The idea for an unconference came while sitting in the audience of a panel discussion at a conference, waiting for someone to say something intelligent, or not self-serving, or not mind-numbingly boring. The idea came while listening to someone drone endlessly through PowerPoint slides, nodding off, or (in later years) checking email, or posting something to my blog, wondering if it had to be so mind-numbingly boring.
A fundamental law?
This observation may turn out to be the Fundamental Law of Conventional Conferences.
The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.
It’s probably much worse than that. My guess is that if you swapped the people on stage with an equal number chosen at random from the audience, the new panelists would effectively be smarter, because they didn’t have the time to get nervous, to prepare PowerPoint slides, to make lists of things they must remember to say, or have overly grandiose ideas about how much recognition they are getting. In other words, putting someone on stage and telling them they’re boss probably makes them dumber. In any case it surely makes them more boring.
Turning things around
So then, how do you turn things around so that we can harness the expertise we just discovered and get a discussion moving efficiently and spontaneously without forcing the interesting conversations into the hallway. I wanted to see if there was a way to get the hallway ideas to come back into the meeting room. It turns out there was.
First, you take the people who used to be the audience and give them a promotion. They’re now participants. Their job is to participate, not just to listen and at the end to ask questions. Then you ask everyone who was on stage to take a seat in what used to be the audience. Okay, now you have a room full of people, what exactly are they supposed to do? Choose a reporter, someone who knows something about the topic of discussion (yes, there is a topic, it’s not free-form) and knows how to ask questions and knit a story together.
Real reporters are often the best discussion leaders. Put your DL at the front of the room, with a mike in hand. A couple of people roam the room with handheld wireless mikes to put in the face of the people who are speaking. No one lines up for a mike. Think Donahue or Oprah. The DL’s job is is to craft a story from the expertise in the room. Everyone is a source, about to be interviewed by someone who’s listening. The DL may actually call on people, so no one should get the idea that they can fall asleep or daydream. Pay attention, you might be the next speaker!
The discussion leader has been given guidelines in advance. Don’t let people repeat themselves, if a point has been made, move the discussion forward, quickly. No self-serving statements, you’re not allowed to give a commercial for your product, like so many speakers do at conferences. If someone starts to, quickly, the discussion leader cuts them off. You must speak to the people in the room, if you start saying things we don’t understand, thank you, smile, now let’s move on. The discussion leader’s responsibility is to the story and to the room, like the good reporter that he or she is.
I’ve heard it said that there is no advance prep for an unconference, not in my humble opinion, there’s lots to prepare for. The idea is to fully explore a topic from all angles. Every person in the room is responsible, in an ideal unconference, for understanding what’s been said before on the topic at hand, much as a panelist at an old-style conference would be, if they took their job seriously. I always spent a couple of hours, at least, on the phone with each discussion leader before the unconference.
One of the best discussion leaders I’ve ever worked with, Jeff Jarvis (an ex-reporter), started by assembling a panel in front of the room. This was at the first BloggerCon at Harvard in 2003. I walked into the room and said Time Out, and told the panelists to take their seats in the otherwise packed classroom. I saw Jarvis’s eyes light up — he “got it” right then and there. No crutches. No droning. We’re all equals in this room. No one’s ideas are presumed to be better
There’s no turning back
Once you’re in you’re spoiled. I’ve heard it said many times, by people who had a real unconference experience, that they can never sit in a dark room, with their hands folded, waiting for the Q&A period, listening to a PowerPoint presenter drone on and on, while the heads bob up and down and a dull roar of enthusiastic discussion can be heard in the distance, in the hallway.
I’m sure there are other structures that work, basically any way of organizing a discussion that involves the minds and expertise of all the people in the room will work. We’ve drifted far from the ideal, so it’s very easy to improve on the normal conference experience. Yet this year, most of us will go to conferences that make minimal use of the experience of the people who participate. It’s a shame, a big revolution is possible here, one as big as the changes that have been brought about by blogging and podcasting. It turns out the exact same principles can be applied to face-to-face conferences, with outstanding results.