Presenting at SXSW: The Good, The Bad, and the Forgotten

Gene Kim and I organized a session at SXSW Interactive this past weekend. Our topic was Be Heard: How to Drive Innovation in Big Companies.

Gene already shared some of the work we did to prepare for the presentation.

I wanted to share a few more thoughts while they were fresh in my mind. This is my own opinion - if you were there, I'd love to get your perspective. Here are our lessons learned from presenting at SXSW.

The Good


1. We got right to the point, and built energy quickly.


We started with a vision: to get the session started quickly, establish credibility, tell a story to build energy and give an example, and then get going. We didn't want to get bogged down.

Keeping that vision firmly in mind, we refined the content relentlessly. We had started in early February, shortly after we learned that our proposal was accepted. I had written a half dozen personal stories, and we each wrote bios.

By the time we both had gotten to SXSW, I had 15 minutes of material I was planned to cover. However, I could feel the energy lagging just rehearsing the content, and I knew 15 minutes was much too long to make the audience wait for a session that was intended to be audience-driven.

We spent about eight hours together in person at SXSW refining the talk until we had the minimum amount of material that established our vision for how the session would go.

2. We didn't waste time building motivation.

There were 48 programming slots for 12:30pm on Saturday. That meant that anyone who came to our session came because they were interested in our title and our session descriptive. So we didn't need to convince anyone who was there was it was important. By choosing our session out of the 48, it was a sure sign they thought it was important.

Therefore, we focused on making sure people left with actionable tips and techniques. We'll leave the motivational stuff to the keynote speakers.

3. We involved the audience both in soliciting the problem statement and in offering the solutions.

Knowing that it was a core conversation format, the expectation is to involve the audience. And one of the unique characteristics I've noticed about SXSW is just how smart everyone is: You could pick any person at random and have a very interesting conversation with them. Everyone is an expert in their area.

Therefore, we expected people to know more than us, much more. So not only did we want the audience to offer solutions, but we also wanted to make sure we got the inventory of problem types from them as well. This also gets to the actionable techniques: they are only actionable if they match a problem you are having.

4. We time boxed the problem solicitation portion, the brainstorming for each problem area, and each problem.

We knew that one downside that can occasionally occur with core conversations is lagging energy, or a slow pace. If someone comes up and hogs the mic, or if you spend too much time in an area that large swaths of the audience isn't interested in, energy and attention lags.

So we time boxed everything. (As it turns out, I don't think we ever had to cut off an individual speaker. Yay. I wasn't looking forward to that.)


The Bad


1. Too little sleep.

We stayed up until 2am the night before refining the talk, and then got back up at 7am to continue working on it. It would have been nice to have gotten more sleep.

2. No memorization.

Because we kept refining the talk up until the last minute, I couldn't memorize the content. And because I had originally memorized much more content (15 minutes worth), had I tried to wing it, I would likely go too long.

Gene encouraged sticking to the prepared content, even if that meant reading from the paper. There's no point in investing dozens of hours in refining language to ignore all that work.

3. Too much time on problem solicitation.

We spent a few minutes too many on the problem statement, and should have moved earlier into solutions. I don't think it was terrible, but we should have gone into solution brainstorming at least 5 minutes earlier.

The Forgotten

1. Names, email addresses, twitter handles, and websites.

There was no projector to put up our names or contact information, nor a flip chart to write them on. Ideally SXSW would provide this, but given that they did not, we should have spent more time telling people our names, twitter handles, and websites.

We would like to connect with people and have the opportunity for follow up.

2. Continuing the conversation

In retrospect, we would have loved have planned a big dinner at a restaurant, and then extend an invitation to everyone at the session. It would have been a great way to talk longer with people who otherwise had to run off to the next session.

3. Feedback

We should have asked for feedback, which is crucial to SXSW organizers, and helps speakers if they propose a topic for the next year.

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