Mar 22

Let me explain. I just returned from spending the last ten days at SXSW Interactive and Music. The attendance for Interactive was just shy of 20,000 people and Music this year was apparently about 10x that number. Having attended SXSW three years back the best analogy I can give is that this star of an event has super-nova’d into a Red Giant that’s borderline overwhelming. With such an intense amount of condensed human interaction it’s like trying to drink off of a fire hydrant: you better have a formalized system for taking baby sips or you risk getting your head blown off by the stream. So here’s the three-part “GTD-like” system I used to extract meaning from this event:

The goal is to wind up with meaningful connections and relationships. If you end up with a stack of business cards and a blurred recollection of faceless conversations, you failed.


At SXSW you’ll meet no less than 20 interesting people each day. These will be folks from all over the world with shared interests and with whom (if you had hours to sit and chat) you would almost certainly find incredible commonalities and opportunities to help each other via sharing contacts/advice/experiences. Sadly you have only limited surface area at an event like this though so you have a tiny window of interaction to make a meaningful connection.

Given the choice of breadth or depth of interaction, you should err on the side of connecting more deeply with fewer people. Stay in the moment, tune out distractions and engage. At this point you’re operating on two different levels though: 1) you’re 90% in it connecting 2) you’re 10% above it indexing. When you part ways, jot a three word trigger phrase on the back of the business card you received to make a mental note of the conversation.


At the end of the day (or even better, periodically throughout the day) stop and make notes that distill the anchor points and context of conversation with each person. The half-life of a conversation is less than a day so this distillation process is essential and should occur before the sun goes down. If you wait until after you return home, you’ve likely missed the opportunity to capture and process the meaning.

I use Evernote as a general purpose note taking app and I made a single note for SXSW that I just extended each day jotting down tidbits from interesting conversations. The key here to processing is to actively brainstorm about the interaction you just had and think hard about how you can help the other person. Curate the discussion mentally and jot down a concrete follow-up action you will make to advance that cause. I added an empty checkbox by the people I definitely wanted to follow-up with (Evernote makes this easy).

BTW I hate paper- it’s something extra that takes up space and inevitably you end up losing it. And yet in spite of all our ability to put a man on the moon we still rely upon paper as the lowest common denominator for exchanging contact info at conferences. Go figure.

I use a free iPhone app called “CardMunch” that allows me to quickly convert physical business cards into digital format. It lets you retain the associative value of the business card (the visual image you link with the person and recall) while giving you the more useful OCR’d data in a format that can be exported into your contact manager.


Lastly, all is largely for nought if you don’t ping the people you met after the conference to cement the connection and open the door for continued conversation. You should ideally offer something of value – an intro, a thoughtful insight based on a previous conversation. Even if it’s just a “hey it was great meeting you” compliment, do something that allows you to stake out a tiny piece of mental real estate in that person’s mind.

If you’re a true baller you’ll use a CRM system to develop relationships. Having used a handful (SugarCRM, Highrise, Salesforce, vTiger, Goldmine, Act) over the years I’ve become a huge proponent of just in the past month. In my opinion it strikes the golden balance of light-weight, frictionless and useful enough to where you’ll actually want to use it religiously. If you use Gmail as your email client this extension to Gmail unifies context across all your contact mediums and social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and even your phone). I recommend tagging new contacts with an identifier of the event like “SXSW2011” so it’s possible to search against the pool of people you met at a specific event. Ultimately the mental index you make is king and you’re just tagging interactions with keywords and notes that can be used to retrieve context later.


So to summarize: capture, curate and contact. Do those three activities and you’ll be surprised how many interesting relationships emerge from events. The curation step is the one that typically gets ignored and yet it’s the lynchpin for extracting the meaning from the interactions you have that allows you to develop the relationship. Try practicing the curation step next event you attend and I guarantee you’ll more frequent and quality interactions following the event.

So what systems have you developed for getting the most value out of big conferences?

3 Responses to “How to attend large conferences without getting completely frazzled”

  1. RT @scrollinondubs: New blog post: How do do big conferences without getting your head blown off

  2. How to do big conferences without getting your head blown off: Let me explain. I just returned from spending the…

  3. How to do big conferences without getting your head blown off: Let me explain. I just returned from spending the…

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