Getting selected to speak at SXSW Interactive is a great way to establish yourself as an expert in a subject that you’re passionate about.
Naturally everyone wants to be able to set themselves apart from the crowd—every year, SXSWi gets over 2500 submissions—and accepted less than 1 in 4, or 600. So with time ticking away, we went straight to the top to find out just what makes a panel popular, both with online voters and with the audiences in Austin. Since 1993, Hugh Forrest has been the event director for SXSW Interactive, managing the event and deciding the process by which panelists will be determined. We caught up with him to get some insider tips on making your panel sound the best it can be, on the importance (or unimportance!) of voting, and why it doesn’t hurt to play to the experts in the crowd.
Why torture your prospective speakers by making them get their submissions in by deadline?
It’s simple: putting together a panel or solo presentation takes a heck of a lot of organization. If a speaker can meet a deadline in July, it shows us that they’re serious and they want to put the effort in. Moreover, if someone can persuade a crowd to vote for them in the middle of August, we see that as a positive indication that they could likely pull off a strong panel.
So what’s the single best way that potential speakers can stand out on the PanelPicker?
The best advice I can give is less is more—try to be as specific as possible. Don’t try to cover all things Facebook in the space of an hour, it’s just too much. Writing up a submission is one thing, delivering it is another. Live, broad topics often come across as rushed and confused. Try to whittle your concept down to a small, tight idea and then submit that.
How else can someone get noticed?
Be the expert. Don’t be afraid of developing an advanced-level topic. We always get a lot more intermediate-level submissions–everyone chooses the middle of the road.
What types of panels are you most eager to see?
More solo panels. They deliver a lot more depth and our audience prefers them. Group panels can get sidetracked and go off course, depending on the strength of the moderator.
Can SXSW be a good conference for a first-time speaker?
Definitely. While polished talks by pros are definitely important, freshness is too. We really do try to achieve a balance between experienced presenters and new voices.
What trumps: instructional panels, educational panels, or panels that are for pure entertainment value?
Tough question. I’d have to weigh instructional panels slightly higher than the others, especially because not everyone agrees on what makes good entertainment.
Writing an eight-word title is challenging; how important is a good title to the selection process?
Very—and by the way—we would have gone for six words, but Larry Smith had the patent on it! When you’re writing your submission title, just think about people browsing for topics on the SXSW App; they look at the title and they they don’t read the whole description. If your title is confusing or unclear, they’ll skip your session.
What about pithy or clever?
Everyone likes cute titles. I understand the impulse. But the counterweight is this: short and obvious sells. If you have a title that no one understands but you, that’s not a good thing. If you have to go cute in your title, do it in three to four words. Then write a specific second half.
To what extent is SXSW selection a popularity contest? How much does public voting really count?
It counts for 30%, and we very much hope that it doesn’t become a popularity contest. We think our advisory board (40% of vote) and staff (30%) mitigates that risk. We also pay attention. If, for example, someone submits a panel from AOL and the only people voting for it are AOLers, we’ll notice.
Does speaking at previous SXSW’s increase or decrease chances of future acceptance?
It doesn’t matter, really. If speakers got great reviews, we’ll be more inclined to pull them back in. But mainly it depends on how equipped they are to talk on the subject and if their panel is compelling this year.
And finally, were they easy to work with, did they prepare, were they rude to other attendees, other speakers or staff? That matters.
So the crowd counts for 30%, the advisory board counts for 40%. What goes into the criteria for “staff picks,” which counts for the final 30%?
We often get panels that are similar, so we’ll look across all the submitted panels to decide who is best to present on a given subject. If there’s someone from Istanbul who could speak on the same subject a guy from San Francisco wants to speak about, we’d probably choose the Turkish perspective. We also care about whether or not this person can demonstrate that they will prepare and present themselves as a solid public speaker.
As the curator, what do you predict this year’s trends to be?
One of the values of the PanelPicker is that it provides an instant snapshot of the tech industry. When the economy is down (early 2000s and today), we’ve seen an uptick in the entrepreneurial and business-related proposals. It’s easier and cheaper to start your own company, the obstacles are much less, and entrepreneurs may not have other options, so that becomes a topic of interest. I expect to continue to see more social networking and health proposals, as well as lots of startup-related ideas
Speaking of the PanelPicker, how did the crowd-sourced democratizer come about?
