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. Although the festival doesn’t happen until next March, the deadline for submitting a big idea talk on its famous PanelPicker is almost here—it’s this Friday, July 15, at 11:59pm, CDT (although see the end of this post for more info about the additional deadline for finalizing your proposal).
Naturally everyone wants to be able to set themselves apart from the crowd—last year, SXSWi got 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 July 15?
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. Read More →