Originally Posted on DINO Studio's blog
Aaron and I are on our way to Book^2 Camp in New York. It's an "unconference," an event that has a participatory style of generating bottom-up content from the attendees rather than providing top-down, pre-determined content. In the tech industry this is a very common format. After talking with a couple of our clients also attending, I realized that to people used to "normal" conferences, the notion of unconferences can seem really, really strange.
So in advance of the Book^2 unconference, and in the spirit of open participation that defines this format, I thought I'd jot down a few notes and approaches if for no other reason than to prepare myself for the weekend.
Usually, unconferences begin with an opening session where organizers set the framework for the day, thank sponsors, point out restrooms, etc. Very quickly, attention returns to the audience (i.e. you) before we sort the day's agenda of sessions (more on that in a bit).
A very common ice-breaker is for everyone (yes EVERYONE) in the room to stand up, one at a time, and say, in three words, a little about themselves. Mine might be "Quality Creative Technology" or "iPad Book Maker" or "Breakfast Taco Enthusiast"-- you get the idea. Inevitably, some people will be clever or even jokey with their words (let's face it, 30 minutes of people reciting bland business card titles would not be a great start to the event).
The point is for you to listen to the other participant's words as a way to identify individuals you may want to connect with during the day. Three words limits introductions to a managable time.
In practice, because people going to unconferences tend to have a variety of interests and even job descriptions, they are often too wrapped up in trying to decide on which three words they want to wear that day and don't really pay close attention to other people. Ergo - People talk, but they don't listen.
(I don't know if Book^2 will use Three Words -- it's a pretty common one, but assume you'll need a pithy intro of some kind)
When you pay thousands of dollars to attend the typical industry conference, you expect a lot in the ideal case - hundreds or thousands of attendees, side field trips, rigid schedules w/ (mostly) deeply vetted (and well compensated) experts offering advice or ideas that reinvigorate your work -- heck, maybe a fancy dinner w/ celebrity keynotes.
While this is also arguably the case for "normal" conferences, I cannot stress enough that you will get out of an unconference no more than what you put into it. Your ROI of participation pays back many times over in the value you derive from the experience.
Be present. Be proactive. Be ready to talk. Ask questions.
There will come a time during the event where you will have the opportunity to propose a session on the agenda. I highly recommend making a suggestion for something that you are genuinely interested in LEARNING about and not PREACHING about. Find like minds around you and band together to talk.
For what it's worth, at Book^2, DINO is likely going to propose a panel discussion with ourselves and 2 other smaller, indie publishers in the iPad/tablet storybook space. We intend it to be an opportunity for us to share some newly-earned wisdom as smaller, scrappy studios facing the challenges of trying to develop premium content on limited budgets.
Here's a great resource that has more tips about preparing sessions: Scott Berkun: How to Run A Great Unconference Session
It's my observation that unconferences attract smart, motivated people with really interesting things to say. Here's something that nobody ever mentions outloud, but I wish they would:
It is quite likely that you are the expert at something. The people around you are are also experts at things, and dare I say, collectively smarter than you on most things. Nothing ruins an unconference session faster than a blowhard who insists on dominating conversations. Make no assumptions about the skill levels or interests of your audience or you will be wrong.
And when you DO end up in a room with an Expert who is insisting on proving how much he or she knows, you are both empowered and requrired to "vote with your feet." (i.e. walk out and go find another session that better allows you to participate).
Like most conference-like events, sometimes the better content happens in the hallway conversation, anyway.
Make no mistake: an unconference can be a fertile place to generate very qualified prospects for your business. DINO is going to Book^2 with an intent of meeting potential clients, no doubt.
However, unconferences are a terrible place to sell your goods or services if that's your only motivation. You'd be better off just sponsoring the event or spending your time at a more appropriate venue like a tradeshow floor.
If you have a product or service you are trying to promote, you'll have far more success if you lean towards transparency, conversation, and participation rather than blatant pitching. For example, while it's a good idea to open your session with a brief description (30s or less) of your background and why you were interested in leading a particular discussion, it's really bad form to then spend 20 minutes showing product demos and sales slides. A better approach might be to lead a session that shares best practices as you were developing your product.
I think, unlike a lot of networking events and tradeshows, you'll get further if you come from an extremely genuine place. Have conversations with people with the idea that you are looking for relationships and not clients and you're on your way. SHARE OPENLY. Now's the time to be extra generous with your knowledge... it will pay itself back, I promise.
This post isn't meant to be a treatise on how to do effective networking. I will say that all those lessons (ex. listen more than you talk, establish rapport, don't be selling - be forming relationships) apply. The tenor of the event will be one of openness, optimism, and inclusion. Use whatever personal style works for you, obviously, but I think the casual nature of an unconference tends to reward gregarious conversationalists rather than aloof experts & rock stars.
Bring a stack of business cards and prepare to ask and answer, "What is the coolest project you are working on right now?" rather than the closed-ended "what do you do?" (Bonus hint: I like "what brings you here today?").
Aaron and I are SO looking forward to meeting you. Our pictures are on our About Page. Please do come say "hi" to us.
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