I’ve never been to a business conference of any kind that’s as usefully friendly as the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. Every time I go, I make more meaningful, long-lasting business contacts and new friends in the space of a long weekend than I might in months and months in New York City. Everybody goes to South by Southwest, and they all want to meet everyone else.
This has been the festival’s reputation for years, and the word’s gotten around with progressively greater and greater results. Though I couldn’t get a specific growth figure from the festival’s principal organizer, Hugh Forrest, when I chatted with him this weekend, it was obvious to any returning attendee that 2007’s show was nontrivially larger than past years: even the smallest of this year’s session rooms were as big as some of the largest rooms from last year or the year before — and even then, it was often standing room only.
All of which is fantastic. If there’s a show that deserves this kind of success, it’s South by Southwest. But this growth comes at a cost: in small ways, this year’s show was more awkward than others, being physically spread out across a wider swath of the Austin Convention Center, with some sessions taking place in remote areas, and others taking place in rooms sorely lacking in intimacy. Wireless Internet connectivity, too, which is such an important factor to the Interactive festival’s audience, was frustratingly overtaxed this year; too many of us getting online at once kept almost all of us from getting reliable, speedy access.
These things were just annoyances though. My biggest disappointment this year was the predominance of panels over lectures. South by Southwest has a strong democratic streak, and part of that streak has always been the idea that most of its sessions have been comprised of panels of speakers brought together to discuss a specific idea, rather than one or two lecturers talking about an idea. This inclusive approach to the show’s content has successfully brought dozens and dozens of diverse voices in front of festival audiences — but they haven’t always had much of quality to offer, especially this year.
The panel format’s drawback is that it’s composed of so many moving parts. The inexact science of group chemistry is so important to making panels succeed that, more often than not, they don’t. In theory, a dialogue among a group of thoroughly articulate individuals makes for compelling viewing. But too often this time, I felt that what I was watching was a chorus of interesting voices blending into a gray, indistinct noise.
In thinking about why this has been the case, what I’ve decided is that the most successful sessions I’ve seen, whether panels or lectures, have all evidenced the results of good preparation. Some healthy measure of advanced planning and practice, of sweating over talking points and slides, of smoothing out oratorical stumbling blocks and cutting out logorrheic fat, is so extremely important in public speaking. This is especially true when the speaker list is drawn from a population of professionals — designers and programmers — not always known for being effortless performers.
This preparatory approach is not easily applied to the panel format, where so much rests on the moderator’s guidance, where even if you did prepare extensively, there’s no way to predict the flow of the conversation without the effect of undermining spontaneity. And, I would guess, knowing these factors, most speakers prepare much less for a panel than they would for a lecture. It simply seems counter-intuitive to sweat over the unpredictable course of a three- or four-part dialogue when the conversation can turn any which way at any given moment.
This is a tricky proposition for South by Southwest’s organizers. As their festival gets increasingly larger year after year, an argument can be made that more inclusiveness is called for. But at the same time, I really do think that the festival runs a risk of becoming unmanageable, and a poorer signal-to-noise ratio in its content can’t be good for its long-term health. If I were to offer one piece of advice to the organizers of next year’s festival, it would be to increase the number of talks, and decrease the number of panels — or do a more thorough vetting of its many moderators, lots of whom are new to the tricky art of providing guidance to panels of varied conversationalists.
Still, this year’s conference was hardly a loss, and I’m still extremely glad that I went. For all my frustration with the panels, the show’s organizers still do one thing better than anyone else in the interactive space: they bring together a huge group of smart, influential people — and somehow manage to convince almost every single one of them to be unremittingly friendly. That alone is priceless. I managed to spend quality time with lots and lots of people that I respect immensely, and to meet plenty more that I’ve always admired from a distance. I’d easily spend the money to go again next year. And, as you’ll read in my next installment, I’ll try not to repeat the mistakes that I made on the panels I appeared on myself next time, too.
I’m finding this panels vs. presentations discussion pretty interesting. I actually prefer the panels, in general. A panel’s a bit like a jazz song, thanks to it’s improvisational nature. Take five great people, put them in a band, and have them play a great song. What happens? One take may be awful, but the next one amazing. I imagine a panel has the same kind of dynamic range.
