Do unconferences work for business events?

Earlier this year we went along to The Big Yak unconference in London, a highly democratic opportunity for the internal comms community to define and discuss the burning IC issues keeping them awake at night.

For the uninitiated, an unconference (as defined by Wikipedia) is ‘a participant-driven meeting’. In simple terms, this means that delegates turn up and decide between themselves what topics are up for debate and whether they want to get involved.

At a true unconference, attendees are welcomed by the host to explain how things are going to work, timings and any practical details before creating the agenda. This usually involves flip charts where people write up topics into empty session slots with their name and a location.

Sounds great and The Big Yak certainly was a brilliantly stimulating and engaging way to allow people to take what they wanted from the event … 30 different debates in one day, each of which was only run thanks to audience demand.


There is another important premise to unconferences though – as entrepreneur Dave Winer put it – “the sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of the expertise of the people on stage.”

At The Big Yak this was clearly the case.

But how does this translate across to business events, where there are important strategic messages to be communicated and knowledge to be shared by the leadership team?

We have always believed that engaging the audience emotionally with messages is the only way to make things stick and bring about real change. And there are certainly elements of the unconference that we embrace when creating events for our clients … encouraging and enabling delegates to shape their own event agenda, two-way dialogue throughout the event and clever creative mechanics to provoke involvement.

But we are also very much focused on delivering real ROI through clear objectives and measurement against those objectives.

Half-way house

If you like the idea of the energy and democracy of the unconference, a structured unconference (yes … we do realise this is something of an oxymoron) shares the spirit of a pure unconference, but comes with greater infrastructure to guide the content and output a little more.

This would probably include pre-defined objectives, some or all topic themes and hosts agreed ahead, audience rotation and event facilitators to step in where necessary to capture key discussions/ content. We’d normally operate a limited spaces, ‘first come, first served’ system to avoid bottlenecks and help with rotation of attendees around each session too.

Strategic thinking

The key to a successful event is to bring strategic thinking to the planning process to make sure business objectives are met. Creative delivery will certainly help, as will pre-event audience engagement, a variety of presentation techniques and plenty of opportunity for delegate feedback.

Whilst we’re enthusiastic advocates of the unconference in all its guises, a more conventional approach remains the way forward for most internal communication focused events.

If you like the idea of making your next company event more about two-way exchange than top down broadcast – get in touch and we’ll discuss what your business event is looking to achieve before debating the pros and cons of whether an unconference might work for you.

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