Resource:How to organize an unconference for other student groups on campus

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What is Unconference, its Purpose and Topics :

What is Unconference: An unconference is a group of people of any size that get together to bounce ideas off of each other. Usually, people come in with ideas of topics they would like to talk about. Attendees then vote on which ideas they would like to be in the Unconference. The top votes will be given a space and something to present on. Unconferences look to foster an environment of creativity and new ideas. Unconference is also known as Open Space Technology, considering the format wherein anyone can speak.

Purpose: Primary purpose of Unconferencing is to discuss topics of common interests and mix people have healthy discussions. Unconferences typically feature open discussions rather than having a single speaker at the front of the room giving a talk, although any format is permitted. This form of conference is particularly useful when the attendees generally have a high level of expertise or knowledge in the field the conference convenes to discuss.

Topics: While deciding on the topic of Unconferencing, it must be decided that the topic shall be more broad or specific? Depending on the topic, which organizations, groups and you want to partner with? If there are, start talking to them to see if they would be interested and try to get sponsorships from them. Collaborating with other interest groups helps a lot.  Try to keep topics such that people attending can actively participate and be involved in conversations with other attendees. 

Pre-Event Tasks:

Following are the activities recommended to be accomplished before the Unconference:

  1. Form a committee: Delegate positions and define responsibilities of committee members, it is advised to have at least the following sub-committees and the tasks to be accomplished by them before the event: 
  • Marketing Team: To advertise and publicize your unconference, Also, this team must make sure people understand the meaning of Unconference. The marketing team under the core committee must focus on following ways of publicizing the event :
    • School newspaper (online or in print)- Event Listing in Newspaper
    • Word of mouth- Network with friends and encourage them to bring people (their friends).
    • Talk to professors from multiple disciplines and check if they are willing to endorse you as well as sponsor the event
    • Flyers, Posters & Social media- Try to get administrators to post from your school’s account. Ensure to communicate the key attractions to the target attendance. Since, the most important part is to have a good turnout.
    • Media Collaboration: Contact your local newspaper and discuss to cover your event. It also builds your own personal network with the city journalists and media folks.
  • Logistics Team: This team needs to find and book a venue immediately.
    • Venue: While choosing the venue consider that it has wide open space, avoid doorways wherein people have to walk through several gates, Ensure there are a few chairs and tables, but you want to encourage people to be standing and walking around.
    • Time: Avoid times too late at night- commuter schools will have less of a turn out. To ensure that most convenient time is selected, put out feelers to students and professors to see what times work well- but remember you won’t be able to please everyone. Schedule your event ensuring no other important meetings/ gatherings are happening at the same day and time.
    • Catering : Catering is an important element for your unconference, since for college students Food (especially Pizza) is something which everyone would like to come for to your event. Look for restaurants to sponsor you, pizza is always a hit. Ensure to mention the same on the flyers and media that is sent.
    • Insurance: If the scale of the Unconference is big and if event is happening outside campus, it is advised to take insurance for  your event. 
  • Communications Team: For an Unconference communication is important for the organizers as well as the attendees.
    • Organizers' Internal Communication: It’s important for everyone to stay updated about the ongoing progress and the upcoming event agendas. For the same, try using messaging platforms such a "Slack" or "Facebook Messaging" (Slack is great because you can divide people up into groups such as the people who are working on marketing can all be in a group together, but everyone is still in a big group together). Email is also a tried and true method of communication Google drive is a great way to share documents
    • Attendees: The communication team must collaborate with the marketing team and work together to shoot out messages on social media and other media platforms. The event must be well communicated in-order to explain them about the event as well as keep them excited to show up for it.
  • Finance Team: The finance team must be responsible for raising funds and paying expenses for the conference. Someone responsible must be appointed as the “Treasurer”- To keep track of money spent and money donated/earned.  Finance team shall also be responsible to prepare budgets for sponsorships and donations.

 2.  Gather Resources Needed: Considering the type of Unconference and event, ensure to buy in advance the needed resources.

