The planning grid at an unconference is the centre of the event. The grid is where people present themselves to the community. It is also something participants come back to regularly, to check their schedules, or to change their selection. All coordination for the day is channeled through the grid.
As a facilitator, you have a key role in getting things planned on the grid. That gives you influence on the flow of the unconference: a pretty powerful position. In this post we’ll provide some grid facilitation tips on how to effectively wield this power to create an inclusive, and exciting event.
This is not a popularity contest!
As mentioned in an earlier post on steps to introducing the unconference, participation is not about headcount. Large groups are actually counterproductive for the unconference. You want to get people together in smaller dedicated groups to go deep. As a facilitator, emphasise the power of intimate groups, and close conversation, over 1-to-many broadcasting. Size doesn’t matter, personal progress does.
Do a practice round
Particularly with groups that are new to the unconference, the practice round is an effective way to demonstrate how the unconference will work. You can arrange some of your pre-planned speakers to jump in here, and get the flow going. But prioritise making room for a first-timer to take the stage. There are usually one or two brave souls in the audience who are prepared to do this. So, call out for sessions. Wait for a while to trigger them to stand up. Then, if no one steps up, ask one of your pre-planned speakers up, and catch momentum that way.
You’re going to create the appearance that a great schedule can magically appear, but in reality, you should be a curator, familiar with who’s in the room and what they have to offer each other. Know the big names, the different challenges and the interesting stories in the room. Then, when you’re up in front of the grid, you can act as a Connector.
“Aline, did you have a similar experience? Anything to offer this session?”
“I think a few people here might struggle with something similar. Anyone got a related challenge?”
Nudging the schedule
First and foremost, letting people just put their session anywhere is a great way to imbue the magic feeling that “we’re building this by ourselves.” That’ll create a sense of excitement and ownership among the participants. If done well, you’ll be a kind of “invisible facilitator” where you’ll have shaped the schedule well, but nobody will have noticed. This can be done in subtle ways, like “that would be fun after lunch”, or “I think you’ll need a bigger room, so let’s put that here.” Sometimes, you can even just take their session card from them, in a helpful gesture as they’re speaking, and post it for them — then ask, “is it good there?”
Encourage the first timers: offer yourself as their facilitator
First-timers might be reluctant to come up in front of the audience to pitch. Often, not having a strategy for structuring a session is also a barrier for them to step up. The facilitator in front of the room enjoys some respect from the audience, as she is putting herself out there, making it happen. The facilitator can utilise her position to encourage first timers to come up front. Call out specifically for people that haven’t done it before. Offer yourself as a facilitator during their session. Lets team up!
Boost first-timer session pitches
Ask for a volume vote before posting the session card. If this is not received warmly enough, then try rephrasing the title in your own words. Make it catchy and on-point. Also try to call out some of the influencers in the audience to help out in the session if you see the relevance of their help. Influencers, in turn, will pull in some more people, and; hey presto! Your first-timer is set to go.
Abstract session topics?
There’s always someone who proposes a session topic that isn’t concrete, or a PhD-level research question, which is hard to turn into something actionable within a 30 minute timespan. The room then lights up with confused faces. In this case there are 3 things you can do:
- Ask clarifying questions to help find analogies “Is this like X?”. Alternatively ask the audience who has experience on this topic, and get their voice in to help filter out something actionable that is worth a session.
- Propose a facilitation tactic for during the session like a post-up with the question. Affinity mapping always leads to something interesting: “Lets note everything we know about his idea”. And then cluster.
- In case there’s no salvation in sight, then intervene, and offer to help clarify this session during the break. Be sure to call out this person again, at the next planning session.