I attended South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2009, and again in 2010, but I took 2011 off. Why? Because I had a not-so-great experience in 2010… not even close to the great experience I had in 2009. As I’m heading to SXSW this year, this got me thinking: how can I make sure attending in 2012 is more like 2009 than 2010?
Here’s what I learned from my previous SXSW experiences; hopefully it will help make both your and my SXSW2012 experience great.
In 2009, I had no preset expectations about SXSW presentations, social events, or the city of Austin. In 2010, I had all of these previous experiences which created expectations: the presentations would be mostly great, the social events would be mostly fun and not too crowded, and Austin would be cool and we’d find lots of good food. Unfortunately my expectations were rarely met in 2010. The panels I attended weren’t that good, the social events were crowded, and we had a hard time tracking down good food (though the Ginger Man did not disappoint in both 2009 and 2010 for beer selection). What went wrong from 2009 to 2010? Was SXSW really just not as good? Maybe. But I think a large part of my disappointment in 2010 was by setting expectations based on my 2009 experience.
No event will ever be the same as it was the first time you experienced it. Sometimes it’s better the second, or third, or whatever time. Sometime it isn’t. But it won’t ever be the same. So reset your expectations. Expect it not to be the same, and anything you experienced previously will not be experienced again. This is an opportunity to have new experiences, not relive old ones.
In 2009, I was completely focused on the presentations and events of SXSW. In 2010, I was distracted and unfocused (mainly because I was thinking about not having my expectations met – see above). I wasn’t being present in presentations. Going to presentations in a distracted state meant I wasn’t paying full attention, and this neither benefitted the presenters or me.
You get out of SXSW what you put into it, and much of what you put into it is your presence: focusing on what is going on in order to learn and grow from it. If you’re there and you’re distracted by work, or parties, or whatever, you’ll only get out of the event what you put in to it. You might have a great time, but personally, if I’m going to an event like this, I sure hope to come away with having learned something new.
When Erin (our Experience Director) and I arrived in Austin in March of 2009, we went to catch a cab to the Hyatt. A person waiting at the cab stand asked if we wanted to share a cab, and we agreed. Turns out, she was also staying at the Hyatt, but more amazingly, she worked closely with one of Erin’s long-time friends in Seattle. Mere coincidence? I prefer the concept of serendipity.
Maybe it’s the fact that like-minded people do similar things, attend similar events and presentations, and enjoy talking about similar topics. Or maybe it’s just fate. It’s serendipity. Whatever the reason, recognize that it is happening. Those people you keep seeing around… strike up a conversation with them. You may have something interesting to share with each other. I remember sitting behind a guy in one panel and catching something interesting on his laptop screen (no, I wasn’t intentionally screen-checking his laptop, I was just sitting behind him). I ended up sitting in front of the same guy a couple panels later. What are the odds? So I asked him about what was on his laptop and we struck up a conversation. From the serendipity of that meeting, we’ve continued to stay in touch, have become friends, have done a couple presentations in Portland and New York, and this year we get to hang out at SXSW. A pretty cool relationship built from the serendipity of sitting near each other in two panels.
Beyond the three ideas of setting expectations, being present, and embracing serendipity, here are some other random thoughts and tips for planning your SXSW schedule.
Don’t go to presentations where you feel you already know what they’re talking about.
You’re either going to be reaffirmed on what you already know (confirmation bias) or you’re going to disagree with what is being said and get mad and frustrated that you’re wasting your time. Being bored and disgruntled is no way to go through SXSW (neither is drunk and stupid, but that’s another story). The point is to learn something new. Go to panels that sound interesting but may have absolutely nothing to do with what you do on a daily basis. One of the best panels I attended was about game design, and I’ve used what I learned in that panel, albeit abstracted a bit, ever since. Note that disagreeing with presentations isn’t necessarily a bad thing… definitely try presentations that sound like they’ll take a different perspective than yours. Hearing other viewpoints helps give you a larger perspective.
Don’t expect every panel to be awesome.
I’ve gone to several SXSW presentations given by designers that I admire. I was thinking they would be great in that I would learn how they approach projects, or why they do things in a certain way. Each of these presentations ended up being the designer showing off their work. Or boring. Or both. I’ll give the disclaimer that sometimes, occasionally, the panel you think is going to be great IS great. Erin has better luck with that than I have, though. Or maybe I need to adjust my expectations (see above). But it is also to the point above of not going to presentations where you already know what they’re talking about. I find more inspiration in ways to approach design solutions from people who aren’t graphic designers than those who are designers.
Go to different panels than the people you’re attending SXSW with.
If you’re attending SXSW with other people (from your company, friends, etc.), make sure to go to different presentations. If you all go to the same things, you all get the same information. It’s much better to go to different presentations so that later (usually over beers) you can discuss what you learned, hear what others learned, and gain a much broader knowledge set.
Share a table.
Some of the best conversations I’ve at at SXSW are because I shared a table. Yes, usually it was a table at a bar, but hey, there are only so many places to sit and drink beer. So if you have some open seats, offer them to someone. You might learn something new. (See above about Serendipity and going to different panels.)
Arrange to meet people before you go.
SXSW is one of the only conferences where you can guarantee that at least some of the people in the interactive industry that you admire, respect and/or want to meet will be there as well. So why not try and arrange to meet them in person? Trying to make these arrangements at SXSW itself can be somewhat chaotic, so I’ve found that emailing or @replying them on Twitter to arrange to meet ahead of time is a good way to make that connection. Sure, plans may fall through, but it’s easier to try and arrange it now, before the madness of SXSW hits. To those people I’ve already reached out to, really looking forward to seeing you in Austin! And if you’re going to Austin, drop us an email and hopefully we can meet in person.
I don’t know which presentations you should go to, as I don’t know which ones you’ll find interesting, or even which ones I’ll be attending. (Someone did, however, give me a tip to pick presentations based on presenters, which is why you will probably find me at Shawn Achor’s presentation, based on his excellent Ted presentation, plus the fact that I’m not even sure what he’s talking about, so that should challenge me a bit.) I’m not going to tell you where to grab a beer (though you will have a good chance of finding me at the Ginger Man, one of my most consistently above-expectation experiences at SXSW). And I have a long list of new places to try for food, so I have no idea what to recommend yet (though I’ll probably mark my trail on Path and report back afterwards).
In summary… just have a good time and don’t do anything stupid. That will make it better for all of us.
See you in Austin.
p.s. Have another tip for people, like “don’t live-tweet every presentation” or “I don’t want to hear every 5 seconds that you’re at SXSW”? Leave it as a comment.