A Hugh Influence

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.

Hugh Speaks

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.

Hugh continues…

“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.

  1. I’ll second Hugh’s first point. I worked for an event management company for a brief time; we organized national corporate meetings which included presentation design/coaching/pestering.

    For all of the help we offered, the ultimate responsibility falls on the presenter. As a presenter, you know you need to hold the attention of 100++ people for 30min. to an hour. Plan, prepare, and practice accordingly. Respect the audience and they’ll respect you. : )

  2. I personally really like the expert vs. non-expert dynamic. I go to sxsw and other events to be exposed to new ideas and learn, not to get my self-esteem bolstered.

    And what’s a panel except a group of experts – ganging up on the audience. It isn’t even fair.

  3. Why not make speakers responsible for their presentations? If they aren’t prepared for their sessions, don’t invite them back to run a session again.

  4. I would have to agree: Hugh and the SXSWi team do a staggeringly impressive job of giving speakers and moderators clear and encouraging instructions beforehand. Not only that, but they seem to respond to any email question within hours—sometimes minutes—no matter what time of day it is. So the communication among panelists seems to be still lacking.

    For that reason, the idea of wikifying that communication is interesting. Two years in a row, we’ve used either Backpack or Basecamp on my panels to foster this very dialogue. In addition to the tools’ obvious benefits, the shared experience makes everyone publicly accountable (e.g., “Last login 7 days ago”). Accountability, it seems to me, is part of what makes a good panel. Each person can then feel responsible for its success.

  5. I agree with Liz. Hugh and his team definitely spent a lot of effort on making sure myself, Bryan, Veerle, and Kelsey were preparing. I even got a phone call one night. “Have you talked with your other panelists?” “Are you collaborating online?” “Do you do this paperwork and get that thing sent in?” There’s no shortage of effort on their part.

    For the record, we also used Basecamp and Skype for our panel. Both worked quite well.

  6. As a presenter at SxSW this year, I’d like to echo that Hugh did “badger and badger and badger the speakers to communicate before the event”. Which was a good thing, for sure. I don’t think blame can really be passed on to Hugh for the poorer panels – and let’s remember there were plenty of excellent ones too!

    I did think some of the scheduling left something to be desired, particularly when there were some obvious clashes of similar panels.

    As for lectures vs panels: Mark and I did a lecture-style presentation (although we had 20 mins of Q&A) which seemed to be well received. I think the lecture quotient could be increased – sometimes people just want to take home some info; something they can try out. The panel format is definitely part of what makes SxSW what it is, so that certainly shouldn’t be lost, and at their best panels can be massively inspirational.

  7. While I appreciate the wiki idea, I gotta say, especially for the interactive side of the conference, most of us know of tools available to us to help with organizing a talk. Like Liz, I’ve used Basecamp and Backpack in the past, and both of those can be used in this instance for free. And let’s be real, email alone can serve the purpose if the speakers are dedicated enough.

    I think that it really falls back to desire, if a speaker is lazy, or busy, or just can’t fit preparation into their schedule, no amount of reminders or tools will help that.

    The bigger problem is that there really isn’t a system for checks and balances. Hugh and the SXSW gang get to see the content for the first time when everyone does: when it’s being presented. Obviously, because of all the different folks from all the different lands, there may not be much opportunity for a true preview before the event.

    The format, panel vs presentation, doesn’t really matter that much if you don’t have something meaningful to say. Panels can be more difficult because people think they can just get up on stage and answer questions (possibly bred by seeing a bad panel that did that the year before). But, the panel format relies heavily on a quick and neutral moderator shepherding the discussion in an interesting path and a group of people who’ve prepared for the material being asked of them. Presentations can sometimes be the safer bet because the speakers are forced to find the narrative to what they are saying. The presentation has to find a message and encapsulate it an hour’s time. This doesn’t ensure it will be good, but in most cases, it makes the conversation go somewhere.

    Like it was mentioned before, the driving factors behind motivation for some could be failure or success, or making it so they can’t speak the following year. But, that seems like a slippery slope; who determines the success or failure of a presentation/panel? And what if someone was just nervous or didn’t have as many questions directed at them by the moderator? SXSW is one of the only conferences where less-experienced speakers can speak and learn and improve.

    Lots of good discussion going on in here, and some great food for thought.

  8. You are never going to make everyone happy with everything. But if there is a good mix of things that each “type” of person finds interesting, that is a success. Honestly, I sent people to SXSW and didn’t check, but do the descriptions of the panels/presentations include a bit about who would find it useful/beneficial?

    Also, are those comment sheets available? Or some kind of public rating system of speakers? I know when they started doing this for professors at universities it really changed which classes friends of mine took. There could be some kind of forum for speakers maybe? (This could easily get out of hand I’m sure, but would make presenters more accountable for what they do)

  9. I have some form of A.D.D., and I still believe the 30 minute panel has to get axed. A panel in my opinion has to be at least an hour. By time you get your introductions done and a brief message, time is up.

