An “unconference” is a participant-driven meeting, event, or breakout session. They’re not new, but they are almost unheard of in the virtual world.
Unconferences range in style from a free-for-all to, more commonly, some facilitator or panel guides the discussion or group of discussions. Perhaps most importantly, they provide value in situations where you’ve had enough talking heads or PowerPoint. Now just imagine doing this virtually and you’ve got an unwebinar.
Since I (Roger) am in the middle of hosting a couple unwebinar series with very different styles, I thought I’d “show my work” in hopes that you’ll get an idea or three.
Choose the style of your unwebinar
Generally the virtual version of the unconference will take one of two forms – entirely audience driven or partially (in a hybrid sort of way). Note that to me this is not a “panel” (I’ve led or moderated plenty of those) – this isn’t about the panelists sitting on high sharing their wisdom, it’s about the audience driving the agenda and sometimes even collaborating together. What follows are two different types, including some practical how-to things to know
Style 1: The hybrid (little presentation, a lot of discussion).
One webinar series I’m speaking at still, on the outside, mostly looks like a typical webinar series (you’re welcome to join – this one’s public). The execution, however, is a presentation that is 15-20 minutes followed by 45 minutes of “ask anything Q&A.”
Why a hybrid approach?
- Useful when have a topic that is broad enough that there is no way you could cover everything you’d want to say.
- Participants who bother to show up get their questions answered.
- The recording still has a ‘presentation’ that someone can watch after, and it keeps the recording short.
- There may be some peer-to-peer interaction.
How to prepare for a hybrid unwebinar
In this case I’m speaking at the event. This one is for a large audiences, so there is no shortage of questions (we don’t need to “plant” questions to get things started). The biggest thing to prepare for is interaction with the moderator.
If you’re the facilitator, you need to be prepared to tell the moderator how you want to handle questions. If you do this already, great, but you’re opening up the floor here for anything to happen. That’s part of what’s awesome about it.
Things to consider:
- Textual, live audio, or both? I usually let people put up their hands and unmute them. This time we’re doing text questions only.
- Let attendees see each other’s chat/questions? I’d normally recommend yes – it’s super when people in “the room” start answering each other’s questions or offering other useful input. Years ago there were privacy concerns, but these days people use Facebook and understand that they’re sharing in front of others.
- Plan to be the “voice of the audience.” Even if participants can see each other’s questions, discussion usually means that people go into a listen-only mindset and do other things. This isn’t wrong (in fact, it’s awesome for mobile participants). That said, don’t assume everyone sees what you’re seeing.
- Call out first names. “Julie makes a good point…” “Oh, sorry Veronica, I should have clarified. Veronica asked if I <this>, and I didn’t explain that well.”
- On topic or “ask anything?” I’ve done both. This current series is “ask anything,” but I’ve also done these where the topic is, say, marketing, and gently sometimes remind participants that their question is off topic and that they could follow up with me after.
- What is the moderator’s role? In this series Erica’s got a lot of experience, too, so I invite her to jump in at any time (she’s not stealing my thunder, even if I’m the headliner). A good moderator (like the crew here at EventBuilder!) will make you look like a rockstar, and sometimes that’s by being more active, and sometimes not.
The key to this, in my opinion, is that people are free to ask anything they want. This flies in the face of those still clinging to the idea of controlling a message, but it’s a social, customer-is-in-control world. It’s still your chance to lead the conversation.
Style 2: The full-on unwebinar (all discussion, no presentation)
To say “no presentation” is a slight misnomer – I do set the stage for what’s going on via a couple slides. This style of webinar should not be a free-for-all. Participants show up because they think they’ll learn something related to a topic.
The (private) series I’m doing for an association right now is a five-month, five-session series that follows a one-day onsite training hosted late last year. Each month’s topic was planned in advance, and in this case I’m the host/moderator, while three-person teams are the “panelists” (using that term loosely here). Unlike a panel discussion, though, this is less about “the experts at the front of the room” and more about interactions driven around each month’s topic.
Why an all-discussion approach?
- There’s a high level of peer-to-peer interaction. Participants aren’t just question-askers, they’re answer-givers too.
- Maybe there’s nothing to look at – you don’t need to show anything from your desktop. This works great for mobile participants.
- Perhaps, like the series I’m moderating, there was a main training session and this is a follow up. In our case some time has passed since the original onsite training day, so participants have had a chance to road-test what they learned, and this takes that learning to the next step.
How to prepare for an all-discussion unwebinar
For the series I’m hosting, we have a few PowerPoint slides at the beginning just to set the ground rules. It’s useful for establishing a different set of expectations when people expect webinars to be talk-AT-you experiences. Our opening few slides do three things
- reiterate the topic
- introduce the “panelists
- remind participants
- that nothing’s happening if they don’t participate
- about the dates/topics upcoming in the future
- about how you’ll handle sensitive issues (see below)
As you might imagine, the introduction is quite short. Then I turn off screen sharing and it’s all dialogue from there. Things to consider:
- Textual, live audio, or both? I highly recommend audio interaction for this type of session, BUT be prepared for a surprise – quite often people figure out that text chat works great when everybody “feels heard,” so even if you offer audio interaction, they may not take you up on it. My guess? It’s because it’s not about the sage on the stage, it’s about the groove in the room.
- Should you offer up private/anonymous chat? In the case of this client, there are times when a question is sensitive and shouldn’t be shared publicly. We remind them that they can use private chat and the panelists will answer generally and not use names/keep it anonymous.
- Let attendees see each other’s chat/questions? This is what rocks. Not only are people helping people, the “panelists” still get to weigh in and keep the process moving (perhaps through a series of questions based on that session’s topic).
- Still be the voice of the audience (see the point I made above).
The bottom line
An unwebinar isn’t just a free-for-all Q&A session — you still want people to leave having learned something (if not contributed something). That takes skill as a planner and facilitator.
Heavy discussion does generate a lot of questions and other input, though. You could then subsequently turn into other forms of content marketing and training. The awesomesauce here is that this is great market research for understanding “voice of customer/employee/association member.” And when you respond, you have a chance to have the final word as a thought leader without “stepping on” people during the unwebinar itself.
Here’s the biggest takeaway of all: a “webinar” doesn’t have to be 45-minutes of infobarf with a few questions at the end. And who gets the credit for organizing and hosting a genuinely engaging, useful event?