TOP Talk

Pick Me! How to Secure a Speaking Spot at SXSW Interactive

Posted May 02, 2015 By Marian Hughes

Topics: Social Media, Events, Speaking Programs


Image Credit: SXSW PanelPicker;

According to SXSW, there were more than 3,000 speaking proposals submitted for the 600+ Interactive sessions that took place at the March 2015 conference. How do you make your brand stand out in such a noisy, competitive environment? Read on to learn more about the unique SXSW PanelPicker Process and ways to get the vote for your 2016 SXSW speaking proposal.

Understand the Process

SXSW features a unique crowdsourcing process for its conference – the PanelPicker – which allows the tech community to “submit, review, comment and vote on the speaking proposals they would like to see become part of the event.” On June 29, the conference will open its PanelPicker online application form, which will remain open until July 24. During that time, interested speakers can upload proposals for a variety of speaking opportunities (panels, solo presentations, workshops, etc.). In August, all of the submitted proposals will be posted online for the community to vote on. After gathering the community’s feedback, the SXSW Advisory Boards and the SXSW staff weigh in on the selection process and curate the final schedule based on what they feel is most relevant. Ultimately the final tally is determined as follows:

  • 30% by community voting
  • 30% by SXSW staff
  • 40% by the SXSW Advisory board

The final selected speakers are officially announced in October.

Get a Strong Head Start

Although the SXSW nomination process does not open until June 29, it’s not too early to start planning for a winning 2016 speaking proposal. A good place to start is to look at the selected speakers and topics from this year’s conference. Stay away from themes that have already been covered. Explore forward-thinking storylines from your organization that offer a fresh perspective and highlight breakthrough creativity and innovation. Ask yourself, “Is this a timely topic? Will it teach attendees something new?” Most of all, be certain your topic is focused. Conference organizers recommend entrants narrow a subject down to a tight idea. In fact, they say, the more specific a proposal is, the better. One example they give is a topic like "How Free Downloads Hurt Radiohead" would work better than the more general "Free Downloads and the Future of Music."

Get it Down on Paper – Less is More

One of the most challenging things about the submitting a speaker proposal to SXSW is being able to convincingly convey your topic in a very concise manner. The SXSW PanelPicker format is built on a “less is more” framework and gives you a strict word count for each section. You will be asked to submit

  • Your proposal idea in 1,000 characters or less (Note: we’re talking characters not words)
  • A 50-character headline
  • A 140-character tweet that distills down your panel topic
  • 5 questions (500 characters each) that your session will ask

Writing a 50-character title can be one of the trickiest parts of the process. When it comes to titles, we are often drawn to developing something catchy and cute. SXSW warns against this path as the title needs to be easily understood by voters who are quickly scanning panels as they make their way through the voting process.

Develop Your WOM Strategy

Unlike most conferences, your work is not over once your SXSW Interactive proposal is submitted. Once the voting process opens up in August, you’ll then be chartered with inspiring your company’s employees, friends, partners and customers to cast a vote for your SXSW panel topic. Each voter can vote for a specific speaker only once. To get ahead of the game, start thinking about creative ways to capture your connections’ interest in your SXSW panel topic and motivating them to support you with their vote. Thinking through a smart social and direct strategy by August 1 will help ensure you generate the awareness you need to get votes. (Note: We plan to write another blog post about clever SXSW PanelPicker promotion ideas in July, so be sure to tune back in then.) The SXSW speaker selection process is definitely a careful blend of art and science. With this better understanding of the process, and what’s needed from you throughout the submission and voting phases, we believe you’ll increase your odds of winning over the SXSW community and experience the great reward of being picked.

Want to learn more? Check out these other great PanelPicker resources:

Marian Hughes

About Marian Hughes

What motivates me? Challenging the status quo. I love stepping back and analyzing a PR program to determine if there’s a better way to move our clients closer to their goals. I'm constantly scouting out innovative new approaches, tools and technology – anything that holds the potential to really deliver. And, when I discover one with merit, there's nothing more rewarding than getting up to speed, putting it into action and generating big results – that, to me, is hitting it out of the park!