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What People Expect From A Conference OR An Unconference

Have you been to an unconference yet? For those who haven’t the "rules" are usually very different from what you might expect at most business events. The agenda is less structured. The powerpoint is less frequent. The lines between speakers and attendees are less defined. And the whole idea is to really have a collaboration instead of an event with smart "talking heads" doing presentations on stage while everyone else dutifully takes notes. I love the concept of unconferences and have been to more than a dozen over the past several years. When it works, there is nothing like it. When it doesn’t, however, it often comes down to a single issue that organizers of the event forget … that people are looking for the same things no matter whether you are having a traditional conference or an unconference.

They want to have a chance to interact, an opportunity to learn, and something to take back to their office to prove the value of why they went. The first two points are ones that most conference organizers will already know and understand. The third is what we often tend to underestimate. Often, the people who make it to a conference are attending on behalf of their teams and responsible for bringing back useful information to help their entire team. The problem sometimes with an unconference is that there is a lot of pressure on these people to extract out useful information from an unconference because it is less structured. It is far easier to take back links to a dozen powerpoints and distribute them to the team back home than it is to actually pay attention and compile real learnings. In some cases, this pressure can actually get in the way of real interactions and learnings.

What’s the solution?  Perhaps it is for every unconference to end with some type of recap for all the attendees that goes through what they learned and what they will bring back to their team. Would that work or is it against the inherent idea of an unconference?  What other ideas could work?

10 thoughts on “What People Expect From A Conference OR An Unconference”

  1. Ah that word “powerpoint” in the marketing strategy sessions I undertake there is no “powerpoint.” Why, because I want my audience to think and learn, if I simply put it all up on a screen the room can fall asleep and go home at the end of the day with a copy of my presentation.
    No much point in that, so instead at every stage of the day my group is made to think, contribute and put the subject matter into the context of their own organisation.
    Maybe such an approach would work for unconferences?

    Reply
  2. Ah that word “powerpoint” in the marketing strategy sessions I undertake there is no “powerpoint.” Why, because I want my audience to think and learn, if I simply put it all up on a screen the room can fall asleep and go home at the end of the day with a copy of my presentation.
    No much point in that, so instead at every stage of the day my group is made to think, contribute and put the subject matter into the context of their own organisation.
    Maybe such an approach would work for unconferences?

    Reply
  3. More generally, conferences are “face forward” while unconferences are “in the round”.

    Unconferences are more about themed, collaborative meetings and brain-storming sessions than information dumps.

    A successful unconference works to be inclusive of all (or most) of the attendees. The extra value is that attendees have the chance to interact with more people, gain insights from other organizations (not just the typically successful invited speakers), and also voice their own ideas and get feedback on their specific issues.

    And attendees can still take back links – I typically have a huge list of new bookmarks (del.icio.us tagged with both the unconference name and specific session name) from all the URLs and other projects/companies that come up during the open discussions at an unconference.

    I can then just email out the URL to the bookmark list as appropriate to specific groups or individuals. In addition, they can then continue to explore that space by following other similarly tagged bookmarks created by others. So in this way, it actually opens whole new routes of information.

    Reply
  4. More generally, conferences are “face forward” while unconferences are “in the round”.

    Unconferences are more about themed, collaborative meetings and brain-storming sessions than information dumps.

    A successful unconference works to be inclusive of all (or most) of the attendees. The extra value is that attendees have the chance to interact with more people, gain insights from other organizations (not just the typically successful invited speakers), and also voice their own ideas and get feedback on their specific issues.

    And attendees can still take back links – I typically have a huge list of new bookmarks (del.icio.us tagged with both the unconference name and specific session name) from all the URLs and other projects/companies that come up during the open discussions at an unconference.

    I can then just email out the URL to the bookmark list as appropriate to specific groups or individuals. In addition, they can then continue to explore that space by following other similarly tagged bookmarks created by others. So in this way, it actually opens whole new routes of information.

    Reply
  5. Everyone hates ppt (for good reason) but you have two types of conference attendee. Both hopefully want to learn. Some folks feel that a copy of the deck in handout format for notes is THE way to learn. Corporations paying for people to attend these conferences can physically SEE these documents as some kind of ROI on their investment.

