Ultimate unconference survival guide

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If there is one area in which open source has never suffered it is a lack of events. From your big professional conferences right down to your friendly, local meetups, there is just something so delightfully fun about getting together in person to share ideas, learn from each other, and have fun.

One of the most popular types of event are unconferences, and there are more and more of them cropping up all over the world.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, unconferences are events where the content is defined and driven by the attendees. Sound a little weird? Well, let me explain.

As an example, for the past eight years I have been running an annual conference held immediately before the popular OSCON conference (and in the same venue). The conference is called the Community Leadership Summit and it brings together people from all over the world who are passionate about building strong communities to share and learn from each other. If this sounds interesting, be sure to join us in Austin, Texas this year from May 14-15, 2016. Oh, and the event is totally free to attend, too. You just need to register.

How an unconference works

To give you a sense of how an unconference works, on the mornings of each day we have some keynotes and then we start to schedule the day. Attendees line up along one side of the room and fill in small cards with a session title, their name, and a short description. They then walk up to the mic and announce their session. Finally, they stick the session card on the schedule board in an open timeslot. After a little shuffling to consolidate similar or duplicate sessions, we now have a schedule fully driven by attendees and with a wealth of different topics.

What is neat about an unconference is that you get an incredible diversity of content. Most traditional conferences try to put together a schedule that will be interesting to attendees, but the content is always decided by the organizers. At an unconference you often get far more timely, interesting, and at times unusual topics.

With the schedule in place the attendees then break off and attend the sessions that interest them. Now, the style and format of these unconference sessions varies between events. As an example, at the Community Leadership Summit, each session is a group discussion with the goal of identifying new recommendations and methodologies that can be shared more widely to grow the art and science of community leadership.

Survival Guide

Now that we have a good sense of what an unconference is, it can be a little daunting to get to an event and participate for the first time. Unconferences can seem a little complicated, hectic, and possess some unusual social conventions. So, let's delve into some tips and tricks for getting the most out of your first unconference experience.

Don't be nervous

Although unconferences can seem a little nerve-racking at first, try not to be too nervous. You won't be the only person new to an unconference that day, so try not to feel like you are a fish out of water.

What makes unconferences so great are the relationships that you build and social connections that get formed. If you are too nervous to get to know people and participate, this can stand in the way of getting the very best out of an unconference event.

A good approach to beat the nerves can be take a friend or tell the organizers you are new and would like some help to get settled in. However you approach it, just always remember that everyone was new at some point and try not to let this newness worry you too much about getting involved.

Think about your sessions before you get there

All unconferences have a scheduling component where the day's content is formed. Don't leave it to this moment to start thinking about what sessions you want to propose. Instead think about what kind of topics you would like to propose before the event kicks off.

To prepare well for this it can be helpful to reach out to people who may have been to the unconference before to get a sense of the people and topics that might be interesting. It can also be handy to ask for ideas and feedback on social media about different topics.

Another handy approach is to get to the event early, meet some other attendees and bounce your ideas for session topics off them too. In many cases a conversation before the event can get the creative juices flowing to come up with some interesting session ideas.

Make your session cards stand out

When you have picked a session topic you want to propose, invariably you will be asked to fill out a session card before it gets added to the schedule board. This is a great opportunity to make your session card stand out. First, ensure you add the pertinent information on the card: the session title, a single line description, and your name. Many people like to add their Twitter username also.

Now you want to ensure your session card stands out so people come along to the session. This is a good chance to get creative. Use different color pens/stickers, make the session title fun and intriguing, draw some art on the card or even stick things on it such as those little sticky googly eyes. These fun additions can really help your session card to pop!

Network like a champ

As I mentioned above, one of the greatest aspects of an unconference is the social element. This opens up a good opportunity to meet new people, share and learn new ideas, and grow your social and professional circles. If you are fairly new to networking, the key is to not be nervous about just joining conversations. As an example, if you are grabbing coffee and overhear an interesting conversation you would like to join, it can be as simple as walk over and saying, "Do you mind if I join the conversation?"