So while it’s true that a panel may well head in a direction that the audience either doesn’t expect or doesn’t care for, it’s also possible it’ll be spot-on. And, a spot-on panel, in my opinion, holds a lot greater value than a spot on presentation.
Why? Because a presentation, almost always, is a list of bullet points I can get anywhere. I read books. I read blogs. Unless you’re going to present something that’s never been written in a book or blog entry before, there’s a good chance I’m going to walk away feeling like I could have simply read your blog and got the same thing for a lot less money.
All that having been said, it seems I’m in the minority — so if I’m asked to be involved in a session at SXSW again, I’ll definitely be trying to make it more presentation-style than panel-style.
That’s a good point, Jeff. One definitely wouldn’t want to attend a lecture that’s simply a recitation of bullet points, and it’s true that the dynamic of a panel of lively conversationalists can be more engaging than a well-prepared but lackluster solo speaker.
Perhaps what I mean is that the selection of panelists as well as speakers should be done with a bit more care in the future, and that SXSW should emphasize preparation for panels more strongly. It’s the difference between feeling ‘on the line’ as a solo speaker and feeling as if one can simply ‘hide among the crowd’ as a speaker that I’m getting at.
One more thing on lectures though: leaving time for over for questions is a great way to take a list of bullet points in a new, unexpected direction, and will often lead to more coherent answers than a group of panelists taking questions.
Agreed on the panels vs. lectures thing. Almost every one-person lecture I’ve ever seen at SXSW has been superior to almost all the panels. This might be because the one-person lecturers tend to be pretty good lecturers. Still, it’s hard not to notice this effect.
I have to agree whole-heartedly with Khoi-
This was my first SXSW experience (good meeting you at 20×2 BTW), and I have to say, I have mixed feelings. I believe allot of attendees would agree with you, and I hope SXSW can recognize the need for a growing event and industry to gain structure.
I have attended a couple of conferences in the past 4 years- ASIS (3 times), ISC East (4 times), HIMSS (Second largest conference in the US- I believe), and of course, SXSW.
When you compare this conference to say HIMSS (Healthcare Industry) or ASIS (Security), it really lended to the perception of the industry as un-professional or a “baby” industry. It communicated an industry full of artists, without the balance of business sense and organization. A couple of points on that viewpoint:
SXSW is pitching a unique idea that other conferences do not offer- informal, approachable educational “panels”. I really feel they fall short on this mark. They are totally unfocused, the panelists seem un-prepared, bored, or worse, un-educated. For example, I attended a panel that was sold as a behind the scenes look to designer’s inspiration process- maybe it’s just me, but I felt like it was all fluff and self glorification. Furthermore, by the time Q&A On the other hand, Dan Saffer’s panel was one of the best I attended, and it was basically a lecture. SXSW- Promote and require quality from your speakers.
I don’t really feel that SXSW capitalized on this opportunity. The exhibition area was always PACKED- they need to make this area of opportunity more affordable to business, exhibition areas are a great way for business to promote their services and products and I really wondered why SXSW missed this mark.
Again, big names, poor quality. SXSW seems to be all about the fluff and the packaging of their product. Give me the meat. I mean, Dan Rather was almost a joke- it was pretty much a journalist targeted speech. As for the rest of the keynote speakers, why bother?
Registration and Infrastructure:
Terribly un-organized- why don’t they put as much effort into registration as they do into their parties? Again, less fluff, more meat.
Wireless never worked, building layout was terrible- did anyone try to go to 8AB right after a 14ABC?
I have to admit- networking opportunities abounded- as with any conference. Good experience, I will probably be there next year, but I hope SXSW takes some of these suggestions to heart and guides this representation of our industry into a more mature stage.
I know this was long but I want you guys to listen up here:
Are we as developers, designers, project managers, business owners, and overall passionate leaders focusing on the product (design, beauty, or “fluff”) and ignoring the purpose, outcomes, and impacts of the products we create?
