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How to Run an Unconference

Event planners are moving further and further away from the traditional top-down lecture sessions and looking to innovate with their events. By allowing attendees to set the agenda and host their own sessions, unconferences are a more relevant, engaging and interactive event.

Despite seeming to require little pre-planning, unconferences still require a number of important components to be successful. This guide covers everything you need to know about running one.

What is an Unconference?

An unconference is a conference without an agenda. Attendees are given the freedom to create the event they want. There is no pre-planned agenda, instead being created by the attendees at the beginning of the meeting. Anyone who wants to initiate a discussion on any topic can choose a time and space. 

When to run an unconference

An unconference can be an incredibly effective way to involve your community in an engaging session, that encourages networking and provides a platform to better understand the opinions of your audience in a way that a traditional conference can’t. In order to determine whether the unconference model is right for your event, you need to understand your goals and assess whether or not this truly aligns with the benefits of this model. 

  • Do you have an audience that is engaged in your topic/field?
  • Are your audience knowledgeable?
  • Do you understand your audience? 
  • Do you have a positive relationship with your audience?
  • Are you willing to open the floor to potential criticism


Why use the unconference model for your event?

Unconferences make for great events for a number of reasons.Ultimately, they allow attendees to cover a wider range of less common topics and probe difficult, unusual and rapidly changing areas of interest. 

Unconferences are particularly suited for industries where change is rapid and those where creative thinking is essential. If you work within a sector that is struggling with event attendance and engagement with your events then unconferences can really shake things up and get people interested again. 

Unconferences are also good for the following:

  • Peer-to-peer learning
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity
  • Increased engagement as attendees provide the themes
  • Connecting with your community.
  • Allows more niche topics to be explored


The Format of an Unconference

The basic format of an Unconference is as follows:

  • Welcome – cover the basics of how the day will work as well as any venue house-keeping details
  • Scheduling – setting the agenda for the day
  • Attendee-lead Sessions 
  • Lunch
  • Attendee-lead Sessions
  • Afternoon break
  • Attendee-lead Sessions
  • Drinks


Before the Unconference

An unconference does not require as much planning as a traditional conference, but having a rough agenda with the number of sessions, as well as some themes can help the event to run smoothly.

Finding the right venue

There are a few additional requirements to consider when looking for a venue for your Unconference, they include the following:

  • Several fully-equipped rooms – including a/v and plug sockets
  • ‘Blank canvas’ event spaces – ability to quickly and easily change room layouts depending on the requirements of the session host
  • Central space for the scheduling
  • Breakout spaces – continuing the conversation and networking are really key to a successful unconference
  • Reliable Wi-Fi
  • In-house AV Technicians to ensure your unconference runs smoothly
  • Catering
  • Excellent transport links
  • Accommodation near to the unconference, if your event is international.

Hosting a virtual unconference

A virtual unconference can be a great idea if you want to attract a large audience without the budget for a larger venue. Hosting your event remotely will also require less planning, and may be more suitable if your guests are located across the world.

Tip – Check out our guide on how to run a virtual event

Getting the Right Attendees

Many unconferences are organised by and based around active communities. You are more than likely already at the centre of a community, but if this is not the case, you just need to make sure you connect with all the right people in your field early on. It’s important to make use of all available communication channels and share widely with your networks to promote the event.

Inviting the right guests to your unconference can have a huge influence on your event’s success, so it is essential that you take the time to connect with your potential audience. If you aren’t currently connected with your ideal community, put in the groundwork as soon as possible, in order to make this process much easier in the future.

If you are unsure about how you can grow your audience through networking, check out our guide on how to organise a networking event.


How to prepare attendees for your event

Most conferences are very structured, with each presentation, talk and roundtable allotted a time slot and location well in advance. The talks will be meticulously planned and the format of the day largely set in stone. Unconferences are not like this at all, although it is a good idea to set a theme for the event, or potentially a few themes to explore throughout the day.

Not everyone will be familiar with the format or practicalities of an unconference, so it’s important that you give them prior warning and plenty of informative tips.

Make them aware of the following points to help them prepare:

  • It’s best that each session topic has an angle – one that encourages debate and discussion. Make this clear from the start, and also share some tips on running a session prior to the event.
  • Reassure session hosts to not take it personally if no one attends their session 
  • It’s important that session hosts stick to the timetable and don’t let their sessions overrun – remind them to be aware of those waiting for the next session
  • The timetable is likely to change during the day so make sure attendees to keep checking back


The day of the unconference

You’ve made it to the day of the unconference, this can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. Fear not, we will go through the steps needed to set up your unconference to ensure everything goes to plan.


Setting up


On the morning of your Unconference before any attendees arrive, you will want to get the spaces and rooms ready for the event.

When setting up rooms for an unconference, make sure they are clearly labelled and findable on a map so that attendees can find them easily. Check that there are sufficient seats and that the room can easily be rearranged to suit the needs of the session. Ideally, you will have ‘blank canvas’ spaces that give complete freedom for room layout. You will want to make sure that all required equipment is available in each room and working – this includes whiteboards, A/V equipment, marker pens and paper.

