Conquer your first work conference, even a mammoth beast like SXSW
Without preamble, the presenter for the conference session, "Design Thinking for Impactful Storytelling," cleared her throat and told our group of 30 to pair up and draw the face of the person sitting next to us.
The older man to my right (most everyone at the conference was older than me) held his phone at arm's length in front of my face and snapped a photo of me selfie style. My expression in the photo was a mixture of bewilderment and annoyance. We were crammed in a room meant for 20 people and this stranger’s unwarranted and unwelcome photo snapping only felt that much more invasive.
Without a word, he began to sketch my face based on the photo—he was artistic, no doubt. I shrugged and began to sketch him in turn; my rendition, much less sophisticated. After a few minutes of drawing, the presenter began to reel in everyone’s attention once again. I looked down at my photo, a sad sketch with lopsided eyes. In a Swiss accent, the photo-snapping man handed me his intricate drawing and said, “I didn’t mean to surprise you with the photo, but look,” he pulled up the photo he took of me on his phone and pressed the little trash icon in the right corner of the screen, “deleting it now.”
It would have been easy to respond defensively at first, but instead, I held back a cheeky retort, shared my shabby rendering of his face, and introduced myself. And I’m thankful I did because meeting the photo-snapping man changed my entire conference experience.
It would have been easy to respond defensively at first, but instead, I held back a cheeky retort, shared my shabby rendering of his face, and introduced myself.
SXSW and sensory overload
It was my very first work conference and it wasn’t just any conference. It was the conference of all conferences, the mecca for tech, film, and music aficionados—the insanity that is SXSW. Every part of it was overwhelming. From speaker sessions to music to sponsored events, the city of Austin was overrun with people from all over the world.
Picture lines that wrap around hotel corridors, copious and seemingly never-ending free alcohol (if you’re paying for drinks at SXSW, you’re doing it wrong), the best breakfast burritos you’ll ever taste, throngs of people filling the streets until the early hours of the morning, and a cacophony of music permeating the air from different venues.
I was fortunate to have coworkers at Zendesk offer me invaluable advice and guidance before I flew to Austin—with their advice I was able to confidently brave the second half of SXSW on my own when they returned to San Francisco.
It might be better to test the waters with a less frenetic event than SXSW, but if you jump into SXSW like I did, it’s a chance to tackle every possible conference experience, and more, all at once. And while I don’t recommend jumping into SXSW as your first conference, I now feel prepared for any conference thrown my way—because nothing compares to the jumbled, stimulating, and compelling SXSW experience. Here’s the advice my coworkers shared with me as well as what I learned on my own at SXSW.
Attend with purpose
It’s important to have a goal and a plan for any conference you attend. I went to SXSW with the intention to learn the latest tech trends and to attend sessions so I could later write about them. While there were too many sessions and events to choose from (it seemed like all the good ones happened at exactly the same times), I was able to get the most out of my experience because I planned ahead. Unfortunately, that meant the less sexy task of blocking off a solid couple of days where I scoured SXSW’s seemingly endless schedule, chose my favorite sessions and events, and created a schedule in Google Sheets for the entire conference.
While it helps to plan ahead, things rarely go according to plan 24/7. I waited in line for 45 minutes to see a highly coveted session only to be the cut-off person for getting in. Instead of moping, I explored Austin. I stumbled across an event on Sixth Street hosted by the Discovery Channel and wound up with a free drink, an intense black and white video montage of myself where I failed to look stoic, and more importantly, compelling conversations surrounding tech and humanity. At conferences, and particularly at SXSW, there is always something else going on. The second time I got shut out of a session, I explored the art installations set up around the convention center.
I stumbled across an event on Sixth Street hosted by the Discovery Channel and wound up with a free drink, an intense black and white video montage of myself where I failed to look stoic, and more importantly, compelling conversations surrounding tech and humanity.
With so much going on at SXSW, it was easy to feel like I was always missing out on something. Planning ahead and choosing events you truly want to attend makes it easier to feel content with your personal schedule. You can’t do everything, and it’s important to feel happy with what you have planned. Just remember to leave room for deviation.
Carve out recharge time
SXSW is not for the sprinter; it’s a marathon. It’s easy to hop from one session to the next without giving yourself time for basic human needs. Next thing you know you’re sitting in a session desperately in need of a bathroom. Carve out time to eat, use the restroom between sessions, and more importantly, carve out time to go back to your hotel room and simply rest your mind. Sensory overload is real. I was at SXSW for seven full days; I was going strong and running from one event to another, trying to squeeze in as much as possible. A session here, an art installation there, a music performance way over there. By the end of day three, I promptly fizzled out.
To get some energy and necessary alone time, I started scheduling breaks between my last session of the day and dinner—to simply lie down on my bed and rest. Even 20 minutes made a huge difference. Whatever the word recharge means to you, taking time to do just that—whether it means finding time to exercise, nap, or sit in a quiet coffee shop—makes a big difference.
Be open to new faces
Maintaining an inviting, conversational attitude the entire time is what changed my entire SXSW experience. With my coworkers’ advice in mind, I packed a stack of business cards—my goal was to introduce myself to everyone I stood next to, sat next to, waited in line with, or even crossed paths with.
I packed a stack of business cards—my goal was to introduce myself to everyone I stood next to, sat next to, waited in line with, or even crossed paths with.
Which is why I took the photo-snapping man in stride, tucked my annoyance in my back pocket, and introduced myself. We ended up speaking and we learned quite a bit about one another, from our families—his wife and two lovely children—to the creative process of storytelling, marketing, and design.
After the session we exchanged cards. I had made a friendly Swiss buddy for the remainder of the trip. We attended a few more sessions together and I was thrilled to have made a conference friend I could share creative ideas with. Had I been rude when he took my photo, I never would have made a connection with a brilliant individual. Now I have a friendly family to visit if I ever go to Zurich, Switzerland. What was so great about meeting photo-snapping man was that it never felt like networking; it felt like I made a friend.
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Amanda Roosa is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. When she's not petting other people's dogs, she's exploring where technology and humanity converge. Find her on Twitter: @mandyroosa.