Every year in March I make my annual trek to Austin to be part of the South By Southwest Interactive show, one of the biggest gatherings of people working in all aspects of the web in the world. For those who have been, they might describe the event as a simultaneous assault of information, networking and back to back parties. It has become the Everest of social media events, and in my fourth year of attending I realized that there are techniques for surviving a large event that I have been using and adding to each year. Here's my list of the top 5 lessons that I would share to help anyone survive SXSW or any other large conference they may find themselves attending:
- High-res Photo Note Taking – One of the tough things about a big event (aside from choosing which sessions to attend) is how to best take notes to bring information back to your internal colleagues who didn't attend the event, or publish your own take on the sessions. A technique I have started using is taking high-res photos of key slides from presenters. It takes just a second, and it's the easiest form of note taking as the slide becomes a reminder of a key point to write about later. To augment, sometimes I will also think of taking notes in terms of Twitter posts (140 character max). That format forces you to just focus on the key points of a session instead of just trying to capture everything a speaker says.
- Brochure Collecting – At an event like SXSW, there are lots of sites and new innovations that are interesting and worth looking at … but time is limited at the event. Instead of trying to write down every URL, I collect their brochures or postcards and save them. That way I have a visual reminder to check out a particular site later when I am back in the office and have a free moment. Last year after SXSW, it took me a few months to get through looking at all the sites I found interesting – but I had a constant reminder of those sites through the stack of postcards and brochures and it helped me to stay organized.
- Plan B Sessions – Your time is valuable and at a large conference usually you will be drawn in multiple directions. At SXSW a common complaint is that for every timeslot there are several sessions that you might be interested in seeing. Ultimately, you need to pick one, but my long time advice for attendees of a conference like this has been that if you find a session is not useful after the first 10 or 15 minutes, you should feel empowered to leave and go to your "plan B session." For every time you go to a session, you should always have a second option – just in case. That way you can maximize your time and what you learn from the event, and be flexible enough to correct a mistake without wasting an entire hour (or more).
- Influencer Tracking – When you are not necessarily connected to every event or happening at an event, it can be tough to know what you might be missing. One useful way to track the events that you may want to be part of is by creating your own short list of people who you know will be attending all the best events. If they are active social media users (as they tend to be at an event like SXSW), you can see where they are headed and mirror some of your own choices of where to go based on this information. Even if they are not active with social media, this technique can work by talking to them or others to see where they will going.
- Eating Left Handed – As promised in the title of this post, the last tip is about eating left handed. Chances are, you just spent a good part of the day shaking people's hands and accumulating some kind of unwanted germs (no offense to the people you met, but facts are facts). We should all get more diligent about using that hand sanitizing stuff – but if you are like me and usually forget to do it, a good technique to teach yourself is to always eat left handed (ie – with your "non-shaking hand").
For those big event or SXSW veterans, feel free to suggest some other tips to help someone survive at a large conference in the comments … they might help me survive the last day of SXSW too!