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The 4 Rules of Unconferences: Tapping Into Conference Participants’ Knowledge

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This brings me to the four rules of an unconference. I bet with this free flowing format you didn’t think there were actual rules. No need to worry, these rules are easy to follow.

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We’ve all been in that conference, you know the one, in which expert after expert stands up in front of the room, clicks through presentation slides and drones on and on about a particular topic. Yes, some of these speakers are entertaining, some are monotone, and most you do learn from, however, other than the few minutes of Q & A at the end of each presentation, there’s not much time to really discuss and explore the topics. This can really be a waste of valuable resources, since there are usually several meeting participants in attendance that have great first-hand knowledge to share, interesting and engaging questions to explore, and some even with expert knowledge that can shed light on the topics.

So the question becomes, how do we tap into all the knowledge, energy and experience of these conference participants? Planning an unconference is the most successful and proven way to enable a great participant-driven meeting. No, that’s not a typo, I meant to write unconference. At an unconference, the agenda is created by the attendees at the beginning of the meeting. Anyone who wants to initiate a discussion on a topic may claim a time and a space. Unconferences typically feature open discussions, rather than having a single speaker at the front of the room giving a talk. This format opens participants up to new ways of thinking and fresh ideas, spawns creativity, ignites passion, defines problems and taps into people’s problem-solving skills.

We will use this unconference format for the PRSA 2012 Leadership Assembly meeting, held Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, in San Francisco, Calif. I know what you’re probably thinking. This sounds chaotic and kind of scary. I’m used to order and having a solid agenda. We need to know what we are going to talk about! Rest assured that this is a normal reaction to this type of conference, and although it may seem chaotic, there is a method to this madness.

My team and I will act as unconference facilitators, which means we will do all the footwork necessary to make sure the leadership assembly goes off without a hitch. We have already hosted a handful of meetings to bring together a list of leadership assembly objectives and themes that we’d like the unconference participants to have in mind when coming up with breakout session topics. The objectives include growing and retaining PRSA’s membership, uncovering membership and growth development issues, and finding ways PRSA National can support membership. Proposed themes include advocacy, membership, advancing the profession, diversity and value proposition.

Now, along with content preparation we are also working on logistics, where people will sit, how the meetings will run, etc. So here’s how it’ll work: at the beginning of the meeting my team will introduce the purpose for the session and explain the self-organizing process called “open space.” Then each individual in the group will help create the working agenda by posting issues and opportunities in bulletin board style. Each individual “convener” of a breakout session takes responsibility for naming the issue, posting it on the bulletin board and assigning it a space and time to meet. This individual will be responsible to attend, kick off the breakout session and take notes. Participants are encouraged to move freely between the sessions. If one session does not interest you, you are encouraged to leave and attend a different session that may be of more interest or that you have more to contribute to.

This brings me to the four rules of an unconference. I bet with this free flowing format you didn’t think there were actual rules. No need to worry, these rules are easy to follow.

  • Rule one, whoever shows up are the right people.
  • Rule two, whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  • Rule three, whenever it starts is the right time.
  • The fourth and final rule is, it’s over when it’s over.

The beautiful thing about these rules is they give participants the freedom needed to come up with creative and engaging ideas and solutions. At the end of the unconference we will convene once again as a large group and report out key takeaways from each breakout session, giving all participants the ability to learn, not only from the sessions attended but also from other sessions. All participants will walk away with new tools and ideas to take back and implement into their Chapters immediately. Notes from each of the breakout sessions will be compiled, and soft copies will be available to all participants.

We believe this format will be a great way to shake things up, get people moving and get ideas flowing between PRSA Chapters. Not only will this be a good way to solve problems and share ideas, you will also get the chance to network. We hope you find this new way of meeting as exciting as we do, and look forward to hearing your comments, questions and ideas.

See you at the unconference!

Diane Gage Lofgren, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the  Senior Vice President and Chief Communication Officer Brand Strategy, Communications & Public Relations at the Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc.

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Diane Gage Lofgren, APR, Fellow PRSA

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