There are a variety of ways you can format your session, it just depends on how you’d like to present.

  1. Presentation: Probably the most classic and simplest format for your session. You’re the star of this show… and maybe a slide deck of thrilling stats.
  2. Workshop: Feel free to get creative with your session and lead your attendees in a hands-on workshop, like a design jam.
  3. Panel: Moderate a panel discussion to get a wide variety of perspectives on your topic of choice!
  4. Roundtable: Bring your attendees into the mix and host a roundtable conversation.

We found the following list, compiled by Scott Berkun, a very helpful reference for prepping an unconference session.

Basic session patterns to reference:

  • The group discussion. Someone picks a topic they’re into, writes it on the board, and forms an interesting discussion around it.
  • The semi-talk. Mentioned briefly above, this is a 5/15 minute presentation by the organizer, used as fuel for the session.
  • The show and tell. The organizer has a cool project, demo, beta, or something to show and let people play with. It’s the springboard for all the conversation in the session. Alternatively, individuals are asked to bring their own thing to show and tell (perhaps with a theme), and the session works round-robin.
  • The interactive game or thing. Many sessions are based on social games, or the learning of how to play them. Mafia (aka werewolf) is currently all the rage, but anything goes. Some people do game shows or competitions (e.g. Halfbaked): these are awesome but require some preperation on your part (what are the rules? Who are the judges? Did you dry run it at all before inflicting it on a group of strangers?)
  • Learn how to do X. If you’re inclined to teach, this can be simple and awesome. Teach folks how to juggle, do basic yoga, magic tricks, you name it. Just make sure you bring whatever gear you need, and that you have some plan for teaching 5, 10 or 15 people how to do something all at the same time.
  • The lecture. This is tricky, as the basic format is low-interactive. But if you’re a rock star, or have a big, well developed idea (a book in progress, a manifesto) you can pull this off. If only 10 people show, you should switch gears to something more interactive.
  • Non-session interactive thing. Why be bound to the tyrany of the session? Set up a demo in the hallway. Put a machine you’ve made by the couches. Write up an essay and tape it on the doors to the restroom stalls. There’s no reason you have to run a session at all to contribute. Be creative. These are often the most memorable things at unconferences.
  • Something new. There are other ideas worth trying – but whatever you do, let people know the ground rules in the first 2 minutes. If they don’t like it or had different expectations, give them a chance to bail before they feel obligated to stay.

Basic session patterns to avoid

  • The poorly disguised product demo. Most unconferences I’ve been to are shy about demos – so follow the policy of your particular event. If you’re going to do a demo, make it obvious. “Fooby 2.0 demo” and don’t hide it behind some other topic, making people wonder why you keep steering the conversation back to a product you’re waaaay too excited about.
  • The introvert with a microphone. If you’re really not suited for facilitating a group of 15 people you don’t know, partner with someone that is. Or pick a format better suited to your comfort zone. (Hint: if you are a good facilitator, run a session teaching others how to get more comfortable presenting / facilitating / being in front of the room. Doublehint: If you know a good presenter, ask them to run this session).
  • The zealot with a microphone. If you can’t stand to listen to people who disagree with you, get a talk show, or start a podcast – but don’t run a session. Unless you set the ground rules, or describe the session in a way that makes your stance known, expect people to either challenge you, or leave the room in frustration. More fun: find a zealot with the opposing view, get a moderator, and have a debate.
  • The doing of things best done on e-mail or wikis. Having 20 people in a room making a long list of programming languages / cool websites / favorite bands is a waste of everyone’s time. Very little of that process benefits from being in a room together.
  • The bad rendition of a bad blog post. Rants are great if people volunteer to listen: so if you really just want to vent to an audience for an hour, imply that in the session name. But don’t let yourself dominate a room or force the conversation back over ground everyone else has hapilly left behind. Also, the unconference spirit tends to be more about “60 second rants” where everyone gets to chip in, than it is about geek soliloquy.

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