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Meeting & Event Planning

The Latest in Unmeetings & Unconferences

Posted January 17, 2017 By Hilary Braseth

Recent research conducted by Attentiv finds that there are over 2.6 billion meetings conducted in the United States every year.

The same study also found that one third of time spent in these meetings is considered unproductive by attendees and that most meeting participants (73%) often do other work while they are attending a meeting.

Albert Einstein famously said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

New meeting formats are needed in order to stop the madness!  TED Talks have recently popularized the idea of the “unconference,” or “unmeeting.” There are six dynamic formats that we believe can help attendees absorb content as well as participate in a much more engaging way.


WHAT: Open Space is a popular purpose-driven meeting format that has been utilized for organizational transformation since the early 1980s. It champions self-organization and ownership. The most famous feature of this meeting format is an agenda set by the participants themselves, which empowers them to address the concepts they believe to be most important.

WHO: Suitable for any size meeting between 5-2,000 people

WHEN TO USE: According to leadership consultant Harrison Owen, Open Space works best when under the following conditions:

  • Complexity in the tasks to be done or their outcomes
  • Diversity in the people involved or needed to make a solution work
  • Conflict: real or potential — in other words, people care deeply about the central issue or purpose
  • Urgency – time-sensitive

OUTCOMES: All participants have an opportunity to share; the issues raised are those most important to participants who can act on them; all “next steps” will be outlined and carried forward.

HOW: Chairs are typically organized in a circular format, and a sponsor introduces the meeting with a broad invitation around a purpose. From there, the meeting facilitator shares the rules of the Open Space format and participants begin to suggest issues or topics for discussion, which are posted on a bulletin board. Each participant who suggests a topic for discussion becomes the “owner” of that topic, shares the time and place for the discussion, then attends the discussion to introduce the topic and take notes.

Attendees are encouraged to navigate the various discussions by the “Law of Two Feet” — if participants ever find themselves neither learning or contributing, they are encouraged to find another conversation.

At the end of the meeting, the owner of the topic compiles the notes into a proceedings document and sends to all participants with assigned priorities and action items.


WHAT: The Fishbowl is a meeting format most known for engaging participants in dialogue and encouraging deep listening. A small circle of pre-identified participants speak, and are surrounded by concentric circles of others who observe the inner circle, having the option to join in if desired.

WHO: Suitable for large groups

WHEN TO USE: When working with a large group, and when listening and participation are equally important.

OUTCOMES: All participants observe the dialogue and have the choice to join (one chair is always left empty), lessening the distinction between speakers and audience members.

HOW: The room is arranged with an inner circle of 5 or 6 chairs, surrounded by larger, concentric circles of chairs. All but one of the inner circle chairs is occupied by the speakers, and the outer concentric circles are filled by meeting participants. During the meeting, outer observers are given the opportunity to fill the empty chair and join the inner dialogue, which will force one of the other inner-dialoguers to voluntarily leave. — at all times, one chair in the inner circle must always be left empty, inviting any of the outer participants to join.


  • Outside circle may not talk.
  • Inner circle can talk until prompted to retire.
  • Participants must enter the inner circle before speaking.
  • Participants can enter the inner circle at any time if you want to participate in the dialogue.
  • Participants can enter the inner circle if you want to stop somebody from talking.
  • Participants must finish their point and leave the inner circle when prompted.


WHATSpeedGeeking is a meeting design that, like speed dating, can be used to quickly view several presentations within a fixed period of time.

WHO: Good for groups of any size, ideally 6 or 7 audience members for each presenter.

WHEN TO USE: When there is a large amount of content to get through in a short amount of time. One hour should be enough time to view 12 presenters, if 5 minutes are spent per presentation.

OUTCOMES: Time limits keep presentations short and interesting, and the small table format grants an opportunity to connect on a more personal level. Presenters repeat presentations several times, giving them a chance to perfect delivery.

HOW: In a large room, presenters are arranged along the outer perimeter of the room, and all other participants gather at the center of the room. A facilitator splits the center participants into the same number of groups as presenters (i.e. 5 presenters = 5 groups). The facilitator rings a bell to begin proceedings, and each group goes to a different presenter. After five minutes, the facilitator rings the bell again, and each group moves to the right for the next presentation. The proceedings continue until each group has heard each presentation.


WHAT: A Spectrogram is an interactive group exercise that highlights the range of perspectives in a group, often serving as an anchor for future conversations. It helps to create a shared experience among participants, while also expressing the range of diverse opinions in a given community.

WHO: Good for groups of any size.

WHEN TO USE: When you’re working with a group of diverse opinions and beliefs, when there are controversial issues to discuss, or when a group is newly formed and needs a shared experience to highlight members’ varying perspectives.

OUTCOMES: A Spectrogram provides a peaceful exercise to demonstrate the range of opinions existing in a group, and serves as an anchoring tool for the group to move forward on a variety of issues. It also encourages empathy, allowing each person to express their beliefs, and preserves space for those who differ in opinion.

HOW: Often, a line is taped on a floor with “AGREE” at one end and “DISAGREE” at the other. A facilitator will ask a question (at times controversial) and requests participants take a stand in response on the spectrum. The facilitator then interviews people at different points along the spectrum about their opinions, creating a shared experience and demonstrating the range of group opinions.


WHAT: In a PechaKucha presentation, each speaker presents 20 images for 20 seconds each, resulting in a presentation that takes exactly six minutes and forty seconds.

WHO: Groups of any size

WHEN TO USE: PechaKucha presentations are a great way to build team empathy and camaraderie, especially when there is a large amount of content to get through in a short amount of time. Use this format when your content is more storyfocused and can be told with visual imagery.

OUTCOMES: Presentations are visual and articulate, so the meeting ends up being very efficient.

HOW: Since presenters build presentations with 20 images, and present each for 20 seconds, meeting designs can accommodate several PechaKucha presentations, depending on time limitations.


WHAT: Rather than problem solving, Appreciative Inquiry is a meeting method that seeks to engage stakeholders in self-determined change. The process asks questions to create a vision of a future built on the positive elements that currently exist within in an organization.

WHO: Groups of any size; Appreciative Inquiry can be done in everything from intimate interview settings to larger focus groups

WHEN TO USE: When an organization or situation is undergoing or on the brink of change, and multiple stakeholders need to be engaged in a positive, participatory approach.

OUTCOMES: The founders of Appreciative Inquiry argued that organizations were created, maintained and changed by conversations1, and that methods of organizing are only limited by people’s imaginations and their agreements. Appreciative Inquiry engages a variety of stakeholders to actively imagine the future of the organization, and then carry out the steps to create that future.

HOW: Appreciative Inquiry is an interview process within a system; organizers ask each stakeholder to describe what works in that system. The interviews invite imagination and response, and facilitators engage in a four-step process to ignite change, which includes the following phases:

  1. DISCOVER: Interviewers ask questions to identify what’s working well in the system.
  2. DREAM: Respondents imagine what might work well in the future.
  3. DESIGN: Facilitators craft a plan and prioritize processes to create this envisioned future.
  4. DELIVER: Implementation and execution of the proposed design.


If you’d like to spice up your next corporate event format, try designing an unmeeting or unconference.  You’ll be setting the foundation for better participation, a better outcome and ultimately, greater value for participants!

P.S.  Let us know how you fared — @convene–


1. Bushe, G.R. (2011) Appreciative inquiry: Theory and critique. In Boje, D., Burnes, B. and Hassard, J. (eds.) The Routledge Companion To Organizational Change (pp. 87­103). Oxford, UK: Routledge. URL: http://www.gervasebushe.ca/AITC.pdf



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