This year marked my fourth consecutive year attending the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. This year was quite different for me than years past. Before I’ve attended sessions solo, or at most with one other person. This year there were several colleagues from around campus at SXSW. There was much more opportunity for collaboration and team-building than I’ve experienced in the past. So this year my major themes and lessons learned were¬† not necessarily from sessions.

Lessons Learned

Don’t be afraid to explore!

Our last day in Austin a group of us found ourselves exploring different parts of the city. Despite having been there several times, I realized I’d never truly seen Austin. We had an amazing lunch (still dreaming about that milkshake), went to some crazy antique shops, saw some wild fashion, and finally found some of the city’s famous graffiti murals. In talking to random people on the street we even learned the secret to the perfect jumping photograph. While this was not part of the conference it definitely left us recharged, and absorbing some of the local culture gave us a lot of creative ideas.

Five Spartans jumping in front of the Greetings From Austin graffiti billboard

Photo Credit:

It really is a small, small world.

I’m typically the quiet introvert who doesn’t say much to the taxi driver. But somehow when traveling in a big group we always ended up in fascinating conversations with the locals. One of the Lyft drivers we had on our last day adventure asked where we were from. Turns out, not only had he been to Michigan, but he actually grew up one town over from myself and another member of our group. Since then he joined the military, lived all over the world, and retired to Arizona.

You get more bang for your buck when you attend a conference with others.

Last year a colleague friend and I went to SXSW together and we were able to discuss sessions and insights over dinner. That effect with exponentially greater traveling with a much larger group. We made sure to share a few meals as a group, where we’d inevitably discuss what we’d seen. We had a group text chain to share tips and sightings throughout the week. We met up as a group yesterday to share our thoughts and insights, and we’re compiling all our notes into a master document so we all benefit from the collective sessions that were attended.

Sometimes you go 1,350 miles to connect with someone down the road.

A lot of people go to SXSW to network. That’s never been a priority for me because it’s not a major element of my job. However this year, in addition to the team building networking within the group I was with, I found myself networking with people from my own backyard while in Texas. I happened to be wearing a t-shirt from my alma mater which drew attention from a fellow Michigander while we waited in line at a food truck park. A small group of us ended up eating lunch together. We continued to bump into each other throughout the week – at a Big Ten tournament game watch, in the airport, and on the plane home. The various conversations I had led to some ideas and insights that, I think, will be valuable for both sides. Other similar experiences are leading to some new perspectives into campus work culture for me, and some new collaborations for our office. They all started with a conversation during a basketball game!

Go to the somewhat unrelated session that sounds interesting!

The scope of my work is in flux right now, which made choosing sessions a bit of a challenge. Should I go to the sessions immediately applicable to what I used to do, or what might be applicable to what I might do in the future? Tough choices. At times I opted to just go with what sounded fun. For example: I don’t work with animals, but I went to see how National Geographic photographs endangered species. I’m not in radio and have no plans to podcast, but I went to hear Ira Glass (of This American Life and Serial) speak. I’m not a filmmaker and don’t plan to be, but I thought I’d check out what JJ Abrams and Andrew Jarecki had to say. These three sessions were the most interesting ones I attended all week, and they gave me the most creative inspiration and ideas for my work because they made me look at storytelling in new ways. What would have happened if I’d skipped them because they didn’t “directly pertain to my job”?!

Session Takeaways

Below are specific lessons, blurbs, and inspirations that I took from each of the sessions that I caught this year. As usual, SXSW recorded many sessions that are available on SoundCloud and their channel, so I plan to catch a few more sessions over the coming weeks. I’ll try to post another recap of these at a later date.

New World of Photography and Visual Storytelling

  • Consider the spectrum of digital stories. One end is mostly words with few, if any, images (think StoryCorps). On the other end is mostly images with few, if any, words (think PhotoArk). Where do you want to position your communications?
  • “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” – Margaret Mead
  • Black or white backgrounds are the great equalizers of photography.
  • Identify small opportunities to “move the needle,” and over time you’ll make a great impact.
  • Great photographs tell personal stories, are timely and easy to relate to, speak to the audience, make eye contact, are highly visual, and are on brand.
  • Note to self: Check out “Rare” on PBS in spring 2017!
  • Click to see my sketchnotes.

