The story of the SXSW shuffle
I’m in the middle of evaluating 200 proposals for SXSW. One theme is coming up a lot more this time around. And it’s bugging me.
For every proposal, I write a few bullet points of what I hope is considered, constructive feedback (much of it positive).
But just now I let fly. Below is the riff I wrote in the little 'comments' box (cleaned up a bit for clarity). I hope this won't get me fired...
This is one of those proposals where there's a 'unique premise' or a concept that that the proposer has created. I’ve seen a bunch of them this time around - 2 or 3 times previous years.
Broadly, this type of proposal is a good thing. It means there's some kind of angle or hook, rather than just another vague pitch on 'future of AI' or 'brand experiences'.
HOWEVER (and it's an all-caps however), where many of these fall down is that there's so little proof or rigor. In many cases it also feels like blatantly dressing up something that already exists and calling it something else. It’s Juicero in text-based form.
For me, this is one of those proposals. I just can't grasp how the central premise is to be believed. A light scratch and the surface gives way. It's been confected. High on corn syrup.
And it’s hard for me to escape the feeling that all it’s a ploy. A way to sell more stuff (services, books, speaking etc) that people don't really need. That it may even misdirect, or inadvertently send people into a futile rabbit hole. Perhaps I'm overthinking, exaggerating, taking it all too seriously. But extrapolate this approach across dozens, hundreds, thousands of people and pitches out there in the world. It's it's not particularly pretty.
And the core problem is the core. I just don't believe the core concept here. When the core concept isn't believable, it means nothing else holds together.
This is where video is critical. Give me a 2 minute explainer of the concept (or at least a 5-slide deck!) with some strong foundations. More than likely, I'll suspend my disbelief. You don’t need to give me Nobel-prize winning first principles physics. Just show something. A couple of trends, a piece of data. A hint of background.
But here, as with so many like it, no such material is included.
Another common theme with proposals like this is that the three proposed takeaways are horribly broad. If I'm sitting thinking 'duh, yeah obviously...' for all three takeaways - especially when the core concept feels flimsy - that is not a good sign.
To be clear, I have nothing against the individual proposer. They appear to be capable, running a business that does good work. They've been in the game a while.
And of course, people need to make a living. Maybe the growth of proposals like this are symptomatic of the current macro environment. There’s an urgent, sometimes desperate pull to become a thought leader, build a personal brand, differentiate in any which way. I empathize. I sympathize. I feel it myself.
Underneath it all I’m just sad. I really want these to be great. My role isn't to sniff and talk down. Not at all.
I want these to be wonderful. I want to say yes to every single one. Every click of 'next proposal' still gets me excited.
I know this is 'just' a conference submission. And I just want people to value the craft; to put something forward they’re proud of; to do the work. It doesn’t need to be the best in the world - far from it. It doesn't need to be slick, feature celebrities, or include the latest shiny piece of tech.
Just show me something with substance. Show me you. Show me something - and someone - I can believe in.
Too often, I can’t.
But I'm more than ready to.