The 3 Biggest Surprises Of An Online Unconference

The impact of our first online unconference, Metaphorum 2016, is still reverberating around the globe.

For example, today one attendee launched his campaign to crowdfund training a group of socially-marginalised French-speakers in Clean Language – and was immediately helped by Metaphorum participants.

And I’m still absorbing the learning. The day itself was like drinking from a firehose – and there was a similar intensity to the feedback.

When a dozen participants met me online for a short retrospective using Retrium, within minutes we had 90 comments on our four-column board: Liked, Learned, Lacked and Longed For.

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-16-20-41Some suggestions were as expected: next time, we’ll have a different balance between session time and unstructured time, so participants feel they have more specific opportunities to reflect and to connect. Given the intense energy of the event, and the natural people-focus of most of the attendees, it’s probably not surprising that people weren’t keen to tear themselves away from what was happening. I understand that several dogs went unwalked that day!

But what were my three biggest surprises?

    1. At least one participant would have preferred a normal conference, rather than unconference, format. They wrote: “Session leaders’ agendas should be vetted, clear outcome for all sessions, clear instructions for the tech-challenged, opportunity for back-end offers…” That would have been a very different event!
      For me, the whole beauty of the unconference format is the opportunity for peer-to-peer learning, rather than the top-down, expert-led kind.
      When it comes to using Clean Language, which was our event theme, I think everyone who’s actually done it is an expert. Everyone’s context is unique, everyone’s experience is different and valuable. Of course, some people have a lot more experience than others; they probably have more to say and will probably be more inclined to lead a session.
      I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that someone would have preferred a conference. I know from sharp commercial experience that people prefer to buy easy answers in shiny packages, rather than working hard to uncover messy truths. But I was honestly shocked to hear it in this context.
    2. That technophobes managed to “just get on with it” once they could see the value in doing so.
      The technology we used was chosen for its warmth and user-friendliness – using Zoom, participants were instantly in face-to-face contact with real human beings, talking about stuff they found interesting. That’s where they wanted to stay, and so they made it work.
      Technophobic types just asked the people around them for any help they needed. We’d arranged a support helpdesk – but the team didn’t have to field any problems at all.
      There were plenty of calls for tech help before the event – in the weeks before, and in the minutes before. Some people got quite stressed. But there was really nothing to fear. Once we were underway, it was fine.
    3. The biggest shock of all was how much I got away with! At one level this was an outrageous idea: me, as a single individual, deciding that the event was going to happen, picking the structures that would make it happen, asking for people to help for free, and yet making a profit from it.
      There was nothing “Clean” about the choices I made. I’ve had enough experience of guiding geographically-distributed groups (going right back to my Teletext days) to have a reasonable sense of what decisions would produce what results. I made a few potentially-controversial calls.
      You might expect Clean Language practitioners to notice all of that – I certainly feared a backlash. But either they didn’t notice, or they didn’t mind.
      Maybe things would have been different if the event had gone badly. But it worked. They loved it. They want to do it again. Result!

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