The Unconference: Unconventional Format, Game-changing Results

What if meeting attendees were able to choose the agenda and the topics they want to discuss in an open forum atmosphere? Would that lead to deeper engagement, greater interaction, and more authentic audience experiences? That’s precisely the idea behind the “unconference conference,” and why more and more event marketers and planners are taking note of this growing trend.

Inspired by open-source software design (think Google Docs or Google Drive), the unconference has its roots in the IT sector. IBM, for example, hosts an annual Developer UnConference focused on technology trends where product users (whom the company considers its real industry experts), share ideas with peers and set the meeting agenda.

How it Works

Where a traditional conference features a pre-determined agenda, and a line-up of keynote speakers and industry experts presenting to attendees, attendees drive the content and give the presentations at an unconference. Topics are varied based on the demand of the attendees, and the methods of delivery can range from brainstorming sessions and trend discussions, to lightning round talks and problem-solution debates.

Prior to the event, event organizers invite attendees to submit topics they’d like to present and vote on topics they’d like to attend. After voting is closed, the winning topics set the agenda and speakers for the conference. In keeping with the open nature and fluidity of the unconference model, the schedule of topics may change from day-to-day based on participant feedback.

Key Benefits

  1. Invigorate Attendees.  Today’s audiences want more than just talking heads and death by PowerPoint. By helping shape the meeting agenda, attendees are more invested. And they are more likely to spread the word about their positive experience.
  2. Build Your Brain Trust.  Who better to share relevant knowledge with attendees than other attendees? Tap into their expertise and foster open peer discussions to elevate the conversation to a whole new level.
  3. Maintain Interest.  At the end of each day, attendees look over their notes from the varied discussions and decide if they want to continue on with the same topics or change course. This allows for further exploration of developing trends, while less relevant or “boring” topics are dropped.

Guidelines for Success

  1. Create a compelling theme – one that sets the tone for your meeting and promotes audience involvement throughout the event lifecycle.
  2. Choose meeting spaces that accommodate and encourage open, collaborative discussions.
  3. Invite people who are authorities in their field, and assign or hire session moderators to keep things moving and organized. Consider a professional host to help break the ice and lend some glue to the overall event.
  4. Choose starter topics that garner audience interest, even if they’re controversial. Content should be useful and relevant, with real-world applications.
  5. Identify a specific theme or clear focus for each session so as to stimulate meaningful discussion and ensure attendees stay on point.

If you’re looking to breathe new life into a stale event, the unconference conference just may be the answer. With the right strategy and solid planning, you can transform the “same old, same old” audiences have come to expect into a one-of-a-kind experience that’s sure to keep them talking.

At Impact Productions, we love that the unconference trend is gaining momentum. While the unconventional format may not be right for every event, there’s no denying the value of putting attendees first.