If we treat our conferences/events like SXSW, how do we treat our day to day business and efforts?
To be fair, conferences may be an out-dated format of communication, a struggling organism that is attempting to capture the attention our nebulous audience.
In other words, it’s all bullshit- but, let’s make the bullshit a little better.
I second (third? fourth?) the notion. I love a well-moderated panel as much as the next guy, but I saw too many clunky, halting affairs this year that just didn’t live up to expectation. The real downer was that it was frequently a group of very talented, interesting people who probably would have been individually engaging. That’s not to say that I didn’t see some fantastic panels, too… just that the majority fell somewhere between “a little flat” and “pancake flat”.
On a related note, what are your thoughts on the 25-minute format? I’ve found that almost every one of them falls into one of two categories:
1. Too much good stuff to logically cram into 25 minutes
2. Not enough meaningful content prepared because, after all, it’s only 25 minutes
With all of the work that you and Mark Boulton obviously put into Why Grids Are Good, I would have loved to have seen it presented in a longer format, instead of being so hurried. That’s absolutely no criticism of you or Mark, just that it seems extremely difficult to hit that length without either rushing through a complete lecture, or just scaffolding together a very incomplete one. By way of contrast, Web Typography Sucks seemed to have about the same level of preparation and content, but was a whole lot easier to digest and appreciate at its slower pace.
Again, no criticism – I loved Grids – I just missed having the longer format.
Your comments about panels are spot on. I just posted a similar critique over at crowdctrl.com. Less panels. More preparation. Hopefully, the organizers will get the message and make it better next year. Cheers.
I agree with Jeff that the panel is a great idea in concept, and that 4 or 5 people can get together and really have a meaningful discussion, but it seems rare that I walk away from those discussions with some meaningful lesson learned.
Like Khoi said, the best sessions I went to this year were from those who were well-prepared. They came to SXSW to teach us, and they prepared accordingly. The best stuff comes from these experts who come to share with us their craft. I love walking away with a few pages of notes and ideas of how to take my game to the next level.
I think another thing to distinguish is that a panel of experts who are all separately prepared isn’t any better than an unprepared panel. I think a successful panel includes a well-prepared moderator and several engaging experts who are themselves interesting and skilled people, and who can get together and have an engaging and entertaining discussion that still manages to inspire and motivate. Maybe the idea itself of a panel isn’t all that bad, but the execution we saw this week was all wrong.
Excellent posts here, Khoi. Thanks for sparking the discussion.
I think you’re right about preparation being a key factor. A really well-prepared panel with the right people talking about the right topic with a good moderator can be just as fascinating as (if not more than) a lecture. I’m thinking of Michael’s “Indie Developers” panel this year, and for that matter his panel about OS design last year. Both were highlights for me. I think the trick to a good panel is to appear loose and conversational while actually keeping things very tightly focused. And there’s no way to pull that off without a lot of preparation.
Agree 100% with Khoi and disagree 100% with Croftie here. Actually, I’m not even disagreeing with Croftie, but my experience is that 90% of panels (esp. at SXSW) are *not* 5 great jazz musicians. They are, frankly, five reasonably talented people who have never met each other and in many cases never really even performed in public before.
If you are a great panelist, do not take offense to this. I’m not talking about you. And if you’re a rookie panelist, don’t take offense either. Rookies are supposed to be rough around the edges.
All I’m saying is that unless a subject matter expert *appoints* the panel, you’re likely to get a lot of what you see at SXSW: a few people who think it would be cool to be on a panel and thus self-organize themselves into one and get approved by Hugh to fill a room and a timeslot.
Again… quickly… I’m not saying the people in the previous paragraph are bad people and I’m not saying they are not extremely talented. But what I’m saying is that if you’re going to throw a conference and make people pay several hundred dollars to attend, any “panels” you have should really be vetted by experts or people who have first-hand, seen the panel-speaking skills of the proposed panel members. My dissatisfaction with the panels in 2006 was the primary reason why I couldn’t quite get myself to attend in 2007. If I attended, it would have been for the social aspect only (which is a fine argument for going anyway).