Tip – 20 Bedford Way has a range of rooms, perfect for an unconference. We also have a guide on various training room layouts here.

Scheduling Space 

The most important think to prepare is the scheduling space. You will need to attach large sheets of paper to a convenient wall with schedule slots marked out and ready to be filled in. You want to make sure there are enough working pens. Some people like to use Post-It notes so that they are easily rearranged. 

There is always the desire to make the process in some way digital and avoid the use of paper and pens, however, this gets in the way of scheduling. Using paper and pen allows your guests to get involved and lets ideas flow more freely.

The day of the event

Welcome Session

The welcome session is all about making people feel comfortable and covering off some practical details. Once the ice is broken, recap the basics about how the unconference will work along with the start, finish and break times. It’s also a good opportunity to remind people of the social media details including the relevant hashtags and encourage them to engage as much as possible. You can now create the schedule together.

Tip  – 20 Bedford Way have written a variety of social media guides:

How to use social media for networking

How to promote your event online

How to live stream on Tik Tok

Live tweeting at events guide



The agenda can be planned on large sheets of paper (taped to the wall)each featuring empty session slots. Attendees can put a session up on the agenda on whatever topic they like – all they need to do is write down a session title/topic, the location and their name in a free slot. Once the slots are all filled, the attendees may want to consider if there are any topics that can be merged together in a collaborative joint session. It’s also important to make clear that any session can be amended throughout the day as and when required.

Tip – Make sure the paper is thick enough so that ink doesn’t bleed onto the wall.


The Sessions

Each session is run by an attendee(s) and, therefore, can take a whole range of different formats. These can range from a formal, well-planned session to a very informal session where someone discusses an idea that just occurred to them or debates a fresh topic. Preparation is not a requirement of running a session but session hosts may want to consider a format that could help them achieve what they want.


Session Formats

Sessions can take any format, but more often than not they fall into the following categories:

  • Teaching / training – peer-to-peer learning on a practical or theoretical basis
  • Discussion / debate 
  • Talk/lecture – outline an idea or piece of research
  • Show and tell – project/demo
  • Answering a question or resolving a problem
  • Thrashing out a new idea

Tip – For the session hosts, it can work well to provide some context, outlining the key issues and concepts in an introductory segment before opening it up to the floor for discussion.


How You Can Help

You, your colleagues and any volunteers should attend sessions and generally be around to help out and answer any questions. You can make sure sessions run to schedule and even ask questions and encourage debate if things start to dry-up. On the other hand, you are there to encourage engagement between your guests, without being too heavy-handed, and dictating the entire session. Ensure that you have enough staff to cover the number of sessions you will be running, and let them know what their goal is during the event.

Tip – check out our guide on how to manage volunteers during your event



At the end of the day, it is worth gathering people together to say your thank yous and encourage people to continue their discussions over a drink or two. Having a nearby pub venue in mind can work really well. Make sure to mention your hashtags and social media again at this point, so that your audience knows where to post any videos or talking points from the day. This will make your life easier when organising your next event.


Running an Unconference Session 

Leading a session comes with its own responsibilities and pressures. Although the atmosphere will be informal and relaxed, you want to make sure people get as much as possible out of your session and remain engaged. There are some things you should endeavour to do and some things you should definitely avoid.

Key Considerations for Session Hosts

  • Think about what you want to cover in your session and how you want to cover it. Don’t over prepare but having some ideas is always beneficial.
  • Pitch your content to the crowd – it’s always worth providing a basic overview before getting into more complicated aspects of the topic. Try and gauge your group’s understanding – a simple show of hands can be enough
  • Encourage engagement whenever you can– debate and interaction are essential to the unconference experience.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help – get people to explain something, especially if you know they specialise in that particular area.
  • The nature of unconferences means that some sessions may only have a couple of attendees (sometimes none) – don’t let this put you off.
  • Feel free to end a session early if it comes to a natural conclusion. Similarly, if the debate is flowing and the session is about to run over, try and find an alternative space to carry it on.

Things to avoid

  • Not allowing people to disagree with you – constructive criticism and free debate are essential
  • Avoid rants – never a good idea
  • Avoid product demos 
  • Avoid excessive brand or self-promotion

Running an Unconference at 20 Bedford Way

With a number of breakout spaces as well as our flagship Logan Hall, 20 Bedford Way is a perfect venue for an unconference. Our ‘blank canvas’ rooms can be adapted to a variety of layouts to help facilitate engaging sessions. In particular, the Committee Rooms are ideal for an unconference when used along with the adjacent Nunn Hall. For more information call our team today on 020 7612 6143 or email us at venuehire@ioe.ac.uk.

presentation in meeting room for hire

UnConference Session at 20 Bedford Way

Resources / Further Reading

unConferencing – how to prepare to attend an unConference by Kaliya Hamlin from Unconference.net

How to Facilitate a Barcamp by Mike Riversdale

The unconference toolkit by the digital opportunity trust 


Header Image of Teaching Group 1914 Miami University Libraries via Flickr

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