How to SXSW: 2017 Edition
With just a few days to go before flying out to Austin, my top 5 tips for getting the most out of SXSW.
It’s that time of year again: a few days until the start of the epic festival of creativity, technology and innovation that is SXSW Interactive 2017.
This will be my third time in Austin, and with each passing year I feel like I’m getting a better grip on making the most of my time in Texas.
Every year, those of us at iris lucky enough to attend SXSW return inspired, exhausted and facing the challenge of distilling our thoughts and ideas down into an event we run known as SXSE (because we’re based in sunny South-East London, geddit?) – so making the most of our time there is essential. I thought some people may find our top tips for getting the most out of the festival useful.
1. Plan, lots
With over 1,400 hours of sessions, panels, keynotes and workshops with more than 3,000 speakers and all manner of events and experiences there are usually 15–20 things going on at any point in time that you could be directing your attention to.
The SXSW Schedule tool is designed to help you plan your trip, though the UX design is a raging dumpster-fire — an irony I can never quite get my head around — involving a ton of pagination, an inability to combine filters (e.g. show me all Interactive sessions, across all days, in a specific venue) and a clunky, chunky design that makes it very difficult to absorb what is a huge quantity of information.
A few tips for finding good talks to add to your ‘favourites’ (by clicking the star icon next to the name of the talk):
1.1— Seek out interesting speakers, rather than trying to navigate clickbait session titles
Arielle Johnson is a Food Alchemist at MIT Media Lab — she’s definitely going to have something interesting to say; Monsi Roman is a microbiologist at NASA; Steven Wolfram is always interesting; anyone with PhD in their name is likely to be smart and insightful; and so on.
Search for interesting companies or job titles rather than keywords.
1.2 — Avoid panels
Far from a hard and fast rule, as I’ve seen some great panel talks (Beyond the Listicle: The Science of Virality was brilliant last year) but all too often, panels are an excuse for participants not to prepare, or to ramble on, or only skim the surface of a topic. Single speaker talks require lots more preparation and thought, so are often more insightful and in-depth.
Maybe the title of this tip should be ‘choose panels advisedly’: if a panel is stuffed to bursting with interesting speakers (Beyond the Listicle had Google’s Head of Planning and a research scientist from Upworthy, for instance) then it may well turn out to be worth your time, but always look twice.
1.3 — Look out for agency fluff sessions
Like Tip 2, it’s not always the case, but look out for talks/panels/sessions led by agencies — I’ve been to too many talks that feel like extended case-study reels from the presenters, rather than providing much real insight and analysis.
If you want to see a bunch of cool creative work done by agencies, there’s plenty of space for that on the pages of AdWeek and Campaign, your time at SXSW is precious and you don’t want to waste it with a glorified creds session.
2. Keep your options open
So, you’ve spent hours trawling the listings and you’ve found everything you’re interested in, you open up the iCal feed of your listings in a calendar app (because of course, the scheduler doesn’t provide a neat calendar view) and in a flood of nervous panic you realise that you’re treble booked in every timeslot…
Having three talks that you want to see at 11am on Saturday morning may seem like a frustrating problem you need to solve in advance, but there are lots of things that can happen between now and then. Talks get popular and rooms fill up, you end up on the other side of town to see a 9:30 talk and can’t make it across in time.
Keep them all in there and move on, you’ll be glad of it at least once.
3. Be comfortable
Downtown Austin is (thankfully) not a huge urban sprawl, most venues are a 10–15 minute walk from each other (though it’s more like 20–30 for the furthest apart), but even if you take the inter-venue bus, you’re going to do A LOT of walking. So wear comfortable shoes.
It’s often over 30℃/86℉ in March, but pretty much all venues are extensively air-conditioned. So even though you may get hot and bothered walking around outside, it can get pretty chilly when sat still in a Marriott conference room for an hour. Layer up!
It’s also worth thinking about shoe leather when tackling your packed schedule: it can make a lot more sense to stay in the vicinity of one venue on any given day, rather than constantly hopping from the Hyatt to the Convention Centre, to the Hilton and back again — it’s certainly one of the factors I use when deciding which of the three talks I’ve got favourited that I’m going to go to.
4. Power up
No traveller or seasoned conference attendee needs telling that it’s a good idea to carry a portable battery and a charging plug/cable for your smartphone/laptop around, but you may be surprised how much juice you need when you’re constantly checking the battery-hogging SXSW app, live tweeting talks, making your Facebook friends jealous and trying to organise sundowners on WhatsApp.
It’s also worth ensuring you’ve got some note-taking equipment at hand that doesn’t require electricity to function. Even if your handwriting is as illegible as mine, I find scribbled hand-written notes end up being more useful to me in the long-term that a bunch of random digital snippets (there’s also less chance of being distracted by twitter/Facebook/email).
5. Register on Thursday
If it’s at all possible, make sure you get down to the Convention Center to register on Thursday (it’s open until 11pm), as the lines first thing on Friday morning are notorious. I missed the first talk of the day waiting for ninety minutes in line last year, because I’m an idiot and decided to play shuffleboard and drink beer on Thursday night rather than register.
Last but certainly not least: Enjoy yourself
A clichéd closing tip, but an important one.
It’s very easy to get swept up chasing sessions, standing in line, stuffing your face with grilled cheese in between talks and trying to absorb everything in 30 second snippets, but if you try to keep that up you’ll be spending at least one of the five days in bed recovering from exhaustion.
Some of the best sessions I’ve seen have been next door to the (full) one I actually wanted to see, some of the most inspiring conversations (and best guacamole) I’ve had came when bailing on a session and going for lunch with my colleagues instead, and no good ever came from standing in line.
Embrace serendipity and chance, turn left when you were planning on turning right, and ignore the pedicabs: they’re a massive rip-off.
Jordan Harper is CTO at iris Worldwide, where we’ve been building participation brands since 1999. Our annual round-up show, SXSE 2017 will be held at our London office on the evening of 30 March 2017, there’ll be beer, tequila and tacos, to book your space (for free) drop us a line at email@example.com.
This article was originally published on Thursday 2 March 2017 by Little Black Book.