You only have to enter a few of these conversations and you will start getting to know people at the event. It will boost your confidence to join more and more discussions. Obviously, if you see clearly private discussions (e.g. people speaking quietly and close to each other), don't try to join those conversations.

Another thing I always recommend is that if you are ever in a discussion and you suspect someone doesn't know the other person, be sure to do a round of introductions. If everyone helps to introduce everyone else, it doesn't take too long before the entire audience get to know each other.

Take notes

A day at an unconference can result in a huge number of interesting conversations and sessions. With so much content it can sometimes be easy to forget or miss the key points. As such, take as many notes as you can.

People take notes in different ways, but I recommend you mainly strive to note down key principles or lessons that got you thinking. You should also note down interesting people and their contact details (e.g. Twitter accounts or email addresses). Also, don't try to write everything down otherwise you will be too busy focusing on the notes and not listen to the conversation.

Finally, if you can share your notes online in the form of a blog post or otherwise, this can be helpful for other attendees too.

Ask questions

Throughout the course of my career I have met some incredibly smart and intelligent people. Many of these people have led remarkably accomplished careers. There is one thing in common with all of them: they ask a lot of questions.

There is this odd misnomer in life that if you ask questions you somehow don't know what you are doing or have less experience. In an unconference setting with lots of smart people, asking questions can feel a little awkward, but go ahead and ask anyway. Not only will you learn more, but you will also help others in the room to feel comfortable asking questions too.

Remember, there are no silly questions, so make the most of the time at the event and ensure you have clarity around the conversations. In many cases a question that may seem simple to you actually uncovers some really interests concepts and perspectives.

Stay refreshed

Unconferences can be pretty exhausting events. There is often a lot of content, a lot of discussions, and a lot of people. As such, it is important to take care of yourself and stay refreshed. Be sure to drink plenty of water, load up on a good breakfast before you get there, and have a solid lunch to keep you fueled up for the afternoon. Coffee can obviously play a helpful role here but don't overdo it—you don't want to get jittery from too much caffeine.

Keep your sessions on track

If you end up running a session at the unconference you are now faced with the responsibility of ensuring that the session feels like a good use of everyone's time. Fortunately, there are two simple golden rules in running a great session:

  • Keep the conversation moving, progressing, and evolving
  • Try to ensure everyone gets a chance to speak

For the former of these two golden rules, your main goal is to ensure that individuals don't tie the conversation up with their own self interests. Every unconference session always has those people who talk to much, wander off topic, get too opinionated, or otherwise make the conversation less collaborative. Your goal as a moderator of the session is to prevent this from happening. Often this as simple as stopping people when they start going off the rails a little and gently asking them to come back to the core of the conversation. In almost all cases the recipient of this gentle and polite nudge will be fine and respect the feedback.

The latter golden rule is about ensuring that quieter folks get a chance to speak. There are always the more dominant, enthusiastic, and eager people in a session, but you don't want them to overshadow the quieter people. This can often be as simple as asking the quieter folks if they would like to step in. May people will jump at the invitation.

So there we have it, simple tips for getting started at an unconference. Of course, if you have any other tips and tricks, be sure to share them in the comments!

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Jono Bacon is a leading community manager, speaker, author, and podcaster. He is the founder of Jono Bacon Consulting which provides community strategy/execution, developer workflow, and other services. He also previously served as director of community at GitHub, Canonical, XPRIZE, OpenAdvantage, and consulted and advised a range of organizations.


Great article Jono. I've been to a BarCamp last year and two EdCamps too. They are unconferences and follow the format you have outlined here. I found them very engaging and recommend them to anyone. I'm going to another one next month. I have found that I've learned a great deal at these conferences and from people and quarters that i would not otherwise have engaged.

Nice article!

"If there is one area in which open source has never suffered it is a lack of events. "

That might be true in the US but in Europe and in particular Sweden, where I live, I think open source events are pretty scarce.

To get back on track and encourage quieter speakers to contribute, I'll often say, "Is there anyone who hasn't spoken yet, who would like to chime in on *whatever the current topic is* before we move on to the next thing we're planning to discuss?"

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