Ditching the pitch at unconferences


Being ‘open’ and more informal in arranging events gives many of us the impression that traditional power structures are also being broken down. While this may be true, to an extent, organisers of open space events are increasingly making attempts to be more actively inclusive.

Now, I do love a good unconference. The energy and enthusiasm of people being given the chance to swap ideas is enthusing in itself. There is an excitement in starting the day with no set agenda and deciding it amongst ourselves before we start. However, unconference organisers, with good reason, are increasingly looking at different ways to set the agenda so that more people feel comfortable taking part.

Pitching: some issues

At most unconferences that I have attended the agenda setting has involved “pitching”. Here a line is formed and people stand in front of everyone to explain/shout out an idea they have for a session. This idea is then condensed, written on a Post-It note and put on a grid of times and places. Hey presto, an agenda is formed.

When academics Daniel King and Emma Bell studied unconferences they found that the barriers to pitching included attendees’ insecurity, that some people found the idea of pitching horrifying and that there was a lack of understanding about what was going on.

Put another way, it favours middle class white guys who have been to previous unconferences and are confident (not necessarily good) public speakers. To whit, people like me.

Some mitigation

Attempts to involve and include a wider range of people in the pitching activity have included

  • A female attendee standing up, pointing out that the queue of people is almost exclusively male and encouraging women to join the line.
  • Providing a service for people to write down their ideas and explain them to someone else who then pitches on their behalf
  • Encouraging and supporting people before the event to pitch a session
  • People using their existing support mechanisms, such as support workers, to help them pitch their session

Please do add any other ideas you have seen in the comments.

Ditch the pitch

All of the above are attempts to mitigate the pitching issue. When I was at the AbreLatam event I saw a completely different approach to organising the agenda.

Instead of making people come up and pitch their ideas the organisers constructed a rather enormous blank agenda – about six metres by three metres at a guess – and handed everyone who wanted them three Post-It notes and a pen. We then wrote down some ideas for conversations/sessions and put them on the agenda where we thought they best fit.

It’s true, this was a little bit chaotic.

But we went from this

An empty agenda at the Abre Latam unconference, San Juan, Costa Rica, August 2017

An empty agenda at the Abre Latam unconference, San Juan, Costa Rica, August 2017

to this

Collaborative Agenda at AbreLatam 2017

A full-to-bursting collaborative agenda at the Abre Latam unconference, San Juan, Costa Rica, August 2017

in about ten or fifteen minutes.

Some good points about this process were:

  • There was no pitching, which meant that a lot more people were contributing towards the agenda
  • It was quicker than a normal session arranging the agenda, which can be three times as long as this
  • It was very energetic with people mingling a lot, which breaks down barriers to participation

Some less good points about the process were:

  • Without pitching it was more difficult to get an overview of the different sessions on offer
  • Grouping ideas into coherent sessions may not suit everybody, especially if they propose a session they want to lead on
  • It was a much more physical exercise which isn’t going to suit everyone

Some other considerations about the process are:

  • There is a disconnection between writing an idea down and any responsibility or ability to attend that session
  • Pitching has moved from a spoken to a written activity which advantages some people, but will inevitably disadvantage others
  • It is more open, but is it more inclusive?

Overall, I liked it. It meant that I contributed three ideas towards the workshops, when I had not intended to stand up and pitch. It is not a silver bullet that solves the issue of pitching, but it appeared to be an improvement on our current methods.

I’m off to Open Data Camp in Belfast at the weekend. They have already been encouraging people online to consider pitching sessions. I wonder if they’d like to completely Ditch the Pitch?

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