This article was written by a guest blogger. B. Imei Hsu is a nurse / psychotherapist, dance artist, and Yoga instructor. When she’s not in session in her private practice, she’s wondering whether her cat needs his own QR code. For more info, contact her at [email protected]. Both Imei and her cat live in Seattle, WA.
[Editor’s Note: I happen to agree with what Imei is about to lay down. That, and I’m very grateful for AMD’s sponsorship to help me get to SXSW last week.]
Are panels, workshops, presentations, and keynote addresses at one of America’s biggest web development, film, and music festivals supposed to entertain the masses? Is a part of the dollar value of our interactive passes mapped to an expectation that the audience – that I, as a n00b and newcomer to Social Media – would be engaged, encouraged to laugh, and occasionally led to the edge of tears?
With the amount of alcohol, food, and over–the-top parties, maybe I’m off on this one. Maybe we were only self-medicating with food and drink to better tolerate the bored masses of speakers, interviewers, and trade show representatives. Maybe the elaborate dinners were only there to distract us from the festival itself.
It’s been said that SXSW Interactive Is Dead – and reasons have been given Why SXSW Sucks.
I had heard rumors of outside SXSW pass groups: groups that had formed to take advantage of the convention without laying down the high price of a full pass to any formal aspect of the event. And indeed, I ran into a man who said he had formed a highly-popular fringe group for Facebook, only to have it shut down because of infringement rights. The organizer claimed that there were plenty of other more interesting aspects to attend at SXSW than the official meetings, trade show, and parties opened to pass-holders only.
But wait. I cracked open my swag bag on Day 2 and almost sliced open my bare foot with the corner of the SXSW Interactive program. Heavier than a phone book, the program guide was clothed in Bing-like orange regalia, its insides accessorized with slick ads for every tech company’s biggest parties for the week, and a listing of each registrant, volunteer, and presentation description. The “mini me” program cheat sheet was equally organized, replete with a centerfold convention map. Nothing says sexy like knowing where you’re going. Or where the blogger lounge is so you can get some bleu cheese and a plastic cup o’ wine with that last post you’re flying through.
More impressive, the QR code on the pass allowed participants to check into various locations and be easily followed by others, making communication and tracking a snap. With an iPhone, My.SXSW, Twitter, and Foursquare, it was a stalker’s paradise. On the streets at night, I kept thinking that my first iPhone app needs to be a proximity detector to prevent users from falling off a sidewalk or bumping into other pedestrians as their faces were glued to their screens, making sure they (and a few hundred others) would wind up in the same crowded bar, shouting at each other and complaining about the lack of chill places to hang out.
Here’s my problem: why go through all that administrative trouble, design, and organization, only to overlook one of the more disappointing experiences of the entire conference: boring presenters and/or interviewers?
This is by far not an official survey, but I executed my own casual query about the lack of quality presentations to nearly every person I encountered. Here were the top five answers in no particular order:
- The presenters were poorly prepared, or did not appear to have prepared (i.e. no microphones, no questions for the audience, quiet voices, too much personal banter off-topic).
- The presenters did not stick to the topic of the presentation.
- The presentation failed to entertain.
- The presenter or interviewer did not engage his/her audience.
- The presenter allowed the outspoken audience members to dominate and take control of the presentations, veering the topic off course to crash and burn.
Again, maybe because I’m a n00b, I am expecting too much. I wanted every panel to be as unpretentious and transparent as, “How Not To Be A Douchebag at SXSW,” and every keynote to be as engaging as Danah Boyd’s. I wished for every tech-oriented presentation to use the tools like “Wow, That’s Cool… Fun with HTML5 Video,” and every panelist to be as humorous, compassionate, and on-target as the two women at “Be Your Own Boss: Create a Life You Love.” I was not expecting myself to wonder if I wouldn’t have better luck sipping a Macallan 12 year-old Scotch as I sat through a number of surprisingly uninteresting presentations.
Conferences in the health care world are equally problematic for me.
Every two years, I must complete 36 hours of continuing education units (CEUs) to renew my license as a mental health counselor. Six of these units must cover the topic of legal and ethical issues – and let me tell you, they are usually some of the most boring ones out there. Most of us buy a CEU courses to meet those six CEU requirements; we simply crank out the answers, collect our CEUs, and look for the nearest painkiller.
If you attend a live conference, you could be purchasing six hours of torture on the level of emergency dentistry without anesthesia.
I’ve always wondered what would happen if we brought a highly-trained attorney together with a comedian and taught the same subject. I can only imagine my fellow colleagues laughing so hard, they wouldn’t be worrying about what scares them the most about caring for mentally ill clients in an age of litigation.
What’s the solution? I can no longer honor people for simply showing up the way I used to. I’m only going to honor those who show up with their full presence AND some training on how to engage and entertain the audience that really has come to learn.
Here are a few tips that would have made the difference for this n00b:
- Use the technology. If you have a microphone, practice using it. If you have a PowerPoint presentation (PPP), make it relevant, photo-rich, and free of excessive words and endless bulletpoints.
- Define terms. It’s easy to be immersed in your culture and language whilst estranging the very people you are there to educate: new users, late adopters, and the not-already convinced.
- Take a speech or voice class. Better yet, brush up on your acting. Acting is a craft that teaches you how to engage an audience, whether live or remote.
- Do a run-through at a smaller venue. Get feedback. Record yourself. Look for POI’s (points of improvement). Noodle with it.
- If you don’t think a solo has enough weight to it, see if you can’t combine with someone else who the brings the best out of you. Tandem might be better than solo. See #4. Test it.
- Share a telling example of your work, product, or service. Use the tools: film clips, audio, screencasts, digital reproduction, music, etc. These help your audience emotionally connect with you and your passion. But make sure it is VISIBLE and AUDIBLE in the room you’re using. Please.
- Don’t be afraid to entertain. The beauty of Schoolhouse Rock! was the simple idea that grammar could be fun. Find your angle. Let us laugh with you.
Getting behind the microphone and in front of the camera should be seen as a privilege, even though most of us own digital cameras and sound equipment. Maybe if we saw our roles as entertainers and educators – and not just media “rawk stars” – we’d attract the right kinds of engaging presenters and interviewers to present at SXSW 2011.
And I’d be happy to beat a path to the front of that line.