Unconference > Basics


The 3 unconference basics are: 


I’ve run unconferences for tens to hundreds of people. So can you. 

Be diverse. The more that people look, sound or feel different to you, the better discussions you’ll have. Search for people outside of your normal group. Start with race, gender, sexuality, physical and mental ability. Then think about where people are how it changes them. Make a real effort to do this, please. 

Start with your organisers. Depending on the size of your event, 3 to 7 of you is enough. Odd numbers help if you need to make decisions. Otherwise your lead organiser has the final say. Decide among yourselves who’ll take turns at leading. 

Organisers don’t need special skills. Think, “enthusiastic amateurs”. You just need the dedication to see the event through, with a willingness to collaborate and learn. Oh, and this book (-: 

Agree on a regular meeting that suits all of you. Get it in your calendars. Decide how you’ll communicate between meetings. I tend to use Slack. What you choose is up to you and your needs. 

Next you need attendees. How many depends on the space you have and your dropout rate. Free events can have over 50% dropout rate. Paid events usually hover around 10%. 

You’ll need a way for people to sign up and receive joining instructions. Offer people a way to form community before and after the event. A social media hashtag is the simplest way. If you use Slack to organise, offer it to your attendees as well. 


You need somewhere for people to meet, create an agenda and discuss things. 

Your space can be virtual, physical or a hybrid of both. If you have another option, please let me know (-: 

Virtual is the easiest, cheapest and arguably the most accessible (though not for everyone). Obvious services to use include Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype and Zoom. Basically you need somewhere for people to signup, get it into their calendars and received the videoconferencing joining instructions. 

Physical, in-person unconferences are the most fun, in my humble opinion. They also have the most accessibility requirements, especially for physically challenged and neurodiverse people. You can do your event in 1 big room, preferably with lots of soft furnishings or other sound absorbing materials. If you can get separate rooms for parallel discussions, that’s the best option. 

Hybrid’s the most challenging, but also the most accessible. With the right technologies and some patience, it’s doable. I know cause I’ve done it, and got really good feedback. 

You’ll need a separate physical and virtual room combination for every parallel discussion, each with its own computer, camera and mobile microphone. I’ve tried all-in-1 video conferencing kit like the Meeting Owl. They do work in small numbers, with strict meeting etiquette. But the best results come from mobile microphones that must be passed from person to person. That way you physically limit who can talk at any one time, at least in the physical space.  


You need to organise what discussion happens where and when. That’s where the grid comes in. 

Think of it as a spreadsheet with time on 1 axis and space on the other. In fact if you’re running a virtual event, that’s exactly what your grid could be. The UKGovCamp grid spreadsheet is a good example to look at. 

If you’re doing a physical only event then get creative with some tape, sticky notes and pens. Here's a grid from UKGovCamp: 

A large rectangular piece of paper is stuck to a wall with masking tape. On the paper is a grid. The vertical axis shows the session numbers and times. The horizontal axis shows the room numbers. The grid is populated with lots of different coloured sticky notes. Each has a handwritten discussion title on it. Some have names or Twitter handles as well.
The UKGovCamp 2015 grid. Photo by the late David Pearson.
flic.kr/p/qVVYeE (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Hybrid unconferences need a virtual and physical grid, plus someone to keep them in sync. 

There are lots of ways for people to populate the grid. The simplest is just for people to add and edit it themselves. 

People can also pitch their session to everybody, then have a show of hands to gauge its popularity. 

When you get into the hundreds of attendees, you need to be more creative. 

More on that in future chapters. 

Unconference © 2023 by James Arthur Cattell is licensed under CC BY 4.0