B114: How to get the most out of attending SXSW

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Here’s how to get the most out of attending SXSW this year! I announced recently that I’m speaking at this year’s SXSW conference, happening down in Austin, Texas and I’m so excited. I’ll be leading a workshop, simplifying and talking all about podcasts. But the truth is, this isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been attending this conference since 1999 and I’ve learned quite a few things along the way!

So if you’re planning on attending IRL this year, I’ve got five tips to help you best prepare so you can get the most out of the experience. Here goes…

1) Define how you measure success.

It’s so easy to go, see tons of bands, eat lots of tacos and have loads of fun. That’s a given for anyone attending and quite frankly, the low hanging fruit. However, no matter if you’re an entrepreneur, a musician, a filmmaker… or maybe, someone who’s wanting to start a new business, go to space by 2059 or planning a big career leap, you’ve gotta know your why. 

  • Why attend? 
  • What compelled you to buy a ticket, invest in the travel, and take time out of your work schedule to be there? 
  • Can you succinctly write it down in one sentence? If so, do that now. 

And then, riddle me this… how are you going to measure your success in achieving that why? What 3-4 things will leave you feeling like “nice one, job well done” when you head home, post-festival? Define it, stick it on a post it note, and track it every day pre/during/post SXSW as you map out your strategy of what you’re going to see and where you’ll devote your time while there.

2) Get connected.

SXSW has one of the most sophisticated online registration systems I’ve seen for large-scale conferences. In short, they do it right, providing lots of tools to help people connect with each other in meaningful ways through the conference through their app and SXSW Social. So here are a few ways to maximize what they offer… first, log in and flesh out your profile with a headshot, bio, social media handles and all. 

  • Top tip: add in a few topic hashtags so people can search and find you by your areas of expertise and interests. So let’s say the Future of Work is high on your list, set a hashtag on your profile for #FutureofWork… viola, people searching for that hashtag will find you easier! 
  • Equally, use the search function to seek out registered attendees by company name, job title or as mentioned earlier, by hashtags. Star the people you’d like to connect with and make a plan for connecting with them. How? You could spark a conversation pre-event to say hello, invite them to a micro meetup or something of that ilk. Just don’t try to sell them anything right out the gate… nobody likes that, period. But instead, say hello, offer them something of value or ask a question like, “I see we’ve got similar interests… What’s one session that is on your must-see list this year at South by?” Simple, friendly and not creepy. That’s the best way to go. And if they respond, you could reply back with your top session and make a plan to meet up. 
  • Quick note… by the time this episode comes out, all the time slots might be gobbled up, but make sure to log in and try to book a free mentoring session with one of this year’s speakers in your areas of interest. There are well over 100 mentors offering mini 1-1 sessions and that’ll be a great way to get connected with thought leaders in your industry.  Even a quick convo like that could be pivotal to future introductions (both ways) and deeper connections later in the week at the conference. I’ve got 10 meetings like this booked in throughout the week… and I’ll make sure to be super prepared beforehand and do my research on them, so they are intelligent power-packed mini-convos and a great use of both of our time together.

3) Do it your way.

The entire downtown area of Austin, TX becomes an adult playground for SXSW with parties, live music, brand activations and more. It is rumored that since this is the first year they’ve been back IRL since the pandemic, things might be smaller than what we’ve seen in the past… and I take that as a total win! Smaller means more intimate, less people means more chances for deeper connections. Use this to your advantage! 

What things do you need in order to achieve your goals this year? A slick, new business card with QR codes to your LinkedIn page or to a freebie page of online goodies? 

Maybe you are avoiding the big parties and want to find a way to connect on a micro level in an intentional way? Me too, so here is what I’m doing… each day, I will be at a local taco shop or food truck within walking distance of the conference and I will announce where I’m at, when, and how to find me. 

