How to run an Unconference

What are your best tips for running an Unconference?  Google and Facebook have put on versions of these, do you know of anywhere on-line that offers their templates?


Well, it is likely very important to make sure that no one knows who is actually paying for the conference. That way, people can believe that an unconference is also uninfluenced.,

At the link: "An "unconference" is particularly useful when participants generally have a high level of expertise or knowledge in the field the conference convenes to discuss." In other words, a meeting of peers. I'm not sure how this can work. If Cowen invites 100 of his best friends who are economists, would any of them show up? If I am Cowen's peer, would I show up for a conference (an unconference) at which I am neither a featured speaker nor a special guest? On the other hand, I can imagine an unconference attended by a bunch of techies who want to share techie information with other techies - nerds behaving like nerds. But here's an idea that, for some reason, popped into my head: an unconference for economists modeled after the large masked orgy conducted by the secret society in Eyes Wide Shut. No, I am not suggesting an orgy, but a secret society of gnostics. Cowen must have friends who are gnostics too, friends besides fellow-gnostic Thiel. Do gnostics call themselves gnostics? Or is there a Straussian term for it?

"Do gnostics call themselves gnostics? Or is there a Straussian term for it?"

You may've already suggested such a term: "economists".

More seriously, yes there are certain groups or professional associations whose members simply need to be put in a room together and they will start talking shop. I.e. a natural and spontaneous unconference.

Economists are notorious for this, IME lawyers, at least some of them, also share this proclivity.

But I wonder what or who Tyler has in mind. If it's economists, he could just state what the broad overall topic is and slap that onto the name of the unconference. But I'm guessing that he has a different and more heterogenous set of attendees in mind. And dealing with that heterogeneity is probably the biggest challenge.

First off.

You don't get invited to an unconference.

You get uninvited to an unconference.

That's why you didn't know about running an unconference.

Only the uninvited uniformed attend unconferences.

.."Only the uninvited uniformed attend unconferences."
Why would those attending unconferences wear a uniform? I must be uninformed about this.

I think that was unintentional.

+1 to both of you. The uniformed uninformed need to identify each other or they will be unaware, and you are correct it was unfortunately unintentional.

Transparency Camp was an excellent unconference. Some years it was held at GMU. Info at including a guide to hosting your own at A driving force behind it was @elle_mccann

Clarifying the links above:

Transportation Camp is another great unconference that is held at GMU each year

At the very beginning everyone there must put up at least one medium yellow post-it on the wall briefly describing a proposed talk. I'm glad that was a requirement otherwise I wouldn't have talked on the history of cognitive modularity at a computer design unconference. More than a few attended. More than a polite round of applause at the finish.

One of the more straightforward guides:

The semiannual Internet Identity Workshop has been a successful unconference in silicon valley for more than ten years now. This is the format we use:

A few thoughts I have used to create unique and memorable events, turning the standard conference on it's head:
1. Start with "Invite only"; A tightly curated group of the right people can make or break the un-conference.
2. Get outside. I have found #BusinessOutside sparks more creativity and fosters authentic relationships.
3. Use "Think, Pair, Share, Square" to generate 40% more ideas and increased collaboration.
4. Use a graphic recorder to engage the audience and create memorable and meaningful take-aways.
5. Use the "Dog in the Hat" exercise to gather personal reflections and key takeways at the end of the day
6. Use the "Step-Forward" exercise to build quick rapport with a large group of participants.
7. Move. Get people up, outside, switching groups, etc.
8. Use the "Future Backwards" exercise to tackle big strategic problems.

Any chance you could explain each of the exercises you mention? Am curious and have never heard of them.

"Invite Only" sounds exclusionary and hurtful

I've been to invite-only and open attendance conferences. Invite-only is much, much better. The trick is to curate the group to include up and comers who have more promise than accomplishment. It's no more exclusionary than TED, which requires a huge fee to attend.

The open model is ok if the group is sufficiently niche, but you tend to attract a group of people with a lot of time on their hands and it dilutes the value of the meeting considerably.

Invite-only can keep the quality of guests very high, which is nice if what you're wanting is a lot of high-value spontaneous conversations and cross-pollenation.

Ask Patrick Collison for advice. He did a terrific job of facilitating a session at the unconference-ish Friends of O'Reilly conference a couple years back.

I'm a teacher in TFA, we use unconferences frequently for DEI training. Can be pretty hit or miss in my experience. Just like many of the other commenters, "invite only" can nicely facilitate buy-in. But I have also been in situations where we start in a big group, and then collapse into smaller groups. In my experience, the "collapsing"--where groups identify topics of interest--is best facilitated by some organizer. Once in multiple sessions the organizer floats and tries to spark conversations...The best thing I can add that I haven't heard from other commenters is beginning the session with a small 5 minute discussion on group conversational norms followed by a 5 minute discussion of a few spark questions. Get both of those written down and then let, for instance, we had some great unconferences after a two-day professional development workshop on dealing with student trauma and disability in the classroom. in the group of teachers, the organizer opened discussion to identify a few group topics. We broke into those groups based on questions we had after the workshop. Then we set norms, identified common interests and ran with it.

In general, my best experiences have been from unconferences that weren't very organized outside of a facilitation of group interests, group norms, and then maybe group roles (someone to write notes, etc.)

Attention, Brazil's Senate has officially declared mourning due to the death of Mr. João Gilberto. I thank Brazil leaders for their leadership.

See "How to run an internal unconference" by Henrik Kniberg (minimum price is free but pay what you want):

I feel like this might be a joke.

I've been attending a yearly unconference (on software development) for several years. The idea is that the attendees make the agenda, as the conference unfolds. This seems like it would be awkward (and it often is for first-time attendees), but people catch on fast and usually the problem is fitting in all of the topics that the attendees want to discuss, not a dearth of topics.

Our conference isn't invitation-only, but it's a small group that proselytizes the conference to people they think would be interested. There are no guest speakers or presenters, everyone is expected to speak as the spirit moves them. It's extremely informal (which only works because the group is small) but has evolved a number of traditions and norms over the years. In our case, the attendees share a Slack channel during the year when the conference isn't going on and use the Slack channel to organize ("where is everyone going for lunch?") when the conference is going. It has sort of evolved into an international gang of individuals who share problems and best practices.

The conference often moves in unexpected directions, which is one of its best features. One year, for example, someone brought up the topic of access to web sites for persons with disabilities. That one session then spawned about three more, because it turned out that lots of people had this topic on their plates. It was a problem of near-universal concern, but the group as a whole wasn't aware of the fact.

It's the best conference I attend every year, hands-down.

Yes, it's called audience "questions" at the end of a lecture.

You might track down some of the instigators of the Boston-area unconferences from years ago. See (which I went to). Start with Scott Kirsner at He now helps run the unpitch ( which may give you additional ideas.

On that unconference in Burlington, MA (at the former Sun Microsystems HQ), I remember having a heated discussion with Bob Metcalfe where we debated why ATM (telecom standard) had failed. Neither of us was defending ATM - we were debating which of many reasons most contributed to the failure!

My thoughts:
- people in the room is 90% of the value
- I want to learn about things I wouldn't encounter in either structured conferences or open networking rooms
- I want to share 3 minutes about my project and get feedback from smart people
- this one is weirder, but it might be fun to tackle a problem together with a group, like a hackathon but for social issues

Hello Tyler - when is your in-conference? How may I get an invite? Will Fuchsia be there?

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