What makes a good ‘unconference’? The Kernel’s Alex Barrera talks through some of the pitfalls in conference organisation.
Conferences are a wonderful thing. If done correctly, they allow you to learn new things and contact experts and interesting people from all over the world. The problem is that organizing a good conference is extremely hard. There are too many variables to control, and while experienced organizers can minimize most of the likely issues, there is always something that doesn’t go according to plan.
It’s not only that logistics can be a headache – and they always are – but because there’s always so much pressure to be original. With the renaissance of the start-up scene in Europe, tech and entrepreneurial conferences are cropping up everywhere, competing for attention and crowds. Organisers need to rethink formats, messages and speakers to offer new and satisfying experiences to an already fatigued audience.
In the past I’ve been critical of boring conferences with tired formats. It’s exhausting to listen to marketing spins from big companies. I proposed some time ago to further develop the concept of the “unknown conference”, and, since I wrote that, I’ve experienced new formats, including the unconference, being rediscovered now, 20 years after its conception by the avant-garde.
The idea behind the unconference is to avoid tight schedules, boring talks and the customary lack of audience participation. In an internet-enabled era, bi-directional feedback is crucial, so many strive to create engaged audiences. An unconference achieves this by total flexibility of the talks, like Barcamp does. There are a few keynote speakers, but the rest of the talks are given by anyone brave enough to step forward.
Nevertheless, such an idyllic scheme is ripe for abuse, as I’ve seen recently. The first problem you encounter these days is that, while you allow the audience to interact, you’re literally ignoring quality: there’s no filter. So you tend to get rather lousy talks in many cases.
Of course, the quality of speakers is highly correlated with the quality of your audience. If you have a private, hand-picked audience, this format is extraordinary and the variety of talks can be fascinating. If your audience is an large group of heterogeneous people, the effect tends to be quite the opposite.
But the major issue is that, with the goal of engaging the audience, most organizers tend to drop the time frame of the talks. So while in a regular conferences a talk ranges from 45 minutes to an hour, most unconference formats reduce it to 10, 20 or 30 minutes slots. This allows you to cramp the schedule with a gazillion speakers and thus enable a big part of the audience to have a voice.
It creates an interesting paradox. While the goal is to encourage better interaction between speakers and their audiences, getting people involved in a conversation requires time.
I find the best analogy is that of cooking muffins. If you want muffins you first need to pre-heat the oven, prepare the muffins and once you reach the specific temperature, bake them. This takes time. If you open the oven while the muffins aren’t entirely cooked, they will deflate and be spoiled. The same happens with these types of unconferences.
The equivalent of pre-heating the oven is to set a common ground upon which the audience can conduct discussion. This takes roughly 20 minutes. If the audience is small enough, it’s ideal to allow each member to introduce itself so that others know who they’re talking to. Once you’re past the introductions and you’ve explained the common ground, then and only then is when you can spark a healthy discussion. Sometimes, magic happens.
When everyone is on the same page, that’s when people share their stories, voice opinions and give advice. It’s what I call a state of “high energy”. Again, this whole process takes roughly 20 minutes. When you cramp the schedule with tiny time slots, you’re actually removing the ability to achieve this state: hence the paradox.
I, for one, am sick of simplistic talks that brush over the same dumb concept again and again. There are better formats in which revisit old ground than dragging me a thousand miles away from my city and family. But I’m also tired of reading mindless posts on tech blogs that replicate the press release and only add the usually asinine comments of the blogger. (I’m also tired of speakers like that, too.) But the amount of time you give speakers has a knock-on effect on their output quality.
Unconference formats are great and powerful, but they require a thorough knowledge of the audience and speakers alike and very experienced moderators. I would suggest a simplification of the process for future endeavours.
Reduce the amount of tracks and talks to a minimum. one track, five to six talks per day, one hour each. As history keeps reminding us, less is more. Better off with six bad-ass, in-depth and engaging talks during a single track than four tracks and a myriad of cliched talks that barely scratch the surface of the topic.