Screw Email! Why the Clever Comms are Handmade

  • Give your attendees a tangible take away that is fun. There were several photos on Instagram of the handwritten notes on our seats.
  • Handwritten envelopes have a 99% open rate, compared to 16.8% open rate for marketing emails.
  • Three rules of handwritten communications: be personal/human; be a fisherman (targeting with bait, not casting a big net); and be creative.
  • Take your self-expression online using GIFs, emojis, and memes.
  • The average American receives 50 marketing emails per day and one handwritten envelope every seven weeks.
  • Click to see my Storify recap and my sketchnotes.

This #SXSW panel is putting a nice spin on not winning a seat in the lottery this morning.

A photo posted by Katie Kelly (@kkellymsu) on

President Barack Obama Keynote Conversation

  • “The most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen.”
  • Whatever your field is, there is a way for you to be civically engaged. You can work to make the country better for all.
  • We cannot solve the problems we face as a nation unless we collectively pay attention.
  • The administration created a new approach to technology based on SWAT teams that swoop in with expertise and rectify a situation. This is called the U.S. Digital Services.
  • Click to see my Storify recap and my sketchnotes.

The Rise of the Visual Strategist

  • “Fish don’t see the water.” We are swimming in an age of visual communications.
  • Imagery is a new language. The language is machine-, object-, and multimedia-based.
  • Think of icebergs. The value of an image isn’t what you see – it’s the connectivity built through what is under the surface of the image.
  • Curation is the new creation. Curation + Selection = Strategic Communications
  • Click to see my Storify recap and my sketchnotes.

Marketing to Moments that Matter

  • Then: Mass-produced moments. Everyone experienced the Seinfeld series finale, and then talked about it the next day at the office.
  • Now: Self-produced moments. People create their own experiences. The media they do consume is on their own time.
  • Social media feeds have become extremely personalized.
  • Food moments are best when shared. So go ahead and Instagram that BBQ!
  • Marketing rules in today’s world: be personal; be precise (the right creative to the right person at the right time); and be persistent.
  • Consider both screen size and distance from the viewer. A phone is small, but it is held in the hand and captures attention. A television is larger, but when viewed from across the room there can be many distractions between the viewer and the screen.
  • Consider how people use media. Example: new parents use their phones to entertain themselves during 4 a.m. feedings.
  • Develop content for all moments: daily, monthly, yearly, and lifetime events.
  • Click to see my sketchnotes.

Data Defeats Truman: How CRM Will Elect a President

  • Theory: What candidates say matters, but being heard is better.
  • More emails yield more money yield more delegates
  • Set up a Gmail account to test your inbox results. What tab do your communications land in?
  • Your content and subject line are critical. Ted Cruz’s campaign could be leaving $25M on the table because so many of his messages go to spam due to poor subject line quality and poor list quality.
  • Be authentic in your messaging. Example: Clinton’s student loan emojis vs. Sanders’ self-deprecating Snapchat announcement.
  • Be wary of online communications. Only 3% of Trump’s tweets could actually have been sent by him directly, according to a study by Mother Jones. (Based on the way tweets were published and the times published in comparison to his daily schedule.)
  • Click to see my sketchnotes.

Project Loxodo: Can Tech Drive Reader Engagement?

  • The Washington Post uses Slack to communicate with staff in order to test headline ideas before going to print.
  • They’ve moved to a web publishing deadline schedule, instead of having press needs dictate their deadlines.
  • They built a custom platform of tools that bring all their story and website analytics into one dashboard.
  • Don’t be afraid to create your own metric systems to measure what you need to measure.
  • Trend prediction: Virtual Reality (VR) reporting and interactive infographics will be the next big thing in journalism.
  • Click to see my Storify recap and my sketchnotes.

Daring Greatly РBrené Brown Keynote

  • There is NO innovation without failure.
  • Be particular of whose opinions of you matter. When you hear critique, ask yourself “are they on my list?” If not, ignore it.
  • If you’re brave with your life and your work, you’re going to get knocked down. It’s worth it.
  • Vulnerability is NOT a weakness.
  • There are a million cheap seats in the world. If someone isn’t putting themselves in the arena, then you don’t want their feedback.
  • Three steps to resiliency: Reckoning; Rumble; Revolution
  • Multitasking is a symptom of an achievement quest.
  • Click to see my Storify recap and my sketchnotes.

Designing Happiness

  • Overall happiness at an event is judged by the high point and the ending. Make sure guests leave on a good note.
  • Bring happiness to the mundane: beautiful pens, high quality finishes, plug in to the senses.
  • Waiting is only burdensome if you’re not being entertained.
  • Tap into emotion.
  • They talk the talk and walk the walk: The session ended with cookies and puppies!
  • Click to see my sketchnotes.

