3 Rules for a Successful SXSW,

published at 11:03am on 03/07/11

I first attended SXSW in 2000 when there were a couple of thousand of us packed into a couple of rooms at the Convention Center. We attended talks about the new “blogging” medium and the biggest party in town was at Frog Design’s offices. I’ve been back several times over the years, and I’ve adopted the following 3 rules for getting the most out of SXSW Interactive:

Rule #1: Attend the most academic talks that you can find

This is the most important and challenging rule to follow, mostly because SXSWi does not attract too many academic talks – it’s just not that kind of conference. But a few happen to sneak in, and those are real gems. The first couple of years I attended, I thought of this rule as the “attend talks about things you know nothing about,” but adding the academic twist really makes this the most important rule.

Given the group voting nature of the Panel Picker (final say of the selection committee not withstanding), most of the panels are on whatever the hot, trending topics are for that year. They don’t tend to be very in-depth simply because many of the attendees will be completely new to the topic, and the panelists want to present as much of an overview as possible. This is fine, except if you happen to know something about the topic that is going to be covered. In this case, you will simply not learn anything new because in reality, most of the people on these panels are just like you, except that they actually got their act together and submitted a talk.

The thing about academic talks is that, for the most part, the people giving the talks have actually spent time doing the research required to be an academic in their field. You will be listening to people who have done the actual time needed to construct an educated opinion about their subject area, and it will most likely be something that you know nothing about. The truth is that most of the panels at SXSWi are simply a retelling of anecdotes from the life of yet another startup, and you probably already read that blog post last month.

Rule #2: Attend talks by good speakers, no matter what they’re talking about


This one is a no-brainer. If you see a solo presentation being given by someone you know (or have heard) is a good speaker, go to that talk. Less impressive if they’re just on a panel, but that’s probably worth going to as well. The trick here is that there are some people who will be thought-provoking and interesting no matter what they’re talking about, so you might as well go and hear what it is that they’ve been thinking about. The featured speakers are good for this if you don’t know any of the people speaking: this year Clay Shirky and Marissa Mayer are pretty good bets.

Rule #3: Attend talks given by your friends

You’ll probably get in trouble if you decide to skip your friends’ panel for something and it turns out that the panel you decided to was a total turkey. After all, they did probably spend some time thinking about what it is that they are going to say, and it’d be nice for you to be there to support them. That said, this is a distant third to items #1 and #2 above, and if you decide to skip your friends’ panels because of those reasons, you’ll probably be in the clear.

Corollary: The conference in the hallway trumps all

Given the opportunity to hang out in the halls with someone awesome, abandon all other rules. One-on-one time is better than any panel you could attend.

A final note: don’t bother with panels that have clever-sounding names. You might think that they’re going to be a good idea, but unless they fall into one of the above rules, they will probably suck.

Oh, and have a breakfast taco as many breakfast tacos as possible.


Filed under: Observations

At 12:49 pm on 03.07.11, Sam @ Parenthetical said,

I think these are pretty solid rules for conferences in general. Except that I need to go to more conferences that feature breakfast tacos; it’s better than “have a crappy hotel danish.”

At 1:07 pm on 03.07.11, Quora said,

At SXSW Interactive, what should a first-time attendee check out?…

I’ve had a few people ask me what to expect as a SXSWi first timer, so I’ve collected a several links that give a very good overview of how to prepare for the event. Some basic tips:

* Be comfortable – think t-shirt and jeans, not ties and high hee…

At 1:44 pm on 03.07.11, Danielle said,

A breakfast taco?!?!?

At 1:55 pm on 03.07.11, jcn said,

Ok, fair enough on the breakfast taco point.

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