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A guide to facilitating an "Unconference"

fishbowl conference

Unconferences have become a popular way to encourage engagement and learning at conferences, seminars, and workshops. In fact, entire meetings have adopted the unconference structure. "Un" refers to the opposite of the typical nature of a meeting, where an expert speaker addresses a number of attendees. The main premise of an un-conference, un-session or un-meeting is flipped. In other words, the education, topic, engagement and overall experience are the responsibility of the participants. The assumption is the most knowledgeable person at a meeting might not be the one at the podium; rather he/she might be in the audience.

I have participated in and moderated in a few of these. There is no one way to perform an unconference session. The purpose of is to foster ideas, conversation and most importantly engagement between attendees.

With help from fellow AMPED staff members Brittany Olson and Jeanne Rosen, I wrote an Unconference Facilitators’ Guide. This guide offers best practices and a loose structure, not rigorous rules. Facilitators should have latitude to conduct their session to their style. The point is peer-to-peer conversation.

Here are a few helpful hints:
• Typically each unconference session has a facilitator or moderator.
• An unconference is a participant-driven meeting where the agenda is created on the spot by attendees at the beginning of the meeting to allow for flexibility of topics and discussion-based sessions.
• Unconferences are intended to be highly collaborative and offer a vibrant atmosphere where questions are welcomed and sharing is encouraged.
• Meaningful and useful interaction between attendees is the sole purpose of an unconference.
• The culture is designed to be encouraging, participatory, and not passive.
• Teaching and learning aren’t fixed roles; a teacher at one moment may be a learner the next.
• The experience and expertise of the participants is harnessed, rather than relying on the contributions of a few outside experts.
• Participants have more input into and control over their learning and takeaways from an unconference session.

Four easy rules for unconference sessions
• Rule one: Whoever shows up are the right people.
• Rule two: Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
• Rule three: Whenever it starts is the right time.
• The fourth and final rule is: It’s over when it’s over.

Getting started
At the beginning of the unconference session, do a crowd sourcing of topics. Typically several colors of Post-its and sharpies are made available.

Each participant writes as many notes as they want and sticks them on the wall. Alternatively the facilitator can write these on a flip chart, but this is a bit of a bottleneck to creativity. After 5-10 minutes the facilitator brings the group together and asks for assistance in categorizing these sub-topics. Be creative and free-flowing here. Anybody can move/assign/offer input as to where they go. Use the wall of Post-its or a flipchart on an easel to help categorize them.

Discussion formats
There are many formats of unconference style sessions. To keep things simple, I’ll focus on two Rotating Tables or Fishbowl. The facilitator has the option to choose either style or modify it to his/her preference.

Several chairs (4-7, can vary) are placed in a circle. This is the fishbowl. Other chairs are placed in concentric circles around the fishbowl. This is the audience. Selected participants or volunteers fill all but one chair in an open fishbowl, and all chairs in a closed fishbowl.

The facilitator begins by introducing the first subtopic or category and the participants start discussing. The outer circles (audience) listen and remain quiet. The facilitator can also interject a new topic when one has run its course. Topics can be ones that were crowd sourced at the beginning of the unconference session.

In the open fishbowl format, any member of the audience at any time, can get up and sit in the empty chair, joining the discussion. One of the existing participants of the fishbowl leaves the fishbowl and frees up a chair. The conversation continues with participants entering and leaving the fishbowl. Depending on how large the audience is, many audience members spend some time in the fishbowl and take part in the discussion. When time runs out, the fishbowl is closed and the facilitator summarizes the discussion. Other observers could also interject their takeaways.

In the closed fishbowl format, the first participants speak for a predetermined time. At a specified time, they leave the fishbowl and a new group from the outer circle sits at the fishbowl chairs. The discussion continues. When the time is up, the facilitator closes the fishbowl and summarizes the discussion, inviting others to make any closing remarks and observations.

Watch this video on how a fishbowl discussion works.


  • One chair should always remain empty (open fishbowl)
  • When in the inner circle
    - Actively listen and participate
    - No monopolizing conversation
  • Always be respectful
  • Support your opinion or argument with an example or data
  • Outer circle should remain quiet and listen
    - Enter inner circle when ready to contribute
  • Say something that moves the conversation along.
    - Reference what others say and use their names
    - “I agree with you, ____, and here’s why; I also think that…”
    - “I heard what you said___, but I disagree…”
  • The facilitator should keep the conversation on-topic
  • Redirect and bring focus to the topic


In this format, several small round tables that seat three to six people are placed in a room large enough so that the tables are not too close to one another.

Each table has a subtopic/category assigned to it. A stack of Post-its is laid at each table.

At predetermined times, the Facilitator announces that it is time to stand up and move to another table. It’s preferred that the tables seat a different group at each interval. In other words, the members of one table should not uniformly rotate to the same tables.

In another version, one volunteer remains at the table as a moderator and introduces the topic to start the conversation. He/she could also interject thoughts from the previous group to get things started.


  • When participating at a table:
    - Actively listen and participate
    - No monopolizing conversation
  • Always be respectful
  • Support your opinion or argument with an example or data
  • There typically isn’t an audience as it would be difficult to follow the conversations.
  • Say something that moves the conversation along.
    - Reference what others say and use their names
    - “I agree with you, ____, and here’s why; I also think that…”
    - “I heard what you said___, but I disagree…”
  • The facilitator should keep the conversation on-topic. He/she should float from table to table and listen in briefly.
  • Redirect and bring focus to the topic if necessary


The important rule to realize is there are no rules, as you may have discerned from the “Four Easy Rules…” section above. Have fun with this and make your approach to your unconference session your own. The goal is to foster understanding between two attendees and the so called audience. These people may not have spoken or shared ideas otherwise.

 This article would not have been written without these valuable sources:

Four Unconference Rules : Diane GageLofgren, Public Relations Society of America

Fishbowl Description : Google Apps for Education Certified Trainer Summit

Helpful Hints: Brittany Marsala Olson, Control Systems Integrators Association, CSIA 2016 Executive Conference Program

How to run a great fishbowl discussion : Rachel Marrion

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