SXSW 2014

Joining the SXSW Cult: Takeaways


I’ve heard people rave about the SXSW Interactive, Film and Music conference for years, and never understood why it’s such a cult-like experience.

Oh brother, after five days I became sucked into the cult.  Though I hate huge crowds, long lines, and managed chaos, I found the people and ideas absolutely fascinating in their diversity, honesty and generosity.  While I bumped into a couple of people who missed the point and were shilling their companies, most people were there to learn, share, question, and play.  No doubt, the playfulness created the conditions for learning much.

I may never be able to go to a typical business conference again.

Some of the highlights:

Digging into the bellies of beasts

Brilliant investigative reporters from NPR, The Houston Chronicle and the Texas Tribune shared  new techniques they’re using to crack important stories that need to be told, from drug cartels in Mexico to prosecutorial misconduct in prisoner exoneration cases to human trafficking to lying, crooked politicians. Every bit of this four-hour workshop fascinated me, but nothing more so than overhearing a side conversation. During a break one of the workshop attendees, a former reporter, was talking about how her son was killed in Mexico two years ago working as an AP intern.  My heart broke open.  Investigative reporting is a vital public service. We need to value and support what these brave, smart professionals do for us.  Journalism is essential to democracy.

Betty Who

Betty Who

I’ve been hearing about this breakout pop star for the last year from my friend Deb Walsh, whose son Peter Thomas is producer and co-writer with Jess. (Her real name.) I was invited to a private party on Saturday and who is performing? The one and only. Betty Who is a star and such a nice, nice woman. Keep your ears out for her music.


Robert Duvall, the softy tough guy

Leonard Maltin interviewed this fine actor, who shared stories and reflections from his long Hollywood career.  Twice he came back to something important that has shaped his life: “Sometimes things come around the corner and surprise you. They turn out better than the things you had planned.”

Confidence lessons

Actor/teacher Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development fame ran a session where he coached two actors on their performance, bringing the audience along in what he was doing and how it was helping the actors excel.  He was kind, playful, positive, funny and irreverent in a good way.  “The whole thing about performing is a confidence game,” he explained. “The job of the director is to give actors more confidence than they have.”    Good lesson for leaders, too.

Improvisation and UX design

Imagine being on a stage with 10 strangers, ranging in age from 22 to me, doing improv skits and then learning how to apply improv lessons to designing an app.  What ensued was outrageous fun and serious learning. One takeaway: Creating characters vs. personas opens up the creative process in interesting ways. What I also took away from this session:  Much has been written about the importance of listening to develop good relationships at work.  Improv demands that you listen to your acting partner in order to respond to what’s happening in the scene and hand back a juicy response. Perhaps instead of simply talking about the importance of listening, teams should take an improv class together and learn “all-in” listening. (Here’s more about “Humor-Centered Design Process.)

Creating change without getting thrown under the bus

A theme of many sessions, including the one I did with Carmen Medina, was how to create change inside large organizations.  It’s challenging to be an entrepreneur, even more so to try to get new ideas adopted inside big, bureaucratic organizations.  Here’s a link what most resonated with people at our “Rebels at Work: Making Change Real After SXSW” session.  “Don’t Be Ned Stark: Change Your Organization and Live” also provided some practical, real world ideas for navigating.  This session may also have had the best title, especially for those of us who watch “Game of Thrones” and know what happened to Ned when he didn’t build his alliances inside the kingdom.  Spot on metaphor for change agents inside big organizations.

Rahm Emanuel sells Chicago and the arts

Mayor of Chicago and former Clinton and Obama advisor Rahm Emanuel talked about why cultural affairs is so important to the city’s economic development. At a time when so many cities are cutting back on the arts due to fiscal challenges, it was inspiring to hear Emanuel and Michelle Boone, commissioner of Chicago’s Dept. of Cultural Affairs, talk about the impact of the arts on both attracting business to the city and enriching the lives of Chicago residents.  And who knew Emanuel was a ballet dancer?  “Taking ballet lessons toughened me for politics. Kids discover something about themselves in art.”

Unexpected conversations in unusual places

I found the random conversations beyond the sessions as interesting as the sessions.  The bellman at the hotel told me about his family’s ranch in West Texas, and how tough it was having to put down 75 head of cattle during the drought.  How people in his town were torn up when they had to give away their horses to anyone who could feed and water them. At a raucous Saturday party under a soggy tent, I bumped into a business acquaintance from Boston with whom I’ve been trying to meet for months.  With our feet sticking to beer on the floor and the music blaring, we had a rich conversation about difficult career issues.  On another rainy night I grabbed a taxi with a stranger, who turned out to be the digital marketing exec at Hasbro, located just a few miles from where I live.  During our 10-minute ride we talked about whether strategy should be outsourced and the implications of Disney’s digital layoffs. Speed insights of sorts.

Random conversations can be so interesting, especially at SXSW.

And interesting people and conversations make the world go round.

I’m a believer.