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Anatomy of a SXSW Panel: Designing a Conversation

Second-year student Katie Koch go behind the scenes in a Q&A with SXSW Interactive panelists.

The past four days have been a dizzying experience of networking, learning, and eating (!), with hardly a moment to breathe and absorb it all. A ‘quick’ scan through the South by Southwest schedule proves to be an arduous task, with as many as twenty different activities happening at any given time. Designing one’s schedule is an activity in itself, an ongoing challenge to find a discussion that delivers the right mix of novelty, intrigue and productive banter.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending “My Prototype Beat Up Your Business Plan,” with Ade Olonoh (Formspring), Jeffrey Kalmikoff (SimpleGeo), Kendra Shimmell (Adaptive Path) and Kristian Andersen (Kristian Andersen + Associates).

I sat down with Jeffrey, Kristian, and Kendra after the session to get the story behind the panel. As a team they designed the framework for a conversation about the value of building and communicating an idea. They met a responsive audience whose questions ignited a greater conversation than the one they had intended.

Katie Koch: How did you guys come together as a panel?

Kristian Andersen: I submitted the panel idea, and as is often the case, I forgot about it. And five months later they send you a note with “Congratulations! …Now you need to put your panel together and get back with us in two weeks.”

When I first submitted it my thinking was maybe this would be a solo presentation, but as soon as I began to think about the dynamics, I thought it would make a lot more sense to take the panel approach.

Katie: Was there an experience that inspired the idea for the panel?

Kristian: Personally, yes. [When I’m] wearing my investor hat, people ask a lot for advice on pitching tips, and “what should be in my deck?”, and increasingly I found myself saying “Hey, if you could come to the table with something that works that you can show us that will tell a story about your business, that is far more effective than five-year performance documents and executive summaries and…” That was the catalyst.

Second-year student Katie Koch go behind the scenes in a Q&A with SXSW Interactive panelists.
Second-year student Katie Koch go behind the scenes in a Q&A with SXSW Interactive panelists.

Katie: What conversations did you have with each other before the panel today?

Jeffrey Kalmikoff: We had a phone conversation two months ago. That was pretty much it. For about an hour.

Kendra Shimmell: During that conversation we shared our particular perspectives on business plans, how you get things off the ground, the role of “making” in all of that, and we started to identify where we had points of contention or agreement. [We knew that] everyone on the panel’s going to have a strong point of view. From the audience’s perspective, if one person takes that too far they’re going to lose the sense of communication and rhythm. It was very much orchestrated so that we would be sensitive to the experience the audience would have in watching the panel.

So we could make sure that the conversation was tighter bound, we also had discussions around how we were defining things: How do we define prototype? How do we define business plan? What conversation are we trying to have? What conversation are we not having? We planned the panel by basically prototyping the panel. We met and tried [the conversation] out to see how it might go.

Katie: Was there anything that was unexpected today? Anything that totally changed what you were planning for the conversation?

Kristian: No, it went pretty much as planned!

Jeffrey: But the thing is, we also had a lot of conversations about our experiences watching panels and what we don’t like about them. They either end up being really disorganized or they end up being people agreeing with each other for an hour. [We asked ourselves] what do we want people walking away knowing about each one of our points of view?

Katie: Each of you had a goal for what you wanted to communicate, and once you reached that goal you felt the conversation could go in any direction?

Kendra: Yes. And the audience questions made the conversation more interesting and took it in a new direction.

–Katie Koch, Class of 2011

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