The Unconference Model is Problematic. Here’s Why & What to Do About It

Gang, let’s talk about unconferences. Because I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings.

First, if you’ve never heard of an unconference, let’s start there. An unconference is a “participant-led” learning experience. It rebels against the typical conference structure, in that there’s no preset agenda.

Yep, you read me correctly.

There is no agenda for this conference, until you show up to make it. The idea is that the audience –the people who this whole thing is designed to benefit–  put forth the topics they want to discuss. Hence, the ‘un’.

And if you’re thinking ‘but what about presenters?’, the audience fills that role too. Once an agenda is decided on, attendees volunteer to facilitate those break-out sessions. (Or at least, that’s how it’s been for every unconference I’ve been to.)

Now, I am all for the audience-led agenda as a framework. Haven’t we all sat through conference sessions that really didn’t fit our goals or needs? The idea that we pick the things we want to learn about is something I can get behind.

It’s the execution that trips me up.

Because at least for the unconferences I’ve attended, I’ve left disappointed! Sure there have been useful tidbits, but there are some funny assumptions surrounding this structure that we need to be talking about – as the participants and hosts of these experiences. Especially in this sector.

4 Potential Downsides to The Unconference Model

1. It leaves attendees in the dark about what they stand to learn, and that’s not productive.

I get that the unknown is core to the potential behind this model. But when I’m making the case to my manager about why this is worth my org’s investment (or even just convincing myself!), it’s hard to do that with zero idea on what I stand to gain.

Even if the learning potential seems obvious (depending on the theme of your unconference), the people in the room are a huge variable. Which means you’re never guaranteed to leave with the takeaways you want or need.

2. It assumes that anyone can facilitate.

Most conferences take care in selecting their facilitators, or at least prepping the people responsible. And that isn’t in vain: facilitating a group towards having a meaningful conversation isn’t easy!

But with an unconference, you can’t guarantee that your volunteers will know anything about effective facilitation. What you will guarantee is that people step up who think they can facilitate. Which brings us to the next issue.

3. It favors the people who are inherently outspoken.

Being the loudest person in the room, or the person with the most confidence, doesn’t mean you have the most worthwhile info to share. But when you have group conversations led by novice facilitators, it’s these people who end up weighing in the most – either because they go unchecked by your group leaders, ooorrr they’re the ones who volunteer to “facilitate” in the first place!

And herein lines the big rub.

4. It can favor the viewpoints of some groups of people over others.

Look. Some groups of human are more likely to dominate a conversation than others – as years of research on this subject has already told us (for example, this). Nothing new, folks! Unconferences exacerbate this sort of thing.

And this isn’t true for everyone. But for me, as a woman, an introvert and an ethnic minority, it is maddeningly apparent when this happens. Imagine watching a literal elephant dance into a room, and no one bringing it up.

So! If you’re planning an unconference, here’s some advice to help make this a positive and worthwhile experience for everyone.

Tips for Planning an Impactful & Inclusive Unconference

1. Get facilitator training.

If you think you can facilitate without any academic knowledge on the subject, you’re already doing it wrong! Sign up for a workshop or online class and make sure you’re getting professional guidance on the subject.

Anyone can talk to a group or people. Shepherding a conversation so that participants leave feeling positive and like they learned something? That’s not easy.

2. Then, leave time to train your volunteer facilitators.

If we MUST let people randomly volunteer themselves as presenters in order for this to work, then so be it. But please leave room in your agenda to show them how to do their jobs the right way.

3. Settle on a theme that can help focus the agenda.

When your unconference is organized around a topic that’s too broad, you end up with half-formed session topics that skim the surface. And that can leave your attendees feeling real disappointed.

So try to narrow it down! Don’t leave the door too wide open, or you risk holding the group back from delving deep enough into a subject.

4. Make the intended audience (or skill level) crystal clear.

If not number 3, then please this one. You don’t want beginners on the subject feeling overwhelmed, nor do you want seasoned attendees feeling like their time wasn’t put to good use.

If your unconference is intended for novices, say so. If it’s for experts, say so too.

5. Get agenda input before the event – and make it public.

This way, people can have a sense of what may be covered and decide for themselves if the unknown is really worth it! (If you’re not sure how to do this, here’s one great tool to consider.)

Which leaves us here.

All of this begs the question: are unconferences worth it? And I know it may seem from this post that I’m against them. I’m really not.

Though sure. Maybe I’m a bit skeptical.

But I haven’t given up. There’s something to be said about why the unconference model has become more popular in recent years. The appeal isn’t completely lost on me, nor is the potential.

But like all shiny new things, there’s a lot of underlying work that needs to happen in order for this to be an inclusive and effective learning alternative.

1 thought on “The Unconference Model is Problematic. Here’s Why & What to Do About It

  1. Dee Post author

    Additional ideas! Someone who is planning their own unconference-like event offered up two ways that they’re going about it, that I felt were worth adding to the conversation. That includes:

    1) Hosting an unconference where the agenda is set well in advance by participants, and
    2) Hosting an unconference that is half set-agenda and half true unconference

    I’ve yet to participate in an unconference that followed any of the above approaches, but it sounds like a great way to counteract some of those unknowns. What do people think?


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