The unconference

I’m glad to report that the unconference worked and I just told unconference guru Dave Winer that in email.

The point was that the people in the room would set the agenda and they’d accomplish this via conversation, not lecture. I think it worked for a few reasons:
1. Everyone in the room wanted to accomplish the same thing. We had a goal. We all had different ideas about how to get there. But we came in wanting to move the peanut, not just chew on it.
2. There were the right number of people there: enough to give us varied perspectives and experience but not so many that people couldn’t be heard.
3. The organizers set the exact right tone. They made the essential opening points so everyone else didn’t have to. They set a high expectation for work and civility. Then they let the conversation happen.
4. We came in knowing what the unformatted format would be, so everyone knew what to expect: unconference rules. Thanks, Dave.
5. We had stellar leadership. Wendy Warren, an editor at the Daily News, is a star. When people tried to turn her into the teacher with their raised hands and plaintive-call-on-me-please looks, she tried to get people to just have a conversation. She joined in that conversation but never tried to take it over. When things bogged down, she raised the next subject. When things threatened to get a little citric, she lightened things up. Charm helps. These sessions still need leaders, just not lecturers. The unconference isn’t about anarchy but about empowering and that’s what she did. So if you unconference, pick your leaders well.

This makes me all the more exhausted and exasperated looking at programs for other conferences coming up with damnable panels — and I’m on some: 45 minutes of droning down the line followed by 15 minutes of questions from the audience, when the real goal should be answers from everyone. Almost as bad are the sessions where everyone get a “turn” but because they happen in order of hand raised, the discussion turns into a festival of the nonsequitor (well, I want to respond to the person who spoke three turns ago….). The goal should always be conversation.

There’s a meeting coming up about linking and I was quite obnoxious in my response to the invitation, pitching the Winer gospel of the unconference. I told the organizer to blow up the panels and tear down the essentially insulting distinction between panel and audience and get the people in the room to truly link. He should have told me to go blow but, to his credit, he said he’s trying to figure out how to do this. I know it looks daunting, but it’s really not. At the first Bloggercon, when Dave told me minutes before my session was to begin that the entire room was the panel, I turned into Phil Donahue and let it happen.

At the upcoming Syndicate conference, organizer Eric Norlin pushed me to be one of the keynoters. I tried to refuse; I said that I didn’t know as much as the room, accumulated. I finally agreed to do it only if I could turn into Phil and start the session from the end — the “question” period, except I’ll be the one asking the people in the room questions because they’re the ones with the answers. There will be too many people in the room and not enough time and not a clear enough goal to have an unconference like yesterday’s. Will this work in an hour? Will it be of any value? Will it be utter humilation? I have no idea. But it’s worth the risk to blow up the broken format of the conference. I’ll let you know how the unkeynote works: or better yet, you’ll read on the blogs of those there what didn’t work and why.

: OPML camp struggles with how to unconference.

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  • http://www.beyondbroadcast.net jake

    We’ve debated this too in organizing Beyond Broadcast 2006, and ended up with a hybrid approach that combines small panels (none of those sprawling 5-person messes), ‘high-order bits’ of short demo presentations, and a day 2 that is run entirely on an open-meeting ‘unconference’ basis. There’s a kind of meta layer going on here too since the topic of the convening is how public media broadcasters can embrace participatory models, so the event itself demonstrates that attempt.

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  • http://podango.com Lee Gibbons

    I was at the Syndicate Conference wherein Jeff did his Unkeynote not only worked. It really worked. I believe he got his licks in, in terms of contributing to the interaction, but also did a masterful job of brining out the collective wisdom of the group. His opening set of slides included “Conferences Suck!” “Panels Suck!” and “Keynotes Suck!”

    From there, he did a great job of making “the story” come together.

    I was so inspired by what Jeff did, that I (CEO of Podango) have bought a Silver Sponsorship and a 20 x 20 booth at the Portable Media Expo in September instead of the normal 10×10 booth so that the event can have an unconference there, for all attendees. I think it will help them get great benefit from being at the show. If only I could get Jeff to come be a great DL there… :-)

    At any rate. Jeff is a master!

    Thanks, Jeff, for the inspiration and the example of how to get a group of attendees to share openly their collective experience in a directed manner.

  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    Just Tweeted that I agree with Winer on this one and was prompted to explain why here.

    My opinion is coming from the perspective of someone coming from practicing law and now speaking at legal conferences on networking through the net and social media. When I have the good fortune of being at one of the conferences or programs you’re involved in Jeff I am certain it will be a world of difference.

    If you’ve got knowledgeable panelists and audience members to pull into a discussion and learn from, an unconference can be great. The best thing about panels and group discussions for me is the ability to learn from co-panelists who are smarter than me — and there are lots of such people.

    But if you’re asking lawyers and legal marketing professionals to speak intelligently on the use of networking through the Internet, as opposed to using the net as a way to push things at people who don’t want what you’re pushing and SEO, forget it. You’ll have the blind leading the blind, and drown out those who can challenge the status quo, inspire legal professionals to think differently, and touch a few raw nerves that need to be touched.

    Legal conferences can also be driven by sponsors and politically correctness. The dualoply of LexisNexis and Thomson sponsorships undoubtedly effects who gets to present and where. They’re not fans of entrepreneurs more innovative than their employees discussing more effective and less costly solutions than they sell.

    You’ll also have associations getting the ‘right people’ on the panels to reward this or that — or even to incent a prospective panelist’s law firm to pay for the panelist to attend so as to increase conference attendance.

    Another problem with panels and unconferences in the legal industry is they can be ‘analized’ to death. Lawyers and other legal professionals like precision, lots of planning, and no surprises (lack of spontaneity). The result is multiple conference calls to be calendared with 4 or 5 people in advance with joint documents to be submitted a month ahead. I’ll take doing a one person presentation over that living death any day of the week.

    The legal profession, I guess by its very nature of employing lawyers, takes the joy, collaboration, and learning out of an unconference environment. Even an event such as Ignite Law 2010 put on at ABA TechShow, modeled after the Ignite events around the country lacked the spark and spontaneity I’ve seen at other Ignite events. Though the presenters and topics were good, most presenters looked ill at ease, often trying to cram 30 minutes into 5 while reading off note cards or a script. Let alone dressed in coat and tie.

    Sure, unconferences – and great panel discussions are a plus when you get them. I have had the pleasure and honor of participating in a few recently and learned a good deal — and I am sure other attendees and panelists did as well. With the legal profession though there are challenges.

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