    “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.”

    I disagree – I think there are experts who are better at certain things. Sure I get paid to create CSS but I’m no Dan Cederholm. Also, I am a graphic designer by trade and my expertise is design, but that doesn’t mean I’m an expert at every style of design or couldn’t learn from someone like Khoi who designs from the grid or Veerle who designs from illustration or Santa Maria who has a passion for typography.

    Panels are great and create a loose atmosphere at SXSW, and I’m not saying we should take that away, but the majority of the people I talked to wanted more “meat.” I think a cross-blend of presentations and panels would be ideal.

  10. Hugh can be depended on not to take outside advice. (His company also profits handsomely from your unpaid work in appearing on his panels. Unless you’re Malcolm Gladwell or Ana Marie Cox, of course.)

    And if he’s complaining people show up unprepared, well, let’s be careful whom he’s talking about. I *never* appear on a panel unprepared.

    The prevailing wisdom is that SXSW is a joyously-anticipated annual gathering of the tribe. In fact, it’s a moneymaking venture held in a sterile convention centre in a small Texas city. But what if it’s even worse than that?

  11. One more comment is that the other issue with the content was I would prefer more diversity of content. Bring more of the sociology/psychology stuff in from last year.

  12. I was thinking — it seems to me that the SXSWi audience, in general, is full of experts. And if not experts, at least people who are passionate and try to keep up with the latest trends, technologies, and happenings online. This makes me wonder if part of the disappointment is SXSW panels/presentations isn’t related to that fact that it’s difficult to teach these folks something they don’t already know.

    At other conferences I’ve been to, it seems much more common that you’ve got employers paying to send their web team, and the audience is more full of people who — let’s face it — wouldn’t have paid to go on their own. I think sometimes we in the web design blogosphere/community forget that there are literally thousands of people out there doing web design and development for a living that don’t read our blogs. People for whom, for better or for worse, it is “just a job.” With these folks in the audience, you’re much more likely to teach them something they don’t already know.

    Seems to me, with the SXSWi crowd, that’s a much harder task (which, I think, is why so much of the SXSWi crowd enjoys the psycology, socialology, journalism, and other sorts of tangentially-related presentations — because they’re not exclusively about things we already know).

  13. Just chiming in to agree that there isn’t much more Hugh and the SXSW team could have done to make the panelists prepare better. I was pleasantly surprised at how many nudges I got and how much support I was offerred in the weeks and months leading up to the event itself. Any failings on the part of the panels should rest mostly with the moderators and panelists themselves.

    That said, there are ways, I think, to make the panelists do a better job by giving them a little better context in which to work.

    One suggestion I dropped in the SXSW message box was to introduce the idea of themed “tracks” to the conference, and classifying the panels into maybe four or five different tracks. A themed track would be, in its simplest form, merely a “tag” indicating roughly what sort of panel it is. Design, Culture, Business, Development, Games, etc. At a more complex level, panels could be scheduled so that items in the same track rarely overlap — attendees interested mostly in, say, panels about “Business” could more easily schedule their attendance by following a track.

    But more importantly, categorizing panels would help the panelists (a) stay on topic, and (b) understand what kind of people have come to attend their panel.

    A moderator or panel who understands that their panel is part of a broader “curriculum” would see their job as more important, and as more deliberate, than the current SXSW culture where pretty much panelists are aiming at an amorphous mob.

    Tracks would also help alleviate the cultural issues around the fact that SXSW is so freaking huge right now. By being part of a track, even loosely defined, attendees can feel more a part of a smaller community/family while still being part of the larger SXSW mob. Sometimes tribalism encourages cross-communication better than an all-out free for all.

  14. First off, I would like to commend Khoi and Mark on a great presentation. It was, without a doubt, the best presentation I attended at SXSW this year. Their experience, passion and preparation clearly set the bar for other presenters to shoot for in the future.

    Now, on the topic of “panels” vs “presenters”.

    Not to diminish my previous accolades, but I think that most skilled people who merit speaking at a conference like SXSW, if given time and are sufficiently motivated, could come up with a moderately entertaining and informative presentation. It takes a very different skill set to get up and “riff” for an hour. In my opinion its a LOT harder. There is a personality and charisma element that must be present that not many people possess.

    It’s kind of like hip-hop; most rappers can recite lyrics they have written ahead of time, but very few can just get up and ‘flow’ in front of an audience.

    With the explosive growth of SXSW Interactive, each year there will be a larger need for panels and presentations. I simply don’t believe that the pool of experts that can carry a panel presentation is large enough to keep up. If the current trend continues, we can expect more sub-par panels in the future.

    Sorry if this comes across as harsh, but I nearly feel asleep in every panel I went to this year. If this keeps up, I’ll just start going to the parties and skip the conference 😉

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