SXSW PanelPicker Guide
Each March over 70,000 conference delegates descend on Austin for the SXSW Conference.
The breadth of programming is vast, featuring 20 tracks for the 2020 event with everything from familiar territories such as Startups, Design, Advertising & Branding and Tech Industry & Enterprise through to Cannabusiness, Fantastic Future and XR.
Then there’s the 350+ parties and special events to consider not to mention a chance to soak up Austin, city motto: Keeping it Weird with its amazing music culture, incredible Tex-Mex, dive bars, line dancing, rodeo and of course, BBQ.
Speaking at SXSW provides the opportunity to share expertise, raise the profile of the speaker and their mission, benefit from the SXSW’s huge audience and the handy benefit of a free ticket and access to accommodation. Plus, with delegates from over 100 countries there’s more of an international presence than one might expect from a conference in the middle of Texas.
But how? Introducing SXSW PanelPicker…
I’ve been to SXSW for over a decade, spoken and chaired panels a number of times and still find it daunting when starting the form to proposal a session. This guide pulls together heaps of different sources from across the SXSW website, blogs and info shared on the socials to provide a comprehensive intro to the SXSW PanelPicker.
It covers the process, tips on how to construct, format and write your panel submission plus an outline of the SXSW 2020 conference tracks and details on how to read previous proposals that were selected.
- SXSW PanelPicker™
- PanelPicker Tips
- PanelPicker Form Summary
- Homework: Historic PanelPicker Submissions
- SXSW 2020 Conference Tracks
If there’s anything missing, or you’d like to share your own experiences, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
The PanelPicker is SXSW’s platform for submitting speaking proposals for the conference.
“Remember that [our] mission statement is that SXSW helps creative people achieve their goals – so the more creative your speaking proposal, the better!”, Hugh Forrest, SXSW Chief Programming Officer.
How Panels Are Chosen
As the name suggests the PanelPicker allows the public to view, comment and vote on panels proposals. They are also reviewed by SXSW staff and the conference advisory board. Community votes count for 30% of the final decision, staff count for 30% and the advisory board 40% with the aim of giving less well-known voices a chance of getting selected.
Key Dates (Put Them in Your Calendar Now!)
- Proposals are accepted from Mon, 1st July 2019
- Deadline for submissions is Fri, July 19th 2019 23:59 PST
- Community voting runs from 5th – 23rd August 2019
- The person submitting the proposal to PanelPicker is the Primary Contact
- Each registered account on PanelPicker can submit ONE panel (and one to SXSW EDU)
- The Primary Contact of the panel does not have to be a speaker and can be changed after the panel has been submitted eg. if a panel is submitted on behalf of the Primary Contact
- Panels proposals must fit with the 20 SXSW tracks, most likely: Experiential Storytelling, XR (runs alongside Virtual Cinema), Film & TV Industry, Fantastic Future but worth checking the full list (see below)
- Most sessions are 60 minutes long (mentoring sessions 75 minutes), in addition to presentations, panels and book readings other formats such as podcast recordings and Focus15s are available (see full format list)
- Speakers should be confirmed in advance (but there might be some flex on this) as PanelPicker requires detailed contact info for each speaker, background information and their role in the session
- Moderators are recommended for panels
- Speakers get a free SXSW badge (but this doesn’t apply to panel organisers who aren’t speaking)
Chances of Success
Numbers are hard to come by, but Hugh Forrest, speaking in 2017 said, “will receive about 5000 total proposals and only about 20% of these proposals will be accepted for the event”. According to the website, 6,100 proposals were received in 2018.
The very short version for those too time poor or impatient to read the whole thing!
- Deadline: Fri, 19th July 2020
- Watch the PanelPicker Video walkthrough form SXSW 2018, it’s still relevant
- Skim the official SXSW PanelPicker FAQ
- Do your homework: check the panel hasn’t been done before (link to homework section)
- Title & Description – short, describes the panel, no waffle
- Depth – demonstrate you’re an an expert!
- Diversity – consider gender, race, location and employment
- Panel Type – solo / dual panels preferred, panels need moderators
- Takeaways – three strong takeaways required
- Supporting info – include a video, show your speaking style, cameraphone is fine
- Proof – spell chcek, once submitted your proposal can’t be edited
- Promo – tap your network for votes and social shares
The official advice from SXSW gives a good idea of what they’re looking for, “Create a future-focused, original proposal that shows what you’re passionate about. Often SXSW previews what you’ll be talking about next year and beyond in tech, culture, music, and film. Give us your perspective on what lies ahead and why.”
