Event organisers are super organised. It almost goes without saying. So deciding not to plan a third of my recent conference programme was a massive break from the norm.

“Why would you do that?” I hear you cry!

Because pulling together conference programmes is a guessing game. Of course we make (very) educated guesses, we know the industry trends, we make sure we have great speakers lined up, but:

ultimately only the audience know what they really want to engage with.

So at 2017.Open.coop we left roughly a third of our two-day programme COMPLETELY BLANK. Then, on the first morning, we let delegates pitch sessions they wanted to run and the audience used Sli.do to select the sessions they wanted to be added to the programme.

Was I nervous?

Yes (but aren’t we always on show days?).

How did it go?

Very well indeed.

A modern “Open Space”

If 2017 is the year of Event Design (i.e. consciously moving away from “events-as-usual”), it was amusing to be starting the year with a decidedly “old-school” technique.

Open Space (Technology) has been used as a means of allowing groups to self-organise since it was developed in the 80’s and there’s lots of articles you can read on the subject.

The main idea is as follows:

  1. The programme for the event starts blank
  2. Delegates sit in a circle and are invited to address the group to raise subjects they would like to discuss
  3. Each proposal is written onto a post-it note and then all post-it notes are stuck on a board
  4. The post-its are then arranged into a programme which forms the schedule for the event
  5. Delegates visit the board and are free to choose which session they attend

There’s more to it, but this is the basic idea.

To my (admittedly limited) knowledge running an open space is generally done in this low-tech way, using post-its, markers and whiteboards – not something that appeals to my sense of order and love of tech – nor something that I really wanted to try with a tech-savvy group of 400.

I needed a digital alternative to bring the Open Space idea up to date.

Why can’t we just hack Sli.do?

I’d used Sli.do before at other events and always had a feeling it could be stretched to work in more creative ways.

In the end the solution was a simple one.

A re-write of the 1-5 above (or “how to use Sli.do to manage an Open Space”) would read something like:
  1. The programme for the event starts a third blank (we did have people like Brianna Wettlaufer and the Shadow Chancellor that we needed to publicise in advance!)
  2. Delegates are seated theatre style. Those that want to propose a session use Sli.do to “ask a question” which actually contains the title and a brief overview of the session they would like to run. These are displayed live on the main conference screen.
    (We actually invited delegates to start submitting their sessions in the week prior to the event. This increased pre-event engagement and ensured there wouldn’t be an awkward silence with no-one wanting to go first with the pitches).
  3. As the list of potential sessions grows we invite the first in the list up on stage to give a 1 min pitch of what they want to run.
  4. Pitches continue until everyone who wants to run a session has been heard.
  5. The audience is then invited to “up-vote” the sessions they would like to attend. The “up-vote” functionality in Sli.do is designed to make popular questions rise to the top for Q+A sessions (we used it this way in our main sessions). It worked equally well for the Open Space voting allowing our delegates to steer the development of their programme without leaving their seats.
  6. Once people have voted, the top x sessions (I think we had 14) are incorporated into the programme on the conference website/app and are immediately accessible to delegates on their mobile devices.

Delegates using Sli.do to pitch
sessions they want to run.

So how did it go?

It was great.

Sli.do kept the process smooth and our delegates were excited to come along for the ride.

We knew our audience was eclectic and we’d worked hard to ensure the pre-arranged sessions in the programme would appeal. Even so it was amazing to see the breadth of subjects that our audience wanted to discuss.

There was no way we could have curated content as diverse or engaging as the sessions our delegates came up with.

It was also amazing to see just how many people wanted to lead a session. We had twice as many pitches as there were spaces and (I think) ended up with an even more diverse speaker pool.

The format and delivery of sessions was also brilliant. Some delegates came pre-prepared with work sheets and pens, some ran discussions, others presented case studies or ran working sessions.

Crucially, all of the sessions were led by people passionate about the subject and attended by an audience who had actively chosen to take part.

The buzz and excitement you could feel around the venue was reflected in the post-event feedback.

Same again next time?

Before the event I definitely had my reservations.

Coming from a corporate event background the slightly “lose” way in which the process was described didn’t sit all that well. However, with Sli.do and a bit of creativity we managed to scale and streamline the process so it worked with a larger audience and fitted within a more traditional conference set up. To be honest I think I may have been converted.

I saw huge benefits of incorporating elements of an Open Space. The most obvious included:

  • Delegates develop immediate buy-in and ownership of the programme.
  • The content is 100% relevant to the people in each session.
  • The subjects that need to be discussed get discussed.

In effect you end up with a programme custom designed for your delegates, by your delegates. And it (possibly) requires less work.

Have you tried something similar?

This was the first time I have run an Open Space on this scale but it’s something I will definitely do again.

If you have any questions, experience or advice to share please add a comment below. It would be great to learn more.