For All Your Eyes Only: Communicating Secrets at @CIA

  • Treat communications like museum exhibits: accessible; understandable; easy to absorb; and easy to relate to. Each piece should inform, instruct and inspire.
  • Build communications for three types of readers: skimmers (read a headline), swimmers (read a blog post), and divers (click through to related information).
  • Don’t join a new network until you’re sure you can sustain it.
  • Tie content to others. Reach out to relevant resources for your audiences.
  • Cultivate relationships with colleagues to prevent content roadblocks.
  • Click to see my sketchnotes.

How to Stop Speaking in Bullshit

  • As jargon increases belief in the message decreases.
  • B.S. language in email comes across as passive aggressive.
  • Internal jargon builds a wall and hurts corporate culture.
  • What causes B.S. in communications? Fear of risk, laziness, time constraints, and treating the audience as if they are stupid.
  • “If you wouldn’t say it to a friend in a bar, don’t put it in a speech.”
  • Communications should matter. If it’s not something worthwhile and different than what everyone else is saying, don’t bother.
  • Click to see my sketchnotes.

Stay True to Your Craft and Online Brand

  • Your job is what you do for a pay check. Your craft is what you do to have bigger meaning.
  • Your brand is your point of view and storytelling approach.
  • “If you’re not dead, you’re alive. Start living.”
  • Your Brand = Your Voice + Your Vision + Your Visuals
  • Cultivate your brand by building self-awareness, community awareness, a distinct point of view, and figuring out how to reach your intended audience.
  • Deal with fear. Being uncomfortable creates change. “If you weren’t afraid, what would you say or do?”
  • Your network equals your net worth. Brand Equity = Monetary Capital + Social Currency
  • Click to see my Storify recap and my sketchnotes.

Why GIFs?

  • A still image shares one idea. A video is like long prose. A GIF is like a headline.
  • A photograph is a visual noun. There is no story because there is no beginning or end.
  • A GIF is a visual verb.
  • Tip: Share to your home screen on your phone so that you can easily access it. You can send GIFs in iMessage.
  • Giphy Studios now open! They’ll create and curate GIFs in the first ever GIF studio and agency.
  • Click to see my sketchnotes.

Same Timezone, Unique Challenges: Rio 2016 Olympics Preview

  • Avoid platform paralysis by pre-planning. What is new? Where are the eyeballs?
  • A content calendar meeting determines which events will produce content and where it will be driven.
  • Create custom content for each platform.
  • Strive to reach for emotional attachment.
  • Beta test content before the big day, if possible. Determine what types of content and which stories work best for your audience.
  • Trend prediction: The voice of the athlete will move to their own platforms instead of being wed to the US Olympic Committee.
  • Click to see my Storify recap and sketchnotes.

Ed Saxon: The Power of Story in the Digital Age

  • Story is the world’s oldest tech tool.
  • Brains are hardwired for stories.
  • Stories work when they tap into emotion.
  • Images help us recognize genre. Change the image and you can change the genre, and thus the emotional response.
  • Three types of story conflict: man vs. man; man vs. nature; and man vs. self
  • You HAVE to have an ending. Share the victory!
  • Click to see my sketchnotes.

The Eyes of Robots and Murderers

  • “You always want to be open to the better idea.” – JJ Abrams
  • Make sure the stories you’re telling are as good as the promise of the thing.
  • “If there’s a story that’s worth telling, then it makes sense to pursue it.” – Andrew Jarecki
  • New app: KnowMe – It allows you to create voice-overs and videos using the complete media library on your phone. This could be a great tool for authentic storytelling.
  • Click to see my sketchnotes.

Ira Glass in Conversation with Mark Olsen

  • “It takes a long time to make anything good.”
  • Ideas start small and grow over time.
  • Working with a boss? Manage up, work the relationship, or work around it.
  • Don’t make anything you wouldn’t consume yourself.
  • You have to have BOTH tech and content to be successful.
  • Even when the story changes on This American Life, “it’s always us.” Own your brand.
  • Recipe for a story: Pull the reader in. Make the characters relatable. Add an element of surprise. Add something new that the audience hasn’t seen before. Have a plot.
  • Push your story to the crisis point.
  • Trend prediction: Virtual Reality (VR) journalism is coming.
  • Click to see my sketchnotes.