5 Lessons from SXSW Interactive – 1 Year Later

Last year I attended SXSW Interactive for the first time, after being convinced that it’s for more than just web developers and startup gurus. And it was awesome. Exhausting for an introvert like me. But awesome.

Artist Austin Kleon's interpretation of the "Try Making Yourself More Interesting" panel, a standout from SXSW 2009. I'm looking forward to Austin's "Visual Notetaking 101" session this year.

One of the things that I value most is that my SXSW experience managed to hit some high, soaring, inspiration notes while also giving me practical insight and tips. After the conference I reported back to my team at McCombs on my 5 big takeaways. Normally I wouldn’t share year-old notes, but these still influence me and my work on a regular basis, so here goes:

1.) Web site: The Big Picture
Alan Taylor runs the Boston Globe’s “Big Picture” photography blog, and he gave one of my favorite presentations of the conference. It was surprisingly moving–he had the whole room in tears as he explained a photo series of cancer patients–and totally unexpected. For me, this was a quintessential SXSW moment: a passionate person sharing something he cares about and using technology and communication to connect people and move the world forward. And as a magazine and blog editor, it encouraged me to remember the power of great photography and that even business stories can be visually compelling.
2.) Celebrate our Success!
This was a small point made in a panel about agency-client relationships, but it really stuck with me. Too often we are already on to the next thing, and hardly take time to pat ourselves on the back, beyond perhaps a passing “Nice work!” e-mail. We need ritual and ceremony to celebrate the completion of major projects. I’m still working on this one, but I did convince our magazine team to get out of the building for a 30-minute Starbucks break after we published our first issue of a new online version.

3.) People respond to being part of something bigger than themselves
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s keynote was a memorable highlight and Zappos seems to be a model of how to do company culture right. He talked about how for most people, happiness is tied directly to a higher purpose. For that reason, Zappos aims to move employees from job to career to calling.

I’ve tried to keep this in mind as a higher ed staffer. I mean I know we’re dealing with tight budgets, no pay raises, layoffs and unlimited bureaucracy, but it’s not like we’re stuck selling appliances! We are serving instutions that provide enormous opportunity for people and set them on a new life path. We need to tap into that inspriational side of our jobs more often.

4.) Social media allows for accidental learning.
I heard this nugget during a student panel about social media in the classroom, and it has sort of become my guiding principle in how I think about higher education social media. I know our followers and fans don’t read every word we say, but if I can trickle into someone’s news stream and get them to click on a link where they all of a sudden find themselves reading about how to be a better manager or learning about a student’s study abroad trip, then that’s a success.

5.) Be amazed.
I forget who showed this fabulous clip of comedian Louis C.K. complaining to Conan O’Brien that everything is amazing but nobody is happy. Frustrated your cell phone is slow? “Give it a second – it’s going to space!” The in-flight internet is spotty? You had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes? “Oh really, what happened next? Did you partake in the miracle of flight?”

Those words have popped up in my head often when I get pouty about truly insignificant things.

I have no idea what gems await me this year at SXSW Interactive. I’m hoping to engage my creative side and get tips on visual thinking, engage my geek side and check in with some science panels and engage my it’s-good-for-your-job-and-don’t-limit-yourself-it’s-more-interesting-than-you-would-expect side by visiting some business sessions. But whatever I learn, I promise to share here!

Any fellow SXSW attendees out there? Do any of last year’s lessons still resonate with you now? What are you looking forward to this year?

P.S. – A huge thanks to Austin American-Statesman tech reporter Omar Gallaga for including me on his list of 20 people to follow during SXSW Interactive. I’m quite shocked to be included with such a sparkling group, but I will do my best to deliver the goods!

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I write what I know (and love). Mostly higher education, writing and public relations.