A conference is what you make it

A lot of people will talk about the annual South by Southwest conference as having jumped the shark due to size, innovation or over-sponsorship. While I am sure many of these folks have valid gripes, I’d counter that the conference is still relevant; you just need to cut through the noise.

We live in a hyper-connected society that leaves us with the want to not be left out of something or miss something. At a conference like SXSW, it is very easy to get overwhelmed and get caught up in the hype machine of not missing a thing (yes you now have that Aerosmith song stuck in your head).  Instead of looking around and making connections, many conference attendees were too busy peering down at their smartphones, iPads or laptops, worrying that they were missing out on a party or meet-up that would surely be in their social feed or hashtagged #SXSWAWESOME. This opining often had folks ignoring the speakers at hand or potential business opportunities because partying that night was more important.

Sure I sound like a grumpy old fart, but seeing opportunity wasted is an awful thing not only for the attendee but also for speakers and the companies footing the bill for the attendees. If I saw you at the conference and you heard me rant on this, my apologies, but it is what it is.

If you are still listening, here are some tips to stay away from the hype-machine. Please note that while my rant is on SXSW, it can apply to any conference:

Plan ahead – The conference has something for everyone and most things are going on simultaneously. You CANNOT absorb it all. Setting a schedule in advance with things that you CANNOT miss will allow you to be flexible but meet with people or see things that will benefit you.

Find value – Marquee panels and parties will always get a lot of buzz in the social bell chamber. The downside is that these happenings are often loud and full of clutter. People are there to be seen and often provide little value outside of saying hey I was THERE. When planning, look to topics and smaller events that allow you to get into more of an intimate or brainstorming atmosphere. Looking at sessions that might not be in your industry, but have a smart speaker can also help expand your mindset.

Make connections – Don’t ever look a gift horse in the mouth. The social media community is actually pretty small. When you meet someone make a connection and see how you can help one another. You never know, the person you meet today debating the values of Google+ or Instagram could be a million dollar client or your future boss. Helping out now will only bring back good karma.

Disconnect – While we all talk about how good we are at multi-tasking, we really aren’t. We can’t reasonably give our full attention to a speaker, panelist or business opportunity if we’re looking at our phones for Tweets or FB status updates. While it might seem super relevant to live-Tweet a conference or panel, it can really be a distraction for what the real task at hand is – learning. Staring down also takes you away from soaking in all that is going on around you. AND IT’S RUDE. It is OK, you can put the phone down for a couple hours – you won’t miss too much.

At the end of the day a conference is only worth what you get out of it. Sure free beer is a great thing, but if you don’t learn anything all you are getting is a whole lot of empty calories.

2 Responses to A conference is what you make it
  1. geoffliving
    April 12, 2013 | 11:30 pm

    A-fricking men.  I had a great SxSW, and look forward to returning next year!

  2. jeffespo
    April 17, 2013 | 3:23 pm

    geoffliving Sorry on the delayed response.. I blame email filters. Overall it is what you make of it. I saw you doing business here and there, I was more put off by the mid-day drunk parade than in past years, but hey I am not the one who has to answer for those asshats.

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