I’ll invite people out to meet me for an impromptu lunch together, have an open tab for tacos, and present one simple question for us to chat about each day. My hashtag #letstacoboutit – find me on Twitter @thesimplifiers. And hey, if one person shows or ten, that’s a great way for me to meet like-minded people on the go who are passionate about the topics I’m excited about. We both learn new things and never eat alone. Win-win-win. I’ll also invite people I’ve starred earlier to join me daily as well. It’s just one way I’m doing things my way this year.

4) Pace yourself.

As I was strategizing how I’ll experience Southby this year with a couple of trusted colleagues, one of them mentioned, “I’d love it if this conference was full of fun and ease for you… one where when you came back, you felt refreshed not exhausted.” AMEN to that! 

I think the hustle & grind culture wants you to believe that you need to milk every milli-second of your time to the very last drop to make it worth it. And for me, that just doesn’t work. Yes, be strategic and highly intentional about which sessions to attend, who you want to meet, and how you’ll spend your time. But keep in mind, if you value sleep and know that your brain will be clearer for that super important 9am session tomorrow, then (it goes without saying) don’t stay up ‘till 3am the night before.

5) And the secret stuff no one tells you…

However (and this will totally contradict what I said above but…) I will say, everyone should go on at least one late night music adventure (once in their lifetime) where you pop in and out of clubs pied-piper style downtown. That’s where you walk down 6th street, listen to sounds of bands playing and pop in to the ones that intrigue you the most with a small group of newly made friends. It’s so much fun and you never know who you’ll stumble in and see make music magic. But maybe that’s done the night before you fly out, so you roll outta Austin true rockstar style. 

All the parties… so many parties!

Yes, there are a ton of official and unofficial SXSW parties you could attend at pretty much all hours of the day or night… Find those here – that’s where to RSVP to gain access and get on the guest list. Make sure to map out your schedule, link it to the SXSW app, and wear comfortable shoes as you’ll likely walk or take a Lime scooter to wherever you’re headed. No need for a rental car as long as you’re staying in/near the downtown, Soco or east Austin area… plus, rental car shortage! Just Uber when you need to go longer distances, opting for the carpool option to (again) meet new people, share costs and do your part for the environment.

What to pack for SXSW (as in, what to carry with you everywhere you go):

I plan on packing light… my SXSW badge, vaccine card, refillable water bottle, a few packets of Emergen-C to boost the ‘ol immune system, sunscreen, sunglasses, a small bottle of hand sanitizer, my phone charger cord, mints, blister bandaids for my feet, my Apple wallet fully loaded, a paper notepad, business cards and I’ll handing out some super cute heart sunglasses as well. That’s it! I’m leaving the laptop at home because I know I’ll be on the go lots and let’s face it, Austin can get a bit sweaty even in mid March. Think sundresses, (again) sensible shoes and maybe a light scarf… Austin is notoriously casual, so dress accordingly.

Hotel lobbies are your secret spot.

I know this is going to sound silly but don’t be afraid to just hang out in hotel lobbies when you need to recharge your phone, cool off in a bit of A/C, grab a refreshing drink to rehydrate, and also meet some new people. Most all hotel lobbies are wide open and happy to have you there, especially if you grab a drink or a snack at the bar. My favorites are the Four Seasons Hotel, the W, and the JW Marriott. Don’t be afraid to spark up a conversation with people there – most times, a smile is all it takes and a bit of courage. Texans tend to be super friendly. And most times, there’s live music around the clock to catch as well. Bonus!

Live tweeting, the Simplifiers way.

If you enjoy Twitter, consider live tweeting during the sessions you attend, making sure to tag the speaker and any relevant hashtags. Make sure to use # SXSW as well, inviting others who are following along at home with an insider peek at the smart things people say from the stage. Take photos, post short videos, use location tagging and tag others to expand your reach. Consider having hashtags and speaker’s social media handles saved on your notepad app in your phone so you can easily cut/paste on the fly.

Oof, feeling a bit anxious about people-ing? Do this.

