Advice for SXSW presenters: Tell the truth, and lose the pitch

Selecting which sessions to attend at South by Southwest is an art. My general philosophy is to skip the ones that I think will tell me things I already know (including many of the journalism sessions) or that are led by people I talk to all the time. I usually pick something I think will open my mind or give me really practical takeaways, then I follow along on the Twitter backchannel for the rest, saving RSS feeds of hashtags I’m especially interested in.

I’ve been in some great sessions at South by Southwest this week. I’ve also been in some total duds. Some of the duds have been topics that just weren’t a good fit for me. But others were misrepresented or poorly run.

Here’s what I wish speakers would do:
— Tell the truth in your panel pitches. Describe what you’re going to say. And then if you change your mind along the way, suck it up and stick to the original plan. Or don’t be surprised when the crowd seems disappointed.

— Be upfront about the goals of the session. Maybe it’s the professor in me (learning objectives, anyone?), but I really like it when people announce what they’re going to say and then say it.

— Don’t pitch your product. Know that everyone in the audience is looking you up and will discover for themselves what you do for a living. I understand that lots of people here have a product or service to sell, but that pitch should not be the basis for your panel. Or if it is, see No. 1.

— Don’t rely on having a conversation with your audience, and don’t go to questions too soon. When you do, it’s easy to lose control over the focus of the session. I haven’t been to a single session on the “Core Conversations” track that had focus or stayed interesting. One thing that helps: When you take questions, ask people to introduce themselves first. The context/background can frame the question.

— Put up a screen with twitter names when you’re introducing the panel. Keep it there as the default.

— If the Twitter hashtag is generic (#dads? really?) amend it on the fly so the backchannel is focused and uncluttered.

What did I leave out?

8 Comments on “Advice for SXSW presenters: Tell the truth, and lose the pitch”

  1. Dorsey says:

    Joy: Thanks for your post. Great points, all of them. I wasn’t lucky enough to be at SXSW this year (so I was grateful for tweets and posts like yours, which helped me gather lots of good info and feel like I wasn’t quite missing as much anyway), but I’ve seen my fair share of panels and conferences and continue to be disappointed by some pretty basic factors that presenters miss too often. I’m not saying any of these were issues at SXSW, but I would add to your list:

    • Edit your visuals as much (or more) than your words.
    • “Panel” is not code for “don’t worry about prep” – in fact, properly moderating a strong panel often takes more prep and coordination than a routine solo or duo presentation.
    • Have an opinion, be ready to say SOMETHING. There’s nothing worse than watching a panel of like-minded people agree to everything. Whoever assembles the panel(s) should pay attention to putting some interesting – and opposing – contributors together.
    • Limit the number of words on any slide – they should be headlines not subtext. And for Pete’s sake, please don’t read me your slides.
    • BE VISUAL. SHOW ME. Seriously. I sat through a looo-ong lunch panel at a major conference just last year, in a main ballroom, where more than one of the speakers was representing a visually-based project or startup. The numerous screens in the room never once inched from their default conference logo screen. That group lost me.
    • Use your technology before taking the stage. There’s nothing worse — for presenter or audience — than getting “tech-stranded” in front of a crowd.

    Seriously, Joy, excellent blog. Thanks for sharing. Please keep it up.

  2. Joy Mayer says:

    Thanks, Steve! Sorry I’m just now responding.

    I share your frustration with these points, too, and some of them came up in Austin. I especially echo the need to freakin’ say something, and to have something original to suggest. When every session on social media starts to sound the same, I blame it on a lack of originality, and on the organizers who don’t do a good enough job with oversight.

  3. Thank you for the suggestion on hashtags. It’s not that it seemed like the tag choices were uninspired, it was that it felt like they were created by someone who doesn’t ever use them on Twitter. They should have known #dads would be just one part of the hashstream.

    Also agree very much about the panels in terms of transparency of description and selling a product. I really would like more of it so I can know what to skip.

  4. The conversation one also resonates. I think too many panels had the strategy of “we’ll show up, talk about some stuff, and try to create a conversation.” That’s not a SXSW panel, that’s a bar-hopping strategy.

    • Joy Mayer says:

      Definitely. Too many of those jumped into what was supposed to be conversation without establishing what we were conversating about!

  5. Dorsey says:

    And of course, Dr. Garcia — in a single tweet — captures the essence of how to deliver a killer presentation (and he’s done his fair share): “Tips for a good presentation: Seduce, inform, impress. Never go on auto pilot; always prepare as if it was first time.” Bam.

  6. […] Last year, I focused on community, social media and influence. I blogged about Doreen Marchionni’s session on conversational journalism, my frustration with ridiculous claims about social media ROI, and my advice for SXSW presenters. […]

  7. When you discover youself to be assisting the majority, it is time to stop and reflect.
    The invisible hand of the market always moves faster and compared to the heavy hand of government.

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