How to Deliver a SXSW Talk in 15 Steps

Panels, bands, food, schmoozing, future-gazing, squirrels and meerkats — I’m exhausted and exhilarated.

I had the good fortune of being selected as a Future15 speaker at the SXSW Interactive festival. As I write this, I just got back from an absolutely amazing time in Austin.

So much has happened over the course of the past 4 months since I got the acceptance letter and I want to share with you the knowledge I’ve gained preparing and delivering my talk. See this article as a recipe to follow if you’re thinking about submitting a panel topic for next year’s festival (although, take my advice with a grain of salt since I’ve only done this once).

Below, I’ve listed the 15 steps that I took to create and deliver my presentation.

1. Write blog posts, and pick the best one as your proposal

The first step is to write. I try to write as much as I can. Writing really helps my thinking. My writing stems from themes that I pick up on: maybe it’s a quote that interests me, maybe it’s a presentation, or maybe it’s a book I’ve read.

”Why Can’t We Be More Like Disneyland?”, my topic for SXSW is an example of this approach. I attended a conference in early 2014 and Kim Goodwin was a keynote speaker. In her keynote, she told a very simple but powerful story about a bus driver at a Disney resort (which you’ll find below in point 6). The story resonated with me. I wrote it down, and then wrote an article to expand on my thoughts.

As the SXSW Panel Picker deadline approached, I reviewed the articles I had written during the year, and measured which subjects received the most views and likes. The clear winner was ”Why Can’t We Be More Like Disneyland?”.

So, think about it: if you write one article a month, that’s 12 a year. That will be a substantial body of work. It’s very likely that one your topics will stand out and get attention. That’s your winner.

2. Pick a catchy title

This is not easy, but to break through the clutter of 600+ panels at SXSW, you need to have a memorable title. The same recommendations for a successful blog post headline apply to a catchy panel title. For instance, use numbers, and a promise to teach something interesting. A great example of a title is by Simon James, who held the best talk this year, in my opinion:

Humans Are Predictable: Exploit It In Eight Charts (link)

However, keep in mind that the title can’t be different from your core message. I attended a few sessions that had really interesting titles, but the panels fell flat. You need to manage expectations.

3. Do your research

As soon as I heard that my topic got accepted, I started doing research. Since my talk was around values, I bought books around my theme. Additionally, I started searching the web for articles, videos and thought-leaders on the subject matter. I used the lens of my SXSW topic in pretty much everything I came across on the web, and I asked myself “Is this relevant for my presentation?”. During the months before SXSW, I saved a ton of inspiration that I used as reference materials. After a while, key themes started to emerge.

4. Don’t start too early

I didn’t start writing content or creating slides until a month before the festival. I can’t remember which book it was, but Tim Ferriss wrote about a law called Parkinson’s Law. It basically states that the longer the timeline, the more complexity. Since my talk was only 15 minutes, I didn’t want to end up with a lot of unnecessary content, and a lot of complexity, so I waited until the final stretch.

5. Define a core message

The first step when starting to form the presentation was to pick a core message. The core message should be just a few words that summarizes your entire talk.What is the single most important sentence that you want your audience to take away from your session?

6. Start with a story that explains your core message

The blog post I had previously written started off with a story:

A group of people check into one of Disney’s resorts. Shortly after, they hop on a bus to go somewhere else in the park. The bus driver says “Hey, how’s your room?”. One of the people on the bus says: “My faucet is dripping, I forgot to tell the front desk about that.” The bus driver says: “What’s your room number? I’ll get that taken care of.” When the guest arrives back to his room, the faucet is fixed.

The story plainly explained the core message of my presentation and opening up with a story is a great way to quickly grab the audience’s attention. I began my talk with the words: “I would like to start off with a story…” We are wired to tune in when we hear the word “story”.

7. Create an outline

After picking a core message, I did something that I learned from Simon Sinek: I created an outline of the points I wanted to hit during the presentation, essentially answering the question: What are the most important arguments of the talk?”

8. Write a script

As I created the outline, I knew exactly which parts I needed to expand upon. It became quite straight-forward to fill in the blanks.

I spent about 2 days writing an extensive script by using IA Writer. The process of writing a script made me focus on the cohesive story that I wanted to tell, forming a beginning, a middle and an end.

9. Create a story board

To be honest with you, I didn’t completely finish the script. I got antsy after a while and wanted to start creating slide layouts. After spending a few hours deciding which fonts and color palette to use, I finally got started.

I copied the text from the script to the slide notes and created slides for each part of the story. I isolated the most important words to break out and visualize in the layouts. Following many hours of juggling slides back and forth, I finally decided on a flow and a story that made me feel comfortable.

10. Put the slides up on a wall

The presentation wasn’t completely finished at this point, but I wanted to review it in its entirety. What’s really useful in this type of situation, and something I’ve learned from my friend Stefan, is to always put a presentation up on a wall. This exercise will enable you to see the big picture, and makes it very easy for you to adjust, for instance, the rhythm and the structure.

11. Record your session

As I became comfortable with the flow and the narrative, I used QuickTime to record myself telling the story.

It is a pretty awkward exercise to hear your own voice and watch your movements, but it will A) Make you track your time B) Gauge which parts to adjust C) Make you focus.

12. Kill your darlings

On the first try, I clocked in around 19 minutes (not too bad). This meant that I had to remove some precious slides. It wasn’t easy.

13. Memorize the story without the slides

The week prior to the presentation, I rehearsed without any slides at all. I practiced the talk over and over with my wife while strolling our daughter around Austin, and also in my head before going to bed at night. This task will help you become more adaptable in case you lose your train of thought during game day.

14. Practice, practice, practice

Almost there. The last few days before the talk, I think I might have done 10 dry-runs of the presentation, 2–3 times each day. As I put the final touches on the deck, I got more and more comfortable. During this time, I fine-tuned some of the animations and slide layouts. I felt ready.

15. Showtime

It’s presentation day. You shouldn’t really do anything at this point. I only did one dry-run after breakfast and tried to relax as much as I could. I drank plenty of water, which I feel helps my performance when speaking.

Now, it was only a matter of doing the presentation. I expected 10 or 15 people to show up but I was blown away that the entire ballroom was full of 200 or so people, and there was even a line outside for people who wanted to enter. Granted, we were 4 speakers during the one-hour slot, but I am humbled that there was such a great turnout to hear me speak.

In retrospect, I could have done a few more dry-runs and the topic that I picked was a bit abstract for a Sunday before noon. But, all in all, I’m pleased with how things turned out.

Here's what the final presentation looked like.

Austin, see you next time and thanks for a wonderful week.