So You Want to Speak at SXSW?

By March 11, 2017SXSW

SXSW is here! This year’s SXSW speaking lineup is already set, but it’s never too late to start planning for 2018. SXSW is one of the most difficult events to earn a speaking engagement for, and the show’s growing visibility has only made that more difficult with each passing year. Luckily, we have the inside scoop on how to develop a speaking submission that will give you a solid chance.

Earlier this year I attended the SXSW PanelPicker Best Practices Meet Up in San Francisco. During the event members of previous SXSW selection panels gave a room full of PR pros their tips for submitting a speaking proposal to the “premier destination for discovery.”

SXSW Concert

Let’s start with the basics:

SXSW uses its unique PanelPicker tool to select speaking submissions. Selections are judged by a combination of:

  • Community votes from others submitting sessions via the PanelPicker – 30 percent of the final decision
  • Input from SXSW staff – 30 percent
  • Input from the SXSW Advisory Board who are, according to the SXSW website, a “group of experienced industry professionals, whose advice and insights about programming and other event-related issues are trusted by the SXSW staff.” – 40 percent

This means it’s important to create a submission that appeals to a variety of people. You’ll need something that withstands the careful scrutiny of an industry veteran, but that also sounds appetizing to people who might not understand your market or speaking topic as well. Before you dive into your proposal, here is a checklist of basic requirements you’ll need to meet.


  • Meet the deadline & follow instructions

This is tech PR 101. Reporters and conference organizers are on deadlines, too. Missing a deadline or failing to follow instructions is a great way to have your proposal passed over.

  • Create an original proposal

Base your proposal on a topic you are passionate about, not what you think will get picked. This might be the most important rule. Your passion and love for what you are discussing will shine through.

  • Focus your proposal on the future

What is happening 15 years from now? Most people don’t know, but if you can provide a glimpse of what some part of that might look like, heads will turn. Don’t focus on the now – focus on what lies ahead and why.

  • Be specific

The biggest mistake evaluators see is proposals that try to cover too much. Like the idea of following your passion, follow the topic you’d like to cover. Don’t try to cover multiple topics; you only have so much time.

  • Submit a solo session

Remember when panels used to be the hot new way to entice reviewers? Now it’s time to zig when everyone else is zagging. Aim for a solo session — your savvy soliloquy is worth more than a supporting role with a bigger cast.

  • Include a video

Submission reviewers are not looking for a video explaining what you want to present on stage. Instead, they’d like to see 2-3 minutes of film about your topic and why you should be at SXSW. The video can even be low quality – iPhone videos welcome! – or even a PPT script instead of video. Reviewers want to see how dynamic and passionate the speaker is. They want to make sure that person is a good speaker.

  • Include a title that reflects your description

Many voters only browse titles, so make sure yours says a lot. Don’t be too cute with your title; instead, pretend someone in an entirely different industry is reading it and ask yourself, “Would this still make sense to them?”

  • Proofread for grammar and spelling

Your submission should have zero grammar or spelling errors. It’s that simple.

While following these tips in no way secures your spot at SXSW 2018, adhering to them is a good way to send your application to the top of reviewers’ lists. Start getting those applications for next year together, and let us know on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn how your client’s proposal fares!

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