How to Get Selected for a Panel at South By Southwest

If your small business is in the tech, media, or entertainment industry, becoming a presenter at the South By Southwest (SXSW) annual conference in Austin, Texas is a great opportunity to increase your brand recognition, show off your expertise, and connect with some of the most influential people in America. Depending on your company’s focus, you can choose to participate in the Interactive, Film, or Music conferences, which are hosted back-to-back every March.

Not just anyone can become a presenter, though. In order to score a presentation spot at next year’s conference (you’re too late for 2011), you’ll need to start preparing well in advance. Here’s what you’ll need to do.

1)   Look through this year’s topics to understand what SXSW is looking for. This audience is sophisticated, so don’t even think about a “Twitter 101”-type session. Advanced topics like this year’s “The Future of Touch User Interface Design,” presented by Amish Patel of Microsoft, are much more in line with the audience’s needs. Even if you’re not a tech guru, you can come up with a topic based on a problem you’ve solved within your business — for instance, the difficulties of managing interns, or how to measure your ROI on social media.

2)    Plan your presentation. You can opt to speak solo for an hour, participate in a panel with several other speakers, or hold a round-table discussion with your audience. Don’t consider a solo presentation unless you’re a true expert in your field and have plenty to say: It can be tough to wing it for a full hour, and you aren’t likely to be selected unless SXSW believes your voice is truly valuable. If you’re newer to your field, find a few business owners in similar industries who are willing to discuss a particular business issue with you — if you don’t know anyone personally, LinkedIn or Twitter can help you connect.

3)   Create your proposal. You can submit up to three proposals: one for each of the Film, Music, and Interactive categories. Depending on your topic of choice, you may be able to customize one proposal to fit each group; if not, stick with just the one that’s the best fit. Your proposal should include a title of eight words or less, a description of up to 1,500 characters, and a synopsis of five questions your panel will answer. See SXSW’s template example, with tips, here.

4)   Submit your proposal. Check out SXSW’s PanelPicker to see when the 2012 conference will be open for submissions — it will likely open in June 2011. When the time comes, submit your idea to the PanelPicker and request votes from everyone you know. Although the SXSW advisor panel makes the ultimate decision on panels, it puts a lot of weight on which ones have proven interest up front — so promote your panel through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets to pick up votes in advance.

Keep in mind that this is the easy part: If you’re selected, you’ll need to put a lot of time into finalizing the other members of your panel, and you’ll be responsible for travel to and lodging costs in Austin. Don’t sweat the expense too much. If you’re trying to raise awareness of your brand among industry influencers, this is one of the best opportunities you’ll have.

About Kathryn Hawkins

Kathryn Hawkins is a principal at the content marketing agency Eucalypt Media. She's written about business, marketing, and entrepreneurship for publications including BNET, TheAtlantic.com, Inc.com, and owns and operates the positive news site Gimundo. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynhawkins.
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