South by Southwest Interactive begins in ernest tomorrow as geeks from everywhere descend upon Austin, Texas. If you’ve heard of “South by,” you’ve probably been told it’s an amazing experience that is largely defined by parties and networking. Conference productivity is often tossed by the wayside at these things, but if you don’t plan for business success while attending them, then why are you going?
Conferences of any kind are only as productive as you make them. You can to to every session and learn a lot. You can go to none and do the same. If you’re goals are more business driven, the hallways and blogger lounges are where the action is, if not the exhibition floor. But you can’t just show up and be productive.
As a veteran, albeit a self-appointed title, of many a conference, summit, seminar and boot camp, here’s how I ensure the trip is worthwhile:
Have A Goal
Do you want to learn? Do you want to get in front of venture capitalists and pitch your start-up idea? Do you want to forge a relationship with an influential blogger that can help spread the word about your business? Do you want to find a new job? Know what you’re trying to accomplish so you have a litmus test for decision making. When you’re faced with the decision of going to lunch with your buddies or attending a sponsored lunch/Tweet-up where you know several willing VCs will be milling about, ask: Which will help accomplish my goal of getting funding?
Have A Plan
Whether it’s mapping out the sessions you want to attend or the parties you want to be seen at, going in blindly means you’re going to wind up following everyone else. If you do that, you get sucked into watching them accomplish their goals, if they have any. While the camaraderie and relationship building with the people you know is a big part of getting something out of a conference, it can also be a diversion from what you want to do. Sure, being flexible and going with the flow is good in some instances, but don’t fall into the, “I’ll just do it tomorrow,” trap.
Have A Pitch
Whether you have a defined business objective for the conference or are just going to soak it all in, put together an elevator speech for who you are and what you do. You’ll meet a ton of people. Don’t leave any of them wondering about you, but make your pitch short and concise. Perhaps even do one in 140 characters to force out the B.S.
“I am a speaker, educator and consultant building an online learning community for those interested in understanding social media and Internet technologies for their business.”
Have A Limit
Time will be of the essence in networking, listening to product pitches, pitching your own to as many people as possible, attending sessions and events. Unless you’re locked in to conversations with the people who are helping you get to your goal for the event, know when to step away nicely. I get pitched a lot at conferences. People want me to blog about their gizmo, tool, platform and program. I listen to each pitch, make a quick determination as to whether or not it’s something I might write about, then ask the person to email me details if it is. Some are more persistent than others, but almost everyone understands at that point, I need to move on and I will take the time to look at your thing. Worst case scenario, look at the time and say, “I’m sorry. Maybe we can catch up later? I’ve got to get to a thing. Hit me on Twitter!” It’s polite and non-committal.
Have Another Limit
Most people know that I enjoy a good party. In fact, my South by Southwest experience this year is largely defined by Firefly Funnel Cake Fandango, which is a social event with yummy spirits and snacks. It would be easy for me to have too much fun this week in Nashville, Little Rock and Dallas en route to Austin, then spend the weekend recovering while SXSW ensues. This is one major reason the spirits companies remind us to drink responsibly. Imagine what you want to feel like tomorrow. Base how much you drink tonight on that.
Have Play Time
The evenings at South by Southwest, and many other conferences for that matter, are filled with fun. Sometimes there are daytime events that fit that bill as well. Factor some fun into your experience, rest up for it and plan on letting loose. But schedule the fun around your business goals, not the other way around. Think about it this way, would you rather walk away from the conference with a killer new client, job opportunity or influential friend, or just a killer hangover and a tattoo you can’t explain?
Whatever your goals for South by Southwest, or other conferences you might attend, I hope you reach them. I’ve got my docket full to hit mine. See you in Austin.