People used to email us neat panel ideas, and we’d say, that’s sounds great—you’re in. Then we grew and it became clear that we needed a more formalized process. Enter the PanelPicker, which today allows us to see common threads by unlocking the creativity of the crowd.
Are there themes for each year or is speaker-selection determined more based on what’s current in tech?
The overall theme for SXSWi is creativity. People who have great creative approaches to traditional ideas. The last couple of years, social networking has been a big part of it because it’s such a growing area. That said, some of our most popular sessions are the unusual ones, such as biologist Craig Venter’s talk about the Human Genome Project. People come to SXSW to get inspired.
What does it take to make a great conference?
A ton of organizing, seriously. But, the thing that makes SXSW so special is the throngs of creatives that descend on Austin from around the world to talk about their disciplines, passions, and inspirations.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Austin. Left for college. Then came back. I’ve also spent a lot of time on the West Coast (Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles).
What other conferences do you personally attend?
Strangely, I don’t go to that many other events anymore. Mainly this is because the growth of SXSW means that I need to spend more time in Austin working on the event. I also tend to get really jealous and insecure when I go to other events (“Wow, this event is really good—I wish SXSW were organized this well”). I try to avoid that feeling.
I believe that every fifth person you meet in the US either is from Ohio or went to college there. As a Kenyon grad, do you subscribe to this theory?
Absolutely. Ohio is the hearth!
What did you do between graduating college and starting the festival? What prepped you for this journey you’re on?
My goal after college was to become a writer (I think that is still my lifelong goal). So I worked at a variety of newspaper jobs before starting at SXSW. I’m not necessarily a technical person. But I have always found that being able to write is a skill that never quite goes out of fashion. In terms of preparation for the current journey, probably the most important thing was having a bit of a life crisis in 2003. I took some time away from SXSW and read a library full of self-help books. I think that reading those books helped spark the concept that we should loosen our grip on the event and try to trust more in the community. The emergence of the PanelPicker is a direct result of this concept.
How many people run SXSW in the off-season, and how many people does it take (including your Hired Guns, of course) to run it in March?
The team that produces the SXSW Interactive Festival has grown to about 15 full-time employees. We will probably add a few more permanent and seasonal folks over the next few months. As for the total number of people in the SXSW office (i.e. working on all aspects of SXSWeek), we now have about 80 full-time, year-round employees.
In what ways has the Interactive conference been helped or influenced by the film and music festivals that bookend it?
I think the presence of Music and Film always helps remind us of the underlying goal of SXSW—which is creativity. Yes, the language we speak at Interactive is technology (and that is a little different from the language they speak at Music and Film). But fundamentally, the goal of attendees at all three events is the same thing. To celebrate the most creative new approaches that help us understand, appreciate, and improve the world in which we live.
Who is the most surprising “breakout” person/speaker/idea to emerge from SXSW?
I’m not sure if breakout is the right word to describe his presence at the event—because he certainly established himself long before coming to SXSW. But the writer Bruce Sterling has spoken at SXSW many many times. Bruce lived in Austin for many years, so it made sense for him to be involved. More recently, he has traveled from Europe to be part of the event. In 2011 and 2010, his solo presentation was the only session that I was able to watch in full. Indeed, he is an incredible speaker who brings creative insights to his vision of the world. I am always incredibly inspired after hearing him speak—and I think creative inspiration is one the most important aspects of SXSW.
What are the most amazing products, services or ideas that have emerged or been perfected during SXSW?
Certainly the two most high-profile services to come out of SXSW are Twitter and Foursquare. And we are very proud of the fact that the event played a small role in their success. But we are also equally proud of the smaller successes that SXSW helps foster. For instance, I had an email yesterday from a husband-wife team who organized a panel in 2011. After the session, several companies contacted them with very positive feedback. This couple has now formed a consultancy business based on the concepts and practices they talked about at their panel. Very cool!
Then hit up SXSW’s event updates—it has good advice on keeping your topic narrow, common mistakes to avoid, and reminders about how getting chosen doesn’t have to mean that you already have a huge online presence. (Popular votes only account for 30% of the score you need to get in.