Since 1999, I’ve been attending the SXSW interactive conference off and on over the years. This year’s SXSWi conference (one leg of the annual three-leg SXSW interactive, film and music festival) was in some ways no different than in years past, but in other ways, way different (with its highest attendance yet — somewhere between 13,000 and 14,000 people). Here are a few tidbits of random insights from this year’s conference outing.
1. Keynotes are Key
Conference-goers look forward to the keynotes. They are, by definition, the highlight of the day and sometimes of the entire conference. Keynotes cannot just be individuals promoting their own work, product or company (and believing the audience can generalize from this usually very-unique set of experiences). They need to be aspirational, thoughtful and thought-provoking.
If you format a keynote to be an “interview” between the star and some other person, please make sure that “other person” is a professional interviewer or has the minimum requisite skills to actually conduct a thoughtful and interesting interview. The interviewer should keep their own experiences and opinions to a minimum — the audience came to listen to the interviewee speak.
2. People Make SXSWi Great
As the conference grows, so does the corporate intrusion and greater likelihood for influence. But companies don’t make conferences great — people do. And one of SXSW’s greatest strengths remains in the multitude of opportunities to meet and hang out with creative, interesting, and fun people.
This ranges from the army of volunteers, to the organizers, to the presenters, to random people you meet while hanging out in-between talks or at one of the many parties. While not everyone you meet will have some relevance to your career, work, job or gig, it’s not always about that, is it? Sometimes it’s just about meeting new folks.
3. Presenters Aren’t Being Held to What They Said They Were Going to Talk About
Presentations accepted for SXSW Interactive are determined by a combination of magic, votes, and celebrity power. But that doesn’t mean that when you get up to speak, you can simply throw away what you said you were going to talk about and instead subject the audience to an hour-long sales pitch for your product or company. I was in not less than 3 presentations like this, and heard of others as well. The online advertising presentation had nothing to do with the topic title — it turned into an hour-long infomercial for some random advertising network — and the presentation about CMSs was really only about a single CMS, Drupal. Drupal’s a great CMS, but why wasn’t the presentation entitled, “Why Drupal is So Great!”
4. Fantastic Speakers Flock Here
But for every bad presentation I sat in (and hey, it’s a conference, so there’s always going to be plenty of those!), there were 2 or 3 absolutely brilliant presentations. Some of the guys who present year after year should be (and many are) permanent fixtures at the conference. Guy Kawasaki, Robert Scoble, Jared Spool, danah boyd, Clay Shirky are some of the regular gems that you can count on year after year for solid, entertaining and informative talks.
When you see a “Featured Speaker” talk, it’s one you generally should try and make.
5. With Great Size Comes Great Responsibility
Running the conference as though it were still 2005 is not ideal for anyone. This year, SXSWi took over the entire Austin Convention Center, which was a great step in the right direction. But the registration process was a nightmare that took nearly an hour to complete and begs the question, “Why not just mail badges ahead of time to registrants?” I’d pay for the privilege of not having to stand in not one, but three lines, for registration.
There were many great presentations weren’t picked in the SXSW PanelPicker (the primary method presentations make it into the conference). So imagine my surprise when you turn to the last day of the conference and see so many rooms being unused, and many “TBA” slots listed. Why isn’t every day and every slot packed with programming, acknowledging the fact that on any conference’s last day, some people may leave early?
6. Don’t Underestimate Convergence, Collaboration
When people start talking to one another across the aisle, or across industries, really interesting stuff can happen. For instance, every year I learn about something new in UI design or website architecture that I can bring back to help make Psych Central even better. I meet and talk with rockstar CSS and PHP developers, and learn how we can improve the underlying website to provide a better experience to our users.
You also discover about so many things you didn’t think anyone was doing, but they are. Then you talk to them and find ways the two of you can collaborate. This is what makes any conference great for me, and SXSWi in particular.
7. I’m Human, Let Me Eat
Yes, so much of the drink and food is free-flowing — especially at the end of the day — but during the heart of the conference day, it would be great if participants didn’t have to stand in a 20-minute line to grab a cup of coffee or a bottle of juice. While there were a handful more food vendors this year, it still seems like it’s not enough. Please let me eat.
8. Usability Sacrificed on Altar of Design
Test your designs in the environment you’re going to deploy them. While the automated slideshow in rooms in-between talks was very cool, one of the fonts used made it virtually unreadable when projected onto a big screen (and therefore defeated the entire purpose of the slideshow).
I have a conference book that’s 260 pages long. It holds no more usable information about the talks themselves than the 20-page Pocket Guide. Descriptions of the talks are found in neither; you have to go to the website to get that valuable tidbit.
Whoever thought up the twitter hashtags for talks apparently never used twitter. A 10-character hashtag is always better than a 20-character hashtag, and a 5-character one is better yet. Refrain from publicizing multiple hashtags for a single keynote, as this creates multiple but different back-channel conversations.
9. Be Real, Be Human
If SXSW is going to retain its uniqueness, it has to remain, like Austin itself, a little weird. When we see the CEOs of well-respected, large companies come here and try and give a talk or interview parroting corporate-speak about “meeting the customer where they are,” “only doing good,” or “building a culture of trust,” people tune out. We don’t want to hear your company’s PR-approved mission statement or feel-good but content-free corporate statements.
We want to hear how you are, as a human and “person of interest,” doing fun, entertaining, interesting and great things with your service or idea. We want to hear your reasons for living, what motivates you. We want to hear about your aspirations for your service, and some of the difficulties you’ve grappled with (especially as you’ve grown). We want to hear how what you’ve done is being used in the real world, and how it’s helping others. And we want to know how it may have changed your life, too.
Be human, be real.