    I’m not saying that is the way to go, I am saying that a) you have a habit to break moving to unconference
    b) if unconference attendees come out of it with a great feeling and not much else to demonstrate what they got out of it, unconference attendance will have a tough go of it in the coming months.

    Rohit is right that some kind of well-intended process is needed to help ensure attendees get the brains for the buck they are shelling out.

    Rohit – perhaps the summaries you discuss could be taped and posted as mp3s or quick videos for attendee only download. Then when you wanted to promote the next year event you could offer them to everyone to show them what happnened the year prior. TED of course has elevated this to an art form.

    Reply
  6. Everyone hates ppt (for good reason) but you have two types of conference attendee. Both hopefully want to learn. Some folks feel that a copy of the deck in handout format for notes is THE way to learn. Corporations paying for people to attend these conferences can physically SEE these documents as some kind of ROI on their investment.

    I’m not saying that is the way to go, I am saying that a) you have a habit to break moving to unconference
    b) if unconference attendees come out of it with a great feeling and not much else to demonstrate what they got out of it, unconference attendance will have a tough go of it in the coming months.

    Rohit is right that some kind of well-intended process is needed to help ensure attendees get the brains for the buck they are shelling out.

    Rohit – perhaps the summaries you discuss could be taped and posted as mp3s or quick videos for attendee only download. Then when you wanted to promote the next year event you could offer them to everyone to show them what happnened the year prior. TED of course has elevated this to an art form.

    Reply
  7. To summarize my understanding of your post:
    Unconferences are better than conferences for attendees, because they are participatory and engaging.
    However, it is more difficult to distribute learning to non-attendees. How can the learning be distributed?

    There are a couple of answers that jumped to mind, the two most prominent of which are:
    1. You can’t – an unconference is an experience, and the only way for other people to gain from the experience is to have them experience it themselves, which they could only do if they were there.
    2. How about asking discussion leaders/facilitators to document some of the key outcomes of the conversations/topics in which they’re involved? Documentation can be any form – list, image(s), audio, video, website, etc – whatever works for the leader and the topic.
    3. Since unconferences usually have different structures, another way to think about it would be that the attendees are contributing to the experience, so they are also responsible for gathering the learnings themselves. However, they can choose how to disseminate them – it might be in the form of an experience, like a presentation, story, or video.

    Just a couple of thoughts…

    Reply
  8. To summarize my understanding of your post:
    Unconferences are better than conferences for attendees, because they are participatory and engaging.
    However, it is more difficult to distribute learning to non-attendees. How can the learning be distributed?

    There are a couple of answers that jumped to mind, the two most prominent of which are:
    1. You can’t – an unconference is an experience, and the only way for other people to gain from the experience is to have them experience it themselves, which they could only do if they were there.
    2. How about asking discussion leaders/facilitators to document some of the key outcomes of the conversations/topics in which they’re involved? Documentation can be any form – list, image(s), audio, video, website, etc – whatever works for the leader and the topic.
    3. Since unconferences usually have different structures, another way to think about it would be that the attendees are contributing to the experience, so they are also responsible for gathering the learnings themselves. However, they can choose how to disseminate them – it might be in the form of an experience, like a presentation, story, or video.

    Just a couple of thoughts…

    Reply
  9. Rohit – i personally learn more from an unconference-type-of-conference, but that’s my particular learning style. Perhaps a hybrid of the two will prove to be more effective for others. One that can attract multiple different learning styles.

    I just attended the Blog Council in Chicago; and their format was just as you mentioned above. It was very effective for the attendees; and there was no vendor “interruptions” like @ most other conferences.

    Michael

    Reply
  10. Rohit – i personally learn more from an unconference-type-of-conference, but that’s my particular learning style. Perhaps a hybrid of the two will prove to be more effective for others. One that can attract multiple different learning styles.

    I just attended the Blog Council in Chicago; and their format was just as you mentioned above. It was very effective for the attendees; and there was no vendor “interruptions” like @ most other conferences.

    Michael

    Reply

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Rohit Bhargava is on a mission to inspire more non-obvious thinking in the world. He is the #1 Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling author of eight books and is widely considered one of the most entertaining and original speakers on disruption, trends and marketing in the world.

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