Dave Winer has come up with the idea for an unconference out of sheer desperation – conferences are malignantly boring. Here’s the full text, or you can read his post here.
“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.
Itâ€™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
didnâ€™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 theyâ€™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. Theyâ€™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,
itâ€™s not free-form) and knows how to ask questions and knit a story
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
DLâ€™s job is is to craft a story from the expertise in the room.
Everyone is a source, about to be interviewed by someone whoâ€™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. Donâ€™t let people repeat themselves, if a point has been
made, move the discussion forward, quickly. No self-serving statements,
youâ€™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 donâ€™t understand, thank you, smile,
now letâ€™s move on. The discussion leaderâ€™s responsibility is to the
story and to the room, like the good reporter that he or she is.
Iâ€™ve heard it said that there is no advance prep for an unconference, not in my humble opinion, thereâ€™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 whatâ€™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 Iâ€™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 Jarvisâ€™s eyes light up â€”
he â€œgot itâ€? right then and there. No crutches. No droning. Weâ€™re all
equals in this room. No oneâ€™s ideas are presumed to be better
Thereâ€™s no turning back
Once youâ€™re in youâ€™re spoiled. Iâ€™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.
Iâ€™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. Weâ€™ve drifted far from the ideal, so
itâ€™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. Itâ€™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
Thanks for this article. Unconferencing makes sense. Please see http://www.tobe.net for information about Dynamic Facilitation and Wisdom Councils which take this approach further.
Has anyone built a “cost of conferencing” counter like the “cost of war” one that is available?