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The beginners guide to mind map conference design...

It's been a very busy August and September period for us, and much of our recent work has focused on preparations for the third Biggerplate Unplugged mind map conference, which will be arriving in the wonderful Dutch city of Utrecht on October 9th 2013.

With just under two weeks to go until the mind map community gathers together once more, I thought I would share with you openly some of the key feedback and learning that we took away from the first two Biggerplate Unplugged events (London and Paris), and explain how this has helped to shape the planning for our third conference in Utrecht!

When we originally sketched out our ideas for a global mind map conference series back in early 2012, we agreed that the primary aim for 2013 would be learning. Our aim this year is to learn as much as possible from our community about what they want from a mind mapping conference, in order to help us design and deliver events that offer genuine benefit to those involved.

Our challenge and responsibility is the creation of a truly global conference series that can help to drive innovation and collaboration in the mind mapping arena for many years to come. I believe this can only be achieved by listening and learning, in order to ensure these events genuinely reflect the focus, and interests of the mind mapping community as a whole. We have therefore been listening hard in London and Paris, and have taken away some great feedback and ideas to help us (hopefully) deliver the best event yet in Utrecht! Here's a little insight into what we learned, and how it has influenced our planning for Biggerplate Unplugged Utrecht...

Feedback: "We'd like more time to network and meet other attendees"

Many mind mappers who are connected in the online world have never actually met in the real world, despite often living and working near to eachother! These conference events provide a unique opportunity to turn online connections into real-world conversations and relationships, by bringing people together face-to-face and enabling them to explore ideas and experiences in person.

Unfortunately, in London, we did not provide enough time for this to happen; possibly the result of trying to squeeze too much into the agenda for the day! In Paris, we did better, largely thanks to our good friend Fred Veve, who ensured there was more time for people to meet and chat throughout the event. However, the Paris event was only a half day, which meant the overall time for people to meet was again, probably too little! In both situations, we did not do enough to facilitate and enable meetings and discussion between attendees, so it's something we needed to improve.

Action: Full day events only, with plenty of breaks for networking!

Our response to this important feedback is to ensure all Biggerplate Unplugged events are full-day events from now on, which provides greater flexibility with agenda planning, and allows us to schedule plenty of breaks throughout the day. Hopefully Utrecht attendees will feel they have plenty of time to connect with other mappers, and discuss at greater length their respective mind mapping experiences and ideas!

Feedback: "We'd like some perspectives from the wider 'visual' arena"

This is feedback that we really found very valuable, and it emerged at both events. People wanted to hear from people who work in the field of visual thinking/working, in addition to people who are purely focused on mind mapping. We think this is a very good idea, and could help the mind mapping community to see where it sits in relation to a broader 'visual' arena, and what we might learn from other visual disciplines.

Action: Involve 'visual' thinking experts in the agenda

We're delighted to be welcoming Saskia Smet as one of our speakers in Utrecht, who understands and uses mind mapping, but focuses more broadly on visual approaches in the workplace. Saskia will help to bring a broader 'visual' perspective to the table in Utrecht, and hopefully help us to consider how mind mapping fits with other approaches, and how the overall 'visual' approach to working can be supported and enabled by having mind mapping as one of the core tools available.

Further forward, we are already speaking with people from the 'visual thinking' arena ahead of our San Francisco event, to ensure we can bring in some related but alternative perspectives to stimulate discussion amongst attendees about the place of mind mapping within the broader visual arena.

Feedback: "We'd like more interactive discussion sessions"

In both London and Paris, we created opportunities for interaction and discussion, by scheduling panel discussion sessions that involved questions and perspectives from the audience. The feedback on this approach was very helpful, and has resulted in a big change for Utrecht.

In London, the panel sessions largely worked well, with some great panel experts sharing perspectives, and some excellent questions and exchanges from the the audience members. However, the feedback from attendees was that the members of the audience would have liked to discuss ideas amongst themselves a bit more, rather than having a facilitated discussion back and forth with a panel.

In Paris, we attempted to create longer periods for panel discussion, but largely kept the same panel format. While people liked having more time, the feedback here was that the conversation was too easily derailed by having only one person able to speak at a time, and having some people perhaps talking a little too long about their own experiences, rather than engaging or enabling genuine discussion between lots of people.

Action: Two interactive "World Cafe" sessions in Utrecht

Perhaps the biggest change for the Utrecht event (compared to the previous two) is that we have replaced panel discussions with two "World Cafe" sessions, which are designed to enable group discussion and exploration amongst all attendees, rather than relying on a back and forth approach with a panel.

We are extremely excited about these sessions, and hope they will help to develop greater attendee engagement and participation, as well as helping people to share and explore ideas that are of interest to them specifically. Seating for the event will be organised to enable greater small group discussion (further learning from London and Paris), and each World Cafe will pose a question or idea for the attendees to discuss in groups, then attempt to pull together the various ideas and perspectives into a coherent picture by the end of the session.

It's another learning experiment for our Unplugged events, but one that we are really excited about, and we hope it will be the right response to the valuable learning gathered in London and Paris!

Feedback: "We'd like to know more about what Biggerplate is doing"

Perhaps the most surprising and encouraging feedback for us at both previous events was the suggestion that people would like to know more about the different projects in progress at Biggerplate, and how they relate to the mind mapping community.

In London, our scheduled third panel discussion was replaced (based on requests and feedback during the day) with an informal Q&A session that focused on what Biggerplate had planned for the Unplugged event series, and our online community in general. While we had not originally planned to do this, there seemed to be lots of interesting questions for Biggerplate to answer, as well as a lot of great ideas and feedback for future features and functionality.

In Paris, the limits of only having a half day, and my own appalling French skills, meant that a similar session would not have been easy, and so we did not attempt it! But again, the feedback from attendees was that they would like to know more about our work, and understand how they might get involved, or be affected by the projects we might have in motion.

Action: A dedicated Biggerplate Q&A session

When designing the earlier events, we were very determined that Biggerplate would not be the centre of attention, or dominate proceedings, because the events are not about us, but the wider mind mapping community. However, the evidence and feedback seems to suggest that people would like to know what we are working on, and what we have planned, so we have therefore scheduled a short Q&A session for the Utrecht event, where people can ask anything they like about what we're up to, and we'll do our best to answer with some degree of intelligence!

On a personal level, I'm very flattered and humbled by the fact that people want to know more about our innovation and development projects, and can't wait to share some big pieces of news with the Utrecht attendees, which we're keeping under wraps until October 9th!

Conclusion: There's always more to learn

My intention in writing this post is certainly not to suggest that the next event will be perfect, but instead demonstrate the iterative process that we are committed to, and the actions we are taking in response to the feedback and learning we have gathered from our events so far.

Remembering that our 2013 objective was simply to learn, we view Utrecht as another fantastic opportunity to test our ideas, in order to ensure we continue to refine our approach and achieve the best outcome for the mind mappers who take the time to come and join us for our conference events! In essence, there's always more to learn, and we're extremely excited for the next lesson on October 9th!

I look forward to meeting many of you there soon!

Liam Hughes

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Liam is the founder of, and tries (with varying success) to write about key projects and progress at Biggerplate, as well as the wider world of mind mapping and our place within it.
London, UK Website