I also agree with Khoi in regards to preparation. I’ve never prepared more than about 20 minutes for a panel because of the exact reasons Khoi states. It’s a conversation. Who knows where it will go.
But for a lecture, I feel at least compelled to write the speech on the plane ride over. Huge difference. 🙂
Could it be that the real issue isn’t preparation or format but, instead, the means of arriving at said format? No one has raised this year’s panels being determined by way of vote prior to the conference. The organisers, noting that some of the best ideas for programming came from the SXSW community, wanted to accelerate this process. But voting wasn’t limited to said community and what resulted in some instances was indicative of a popularity contest won by those with the prettiest and most communicative blogs.
Steve: That’s a good hypothesis and it could easily contribute to the problem, but last year’s panels weren’t determined by vote and the they had the same problem.
I think there are really three things that can kill a panel:
1. Having an inexperienced moderator who does not keep the discussions on track and ask interesting questions.
2. Having introverted people on the panel who either don’t like speaking in front of crowds or are woefully inexperienced at it.
3. Not doing the requisite amount of preparation. For some panels, all you really have to do is spend 10 or 20 minutes on the phone with everybody ahead of time and go over what you’re going to discuss, and for other panels (e.g. Design Eye), it’s a three month project.
Mike D.: You’re right that the open panel picking process wasn’t the reason why this year’s panels were bad, but I’d say that it didn’t help.
I agree with the basic sentiment of what you said earlier: “panels… should really be vetted by experts or people who have first-hand, seen the panel-speaking skills of the proposed panel members.”
We all want SXSW and similar conferences to be ‘open source’ or or whatever euphemism you’d like for being collaboratively planned. We want to see interesting people get the chance to speak and educate us, and whenever possible, we want to see new people get their chance to speak too, without getting shoved aside by the same big-league speakers who always show up on these rosters.
But at the end of the day, we want the money and effort we’ve gone through to attend a conference to be rewarded. I’d submit that a show the size of SXSW will have a hard time doing that without a strong curatorial voice, which in part means properly vetting speakers. I’m not saying there’s no room for a democratic panel selection process, but I don’t see such a thing working out for SXSW as it gets bigger and bigger.
I think the general consensus is that many things need to be looked at before next year’s festival. I’m still doing music and film at the moment and haven’t thought about what two cents I could add.
Nevertheless the “Grids…” presentation and Yeeaahh! site was excellent. I was wondering, will you or Mark be sharing the excellent slides that accompanied it? I’d love to have the visuals to jog my memory.
I agree agree with everything you said. I do feel the quality of many of the SXSW panels is low. My point is simply that I don’t think it should be blamed entirely on the format — a panel *can* be great. But its improvisational nature makes it more risky than a presentation/speech/lecture. Even if a lecturer is stumbling all over themselves, there’s a slideshow with bullet points and people are going to take *something* from it. Panels, when they fall down, are mostly worthless. On the other hand — at least in my opinion — panels, when they hit it out of the park, are more interesting than a great lecture.
The problem at SXSW, I think, is that most people don’t see panels are more risky. They see them as easy and requiring little prep.
I do think the moderator makes a HUGE difference. Two years in a row, panels moderated by Michael Lopp and Liz Danzico have been wonderful. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Jeff, you hit it on the head when you wrote, “The problem at SXSW, I think, is that most people don’t see panels are more risky. They see them as easy and requiring little prep.”
That seems as if it’s exactly the problem. Panels may or may not be inherently tougher than lectures to pull off, but they seem easier, and so participants take less care preparing for them. That leads directly to the situation we saw in Austin this year: lots of panels that didn’t live up to their potential.
This was my first SXSW, and the scale really flabbergasted me. People told me that you’d meet people on day one and they’d be valuable career/personal relations by the end, but over half the people I met on day one I never saw at the conference again. I’m not sure there’s any way around it with the growth of the conference, but I’m afraid that it may impede the ability to create connections in future years. And when that happens, it’s less a conference and more just a trade show, and out here in the Northwest we have trade shows about once a month that cost far less.
