An “unconference” is a conference without a set agenda, and without set speakers. Attendees determine discussion topics the morning-of, and then each small group decides how to delve into the topic on its own.
I facilitate unconference discussions a bit differently than I’ve seen anyone else do it - and people seem to love this format! 🤗
The best unconference sessions are threaded - where attendees spend time at the beginning to brainstorm and prioritize topics.
Threaded vs Unthreaded
Many unconference sessions are unthreaded. Anyone can make a comment whenever they want, about any topic. For example, for topics A, B and C, here’s an order of people’s comments:
A B A C B D A - that’s a lot of jumping around between topics.
After a bunch of that, often the moderator will ask the group to try and respond to previous comments - and that works partially. This unthreaded-ness happens so often because of the inherent structure of an unconference session - but we can do better.
Another style is possible: having a deliberately threaded unconference session. Comments might then go:
A A A B B C D. People tend to prefer this style. A threaded unconference session happens when attendees spend time at the beginning to brainstorm and prioritize topics.
- Brainstorming & Grouping: Ask
"What topics do you think the session might end up being about?". As we go through so many ideas, try to group some ideas together. (Once recently, 10-15 ideas came up in ~4 groups).
- Prioritization & Quick Vote:
"Let's choose our next topic. Someone suggest one? [hands] And another one? [hands]"Ask people to raise their hand if they’re excited for that topic. Raise hands on a couple of topics to see what the highest priority is. Counting hands isn’t always necessary.
- Then we go through the most desired topics. Whenever someone has an idea for a new topic we can add it to our list - but we won’t delve into the the topic until it’s deliberately chosen by the group.
- Big Screen: If you have a projector or large screen available: try collecting brainstormed-ideas on a google doc. A bulleted list on a google doc is awesome for grouping things visually.
- Set Roles: Before anything else, decide a person for each of the roles below.
- Names: Ask attendees to say their names around the room in a circle quickly once at the beginning of each session - even if we did this earlier in the day. If there’s time for “name game” that’s great, but that’s optional.
- Try to choose a moderator who doesn’t also want to say a ton about the topic.
- Moderator should try not to present their own thoughts/ideas/content as much. It’s too easy to take over the discussion as the moderator.
- The moderator can focus on keeping the discussion threaded and orderly. Try to deliberately, out loud, switch from one topic to the next. This gives people a chance to add something to a topic before it’s behind us.
Ask someone to do this role for the group. Ideally this is in a document on a large screen, or otherwise it could be taken on the notetaker’s computer and shared afterward. This can help with two things:
- record takeaways, links, resources that can be shared later
- it can help keep the group on track, especially if it’s visible
Although many phones can’t have more than one “timer” going at once, most can set several “alarms” at specific times. If the alarm literally goes off, that gives the timekeeper a natural moment to say how much time is left, everyone looks at them. Suggestions, in order of importance:
- end of the session
- 5 minutes before the end
- maybe 1-2 minutes before the end
- halfway through the session
Casey Watts! studied neurobiology at Yale University, and he is a co-author on several neurobiology papers. He has also worked in software development for 10 years, including at Heroku. Casey is an independent author based in Washington, DC.
Casey is the author of Debugging Your Brain. This book brings together two parts of Casey's background: psychology and software development.
Debugging Your Brain (DYB) is a clear applied psychology book and a concise self-help book. Whether or not you have a technical background, you will find the software development analogies approachable and insightful. You will likely reference and re-read DYB many times, each time discovering new insights.