Picking Southby apart | August 24, 2007

I’ve been going to SXSW for the last couple of years, and have been lucky enough to speak at each one. I enjoy speaking at Southby because I have the freedom to choose my own topic and present to a room full of my peers. However I’m more nervous about Southby than any other conference, largely due to the calibre of the audience. With people like Veen and Zeldman in the audience, you need to up your game.

I tend to start planning my talk a couple of months in advance; working out the structure, designing the slides, and finally practising my delivery. So I’m always a little dismayed when I see smart, experienced speakers phone their presentations in. With a lot of people you can tell that the only reason they’re on a panel is to get a free ticket and add Southby to their list of speaking engagements. I’m also amazed at the childish bravado some speakers display, bragging about how little preparation they have done or the fact that they were up to 4am the night before their talk, finishing their slides. This isn’t high school folks.

So I’ve decided not to speak at this year’s event. Instead I’m going to enjoy being an attendee and not worry about staying up late because I’ve got a session tomorrow. Instead, I’m going to be spending a lot more time chatting to people in the hallways, and drinking in the bars and coffee shops of Austin. Bars mostly.

For the last couple of years I’ve been guilty of picking sessions based on the profile of the speaker rather than the content of the talk, and in most cases I’ve been disappointed. When I’ve been listening to an A-list bloggers in one room, I should have been listening to the wild card in the other. There is more risk involved in seeing somebody you don’t know, but the rewards can be much greater.

SXSW have just released their panel picker, and with 689 possible sessions, the choice is daunting. It would be easy to vote for your favourite speaker, but this is a bit of a copout. Instead, I urge you to pick the panels that sound the most interesting, and forgo the cult of personality.

Posted at August 24, 2007 5:18 PM


Jeff Croft said on August 24, 2007 5:37 PM

I agree compeltely. Well said, my friend!

I’ll add this: speakers, set solid expectations for what your presentation/panel is going to be about and how it is going to be organized. The panel Kelsey, Veerle, Bryan, and I did last year got some critisim got being “under-prepared,” when in fact we probably put in more pre-SXSW time than just about anything. The real problem was that the title and description of our panel, as it was listed on the SXSW site, didn’t very adequatley match what we wanted to cover — so people were let down, because we didn’t meet their expectations.

Brian Artka said on August 24, 2007 7:59 PM

It took awhile, but I just finished wading through all of the panel topics. I did pick them by content; but also noticed many of the ones I want to attend are lead by well known figures. Then again, the other half are by people I am not aware of yet. I’m looking forward to all of them! We’ll see which ones stick.

Jason Beaird said on August 24, 2007 9:21 PM

I too agree whole heatedly. Last year was my first Southby, and while I had a blast, I was often torn between panel choices. I actually thought about submitting a panel for 08, even talked to Hugh about it at the closing party. When submissions opened up though I didn’t feel I had an original or strong enough concept so I never sent one in. Looking through this years choices though, I regret that decision. Some of the panel ideas look like they might have been conceived over a coffee break, and if I had submitted something the fact that my name is on a book probably would have gotten me voted in. Would my panel be worthwhile though? It might have been by the time the conference rolled around, but as Jeff said, if the submitted idea/title didn’t adequately match the discussion topic, people might be disappointed.

Anyway, I commend you for deciding to just enjoy the show next year. Getting to meet people I respect like you, Jeff Croft, Dan Rubin, Rob Weychert, JSM, Andy Clarke, Snook, Dan Cedarholm, Doug Bowman, Molly, etc etc etc…was really the highlight of my trip last year. I’m still trying to decide if going next year will work in my wife and I’s budget, but if I do, I look forward to running into and chatting with you again.

Keith said on August 24, 2007 11:06 PM

So true. For my part I can say that when we’ve done Design Eye in the past we’ve done a heck of a lot of work before we ever get to Austin. I think that’s better in so many ways. Who wants to spend a lot of time when you’re there working on your slides, it’s easier on you and better for your audience if you work it all out beforehand and then spend your time there getting all the wrinkles worked out.