I agree with you on the panels, but the main problem seemed to be moderators who couldn’t keep the discussions tight and engaging. Either do your research and ask targeted, open-ended questions that will make the panelists engage with each other, or get the preliminaries out of the way and go open mike. I saw multiple panels where the moderator spent way too much time talking about him/herself as well.
The lectures, though, were all over the place as well. Half the 25 minute short lectures were disturbingly unprepared; lecturers didn’t have a sense of how long they had and what material to cut. The best short sessions I had were ones where either a single concept or idea was explained (e.g. Grids) or where the lecturers had a number of concepts but had managed to edit themselves down without rambling.
(And to come back to Jeff’s point about “not wanting bullet points” and you can just read the book, not everyone learns by reading bullet points. For instance, I’m a visual learner; I need to be in the room watching the full exposition before I understand something. Books do nothing for me. But lecturers need to keep that in mind when giving these presentations — fewer points, more explaining how these points apply and how to do them.)
On the whole, the event sucked the introverted life out of me. I don’t know if I want to go through that again (though right now I’m leaning towards yes). SXSW needs to figure out how to make the event a little smaller and more friendly without creating elitism or wrecking the collaborative and democratic spirit of things.
And thanks Khoi — Grids wasn’t my favorite session, but you were concise and informative and did your homework. I know the high class-low class one didn’t go the way you wanted, but when you’re on, you’re a good lecturer.
Thanks Khoi for articulating why this year’s SXSW felt so watered-down. The strongest sessions I attended were presented by one or two people: the information was clearly prepared, focused, and targeted.
Another point to add to Mike D’s panel killers:
4. the presence of one or more panelists coasting on self-promotion but doing very little of the same actual day-to-day work as the attendees.
I realize SXSW organizers need big names, but I’d rather hear from a hands-in-the-dirt day jobber with new ideas, than from a “rockstar” who’s only there to pimp the same app/book/blog he pimped last year. Would love to see what would happen if panel and lecture submissions were anonymous, and the IDEAS got selected, not the speakers.
Although I certainly agree with the sentiments that presentations should be chosen based on ideas and not just the name of the presenter, and that I don’t want to see someone who’s just there to pimp their book/app/whatever, I can’t say that this felt like much of a propblem at SXSW to me. I certainly didn’t see any panels/presentation wherein the people on stage were there trying to whore their wares rather than discuss something meaningful.
Maybe I just went to the wrong (or, I guess, the right) sessions.
Marla, I like your suggestion about an anonymous submission process (I can’t recall, was any of this year’s selection process anonymous?). I basically agree with Jeff though, that I’m not sure that was the problem.
Which is to say, the prevalence of rock stars on their promotional circuits might be one of the problems, but I don’t think it was the problem this year.
DW: I’m sorry to hear you didn’t seem to have that ‘friends forever’ experience this year, but I’d give it time — assuming you made some contacts, there’s a good chance that those are contacts that will stay with you for a while.
Still, your point is very good. That social quality — which for me still clearly distinguishes it from any given trade show, even during this year’s show — is one of the hardest things to preserve while scaling up this kind of experience. I hope you do return next year, as I’m sure that Hugh & Co. will rise to the occassion and come up with a workable solution for next year.
> I can’t recall, was any of this year’s selection process anonymous?
Unfortunately no. All of our names were attached to each proposal.
I second Jeff’s comments about moderators. A good moderator is a big first step in having a successful panel. I second your sentiment about Liz Danzico. I attended one of her panels in 2006 (I think you were on it Khoi) and thought it was good. The Unstuck panel she moderated this year brought to focus how great she is as a moderator and how important a moderator is. They must be prepared and guide the discussion. They must also be able to see a tangent and bring it into the discussion if it’s germane. Liz is very good at these things. If there was some way that SxSW could identify great moderators, that could be a good first step to having better panels.
I think this is an interesting and productive discussion.
As a conference manager who has worked both ways (sole presenters and panelists), this conversation is quite useful for me as I think about future conferences.