The process is highly competitive, so you’ll need to carefully consider each element of your speaking proposal. As Hugh Forrest outlines, “the more you know about what makes for a successful speaking idea, the more likely your idea will rise to the top of the public voting process”
Title & Description
- Title: 50 characters, ideally 8 words or less
- Description: 800 characters
The toughest eight words you’re going to write this year. Your session’s title is what’s going to sell your session. It’s got to explain the session or at least stand out enough in a list of search results that it’ll get clicked.
Our suggestion is to write a draft version of the title and then polish it when the description has been finessed to within an inch of perfection. A spot of user testing doesn’t go amiss either, check with your friends and colleagues, particularly those who are in the intended audience but won’t just tell you what they think you want to hear.
From the official SXSW PanelPicker FAQ, “Your title should reflect your description. Your title is going to be fighting for attention with hundreds of other titles in PanelPicker, so it’s important for your title to be direct and explanatory. The community should be able to understand what the proposal will cover without reading your description. Remember: think simple, accurate, and succinct. Tip: Avoid using ALL CAPS in your title and proposal.”
Funny guy or gal? Make sure the gag lands, as Hugh Forrest says, “Titles that are funny are good – but only if the humor works in the context of your description”. Previous speaker Alison Entsminger advises, “when being clear and clever is too much pressure, I choose clarity every time”.
500 characters equates to 60-70 words, less if you’re using lengthy technical terms, so there’s no space for bluster. Hugh Forrest recommends, “eliminating empty buzzwords”. CC Chapman adds, “One sentence does not make a good proposal. Be thorough and detailed”.
Alison Entsmiger suggests, “For many, pinpointing what topic to cover is difficult. But remember, you only need to be a step ahead of others to be able to teach them. The closer you are to the learning process, the easier it is to help because you still remember the steps you took getting started. Start by asking yourself: Why do colleagues and friends approach you for advice? What are your strengths or lessons you’ve learned? Could your past experiences resonate with others? Where are you playing where no one else is playing?”
She continues, “If a generic google search surfaces similar content to your talk, you will get cut. So, don’t go broad with a generic topic like: “Artificial Intelligence.” Instead, narrow the focus to something unique and pinpointed like: “Regulating AI: How to Control the Unexplainable”.
Certainly challenging in 500 characters, but no one said this was going to be easy!
Don’t be that person, this isn’t the time for a sales pitch. One or more speakers from a single company who have just launched a product or service is going to ring alarm bells.
As CC Chapman says, “Don’t make it a sales pitch. SO many proposals are great topics but then only have people from one company talking about it. If you want to discuss a big industry issue get people from multiple companies to be part of the panel.”
There are two groups to consider here with, hopefully, a large overlap between them. The actual audience that will sit in the room for the session itself and those will read and vote on the proposal.
Firstly, make sure they’re going to be at SXSW. Leafing through conference sessions from previous years is a good way of discovering who will likely be attending and what they’re interested in seeing. SXSW also publish extensive facts and figures on their audiences.
The first hurdle is getting selected and into the main conference programme. There are two groups to consider:
Naturally, the more votes and social media shares your proposal receives, the better. This counts for 30% of the final decision. Voters have to register on the site, so it’s not a completely frictionless experience, meaning they care, at least a little about what you’ve written.
Consider that audience carefully. What level is the panel pitched at? Will the audience get it form the title? Are you using jargon that could exclude an audience or industry specific terms that will encourage a very specific group? Are the takeaways juicy nuggets of information gold that will have the votes flowing in?
Advisory Board & SXSW Staffers
They will be looking for the same things as the audience above, but also considering how the sessions will fit into the overall programme. Take a moment to think about the people who have to read all these proposals.
Their job is to wade through dozens, if not hundreds of documents. Have a scan of the fields listed in the PanelPicker form summary below. That’s a lot of reading. A little formatting and spell-chceking goes a long way as do videos, which will bring a welcome break from reading, whilst hopefully bringing your proposal to life.
There are hundreds of sessions at SXSW and width that kind of breadth, diving into the details of a topic is encouraged as are advanced level sessions. The majority of sessions are aimed at the basic and intermediate levels.
Hugh Forrest says, “Depth is more important than width. The SXSW community wants a deep dive into the topics that interest them the most. So structure your SXSW PanelPicker speaking proposal accordingly. Said another way, putting together an idea that tries to cover too much ground is usually a formula for failure.”
The official FAQ, as you’d expect echoes this, “Depth and specificity. SXSW attendees want advanced, in-depth information, so be sure to delve into the particulars of a topic. The more specific a proposal is, the better. Drill down to what really matters.”
