’t light a campfire in a conference room!)

DVB’s Chair said a few opening words and then I introduced the event. I used this moment to reassure the participants that unconferences had, in fact, been around for a long time, quoting from a blog post that contended that Alexander Von Humbolt had held the first one in 1928! And then I handed over to Michaela, who opened the circle.

Michaela set out some of the principles of open space technology, in particular the one known as the “law of two feet”. This states that, if you find yourself at a session where you are not learning or contributing, you have permission, or even an obligation, to leave that room and find another session to join. I think this word – permission – is a very important one for an unconference. In opening the circle, our host was giving the participants permission to speak up, to propose sessions, to share their opinions, to be actively involved.

Building the agenda

We had prepared some clipboards with sheets of paper and pens. Michaela invited those who wished to propose a session to take a board and write the name of the session along with their own name. (We had prepared a guide to the kinds of sessions they might think about hosting.) They were then invited to spend up to one minute pitching the session to the whole group, before sticking the sheet onto an empty slot on the agenda.

We thought it might be a little slow to get going, but it was apparent that many participants were more than ready for this: before long we had a queue of people waiting to pitch and some getting worried that there wouldn’t be a slot left open for their session! It was useful to have a spare room available that we could then add to the agenda board on the fly.

The agenda-setting process is necessarily ‘messy’. There was overlap between some topics, which led to discussion about merging or shifting sessions; some pitches were more thought through than others; and the audio system in the room was not optimal, which meant some pitches were not heard clearly. (Aside from the opening and closing circles, we did not otherwise require audio systems since the meeting rooms were not all that big. This also simplified the venue setup.)

By 11:00, we had an agenda filled with around 25 different sessions. It was quite remarkable to watch it being built right there in the room. By doing it this way, we knew it reflected the concerns and challenges of the participants – no programme committee could ever come up with such a laser-focused (as one participant described it) agenda.

Time to talk

And so, at 11:00, the first of five hour-long parallel session slots began – we had also programmed a free slot for lunch. There was quite a hubbub as people took photos of the agenda and worked out which room they needed to go to. This is something we can improve on next year, getting the agenda into an electronic format as quickly as possible so that people can more easily plan the rest of their day. That said, it is important to also keep open the possibility of having additions to the agenda once the sessions are under way.

The session hosts had been asked to go immediately to their rooms and be ready to start their sessions. By 11:15, a wander around the upper floor of the building revealed five groups of various sizes, from 10 to 30 or so people, all deep in conversation about a variety of different topics. The unconference was working!

Capturing the conversations

Each session host – the person who ‘called’ the session – was asked to ensure somebody in the room was nominated to submit a short report. This was done using a simple set of questions on SurveyMonkey. Once submitted, Michaela and I could reformat the responses and print out a meeting report to post on the wall. These reports would also later be used to share the outcomes of each session with all participants.

The most important part of the reports was the final question, asking what “next steps” should be taken on the topic in question. As I write these words, we are planning to do a kind of audit of these next steps over the next two months, so that we can check in on progress made and keep momentum going.

What happened at the sessions?

Sessions took various forms. In most cases, the host stood at the front of the room, often taking notes on a flipchart. Participants were free to reconfigure the chairs into whatever format suited the session and group size. Some sessions were based around a technology demo, which thus became the focus of attention. Others were kicked off by a prepared presentation – there was a means of projecting slides available in all rooms.

The discussions were wide-ranging and often went beyond the original topic. While, as you would expect, some voices were more prominent than others, we observed that the number of people who ‘dared’ to speak up on a topic was much higher than would ever have been seen either at previous conferences or even at DVB meetings. There was something about the setting and format that gave people permission – that word again – to contribute. This was one of the most refreshing and encouraging aspects of the whole event.

The period from 13:00 to 14:00 was officially blocked for a buffet lunch. As we expected, some of the pre-lunch sessions took advantage to run on a little longer, and our plenary room reverberated with conversations and reflections on what had already been discussed in the morning sessions.

Some participants expressed frustration that they had missed sessions that happened in parallel, or had perhaps chosen the ‘wrong’ session to attend. But this also brought the realisation that it would have been valuable to have several company colleagues attending…which is what we hope happens next year. 🙂

Sessions continued through the three afternoon blocks, with many people also having side conversations in the corridors or in rooms that were not in use for a session – or just taking a break from what had been an intense day. We ensured there would be drinks and snacks available throughout the day to fuel the conversations and keep energy levels up.

Closing circle and onwards

At 17:00, everyone circled up once again. Michaela invited each session host to give a one-minute summary of what had emerged at their session. Some struggled to stay within the time limit (perhaps we needed a more visible timer) and we had some audio problems again, but overall it served as a good overview of the day. We also opened the floor for anyone who wanted to share some observations.

While this was happening, our caterers were getting the other rooms set up for what we called the Social Sessions. Allowing for all the session reports, plus the presentation of a DVB fellowship award, and some wrap-up words from various people, it was around 18:30 by the time the participants moved back upstairs to have a well-earned drink (with beer and wine available too) and a buffet dinner. The tech demos continued to run and there was an incredible buzz of conversation throughout the building, with so many threads to continue.

