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.