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How to Unconference #hcsmca Style

January 17, 2016

The National #hcsmca Symposium on February 24 is an unconference, bringing together more than 150 national and international thought leaders to explore how digital communications can improve health care.


How does an unconference work? 

Unconferences are events run by participants. Attendees submit topics or challenges, set the agenda for what’s discussed, lead the sessions and create an environment of innovation and productive discussion.

unconference wall

Photo credit: JD Lasica

As Kaliya Hamlin from states sessions can “range from the formal to the informal:

  • From the well thought out pre-prepared talk reflecting years of research and practice to the spur of the moment ‘new idea’ that would be fun to talk about.
  • From the demonstration of a working tool to the whiteboarding of something completely new.

Often session ideas are shared online before the event so attendees and virtual participants can comment, connect with one another and evolve their ideas. Sometimes sessions will merge as people find commonalities.

How can you make the most of it?

For any event, Rich Millington recommends that you Design your Own Agenda. He says

  • “Write down your biggest problem
  • Write down the kind of people who can help you solve it
  • Write down the ideal outcome from the event”

An unconference is the perfect place to use this simple hack.

If you submit a session topic at an unconference, then you are expected to lead that session. While there is no right way to lead a session, we’ve all attended ideation, brainstorming or other creative think-tank meetings that were flops. Below I share tips from Scott Berkun’s great post on How to run a great unconference session.

At the #hcsmca Symposium, we will have 150 committed social media and digital health advocates ready to problem-solve. I want to make this the best unconference it can be. So on Wednesday, Jan 20 at 1pm ET (time zone converter), join the #hcsmca chat to share the good, bad and the ugly about think-tank sessions.

  • T1: What makes an unconference or think-tank session work well?
  • T2: What is your one pet peeve about ideation/think-tank sessions? Why do they flop?
  • T3: Complete this sentence. My ideal unconference would include ________________.
  • T4: What type of outcomes do you expect from an unconference-style meeting?

Here’s the transcript of the #hcsmca chat 248.

The #hcsmca Symposium

For the #hcsmca Symposium, attendees submitted their challenges. Vote for your favourite challenge.

Challenges will be discussed and your group will help develop an action plan to move ideas towards solutions. Don’t miss this event. Register now to join us in person in Vancouver on Feb 24. Follow #hcsmca to join virtually.

Excerpt from How to run a great unconference session by Scott Berkun

Things to do

  • Create both a topic and an angle. It’s one thing to say “let’s talk about AJAX”. It’s another to go with “AJAX war stories: the good and the ugly of real AJAX development”. It’s the same basic topic, but a theme calls people to action, or opinion. It lets everyone know what thoughts to stew over before the session begins, increasing the odds people will have interesting things to share.
  • Don’t be scared to pick tough topics. The only filter at an unconference is you. One trick is to pick topics you always wished they’d talk about at big fancy conferences, but never do. Now is your chance. Odds are high you’ll hit on surprisingly popular themes.
  • Emphasize interactivity. Make it easy for people to participate, ask questions, and use the group to add to your expertise on the topic. This is called facilitation and it’s a skill: pay attention the next time you see a meeting or brainstorming session run well. Use the whiteboards if there are any, writing down key points, suggestions or references you know people will want. (Or ask someone to volunteer to take notes at the beginning of the session).
  • Be a good host. Like throwing a party, good hosts are friendly, introduce people, and set the tone. Be friendlier and more extroverted than usual, just like you would if throwing a party at your house. If you know a few people in the room, use them to your advantage (tasking them with seed questions or early participation). If you think you’re a lousy solo host, partner with someone to run the session.
  • Take advantage of the unique opportunity. There’s a special mix of experience and opinion in the room and that’s the unconference magic. Throw questions to the floor often, probing for expertise is in the room: “Who knows about X? Has anyone done Z with Y?”
  • Relax and have fun. If you have fun with the session idea, and show up smiling, everything will go easier. Remember: you set the tone. If you’re friendly and relaxed, people will tend to be friendlier and more relaxed. If you’re scared and quiet, people will be cautious and tentative.
  • Continue the conversation. Get people’s names and emails and follow up with any notes or photos to help continue the conversations. Often people are torn between two sessions and miss yours despite their interest: post to the conference wiki afterwards, leaving people who missed your session a way to catch up and still make connections (or contributions).

Things to avoid

  • Don’t disappear as the organizer. If you wrote the session on the board, you need to assert yourself if the conversation devolves into a shouting match, a soliloquy, or dead silence. Be the shepherd – visible, as involved as necessary, a beacon of sanity (or insanity depending on the topic). Put your name on the session board so people can track you down later.
  • Don’t walk in without a position. Conversations need seeds: offer a position, or a set of questions, to get the ball rolling. Many start with a 5/7 minute presentation by the organizer on a topic, followed by completely open and free-flowing conversation and debate. Those 5/7 minutes, if interesting, give enough fuel and grounding for everyone to build a session around. A list of thought provoking questions can be a great, low cost bag of seeds.
  • Never assume people in the room know more or less than you. You never know who you’re going to get: ask for a show of hands on how long people have worked with, or studied, whatever the topic is. Then you’ll know where you stand (expert or idiot?) before you waste everyone’s time talking at the wrong level.
  • Never get bummed that only 2 people show up. If you meet 2 people at a conference who actually share your interest in something, that’s a win, isn’t it? The smaller the number of people that show, the less structure you need. It’s easier to chat and share stories with a handful of people than it is with 15 or 20.
7 Comments leave one →
  1. robhalkes permalink
    January 18, 2016 9:04 am

    Hi Colleen and all.

    Such a good inititative to take your #hcsmca conference to the “Unconference style”.

    Here’s how we did it at the first #hcsmeu meeting back in 2010, in Berlin.

    Andrew and Silja just wrote up the steps they took ;-)

    We repeated this at the #hcsmeu conference in Maastricht as part of the medicine20 conference held in 2011. See here some impressions of the unconference


    Liked by 1 person

  2. January 18, 2016 9:13 am

    Thank you Rob for links to both of the very successful #hcsmeu unconferences. I attended both virtually: the first one via the hashtag and the second watching the livestream and the hashtag. You can see how long I’ve been wanting to imitate #hcsmeu :)



  1. Why the #hcsmca Symposium is Patients Included | Colleen Young
  2. #hcsmca: The Not so Hidden Agenda | Colleen Young
  3. 10 Tips for Unconference Facilitators | Colleen Young
  4. How to Prepare to the Unconference Part of the #hcsmca Symposium | Colleen Young
  5. National #hcsmca Symposium Blog Roundup | Colleen Young

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