I lived in Austin, Texas from 1999-2003 and have attended SxSW Interactive every year since 2004. Each year, I attended SxSW each year with a different role: web awards winner, press, speaker, moderator, core conversations facilitator, and then panel liaison.
This post isn’t about the best food in Austin (Rudy’s BBQ and Amy’s Ice Cream) or the best parties to attend. There are plenty of resources out there about those. Instead, you might consider this a beginner’s guide for how to get the most out of SxSW.
They’re Not Cliques
You’re at the conference, excited to meet all the people you’ve been reading online. You see them, gathered outside Room 18ABC in a circle chatting with each other and greeting their internet famous peers passing by.
Without fail, every first-timer at SxSWi has the same feedback: there is the sense that there’s an “in” crowd or that there are the “cool” kids and then there’s everyone else outside of that circle. I had the same impressions on my first trip.
What people don’t realize until they go a second or third time is that SxSWi is not just a conference—it’s a reunion. It’s the one time a year that I see some of my peers that live in cities or countries I don’t frequent. So there’s a lot of catching up with old friends that happens. Personally, I love meeting new and interesting people, but it’s also hard to balance it with reconnecting.
Understand, for the most part, everyone is welcoming but you have to make the effort and break the ice. Recognize that few are being deliberately exclusionary and welcome new friends (assuming you’re not just trying to sell something).
On one of my earlier SxSW outings, I lamented about the “double handshake” where people shake your hand a second time when they recognize your work or who you are. The fact is, there are hundreds upon hundreds of people. I hate asking the question, “what do you do?” especially since it often is construed as “where do you work?” Instead, I try to understand who they are and what they care about. A friend of mine goes so far as to ask, “what are you passionate about?”
Conversations are a lot more memorable when you provide context of who you are and what projects you work on. Maybe it’s a blog about potato chips shaped like famous people. Maybe you’re a gal that draws on index cards. Maybe you are giving stickers to tag people. Whatever the case, giving some additional context goes a long way.
The first year I went, we had trading cards of famous HCI and usability practitioners dressed as superheroes. It was a fantastic icebreaker and helped people remember us or recognize that we were associated with a site they read.
Also, context doesn’t end with the introductions. We all collect dozens of business cards at conferences. Try to provide context there, too. I’ve found I remember the cards with photos more and some people leave room on their cards specifically to write in the context of your meeting.
It’s the Geek Spring Break. Be a Geek.
Use whatever the tools du jour are. Eons ago, it was Dodgeball. Last year, it was Twitter. This year, it will likely be a combination of Twitter, and the newly launched Dodgeball replacement, Foursquare. Get an unlimited SMS plan (even if it’s just for the month) and stay on the pulse.
I like to use the tech to be aware of what’s going on so I can bypass stupid lines, boring panels, or join a much smaller gathering where I’m guaranteed higher quality conversations.
Just remember what you’re using the tools for. They serve you, not the other way around. Being physically present at an awesome party means nothing if you’re mentally in your phone.
Fight the FOMO
This lesson was probably the hardest to learn. You can’t go to every panel and you can’t go to every party. Get over it now.
No, really. You can’t. Get over it.
Be willing to skip some panels if you’re having fascinating conversations in the hallway because you may not run into that person for the rest of the time there. Be willing to skip the big party that everyone’s talking to if there’s a great dinner group forming and you can talk one on one with some attendees without fighting the alcohol blur and the loud music. Be willing to skip everything to go to the Austin City Limits soundstage for a free show of a great band, or to go to Spider House Coffee and Toy Joy — just to enjoy Austin for what it is.
But just so you know what and how much there is to do:
- Tantek’s SxSW packing list
- Free SxSW Parties
- SxSW Baby Unofficial Blog
- Laughing Squid’s SxSW Resources
- SCHED.org scheduling tool
- Glenda’s introductory panel tomorrow on How to RAWK SxSW
I will be arriving Saturday, Mar 14 and staying through Music until Sun Mar 22. Find me on Twitter as @k if you want to meet up. While I have a published SxSW schedule, I fully expect to deviate completely from the plans. You should expect the same.