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A Maven’s Guide To SXSW Interactive
I meant to have this guide up a few weeks ago, but time slipped away and I didn't quite manage to get it out. I've been sensing pre-SXSW freakout from some of my friends, so I'm going to go ahead and put this out anyway.
If you happened to be reading this on twitter, you've already seen most of these, but I know that there are plenty of people on a plane today that didn't have a chance to join that conversation.
There are a few things that I'd like to preface this guide with:
This will only be my second trip to SXSW. I'm not a seasoned veteran - but I have a good memory and I'm a people-watcher.
This guide is called a Maven's Guide because I'm primarily a maven ala The Tipping Point (affiliate link): I'm an information and idea specialist.
Were I primarily a Connector or Salesman, then I'd approach SXSW differently, and one of the biggest things I learned last year was that people approached the event with completely different expectations and orientations.
In other words, if you're showing up to SXSW to party hard, you'll probably want to augment this guide with one that's written from someone who shows up to party hard.
When I say SXSW, I mean SXSW Interactive. The Film and Music culture is different. Also, #sxswi is the twitter hashtag you'll want to follow for SXSW Interactive.
There are three main reasons people go to SXSW: People, Panels, and Parties. As you can probably tell, I'm going to be focusing on the first two.
So, without further ado, here are a few questions that people have asked me or that I asked last year:
Question: What's the most compelling reason to go to SXSW? Answer: You get to meet and befriend a bunch of cool people and see what's going to be happening in the next 3-12 months.
In short, were it not for SXSW, I wouldn't have met the great people that I now talk to weekly, and I won't name names because I'll probably forget somebody and kick myself. Additionally, SXSW got me thinking about a lot of Big Ideas that played out for the six months following it.
Question:What should I wear? Answer: It's completely casual - T-shirts and pants/jeans are fine. It's really easy to overdress, even for women, and the only thing worse than being slightly underdressed is being so overdressed that you make everyone else uncomfortable.
Question: Are there newbie orientation panels worth attending? Answer: This one's a hard one to answer. There is one on Friday at 2pm and another at 5pm, but I didn't find those panels nearly as valuable as just finding people I wanted to hang out with and figuring it out from there.
Question: How do I sift through the impressive list of panels and figure out what's worth going to? It's a bit overwhelming! Answer: The first thing that you've got to know is that the panels are recorded, so you don't have to be at every one. That said, you won't get as much out of the recordings as you will by attending them, and I know a few people who didn't go to any assuming they'd watch the videos later only to never watch the videos.
When you're considering panels, you'll want to choose at most three per day unless you want to be overwhelmed by information. The creative energy of 10,000 geeks can be a bit much.
Flip through the list of panels and find a few must-see panels and leave the rest of your schedule open. Try to include one panel that's within your area of expertise and another that's in a neighboring area that you'd like to know more about.
Question: How do people find each other? It's a madhouse! Answer: DMs and text messages. And you'll pack up once you get there.
Question: Do I need business cards? Answer: They're not strictly necessary. Your badges will be swipeable by smartphones this year.
Also, I learned about Contxts last year at SXSW. It's a nifty service that allows you to send your information to other people's phones via text messages.
Question: Where/how do people eat? Answer: There's a load of restaurants within walking distance downtown. Skip the in-conference vendors.
There's a Whole Foods that's not too far from the conference center, too. You'll want to load up on water and snacks there.
While I'm on water, remember to drink plenty of it. You'll be doing a lot of talking, learning, and (maybe) drinking, so it's easy to get dehydrated. It's hard to be your best when your brain is fried, you're tired, and people are trying to have engaging conversations with you.
Question: Where should I stay? Answer: If there's still room and you can, it's a lot more convenient to stay downtown. If you need to take a break, you can head back to your room and recharge. I also some great ideas spark last year that I lost by the time I got back to my distant hotel.
By the time you factor in renting a car and paying for parking or renting a cab and the time you'll spend in Austin traffic, it's better to just stay downtown.
(I know, it would've been better to know this about three months ago.)
Question: I'm not Internet Famous. Will I fit in? Answer: It depends. Treat people like people and act like you belong there and you'll be fine.
Question: I'm a huge fan of Famous Person. Should I talk to them? Answer: Yes. Keep in mind that they're busy, though, so be brief and non-clingy.
There's a fine art to edging yourself into someone's field of view so that they know you want to say something to them really quickly. If you don't master the art, you might find yourself standing outside of a conversation for a while. On the other end, just jumping in and interrupting the conversation to say how much of a fan you are doesn't go very well, either.
Question: Are there any places where the Cool Peeps hang out? Answer: The one that comes to mind is the Blogger's lounge. The Blogger's lounge is only accessible to badge holders, so if you cheaped out on tickets, you'll have to stand outside and hope people come out to see you. I'm talking to you, Johnny.
Question: How much are the panels targeted at big business? Answer: Not as much as you'd think, and there are a ton of panels that don't.
Question: How do I get the most value out of connecting with people? Answer: Focus on quality and finding the people you really want to hang out with instead of trying to find everyone you might want to talk to. SXSW isn't a game of Pokemon, after all.
As you group up, impromptu hangouts will start to happen organically. This is where the real value of SXSW is at, and you'll want to give yourself ample time to lean into this smallish gatherings.
Question: Am I the only one that's freaking out? Answer: Not by a long shot. Almost every 1st timer is, too. You're going to be okay.
Thanks to Ali Hale, Cath Duncan, Johnny B Truant, and Elizabeth Potts Weinstein for asking great questions and reminding me that I might be able to help other people by sharing these ideas and suggestions. If I missed your question, please ask it in the comments and I'll answer it in the post.
Come up and say hello if you see me this weekend - follow me on Twitter at @CharlieGilkey to see what I'm up to. I'll see you there!