In an interview with Hired Guns, Hugh also gives some great advice for getting a session noticed, “Be the expert. Don’t be afraid of developing an advanced-level topic. We always get a lot more intermediate-level submissions–everyone chooses the middle of the road.”
Speakers: Think Diversity
Diversity in all sense matters to the SXSW organisers, “All panels (3-4 person sessions) must include diversity in gender, race, location and employment of speakers, and diversity in thought and opinion.”
The PanelPicker form requires the organiser to describe how each speaker will contribute to a diverse point of view, so consider not only how your speakers will reflect this but also how you’re going to explain that.
Format: Solo & Dual Speaker or Panel?
Even the name, PanelPicker, implies that proposal to speak at SXSW should be panels, but there are other formats available at the conference:
- Book Reading (1-2 hours)
- Focus15 (15 mins)
- Meet Up (1 hour, 1-2 speakers)
- Panel (1 hour, 2-4 speakers)
- Podcast (1 hour, 2-4 speakers)
- Presentation (1 hour, 1-2 speakers)
It’s worth looking at previous schedules as not all track will have all the session types available.
The panels need to reflect the diversity of the audience and should include an experienced moderator to make the most out of the session. A badly prepared panel with lax moderation and rambling discussions isn’t high on anyone’s priority list.
Ideally, all panel members will be thoroughly briefed in advance of the session with the moderator having to spoken to each of them and, if possible, as a group as well. Conference rooms at SXSW usually have the facility to handle Q&A, so consider building this into your proposal.
The natural inclination is to share the load with a multi-person panel, but in the last few years there has been a trend to favour solo and dual sessions, as Hugh Forrest outlines, “Depth and detail are also why we prefer proposals for solo presentations (as opposed to panels). Yes, there will continue to be panels at SXSW in the future – but, single-person talks are definitely the preferred format for creatives who gather in Austin each March.”
He continues, “solo speakers tend to offer a lot more depth and detailed expert analysis on the topic at hand. Depth and detailed expert analysis are always the qualities that SXSW audiences are looking for”.
The PanelPicker requires that proposals include three takeaways (150 characters).
Hugh Forrest recommends, “Your proposal should offer strong takeaways. Particularly in recent years, speaking proposals that promise tangible takeaways have scored higher than those that do not. Examples of these kinds of sessions from SXSW 2019 (that started off as PanelPicker proposals) include “Seven Non-Obvious Trends Changing The Future In 2019,” “The Seven Success Killers Even Top Leaders Miss,” “Designing with Blockchain: Three Ways To Dive In” and “The Evolution of Work: Seven New Realities.”
The proposal form requires at least one piece of supporting information is provided for each session. This can be a YouTube, Vimeo, Slideshare or other link.
It’s suggested that any videos include captions, which can be auto-generated on YouTube and other services, though don’t forget to check them for accuracy. If your session makes it to the conference, this becomes a requirement. You’ll also need to make sure you’ve got the rights to show the videos.
The videos don’t have to be a speaker’s TED keynote or similar, though that probably helps. They can be simpler affairs that showcase your skills, as the official guide says, “Your speaking abilities matter and we’d like to see them. No fancy production required – recording from your webcam or phone works just fine.”
Alison Entsminger shares her experience, “Find a quiet corner of your apartment or office to record a minute or 2 video of you speaking about your topic. Event organizers want to spare folks from a speaker who can’t string a sentence together in-person, so utilize the chance to show you can communicate naturally.”
Full bios for each speaker are required on the form, but aren’t shown publicly.
Let’s face it. Many techies and designers are not renowned for their spellnig skillz. And with each proposal there is some jeopardy, when that Submit button has been clicked, the proposal is locked and can’t be edited.
More advice from Hugh Forrest, “Proof proof proof and re-proof your proposal. Nothing ruins a great SXSW speaking proposal like typos and misspellings and incomplete sentences and grammatical errors. So you are encouraged to proofread your idea many many many times before hitting the “enter” button. Remember that once you submit your proposal through the PanelPicker interface, you can not make changes.”
30% of the decision on panels is made from a public vote. Gathering support through the official PanelPicker and shares on social media helps build momentum in getting selected.
Engaging your network and those of your speakers is essential in making sure there’s plenty of interest in the proposal. Popular PanelPicker submissions also generate plenty of comments and even discussion about the topics being covered.
It’s worth planning out a light-touch promotional campaign to support your proposal in the same way you might promote any other piece of content e.g. a blog post. Consider including speakers in any social media updates, tagging companies, topics and hashtags.
Encourage comments and shares on your proposal and for your network to get voting. They’ll need to register to vote, but aren’t committed to attending SXSW.
