Readers, you know I love engineers. I married one, so I know how they love equations, following directions, taking things apart, and the process of things. It makes me completely batty, but I get it. I have now spent almost half my life working around the idiosyncratic ways of Mr. Rochester.
I received an email from a lovely gentleman engineer who will be chairing an engineering conference next year. He wants to shake things up a bit and add some unconference elements to his gathering. He told me they used to do what they called rap sessions, it sounded like birds of a feather to me, but the sessions have evolved into a panel of experts, which he wants to move away from. He also said there was a lot of time where people were just sitting around.
My first thought was, “Bless their hearts. They mean well.” (I am a southern girl, in case any of you have forgotten.) I wrote him a long email, with some decent advice I thought others might find helpful.
If you are facing an especially rigid group that you would like to shake up, here are some ideas from the email I sent:
For groups that have an especially hard time with change or unscheduled elements, planning an unconference type event works best at the beginning of the conference. You can use the session, whatever it is, as a type of ice breaker to get people interacting and engaging before the more structured sessions. If you give people an opportunity to start talking early, chances are high they will keep doing so.
A Birds of a Feather discussion to kick off the conference might be good for your situation. If you want the rap sessions to go back to their roots, small table discussions not led by experts, either be very clear that the format is going retro or rename the session. The problem is getting people to break out of their mold. Clear directions up front will help.
You can also use lightening talks, if the experts still want to have their say. Each talking head gets 5-10 minutes MAX to talk, say 6 speakers in a row. Then the participants break up into small discussion groups of no more than 8 (a round table) and discuss some of the ideas. People can be free to leave groups and join new discussions as they please. This might be a little chaotic, so you might need to add in some structure.
You could also do an AMA (Ask me Anything) like on Reddit. The experts would be there, not to give a talk, but to just answer questions from the audience. There are a lot of techie and nontechie ways to td that, but again, it would give the experts their time while allowing the audience to run the show.
In terms of people sitting around at the tables doing nothing: Is there a way to spark conversation while they are there? Consider labeling the tables with topics and allow people to sit at table that interest them allowing the conversation occur organically.
Don’t be afraid to step out of the accepted way of doing things and do something adventurous!
–Jane, an adventurer