We are rapidly approaching Austin’s annual conference and festival SXSW and I for one am counting down the days. While SXSW is often known outside of Austin for the festival’s music portion, the bulk of the week is spent on a wide range of technology-related events, including keynote speeches, panel discussions, and product demos. With events attended by industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and creatives from around the world, there is no other festival in the world that gives you the opportunity to expand your network quite like SXSW. If you’re attending SXSW 2023 for the first time, this 10-year veteran of the festival is here to provide you with a beginner’s guide to networking at SXSW 2023 and making the most of the event.
I will be the first person to tell you that the SXSW schedule is nothing short of overwhelming. Step #1? Set your goals and start there. What do you want to get out of SXSW? If meeting industry professionals and expanding your network is your main goal, then focusing on hosted happy hours and events is going to be where you want to start. If looking for new tech in your field is your priority, you’ll want to start with events and product demos. If new knowledge or expanding your horizons is your goal, then start with the keynote speakers.
While SXSW used to have paper schedules to peruse through during the event, they’ve mostly phased those out in an attempt to be more environmentally conscious. As such, the SXSW mobile app is your friend here. With a little bit of research into the line-up, you can star the events and speakers ahead of time in the schedule that are relevant to those goals I just asked you to lay out. This will give you a rough schedule that will (ideally) give you some time to explore as well. Those spontaneous and unexpected opportunities are often the most engaging. Looking to meet like minded women? Check out the She-Media Co-Lab. Want to pick up some content creation tips? There’s a meet-up for that! Looking to meet other designers in your field – try the Design Community Meet-up. SXSW really does have something for everyone – it just takes a little bit of exploration in the schedule!
Don’t forget to allow for travel time! SXSW takes place across multiple venues in Austin and sometimes they are FAR apart! Utilize those scooters when you can, or the pedicabs that are ever so prevalent, and be prepared for your feet to be angry at you! Another hot tip – make sure you bring at least 3 different kinds of shoes so that you can rotate the footwear you have on each day.
Step #2: Plan for downtime! I always make sure that I take the hours of 5-7 PM to take a break, sit down to a full meal, have a nice glass of wine and do a little reset before hitting it hard for the night events. The quiet time will give you a break from the constant chatter and energy exchange that is the festival and allow you to walk into the evening’s festivities feeling refreshed and ready to talk again.
Last but not least, don’t be afraid to be flexible and spontaneous. SXSW can be unpredictable, so be prepared to adapt your schedule as needed. If you missed an event you really intended to make, relax and don’t stress. Plans at SXSW are meant to be changed and you should relax and know that every event, happy hour, or panel you discover is an opportunity. Enjoy the experience!
Network like a pro
After photographing SXSW as an Austin corporate event photographer for almost a decade now, I can say with certainty that SXSW is quite possibly the best opportunity you have to connect with other professionals in your industry. If you’ve never attended SXSW, make sure that you come prepared because a large conference like this can be incredibly overwhelming. Walk into those rooms with confidence: make eye contact, smile, and be open to conversation. If you make yourself available, great connections always happen and I’ve met lifelong associates at SXSW at the most random of events by just striking up a conversation with a stranger.
One of my biggest tips is to make sure that you refresh your headshot ahead of time so that every one who connects with you on Linkedin during the event recognizes you as the person they met while throwing back a few too many drinks at that hosted happy hour. Keep those business cards handy, along with a pen and a small notebook to jot down notes on those connections you make – that way when you go to follow up (see that tip below) you can do so with ease and aplomb.
Last but not least, make sure you have that smokin’ hot elevator pitch ready! Not sure what that is? It’s a bite-sized brief summary of who you are, what you do, and what you’re looking for.
Listen and be open-minded
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came from Susan Hyatt, “When you’re networking make sure that you CHECK YOUR INTENTIONS.” If you walk into a room wondering what they can do for you, then you are approaching networking and meeting people in absolutely the wrong way.
The better way: walk into every networking event asking yourself, “what can I do for others?” By looking for ways to ADD value to the room, by having fun and contributing to the energy of the room, and ultimately, by refusing to allow yourself to be fueled by the fear of not getting your return on investment, which comes from a scarcity mindset, you will have a better chance at making unique and inspiring connections.
“If you want to do it the hard way, try doing it alone or from behind your computer,” another Susan Hyatt gem that is a great reminder that you can’t do anything alone. So many events at SXSW are specifically designed for networking and if expanding your network is your goal, make sure you attend as many as you can. Spend some quality time over the event listening to others and learning about their experiences and interests. You never know where a new connection may lead and by meeting as many people from different backgrounds and industries, showing interest in others, and spreading some good will and open minded energy around, I promise you’ll meet some amazing people. I know from experience!
It should go without saying, but much like after a job interview, you should also follow up after meeting someone if you want to keep that connection thriving. If you connected with them on Linkedin, hit them up there, or, conversely use this as an opportunity to connect on there. Make sure that message is personalized and mentions something specific from the conversation (remember that time I told you to take notes!). If you want to keep that relationship going, suggest ways to keep in touch, meet up in the future, and follow up regularly.
Remember, networking is a two-way street. Be genuine, helpful, and professional in your follow-up efforts, and you will likely find that the relationship grows into something valuable.
Most important of all – just be yourself. Authenticity should never be overlooked and when you are genuinely yourself, take the time to be present in conversations, and remember to be open-minded and available, you’ll be more likely to make real connections.
Y’all – networking is a SKILL, but like all skills it’s something that can be practiced and becomes easier with said practice. It’s a great way to build new relationships, will allow you to learn about new technologies and opportunities, and ultimately, can help you professionally. The long of the short of my beginner’s guide to networking at SXSW 2023 is that you need to: be prepared, be confident, be open-minded, and follow up! If you follow these simple suggestions, I promise that you can make the most of your time at SXSW and create valuable connections that will last long after the conference is over.
I will see you at SXSW 2023 and don’t be afraid to say hi when your run into me!
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