As demand for a memorable and engaging attendee experience continues to climb, more companies are ditching a traditional conference format in favor of an unconference.
While the details of an unconference vary, the purpose is the same: encourage discussion and collaboration in an informal setting that’s designed to spark creativity.
We’ve helped a number of clients plan and execute their unconferences. Through that experience, we understand it can be challenging — even scary! — to take that first step, especially if you’re revamping a long-running event.
“Planning an unconference requires taking a calculated risk,” said Callie Motz, account director, Wellington.
The good news? It’s perfectly fine — even encouraged — to start with some small yet important changes. And to help kickstart your planning, we’ve compiled five tips that will help you plan an unconference.
Ready to shake things up?
5 Tips to Help You Plan an Unconference
Unconferences are built on conversation and collaboration. As you plan your event, look for any and all opportunities to encourage discussion. One effective tactic is to replace at least a few presentations with a workshop-style format. Gather attendees in small groups — with or without a facilitator — and have them share their thoughts on a particular topic.
That’s not to say that you can’t still welcome presenters or keynote speakers. Perhaps you could kick off the day with a keynote presentation, then divide attendees into groups to discuss. Or, depending on the size of your attendee pool, you could kick off your unconference with a roundtable discussion that examines questions like why your attendees are here and what they’re hoping to take away from the event.
Change the seating
As part of an unconference for a large food franchiser client, Callie said they introduced non-traditional seating that included couches and coffee tables, as well as high-top tables strategically placed throughout the venue.
“By taking people out of the traditional classroom or theater-style set-up, you’re immediately putting them in a different headspace,” she said. “They felt like they were sitting around a living room, casually chatting.”
Give attendees a chance to move, share, create or think by adding some activities to your agenda. For example, you could start the day with a yoga or other exercise class, or schedule an energizing mid-afternoon break.
Another effective approach is adding a continual activity that attendees can enjoy at their own pace. Perhaps you design a large writing surface and ask attendees to answer a question or share a thought. Or try something as simple as a large display with a question written at the top, followed by several answers separated by columns. Attendees could place a sticker in the corresponding column to indicate their response. This could be an especially helpful way to gather feedback about a particular topic or challenge in a way that lets attendees know their input is valued yet not feel like they’ve been put on the spot.
Give a gift
Everybody loves conference swag, but do we all really need another generic gift? While you’re shaking up your event as an unconference, don’t hesitate to channel that same creativity into your attendee gifts.
A natural starting place? Your event theme. For example, our food franchiser client wanted the unconference focused on journey — and more specifically, each attendee’s journey with the company. For a fun twist on that concept, Callie and her team suggested giving attendees branded Converse sneakers.
Keep this in mind: unconferences are about emotions and experiences. Think about what you want your attendees to feel and take away from the event, then brainstorm a few gift ideas that will support that goal.
Tap into your sense of humor
Here’s one of the best parts of planning an unconference: having fun! An unconference is all about stepping outside of the box and trying things that are new and different. And if you find yourself wanting to get a little silly, that’s great!
“We used some unexpected elements like the Dr. Seuss book ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go,’” Callie said. “We did an installation of company leadership reading the book because it connected to the event and made sense. People connect to different things and, for some people, a children’s book could really hit home.”
We can already hear those wheels turning as you think about how to make your next event an unconference! Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if we can help you plan and execute an unconference. We live outside the box, and it would be a pleasure to show you more about how an unconference can delight your attendees while helping you accomplish your strategic business goals.