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Conference Sessions Matter, Even at SXSW

By Jason Grigsby

Published on March 18th, 2010


This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend and speak at SXSW’s Interactive Festival for the first time. After hearing about SXSW for some many years, it was interesting to see what the conference was all about.

I’m not sure I’ll attend SXSW again.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the conference in many ways. I got to see friends that I haven’t seen in months. I met people that I’ve always wanted to meet. I had fun speaking with people about the iPad, and it was great to experience Mobile Monday in another city.

Austin is an amazing city. I had a blast in the city, and I feel like I saw and experienced more of the city than I typically do at conferences.

Unfortunately with a few notable exceptions, the conference itself was not terribly good.

I’m not sure why this is. I have read others talking about how this conference was worse than previous ones. It saddens me to think that when I finally manage to attend the reknowned SXSW, that it has jumped the shark. But it appears that may be case.

One of the main problems in my opinion is the dominance of panels at the conference. I find panels to be of lower quality overall than presentations by a solo presenter.

I’m not sure why SXSW has so many panels, but I have a few generous and not so generous theories.

The generous theory is that SXSW values the input of the community. It starts with allowing anyone to vote for session, continues with selection of panels, and is demonstrated by their core conversation sessions designed to foster discussion instead of presentations.

The less generous theory is that people propose panels solely to get free passes for themselves and their friends.

I was told essentially that on my return trip to the airport. I took a shuttle and bumped into a friend. He asked what I thought of the conference, and I lamented the fact that the sessions had been so poor.

Two of the other passengers in the shuttle told me that my mistake was that I didn’t get a pass for the conference. They didn’t know that I was a speaker at the conference so they proceeded to tell me how I needed to get on a panel so that I could get a free pass.

Then they laughed about how once you have a pass and are on a panel, you don’t have to prepare anything. You just roll into your panel, answer questions, and then use your pass to network and party.

I was extremely offended. I couldn’t believe that they could have such disrespect for people’s time and money.

Even though I only had four minutes to present during my panel, I started researching as soon as I knew I was going to be on the panel.

I had several pages of notes in addition to my slides. I decided to hack the format to make the panel more interesting by treating my presentation like an Ignite talk which meant I had to practice extensively to get the timing right. I also set up a script to tweet background information during my presentation.

And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone on our panel took it seriously. We prepared ahead of time. The audience response to our session was great.

I know a lot of people don’t attend conferences for the sessions. My friend Aaron Hockley’s recap of SXSW is talks about how the value of conferences is not the sessions, but in the connections that are made.

I agree with Aaron that tremendous value comes from the connections, but that’s no excuse for treating the people who attend your session poorly and wasting their time.

The contrast between the attitude of the fellow passengers on my shuttle and the work that Jay Rosen and his fellow panelists put into their SXSW session couldn’t be starker. In fact, it seems completely inappropriate that those who treat SXSW panels so disrespectfully should be able to share the metaphorical stage with Rosen and others who take the conference seriously.

The attitude that some have towards SXSW reflects poorly on those of us who take our roles as speakers and educators in the technology community seriously.

I don’t know if this is a pervasive attitude of speakers at SXSW, but I can say that the quality of content way not what I expected. I expected to be inspired as Jeremy Keith was. That’s what I want from any conference.

Perhaps I just picked sessions poorly, but instead of being inspired, my final and lasting impression was of a conference that didn’t deliver.


D said:

SXSW this year did seem to have jumped the shark, it was far less inspiring than previously, far lower quality of sessions it seemed, and this is coming from another person who received a free pass (and prepared!). I’ll agree on the panels too, even during the panel picker process the SXSW team really discouraged submitting large panels because people respond so negatively to them, it was really disappointing that so many ended up in the schedule anyway.

Aaron Hockley said:

Wow. Your conversation on the airport shuttle sure explains some things.

I attended two panels at SXSW that I thought featured well-prepared and well-selected speakers. One was the “Artist or Millionaire: Why not Both?” and the other was the iPad panel of which you were a member. Both of those sessions showed presenters which had obviously prepared and a moderator that kept things moving in a productive direction.

Sadly, I also attended several very poorly-organized and moderated panels which could’ve been the result of folks like you encountered on your way to the airport.

This was also my first SXSW. I didn’t see a conference that overall made it worth my time to buy a conference pass next year. There were some bright spots, but the overall lack of quality and consistency was very disappointing.

I’ll likely be back in Austin next year to connect, but right now I predict I’ll be doing it without a badge.

Greg Martin said:

I’m saddened to hear that you won’t be coming back next year and even more saddened to hear about the DBs who are out there gaming the system just to “party”. I personally found your panel to be the most interesting of those I attended during the week as I have an aggressive interest in the next generation of storytelling and the implications the iPad will have on it.

This was my first SXSW and the advice I was given by an old friend before attending turned out to be very close to perfect. Attend only a small handful of panels which cover the topics that you are achingly passionate about, then network every other minute of your day.

The numerous high-level discussions on futurism, tech, mobile, etc. that I got into with random people in line for coffee, at the community lunch tables, the charging area, the blogger’s lounge and the parties were the highlight of my trip and the panels became a nice knowledge enhancement.

Hopefully between now and next year’s conference you will not only change your mind about attending, but you will be hosting a panel that is even better than the one you put together this year. Thank you for your efforts, there are those of us who are grateful!!