Scott Powers said on August 25, 2007 8:26 AM

There are quite a few sessions I would absolutely love to attend at SXSW. It’s an event I’ve wanted to attend the last couple of years but unfortunately it’s never been in the cards. Same will most likely be true next year.

For a guy struggling to advance in the web world and to achieve a dream of being one of the guys whose name people recognize as a quality standards based designer… SXSW and events like it are invaluable. Maybe guys/gals that are expected to speak at these events take these events and their value for granted.

I look forward to reading about everyone’s experiences at SXSW next year though.

Andy Budd said on August 25, 2007 8:30 AM

Hi Keith,

I have to admit that the Design Eye panels are one of the few that really work. You guys put a lot of effort and energy into the sessions and it shows. Nice work fella. Look forward to seeing your panel next year.

Ian Lloyd said on August 25, 2007 9:20 AM

Amen brother. I was in two minds about whether to speak this year. Sure, it gets me a free pass but, like you say, you get the stress that goes with it.

I spend a lot of time preparing for presentations these days, mainly because I do a lot of screencasts and multimedia type stuff that I embed; sometimes it’s not far off a piece of video production! Part of me thought that if I did put a lot of effort in and did SXSW again this year, I could put on quite a good show …. but then I thought “Balls to that, I’d rather socialise”!

Alun Rowe said on August 28, 2007 11:50 AM

I’m swinging the other way this time for Southby. I’ve decided that I want to speak this year, not for a free ticket or bragging rights but because all I did last year was bitch about how useless most of the presentations were and as my mother always says…

Our panel is a panel of 4 people who have real world business experience of working at the sharp end not just in web design but in the wider business world. I’m lucky as my for my first speaking gig (if we get picked) I’ll be hiding behind the talents of Malarkey and Paul Boag but I think this is the safest way to get my feet wet!

Hopefully people will vote for our panel but if not then I’ve already booked my ticket and I’ll see you in the bar Andy!

Evan said on August 30, 2007 3:34 PM

“So I’m always a little dismayed when I see smart, experienced speakers phone their presentations in.”

Thank you for saying this. I’ve been embarassed for an awful lot of speakers at SXSW over the last few years. Honestly, one of the worst talks I ever saw was Zeldman’s keynote a few years ago. It seemed improvised, he had no particular point, and sounded a little annoyed, as if he’d been up all night. Kottke’s “fireside chat” with Dooce two years ago was the same way: Kottke couldn’t have been less interested in being there and would barely answer the questions. It was painful to be in the audience.

You’re also right about the coffee-break nature of the presentation proposals this year. SXSW is just too much of a good thing—too many people speaking on too many panels with too many of their friends. So often, it’s just people saying again something they wrote on their blogs, like going to see a band and feeling like “wow, they really played that hit single perfectly, note-for-note. I guess that was good.”

Mark Lloyd said on August 31, 2007 5:06 AM

Being in Australia i dont get the opportunity to attend events like SXSW.

however i understand your point quiet well. One huge advantage of being in the chair is that you get to see whats wrong up the front and cater your next presentation accordingly.

Alun Rowe, good on you, instead of whinging about the speakers you’ve decided to do something about it. Hope it goes well for you all!

Joe Clark said on September 4, 2007 12:55 PM

“Free ticket?? Come again?

Jon Hadley said on September 12, 2007 1:57 PM

It always makes me wince when public speakers make pre-emptive lame excuses for what they are about to say.

They chose to stand up and speak, we chose to come and listen, they should leave it to the audience to pass judgement ;)

Jim Callender said on September 23, 2007 3:52 PM

Hi Andy,

Good for you!

As you mention the number of panels will be decided by the delegates, I don’t know whether this is a new thing for 2008?

However, as my first time in Austin, from what I have seen so far it sure looks like one slick operation..

What I would really like is a central place where I can pick up all the presentations that took place at the conference. I understand this is done at the discretion of the speaker, but this would really aid the value post conference if this happened.

See you for a proper briefing at the Hampton downtown bar ;)