There was such an encouragingly substantive response to my post about the apparently problematic quality differential between panels and lectures at South by Southwest Interactive this year that I felt compelled to do something useful with them. Specifically, I felt that I should share the comments with Hugh Forrest, the indefatigable and remarkably responsive Event Director who somehow manages to move mountains to make the festival happen year after year.
It only seemed appropriate to do so, because Hugh, based on my limited contact with him, has always seemed to be a good guy open to reasonable feedback on how to improve the festival that he’s been involved with for years. So I sent him an email pointing him to the post on Sunday night and received a lengthy and very thoughtful response the very next day.
We exchanged a few more emails, debating the ideas in my original post as well as those from the comment thread, and I found myself in the opposite position from where I’d been before: having shared Subtraction readers’ comments with Hugh, I now wanted to share Hugh’s comments with readers. So, with his consent, I’m going to excerpt a few of his remarks from the email thread here.
An issue to which I gave a lot of emphasis in my post, and with which many readers seemed to agree, was that preparation is a crucial element of any session’s success, whether a panel or a lecture. Hugh had this to say:
“The difficult thing as an organizer is that I feel like we badger and badger and badger the speakers to communicate before the event. And, to that end, I’m always disappointed/bummed out to get the feedback that ‘looks like these people didn’t prepare at all.’”
This is an organizer-side perspective that I hadn’t considered. There’s only so much preparation that Hugh and his team can mandate, and even then, I’ve heard it said anecdotally that SXSW does a better job of communicating with speakers and emphasizing the importance of how they can make their sessions succeed than most conferences.
Still, Hugh suggested there might be ways to get more meaningful pre-event communication, perhaps with a “semi-private pre-event wiki where all speakers communicate with others on their panel.” Such a tool would also have the side benefit, due to its centralization, of allowing the organizers to see who isn’t participating in the preparation, and to nudge those people well in advance.
On one level, this is indicative of South by Southwest’s larger challenges: just as they’re trying to find the right balancing point between communication and pestering, so too are they trying to find the balancing point between scaling up and maintaining intimacy, between a democratic approach to programming and programming well-known names.
With regard to panels, versus lectures, Hugh had this to say:
“I also generally agree on your point that presentations are more useful [and educational] than panels and we should probably do more of that next year. What I dislike about the presentation is more philosophical — that I feel like the presentation format sets up this expert vs. non-expert dynamic. And, I generally think that everyone at SXSW Interactive is an expert, and that the panel format reflects that.”
That’s an interesting point that illustrates that democratic streak that the festival has always had. It also goes back to my idea that in general, lectures usually yield better results, but that panels, while challenging to pull off, can still make for valuable sessions. In fact, as some readers pointed out, the potential of a panel, though not often fully realized, can be much greater than that of a lecture.
“The panel stuff is inherently very subjective. This becomes all the more obvious when one reads through the post-event comment sheets. One person will say ‘HTML from A to Z’ was the best panel he/she has ever seen. Then the next person will say it was the most boring thing ever. Point here is that I really do want to continue to work on ways to improve the panel programming. But, it is a beast that is probably inherently flawed.”
As for the panel selection process, Hugh refuted my contention that it was a detriment to this year’s programming:
“My response here is that I think we need to do some significant modifications on this system, but that (generally) it was a big success. Also, I think that having experts program panels that they have expertise in works a lot better than me doing that. You guys have much better knowledge here then I do about who is doing the most compelling work in the given fields.”
That’s definitely a well-articulated counter-argument — who can resist flattery aimed at the entirety of the festival’s audience? Still, it’s a good point that, in this case, technology may have interfered with intention. I do recall that the interface for the panel picker was less than optimal, and we all know how much a poor interfaces can cloud results. Hopefully next year will see a much improved 2.0 version.
Finally, I asked Hugh for his take on this year’s conference as a whole:
“The feedback from the 2007 event has generally been very positive. Yet, despite saying how much they liked this year’s event, most people have very strong opinions on how to improve the panel stuff. These opinions are a good thing — feedback is the only way to try to get better.”
There you go, folks. Hugh is listening.