Musical entertainment has always been part of DVB World, but I was keen for it to be in keeping with the unconference spirit. Having some experience in this area, I brought my guitar with me (and had hoped others might do the same – maybe next year!) and we rounded off the evening with a singalong session in what was called the Music Room, but quickly began to feel like a pub. 

Looking back and looking forward

The feedback on the day itself and afterwards was overwhelmingly positive. It seemed that most participants had been uncertain about the whole concept, and some were strongly sceptical. Many people commended me for “taking the risk” of running it as an unconference; my reply was always that I genuinely had not felt it was a risk. Everything I had read and heard about unconferences, coupled with having the experience of Michaela to draw upon, told me that all we had to do was get people into the venue. The rest would take care of itself. And it did.

It was also interesting for us to note that around 50% of the attendees were attending DVB World for the first time, suggesting that the format served to attract a new audience.

We are hoping to do the same again next year, with a cohort of participants who already have (at least) one unconference behind them. I’m confident we would increase the attendance considerably. It is a format that can scale up quite easily; a bigger room would be needed for the opening and closing circles and there are certainly some aspects of the day that can be improved. However, as a format to facilitate those meaningful conversations that usually only happen in the coffee breaks at traditional conferences, I firmly believe that unconferences are an excellent option for communities of all kinds.

There is still a place for traditional conferences – it depends on what you want to achieve with your event. But the value of having people travel long distances to sit quietly and listen to a series of presentations has been seriously undermined by what we’ve learned during the pandemic. If people get together, they should be given every opportunity to communicate with each other and have discussions that will help them to make progress.

Part 3: Tips and tools

To wrap up, there are a few communications and logistical aspects to mention that also contributed to the success of the unconference, although these points could apply to other event formats too.

Fees and sponsorship

To make it as easy as possible for people to attend, we kept the registration fees extremely low. Where attending previous DVB World conferences cost from €300 right up to €900, depending on timing and membership status, for the unconference we charged €50 for DVB members and €100 for non-members. We considered making it free for members of the association but felt having a small ‘barrier’ would make no-shows less likely.

We also changed the approach to sponsorship, creating a “supporter” option, at €1,000 for members and €2,000 for non-members. This was available on a self-service basis when registering. Three event tickets were included, along with a small package of visibility benefits (like social media mentions and logos in emails or on banners at the event). Importantly, we didn’t offer exhibition booths or opportunities to address the attendees – supporter participants would follow the unconference process just like any other attendees, in line with the democratic spirit of the format.

This approach to sponsorship worked very well, with 13 companies eventually signing up. Associating their logos with the event was also useful from a marketing perspective, and they were happy with the exposure they got from the experience.

Simple website

The previous DVB World website had been a multipage site, with the programme, speaker biographies, exhibitor profiles, etc. For the unconference, I kept it as simple as possible, building a single-page WordPress site that could carry all the information people needed. As the unconference format represented such a big change from the past, there was still quite a lot of explaining and handholding to do, but the site was generally appreciated as a clear and comprehensive resource.

Registration tool

We used a platform called Tito that I cannot recommend highly enough. It was quick and easy to set up the ticketing and supporter packages, payments (via Stripe) were handled smoothly, emails and reports were all easy to set up, and the check-in app was very helpful on site. There are many solutions in this space, but Tito is easily the best I have come across.

Dedicated LinkedIn Group

For the first time, I created a dedicated LinkedIn Group for the event, which only registered participants would be allowed to join. It took some effort to get to a critical mass of members, but eventually we had almost 90% of attendees as members. This allowed them to see who else was attending and to make direct contact with each other, and allowed us to share important updates before, during and after the event.

Getting people to use online networking tools around events is notoriously difficult. One big advantage that LinkedIn has is that virtually everybody has a profile, so there’s no form-filling to be done nor passwords to be created.

Pre-event discussions

Unconferences are typically accompanied by a wiki that participants use to post and discuss possible sessions before of the event. We felt our community would be unlikely to contribute to such a setup in sufficient numbers and instead initially tried gathering information on potential sessions via a survey. This did not work – individual emails and calls were more successful. In future, by starting the above LinkedIn Group sooner, we might be able to facilitate this discussion in that forum.

Some final thank yous

I want to say thanks to a few people. Eva, Emily, Peter and Elfed gave me their blessing to pursue this idea. Having their support and confidence made it a much easier and more pleasurable task.

Lizzie and Gillian put a name on the thing I was struggling to define – their advice was crucial for putting me on the right path.

Pia found us the perfect venue and was a reliable partner on all the logistical details.

Many colleagues from the DVB community leant their support to the idea, even as they doubted how it would work in practice. I’m grateful to everyone who took a chance on the unconference.

And, finally, Michaela was the best guru, guide, host and hand-holder I could have asked for. If you’re thinking of running an unconference, a conversation with her would be a very good place to start.

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