Here’s my annual list of tips for attending SXSW, updated for 2013. I just want to preface this with the most important tip of all:

TALK to people. Socialize. Any time you’re waiting for a panel, talk to the person on your left. Then talk to the person on your right. Then introduce them to each other. Make dinner or drink plans with random strangers.

Everyone at SXSW is an expert in something, has an interesting story, and will be rewarding to talk to. Don’t be fooled into thinking that only the folks on stage are the smart ones. Measure your days by how many total strangers you had a good conversation with.

Ok, here’s the list:

Before the Trip
That’s one full conference room. Get to your session
early to get a seat. Popular sessions fill up quickly, and
once they do, you aren’t allowed in. One more reason
to plan your schedule in advance.
  1. Power equipment: Get yourself a travel power strip, and/or auxiliary battery for your laptop. Being able to  take notes, follow the twitter stream, or research sessions for 10 hours a day is a stretch for almost any laptop or phone. I own and love the Monster Outlets to Go travel power strip, with built-in USB port. It packs down small, and lets you walk up and use any outlet, even one already occupied.
  2. Plan out your schedule. There are thousands of sessions you can attend – usually from 40 to 60 during any given timeslot. Which are the ones that are most interesting and applicable to you? Although you should choose primarily based on interest and applicability, all other things being equal it is often a good bet that speakers in larger rooms are better than speakers in smaller rooms. So get familiar with the map of SXSW, and figure out which rooms are which. Also, it’s not a given that you can make it to a particular talk from any other talk in the allotted time, and still get there with a place to sit. So look at the overall map of all the hotels, and figure out what you can make.
  3. Choose your backup talks: For one time slot, you might have a favorite talk you want to attend. Maybe it will be awful, or maybe it’ll be full and you can’t get in, or maybe it will be cancelled. With SXSW Interactive spread out across many blocks, buildings, and floors, it’s not possible to get from any given room to another quickly. So once you know your preferred talk for a given timeslot, pick out a backup talk that is nearby.
  4. Business Cards: It’s surprising for such an online environment, but business cards are still popular. If networking is important to you, bring some. Make them simple. Name, email, phone, twitter handle, website.
  5. Get TweetScriber, the iPad app that lets you take (1) notes on sessions while (2) following the twitter stream for a given talk, and (3) copy the best tweets into your notes, and (4) share your finished notes with a single click.

At the Start of Each Day

These are the registration lines. Plan to give yourself
at least an hour to get your badge on the first day.
  1. Food/Coffee: Get your coffee on the way to the conference center, not at the actual conference center. Lines for coffee are ten to twenty minutes long. Also, in 2010 they started having sessions go through the lunch hour. I think that sucks, but I hate to miss anything, so I go to them all. Since it’s hard to get food quickly, you may want to bring another snack bars that you’ve got food in your backpack to cover you through to dinner. I’m partial to KIND Nut Delight bars, which are relatively low on sugar and high on protein, and the closest bar I can find that is 4 Hour Body (4HB) compatible.
  2. Start charged: Start the day with charged laptop/phone/etc.
  3. Clothes: Bring a light jacket in case you don’t make it back to your hotel room. It’ll cool down at night. Conversely, it will be warm enough at some point during the day for short sleeves.
  4. Reschedule: Learn anything interesting yet? Find a new track that seems interesting? Reevaluate your list of planned talks, and see if you want to make adjustments.
During the Day
Don’t sit in the back. Go ahead, find a seat up front! Make
friends with the person sitting next to you.
  1. Talk to the people around you: SXSWi is a social place. The people around you are likely to be very experienced, smart, interesting people. Start up conversations, make dinner plans with strangers, and keep going until 2am. The wisdom of the crowd is not just an abstract thing at SXSW – it is manifest in the people all around you. Talk to them.
  2. Be in the moment: Don’t go to a session and then check out and read email, surf the web, or do work. SXSW is precious. Make the most of your time by being totally immersed in what is going on. 
  3. Recharge: Look for outlets in hallways, restaurants, outside, anywhere, and use them when you find them. 
  4. Conserve power: If you are taking notes on your computer or blogging the sessions, you may want to turn off wifi on your laptop to save power (and to keep your focus on the session, so you don’t start random web surfing.) I usually use my smartphone to follow twitter and email so I’m still connected.
  5. Follow the #SXSWi tag on twitter: You want to follow #SXSWi so that if another session is excellent and your session kind of sucks, then you can make the switch quickly. (or conversely find out if a room is already packed and can’t fit any more.)
  6. Follow the twitter tag for whatever session you are in: There will be a back channel of conversation about the session you are in that is almost as valuable as the primary speakers. SXSW is full of experts, both presenting and in the crowd, and you want to tap into all of that wisdom. This doesn’t violate tip #1, because you are not being distracted by something different, but rather tapping into more of what you are already there for.
I’ll be there doing a reading from A.I. Apocalypse on Saturday at noon, so please stop by. And feel free to send me a tweet at @hertling if you’d like to talk artificial intelligence, science fiction, or indie publishing.

Have fun, and enjoy SXSW Interactive!

Photo credits: Luc Byhet and John Swords under Creative Commons license.