Beware of going too far, the official terms and conditions include, “I may not publicize my proposal through use of contests, sweepstakes, or other similar platforms”.
Don’t Do This
Want to know how to get it all wrong? Hugh Forrest wrote a tongue in cheek guide, “How to Get Rejected Again by the SXSW Interactive Festival”, in summary:
- Focus on trends from 2013
- Tell us what you think we want to hear
- Emphasise width over depth
- Enter the exact same idea you entered last year
- type your title and your description in all lower case letters
- Offer an all-male speaking lineup
- Offer an all-white speaking lineup
- Offer an all-San-Francisco speaking lineup
- Enter more than one speaking idea
- Miss the Friday, July 19 entry deadline
PanelPicker Form Summary
A quick run-down of the key fields required in the PanelPicker is listed below including those fields shown publicly on the website for voting. This’ll give you a good idea of the information required and also the length to consider when crafting the proposal:
- Title – 50 characters, ideally 8 words or less (public)
- Description – 800 characters (public)
- Speakers details – name, job title, organisation, social media (public)
- Speaker biographies – 1000 characters (private)
- Speaker qualifications – 1000 characters (private)
- How speaker contributes diverse perspective – 1000 characters (private)
- Prior speaking experience – 500 characters (private)
- Previous SXSW speaking experience (optional, private)
- Book info, if they’re a published author (private)
Homework: Historic PanelPicker Submissions
It’s important to do your homework before submitting a proposal. SXSW bills itself as a forward-looking event. Carbon copies of last year’s sessions are unlikely to get selected.
Alison Entsminger recommended an approach: “Envision the future of the field emerging after March 2020. Those attending and choosing sessions are interested in the bleeding edge of your field, so tell them where to find innovation and areas of opportunity. Can you prepare your audience for the future? Push into uncharted spaces with your session idea. The key here is relevancy and uniqueness. Take note of what was presented the year before, as organizers won’t program a repeat unless there’s a huge demand.”
Wouldn’t it be handy to review previous year’s SXSW line-ups? And what about the original proposals?
Luckily, a little fiddling about with the URLs of previous schedules will unlock the original proposals that saw them selected for the main conference.
Finding Previous SXSW Conference Sessions
It’s tricky, if not impossible, to find previous SXSW sessions through the official website. They are still live however:
If you want to get nostalgic, you can look at schedules all the way back to 2012 by changing the years in the URLs – replace 2017 with the year you’d like to view:
Alternatively, Google can be your friend here if you don’t want to browse through listings. Use the advanced search modifier site: schedule.sxsw.com, for example, type this into Google:
“virtual reality” site:schedule.sxsw.com
To further refine the results, filter the results by date (Tools > Any Time > Custom range…) and select the relevant dates.
Finding Previous SXSW PanelPicker Submissions
Those with a keen eye will have already spotted that each panel session on the conference has a unique code at the end of the URL. For example, this session from 2019 on “Immersion at Scale: AR/MR Will Change Everything” lives at:
The key bit of info here is the number in this URL: 85222
Pop this on the end of the URL for the PanelPicker – https://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/ – and voila! You’ll be able to look at the proposal that was originally submitted, commented and voted on for this session.
In this case it’s: https://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/85222
This won’t work for 100% of all sessions. Some don’t go through the PanelPicker process and it looks like some are marked private but a reasonable proportion are available.
It’s a very useful way to get a sense of the style required and see how others have successfully approach their proposals.
NB. You won’t see the number of votes cast for old proposals, but the social media shares are displayed to give a sense of the traction each panel generated.
SXSW 2020 Conference Tracks
20 tracks for 2020. Count ‘em! They’re all listed on the SXSW website, but summarised below. It’s worth noting that these do get updated from year-to-year.
