Thursday, March 19, 2009

SXSW Recap - The Sessions

There's a popular saying about SXSW; "You don't go for the panels, you go for the people." While the meetings in the hallways and at offsite events are priceless, there are still a few excellent panels/talks every year. I only attended three sessions at SXSW, but they were all very good.

On Saturday night, as soon as I touched down in Austin and snagged my badge, I raced to the Hilton to attend the Is Friendship Dead? talk by Russ Unger and David Armano. The topic itself was interesting enough, as the duo walked us through an exploration of what 'online friendship' really means. When we say we are 'friends' with someone online, do we mean literally, or simply that we are connected to them.

But what I loved about this talk was how the room was organized. In many talks/sessions/panels, you have the audience, then the speakers at the front of the room behind a podium, or up on stage. In either instance, they are isolated from the audience. But in the Is Friendship Dead? talk, the audience was organized in a circle around the room. At the start, David and Russ were at the outside edge of the circle, but they eventually moved to the center of the room, and bounced ideas and questions off the audience the entire time. What resulted was a vibrant discussion where the audience was totally engaged throughout. Armano even remarked at one point that he looked around the room and saw his social graph. This was one of the most enjoyable SXSW talks I've ever seen, and a wonderful example of how to engage and encourage the audience to participate in a way that greatly improves the quality of the talk.

The next session I attended was on Sunday. And the audience again participated, but it wasn't in as constructive a manner. One of the great things about SXSW is that the audience feels empowered to share their viewpoints and challenge the speakers with tough questions. Unfortunately, some people take advantage of this to either use the Q&A time as a chance to directly promote themselves, or to 'make a statement'. This happened a few times in the How Social Networks Are Killing the Revolution talk with Steve Swedler, Jeremy Tanner, Shannon Paul and Todd Huffman. The panel discussion itself was pretty interesting, and as a whole, I thought the panelists handled the flack from the audience fairly well and kept the discussion more or less on topic. I also thought Shannon made several brilliant points, especially about how when we share information online, we have to accept that we are foregoing privacy. That once we share that pic on Flickr, that it's out there.

Finally, on Monday I got to see Kathy Sierra. And upfront I must apologize to Kathy, because after her talk I made a point to come up and introduce myself. I can't remember exactly what I said, but I think it was little more than 'OMG I LOVED YOUR TALK!' about ten times in a row. I was a total fanboy, but I had to do it, Kathy is amazing. And I did love her talk, which was entitled Change Your World in 50 Minutes: Making Breakthroughs Happen. It was so good that I decided not to Twitter it, and actually (GASP!) paid attention and took notes. Here's some key takeaways:

  • Practice and hone your strengths, that helps you kick ass
  • Spending 4 hours a day on something for 4 days is better than 1 hour a day for 16 days
  • Don't make a better (X), make a better (user of X)
  • Change the EQ, add new sliders. Look at someone that had a breakthrough and think about the sliders they added. EX: How did Gary Vaynerchuk change the way wine is sold?
  • Find the 'Bigger Idea' behind your product. Why are your users using it? What do they get from it?
  • If you could give your users a superpower, what would it be?
Just an amazing and inspiring talk from Kathy, which is exactly what I expected.

Overall, the biggest talk I heard from other SXSW attendees about panels focused on how few really 'must-see' talks they were, and how they were all at the same time. I have no idea how SXSW is organizing the talks, but it doesn't seem to be by topic, perhaps it's by expected audience size and when certain speakers want to speak? I'm not sure, but the scheduling of talks was a big disappointment to myself and many other SXSWers I talked to.

At any rate, I attended only three talks, but was very pleased with what I learned from all three. If you went to SXSW, which sessions were your favorites?

Pic of Armano and Russu via Flickr user Mattanium


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, Mack. I wasn't in any of these sessions, so your takeaways are helpful! Like you, I found that the most productive format (and the discussions I gained from the most) were the core conversations where the speakers and audience were able to take a deep dive into an issue. And, like you, I experienced both the good and bad of this. Sometimes the speakers kick ass and facilitate it very well (my favorite was "Kick Ass or Suck" with Lance Loveday) other times, it's just a big mess.

I also found it frustrating to navigate the SXSW schedule. In addition to time slots, session titles differed between the Web site, the print directory, and the pocket schedule. And, it was very difficult to search for sessions by speaker, which would have been very valuable for me. (I enjoyed two of the panels I attended over four days, "Are PR Agencies a Dying Breed" and "Ur Blog Sux; Print is Dead" and had everything to do with the panelists.) As a first time SXSW attendee, it took me two days to sort of get a feel for what was going on, how to identify the more advanced sessions, and to adjust my schedule accordingly. As a result, I think I missed out on the few sessions that would have provided the most relevant content for my business.

Like most SXSW attendees, the real value was in the face-to-face interactions I had with people outside of the sessions. (Had a great time at #allhat, for instance!) Since we're all so used to "playing" in an online world, it's great for us to convene in real life and be humbled by reality.

Mack Collier said...

Kary it was great to finally meet you! Yeah I think they didn't update the section on the site about showing what talks each speaker is doing till very late. I didn't even realize that Kathy Sierra was on a panel till Monday morning when people started tweeting from it!

Oh well, the trip was well worth it, hope we meet again soon!

Anonymous said...

An interesting read, Mack. Of course, I wasn't there... so this is me purely peaking in from the outside, and wishing I was. If I've uttered the words "next year" once... I've uttered them a thousand times!