COMMSCAMP SCOTLAND: What makes a good session idea?

Excitingly, it’s the week of commscamp scotland and I thought I’d write a quick few pointers if you’re new to an unconference.

If you’re going then congratulations you’ve got the hottest ticket in town.

If you’re going to an unconference for the first time you’d be forgiven for feeling a touch of intrigue.

An unconference is very different from a traditional conference.

UK Government civil servant and Brummie James Cattell describes the two simply:

“A conference agenda is set by organisers. An unconference agenda is set by attendees.”

That nails it beautifully. 

To put more detail on it, the conference agenda is designed by a small group of people months in advance. There is limited chance to ask questions and discuss. There are many, many PowerPoint slides. 

An unconference’s agenda is drawn-up on the day to reflect what the people in the room on the day want. It is flexible and it is reactive. There are no PowerPoint slides. 

On the day of commscamp scotland, the agenda will get filled by the attendees with the help of the organisers. There will be a series of breakout spaces across the venue which will each host sessions suggested by attendees. Anyone can suggest a session. 

At an unconference, there is no hierarchy. The opinion of a marketing assistant in their first month is just as valid as a veteran head of comms. Given the changing pace of the media landscape that’s not such a bad idea.     

Will it work? 

It’s the first time in Scotland. Will it work? 

I’ve done a lot of work in Scotland in the past decade and I’ve found a group of committed well networked public servants who want to do a better job. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say and what I can learn. 

There is a process to the unconference model that works. Find a room. Invite people. Collaborate. Go home. That’s it.  

What makes a good session? 

There will be more than 20 sessions at commscamp scotland. All will be proposed by those in the room. 

What makes a good one?

I’ve given this a bit of thought this week.

After 10 years of organising unconferences I’ve reflected on what makes a good session idea.

If you make a session pitch the only thing you have to do is to go to the session and start the ball rolling. That’s it. You don’t have to bring slides, a speech or be expected to provide all the answers. A session is a discussion where people are encouraged to have a say. 

I’ve found good pitches often start with the following and if you’re in two minds whether or not to pitch, think how you would fill these. 

“I’ve never pitched an idea before but…”

If you’re in two minds do it. Share what you’d like to learn or share. Some of the best sessions I’ve been to have started like this.

“I really don’t know how to do X. If anyone else is in the same boat shall we put our heads together?”

I remember in the early days of social media someone came along who’d been asked to draw-up a social media policy and didn’t know the first place to start. She frantically scribbled down ideas and came up with some great ideas.

“I’ve just done X which worked quite well. Let me tell you what I did and the mistakes I made so you don’t make them. Have you done similar? Can we swap ideas?”  

The great danger of standing up at a conference is to represent your employer. It’s all got to smell of fresh paint, right? But what’s of much more value is to hear about the errors and crossings out along the way. A conference rarely tells you this. A chat over coffee sometimes does. An unconference isn’t live streamed, doesn’t have a slide audit trail and can dip into Chatham House Rule when people don’t want the detail of the tatty truth exposed. How fantastic.

“I’d really like to get this off my chest.” 

Often at an unconference there’s a session under Chatham House rules that’s just a chance to show and tell what’s bugging people. Sometimes it’s to search for a solution. Sometimes it’s to just vent. In the past titles have been ‘Local government rant’ or ‘And another thing…’

“I’m worried about X, are you?”

There can be horizon scanning and the good thing about this is that not everyone has the answers. 

Road testing your session idea

People are at liberty to pitch a session on the day. If you’re an attendee that’s fine. Come along. No experience necessary. 

But if you fancy road testing ideas in the commscamp scotland Facebook page you’d be very welcome. 

A big hand to the organisers and the attendees

In the past I’ve helped organise commscamps and I know it could not happen without the help of volunteers, attendees and sponsors.  

A big hand to David Grindlay, Leanne Hughes, Sharon Dunbar and the rest of the commscamp scotland volunteers. They’ve done the hard yards this year.

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