  • White-Boards or Big-Pads: Have white boards or big pads of paper and markers that people can write on Sticky notes are an easy way to vote and take inputs from attendees during the unconference
  • Audio/Visual: A microphone helps to organize people without having to scream. Ensure the mice is connected to speakers and tested twice before the event. Try to avoid technology as much as possible, you want your conference to be as organic as possible
  • Projector: It can be used to show your organization’s logo and your sponsor’s logo Blank name tags that people can fill out upon arrival help to promote conversation

During and Ending your Unconference : 

As People Walk In

Hand out name tags and have people write their name and something interesting about them. This will help to stimulate conversation and give people confidence knowing something interesting about them is being shown.

Once Most People Have Arrived

Explain what an unconference is. You and the rest of the people hosting the event know about unconferences and why they are beneficial, but other people don't. Make sure to tell people how they are different and what they will be doing.

Choosing Topics

Suggesting Topics

Have sticky notes and writing utensils available that people can use to write down topics of discussion. Limit everyone to ten seconds or one sentence so that the initial topics are not too difficult to understand. The details will come later during the discussion period.

Voting on Topics

Once all the suggestions have been made, have people vote on topics they find interesting. This can be done through more sticky notes or stickers. People put the sticky note or stickers under the topic the wish to include in the discussion period. After voting, choose the most popular topics for the discussion period. The number you choose will is highly variable and depends on the number of people attending your event and the results of the voting. For example, if you were planning to have five topics, but two topics had almost the same amount of votes, you might want to include both of them and have six topics instead of five.

Before Starting the Discussion Period

Do an Ice Breaker Activity

This will help people to be more comfortable during the discussion period. A couple types of ice breaker games are outlined below.

  • A Big Game of Rock, Paper, Scissors
    • Make sure everyone is familiar with the rules.
    • Everyone should then pair up and play until someone wins.
    • The winner then looks for the winner of another match, the loser becomes the winner's biggest fan and continues to cheer them on.
    • The process continues until there is one winner.
  • Draw Your Partner
    • Paper and writing utensils must be provided to the attendees.
    • Have everyone pair up. Suggest that people partner with someone they don't already know.
    • Allow for a quick introduction period, 30 seconds per person prevents the conversation from getting stale.
    • For 30 seconds, each person draws the other.
    • This a quick time period so the drawing will probably be funny and a great way for people to meet others.

Remember that people will follow your lead, so the more excited about these games you are, the more excited they will be.

Point Out Where Each Topic Will Be

While it is good to let people wander and discover, it is nice to have some original direction. It is also a good way to remind people of the topics that will be presented and discussed.

During the Discussion Period

Not only is this a chance for your attendees to enjoy the unconference, it is a chance for you to do so as well. Make sure you have an opportunity to join in on the discussion.

Ending the Discussion Period and the Unconference

Ending the Discussion Period

Give people a ten or fifteen minute warning so conversations can begin to wrap up. The last thing you want is to have to stop someone in the middle of a great idea. Once the warning time is up, gather everyone for final remarks or a closing presenter.

Ending the Unconference

Depending on the time you have left, there are a couple different options.

  • If you have a good amount of time:
    • Choose a presenter who was popular during the discussion period and allow them to state a few ideas that were discussed to the group as a whole. Do not force the presenter to do this, it is optional.
  • If you are pressed for time:
    • Simply have a few closing remarks. Short and sweet usually does the trick.

Make sure to stay after for last minute questions and to clean the venue.


Post - Event Tasks: 

After the end of the Unconference, following are the tasks to be undertaken: 

  • Follow-Up Mail: Send out an e-mail to all the attendees mentioning about the details(minutes) of the unconference and the discussions that took place at the event. In this mail also mention the conclusions (if any) which were reached at. 
  • School News Letter: Try to get your Unconference Event Covered in the newsletter once again after the event. In this article mention the details such as
    • Which Topics were discussed
    • Which topic and speaker was the most popular
    • Number of attendees 
    • Future Events  
  • Contacting Stakeholders: It is very important to send out a 'Thank You' mail and get in touch with all the stakeholders - Partner organizations, Sponsors, Professors who endorsed your event and the local media newspapers who covered the event. 

Student Contributors

Sarah Ingram

Charchil Shah