I am very pleased to see this sort of feedback out there in the blogosphere. One of my biggest challenges has been to get well thought out feedback about both sessions and the conference overall. On site paper and pencil evaluations got less than one third of the attendees to respond. Post show surveys produced comments that too often focused on the room temperature and the quality fo the food, and also seemed to happen so late as to seem irrelevant.
Thanks for being so forthcoming.
I’m disappointed at how many of the panelist seem to wing it each year.
I know that Hugh and co. probably overcommunicate and there may be a tendency to tune out some of the suggestions, but this was my first year moderating a panel (as opposed to just appearing on one) and I took great pains to herd my cats and get some pre-communication and preparation together.
Also, our panel (“Every Breath You Take”) featured each panelist making a short presentation and then we took questions. Unfortunately, most of us took about 10 minutes and there were five of us on the panel.
In the future I’ll aim for two to four panelists to make more room for Q&A, but I’d never leave out the prepared remarks (slides or bulletes optional).
If panelists actually present something and don’t just coast on charisma, I think you get the value of a “lecture” with the added dynamic of a discussion.
Agree about the growing pains. SxSW really need to figure out the scaling problem. I can’t meet people nearly fast enough to keep up with the overall growth rate, so I feel like I know fewer people (percentagewise, I do) each year!
Chiming in on the moderators, I thought Michael Lopp and Ryan Carson were both absolutely excellent.
Three years in, I continue to find SXSW evenings maddeningly difficult. I attend as many parties as I can but it is hit and miss whether I bump up against “keepers” (contacts to pursue). The increased size has definitely worsened the odds.
A number of colleagues attend VMWorld and Microsoft events where they have “birds of a feather” mealtimes: assigned areas to meet and discuss particular interests. Though the SXSW spirit has historically been somewhat anarchic, perhaps with increased attendance some variation on this would be useful.
Sometimes, even when the panelists were interesting and prepared, it seemed to be the wrong format. The panelists ended up either talking “at” the audience, or turning to talk to another panelist, which sometimes had the effect of ignoring the audience. For the more conversational topics, I’d like to see the table removed and the participants placed in a half circle. Let them have a real conversation, and let us listen in. I love listening to a bunch of smart people talk.
While this was my first sxsw and thus I cant compare to previous years, my feeling on the panels issue is that it really depended on the panel. I went to one (on open source licenses) where they told us to ask questions and say why we were there BEFORE the panel started, and then they tailored their remarks accordingly. That was effective.
But yes, sometimes there were chats just between the panelists, and you really got nothing out of it.
But I think also the question comes down to this – are you at sxsw strictly to learn, or are you there to be inspired and meet people and maybe get a few tidbits along the way? Personally, I prefer the latter, and thus I think panels are better. If you just want to straight-ahead learn, you would prefer lectures. But imho in that case you can read a book or visit an informational website.
I agree with you quite a bit on the subject of panels vs. lectures.
All of the events I sat in on that have stuck with me were mainly lecture based, usually ones that you could tell had been given before in some way or another.
The panels seemed to water down the content. Yes, you get many viewpoints, but often you could tell that a panelist could have taken the discussion to another level had the moderator not needed to include everyone on the conversation.
On another note, the Q&A was often the low point of each panel or lecture. Too often it was someone who obviously wasn’t paying attention, or just wanted to give their own opinion… ahem… having a glass house moment here…
Sorry i missed you at SXSW khoi, but i was golfing.
I had not thought about “panel v. lecture” as the issue, but I do feel the quality was better in 2006. I keep referring to having my mind blown–that happened at least twice last year. Daniel Gilbert’s presentation on Stumbling Upon Happiness totally changed my understanding of how people make decisions. Kathy Sierra’s talk on making your customers kick ass rocked my world. I really enjoyed Craig Newmark’s keynote last year too.
This year, mind blowings: 0. I did enjoy some of the sessions and liked the Make keynote and Will Wright’s presentation.
I think the issue IS preparation and focus. Nobody wings anything in a kick-ass way (at least consistently). Even Tiger Woods practices (a lot!).
Thanks for your thoughtful write-up and I wish I’d been at your panel this year!
Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.