Lastly, you might be feeling a bit of anxiety getting around large crowds of people again… hello pandemic! I felt that at one point, too as I too re-emerged back into the world. My very best advice is to simply practice beforehand. Maybe head to a small networking event in your hometown to get used to meeting new people, practice your opening lines, and get used to rubbing shoulders with others at a local live music show. Remember, it’s all up to you as to how big (or small) of parties, sessions, and workshops you want to attend and feel comfortable with. Bring your KN-95 face masks, set your boundaries and know that everyone is at some stage of re-emergence right now, just like you. Accept that it might feel a bit awkward at first and that the best way to squash the awk is to try, try, try again. Practice makes perfect.

Create a follow-up plan and #DoTheThing!

And with any conference you attend, make sure you’ve mapped out your follow-up plan, post event. Do what 80% of people NEVER do… create a spreadsheet to track how you’ll follow-up (and then actually do it!) immediately after the conference. 

I make piles (daily) of the business cards I collect and I try to write on them a tiny note that will help jog my memory of this person, who they are, where we met, and what the next step is on building this relationship. That way, I know the right way to follow-up. 

Whether it’s a handwritten letter, scheduling a video call, or following through on a promise you may have made to connect them to someone or have them as a guest on your podcast or offer them a job interview, remember friends… DO. THE. THING! Make a plan, track your progress and build your network full of incredible, creative people.

One final whisper

And just one final whisper, just from me to you, dear friend… come in closer.

If this is your first big IRL conference you’ve attended in well over two years, just remember to go slow.

Anxiety, social awkwardness, boundaries, and traveling in general are all things that can raise the ‘ol stress levels. Give yourself a bit of grace to feel it out while you are there. You might find that your brain is ready to rock out with a ton of people at a big music showcase… but when you get there, your body is definitely saying, “YIKES… no, I’m not ready yet.”  And that’s okay.

There should be fewer lines this year because of fewer attendees… but that doesn’t mean there will be fewer crowds, especially as bouncers and SXSW staff are checking vaccine cards, badges and maintaining crowd control for safety sake. Make sure to schedule in buffer time between must-attend sessions, so you’ve got extra time for when things take longer than you guessed. Also, when you’ve got a bit of free time built in, you’re more likely to spark a conversation with someone rather than having your nose down in your phone, darting from one venue to another.

The very best SXSWs that I’ve ever attended (and I think this year will be my eighth!) are ones where my chin is up, I’m mustering up lots of courage to chat with people, listening, learning, and being open to new experiences. Much like going to Burning Man… sometimes the best moments are the unplanned ones.

Also, I’m thrilled to be speaking at the conference this year and I’d love to meet you! Make a note: I’m speaking on Sunday, March 13 at the JW Marriott (Room 201-202) from 2:30-4pm, sharing “Why Your Grandma’s Podcast is Better Than Yours.” 

It’s all about podcasts, how to make yours better and what I’ve learned in the last 5 seasons of ours. Come say hello and I promise to introduce you to someone I know at the conference. It’s little things like these that multiply, so much so, that by the end of the conference, you’ll have met rad new friends from all around the world. And that’s the very best…

You can do this, I believe in you.

It’s time to SIMPLIFY.

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This month, we are focused on the concept of re-emergence, inspiring each of us to take the great leap, get one step closer to true, deep connection and simplify our lives in new, profound ways. Therefore, if you’ve got specific ideas or questions you’d like us to cover on the podcast, reach out and DM me on Instagram at @thesimplifiers and spark a conversation.

Thank you!

Show credits: Suzen Marie, our Podcast Editor and Jeffrey Lynn, our Video Editor. Aubri Nowowiejski, Chris Justice, and George Mills, our advisory board. Big love to Dennis Coleman and Kristen Kurtis, as well. And I’m your host, Mary Baird.  Thank you so much for listening and telling your peeps about us.

As always friends, keep things simple.

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