Advertising & Brand Experience – As traditional marketing formats continue to lose relevance, creative leaders must reframe their approaches by building emotional connections with consumers through unique and compelling experiences. The Advertising & Brand Experience Track features creative strategists sharing insights on developing effective campaigns using data, neuroscience, storytelling, and the most current technological advances. (Interactive Track)
Cannabusiness – Learn about the technological, cultural, financial, legal and political ecosystems that are defining the cannabis-focused enterprises of both today and tomorrow. The Cannabusiness Track presents insights for professionals experienced in this rapidly-evolving industry, as well as introductions for newcomers who are just starting to enter this space. (Convergence Track)
Climate & Social Action – The Climate & Social Action Track highlights innovations that contribute to a more socially equitable and environmentally sustainable world. With updated studies putting climate change front and center in the global conversation, leaders and scientists from a variety of organizations will cover their challenges and successes in trying to affect lasting positive social, economic, and environmental change. (Convergence Track)
Connection & Culture – New for 2020, the Connection & Culture Track addresses the challenges of interpersonal relationships in a world that too often favors online interactions. Along with examining how we connect with each other, this track also covers the arts via food, style, and other endeavors that unite us on a cultural level. (Convergence Track)
Creating & Monetizing Music – The landscape for musicians has undergone seismic shifts as the traditional industry base has changed over the last two decades. How can musicians and publishers navigate, survive, and thrive in this dynamic space? The Creating & Monetizing Music Track will educate, inform, and equip everyone from artists to executives with the skills and tools they need to develop new opportunities. (Music Track)
Design – The Design Track covers all aspects of this industry, from futuristic product design to design-thinking approaches that can be applied to numerous other disciplines, businesses, and organizations. This programming will examine how design informs our interactions, shapes our experiences, and plays a critical role in problem-solving. (Interactive Track)
Experiential Storytelling – The Experiential Storytelling Track investigates how new and experimental strategies are reimagining and redefining the creative methods used to develop cutting-edge narrative structures. (Convergence Track)
Film & TV Industry – Explore the current and future states of film and television, as seen through the independent lens. (Film Track)
Future of Music – Emerging technologies and cultural trends are transforming the music industry more rapidly than ever before. The Future of Music Track examines these issues by exploring all aspects of the industry, from rights management and immersive live performances to experiential marketing campaigns and more. (Music Track)
Gaming Industry – New for 2020, the Gaming Industry Track examines the exponentially-increasing influence that the making, marketing, and distribution of video games is having on international culture, tech businesses, and traditional entertainment media including film and music. (Convergence Track)
Government & Politics – The Government & Politics Track aims to discuss issues that affect the lives of all citizens. Topics focus on technology regulation, livable cities, privacy issues, and the challenges of maintaining civil engagement in the age of social media. These sessions also address the difficulties of creating policies that encourage competition and economic growth while balancing legacy systems. (Convergence Track)
Health & Medtech – The Health & MedTech track focuses on the new advances and approaches being applied to medicine and well-being, including a deep dive into how the ecosystem of patients, providers, and payers interfaces with technology to improve outcomes in the communities where we live, work, and play. (Interactive Track)
Making Film & Episodics – Covering the range of film and television creation from script to post-production, these sessions are designed to guide filmmakers through the strategies and techniques that are crucial in crafting these media. (Film Track)
Media & Journalism – The Media & Journalism Track explores how the processes of news, analysis, and content distribution are being impacted by technology and society. These sessions also examine the fast-changing media industry landscape, as older institutions and newer organizations battle for consumer attention. (Convergence Track)
Sports – The Sports Track explores the future of competition from a cultural, philosophical, and technological perspective. Topics will include how esports challenge our traditional understanding of competitive athletes, big data’s role in revolutionizing various areas within the sports industry, and reimagining the state of fan engagement. (Convergence Track)
Startups – The Startups Track brings together founders and funders of all stages to talk about current best practices. This track showcases the most exciting new companies, new products, new services, and new business models across many different verticals and industries. (Interactive Track)
Tech Industry & Enterprise – The Tech Industry & Enterprise Track looks at today’s most cutting-edge ideas in software and hardware. Innovators and executives from a variety of industries will discuss the evolving landscape of technology-driven products and services in the B2B and B2C marketplaces. (Interactive Track)
Fantastic Future – New for 2020, the Fantastic Future Track spotlights the extraordinary new ideas that inspire us to get excited about tomorrow. From commercial space travel to quantum computing to the next generation of touchless interfaces, these sessions offer a platform to discuss and preview what life will be like over the next few decades. (Interactive Track)
Workplace – The Workplace Track brings together HR specialists, futurists, designers, and others to discuss forward-thinking initiatives that will enhance the offices and productivity centers of today and tomorrow. Topics discussed will include workforce inclusion, leadership and advocacy methods, and the effects of increased automation. (Interactive Track)
XR – Focusing on current capabilities with immersive interfaces, the XR Track explores where these mind-expanding systems are heading. (Convergence Track)
Thanks, in particular to the extensive blogging from SXSW’s Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest, there’s links to lots of his work below and the official materials on the SXSW website.
Following his Medium blog is an excellent idea for anyone looking to submit a session, but generally anything SXSW content-related. Here’s some starting points:
- Hugh Forrest’s Medium blog
- Preparing For PanelPicker Success!
- SXSW PanelPicker Success: Go Deep!
- SXSW 2019: 25 PanelPicker Tips in 25 Days
Thanks also to all the people who have written up their own version of SXSW tips which have been heavily borrowed for this guide: