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10 lessons from an unconference

November 19, 2009

Last week, Reuters News took a small step into the unknown and hosted an ‘unconference‘ – a conference in which almost everything is generated by the participants. This is nothing new in the world of technology where fans have been using the term for more than a decade, but for a journalist like me somewhat unsettling.

Conventionally, at conferences a panel of experts talks about their specialist subject and, if there’s time, the audience gets a chance to ask a few questions at the end.  My understanding is that an ‘unconference’ reverses all this — the focus shifts from stage to audience. What I also get now  is that it addresses those negative thoughts you find yourself thinking if you attend conventional conferences regularly. Thoughts like:

  • This conference is addressing the wrong subject
  • I know more about the subject than the panel does
  • The chair is asking the panellists the wrong questions
  • The audience isn’t getting much of a chance to ask/answer questions
  • The only interesting thing about this conference is the chat between the sessions

I’ve been thinking more and more along these lines, particularly at conferences on ‘social media’ when you might expect the conversation to be the key.

We drew back from hosting a full-on ‘unconference’ in which the agenda is entirely determined by those who turn up, when they turn up, on the advice of our co-host Toby Moores. His Amplified network of networks has concluded that it is naive to assume that agreement on discussion topics, speakers and formats will simply emerge without someone exerting leadership.

So we chose upfront a couple of debating points dear to our hearts — news and politics — and specified that anyone who came must be on Twitter (both because we thought this would be a good proxy for their willingness to participate and because we wanted to use Twitter to collate the conversation). We left the third discussion open and asked participants to make and discuss suggestions on a wiki.

And to underline the point that this was not about performances on a stage we organised our room ‘cabaret style’ with tables or ‘conversation hubs’ the focal point.

So what happens when you turn the conference tables like this? There’ll be more than this but I can recall at  least 10 lessons:

1. You really need a good trigger to get the conversation going. We didn’t have keynote speakers but we did have fantastic ‘catalysts’ in the form of the BBC’s Richard Sambrook and FutureGov‘s Dominic Campbell for Politics who framed the issues and left participants with a provocative question to consider.

2. If you get the catalyst right the problem isn’t in getting the conversation going it’s in finding a gentle way of winding it down. We had meticulously planned breaks between sessions to allow participants time to update their twitterstreams, interview one another and otherwise catch up with themselves. But most just carried on with their conversations regardless.

3. Discussion does seem to work best in small-ish groups of 4-6. Any more and the tendency is for splinter conversations to develop and for some participants to get lost. Any fewer and there can be a lack of ideas.

4. You don’t need much in the way of rules but I’d recommend these from Toby Moore that served us extremely well:

Two feet — if you don’t like the conversation then move on

Two ears, one moutha reminder to those that like the sound of their own voices that participation is a two-way process and at the very minimum should be done in the ratio of two parts listening to one part speaking

One tweet — tell the world what you found most interesting about your conversation in 140 characters

5. If an unconference is a series of conversations then the Master of Ceremonies role is about putting the punctuation around those conversations. That’s a lot easier said than done. If you’re too bossy then you kill the conversation. If you don’t provide sufficient guidance then the conversation loses focus.

6. We might need a new name. We called this a ‘curated unconference’ and some of my journalist colleagues told me that a lot more of them would have turned up if it hadn’t had such an offputting title.

7. Unconferences are very good for capturing lateral thinking and collective intellience. Some of the best ideas for improving news and politics came from people with no direct experience in those fields but who were actively investigating how social media can help them in very different areas.

Of all the social media approaches I’ve come across this one came closest to the ideal of creating a platform that allowed smart people to share their most interesting ideas.

8. Curating the conversation so that those there and those monitoring the event remotely can see the highlights is an emerging art. We tried a number of approaches including a live tag cloud made up of the most popular keywords in participants’ tweets put together at short notice by Nik Butler (@loudmouthman), a full aggregation page of all content tagged ‘1pound40′ and a manually edited live blog handled by my colleagues Ross Chainey (@rosschainey) and Astrid Zweynert (@astridzweynert}. I’m still unclear as to which was most useful.

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9. Be careful about putting a live feed of tweets behind a panel discussion. We did have one panel discussion at the end made up of the liveliest contributors to the conversations discussing the most interesting tweets from participants. Mid-way through we put up a live feed of what the participants were saying about the panel. In effect this was participants responding to participants responding to participants and you can see the impact of this recursiveness on the conversation in the clip below.

10. Being conversational, an unconference doesn’t really have a fixed start or endpoint. Building the buzz and encouraging participants to discuss potential topics starts weeks before the event. And the conversation doesn’t finish when you switch off the lights. It’s still going on. So it’s time-consuming. But it’s also a lot of fun.

Further reading:

Amplified’s aggregation page

Drawnalism at Reuters Conference

Scott Gould – 10 Insights Into Guidance, As Opposed To Governance

Hannah Nicklin – The Future of Politics is Mutual

Jennifer Jones – Building on Hannah’s thoughts on #1pound40

The Guardian – Is Twitter sustainable enough to influence politics?

Adam Tinworth – #1pound40 – The Ubiquity of Reporting

Waves PR – One Pound 40 unconference #1pound40

@documentally – The Psychology of Twitter

Ipadio – £1.40 Conference Round-Up

Sarah Hartley – Musings on the week: A north-south social media divide?

Bag of Spoons – #1pound40

David Terrar – Connective intelligence on politics and news at #1pound40

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