Conference Sessions Matter, Even at SXSW
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.
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.