Judging SXSW proposals is both art and science. (Pexels)
Judging SXSW proposals is both art and science. (Pexels)

I’ve had the honor of serving on the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Advisory Board (AB) for several years. While I can’t discuss the details of any proposal, I can share with you what increases the odds of your proposal getting my vote.

Keep in mind, the the AB approaches votes by looking at what each individual board member would want to see at SXSW. So, this guide can only help you with AB members who share my interests. Other AB members probably have different tastes and approaches to the evaluation process.

The Selection Process

SXSW provides a big stage for presenting your ideas, and there is a lot of competition for a spot in the schedule. There were 4,400 proposals received for the 2017 event, and only a small percentage can be accepted.

There are three parties in the selection process, and each one has a percentage influence in what gets accepted:

  • 30% - Public Votes (every idea can receive votes from the public
  • 30% - Staff (seasoned experts who know what makes a great SXSW experience)
  • 40% - Advisory Board (an international group of industry experts)

The Panel Picker

Every year, SXSW announces that the Panel Picker is open for proposals. The Panel Picker is an online tool that anyone can use to describe their idea for what should be a session at SXSW. It allows you to describe the session organizer (who may or may not be one of the speakers), the title of your idea and intended audience, track, format (solo presentation, dual presentation, panel, etc.) a description of your session, the three questions it will answer, resources to support your idea (videos, slides, etc.), and the people will participate in your session.

The Panel picker is also the voting interface. Voters can see the title, description, questions, proposed speakers, organizer, and resources provided to support the idea. Voters can also leave comments.

The Evaluator Tool

Members of the AB do not use the Panel Picker to cast our votes. We use a separate online tool, but we see many of the same fields along with a link to the actual Panel Picker entry. However, there are fields that only AB members see.

The first three fields allow evaluators to assign stars to three characteristics of the proposal: Creativity, Relevance, and Quality and Diversity of Speakers. Each characteristic can be given between one and five stars which have the following meaning:

  • 1 Star - Bad
  • 2 Stars - Poor
  • 3 Stars - Regular
  • 4 Stars - Good
  • 5 Stars - Gorgeous

The next field is a free text box where we answer the question “Why do you think this should (or shouldn’t) be a part of this year’s event?”

The next field is a final “Yes or No” answer to the question “Do you see this as part of our event?”

Getting My Yes

It takes a lot for me to vote Yes for a proposal in the evaluator interface. As a member of the AB, we are charged to find the best of the best of the best. I have to find nuggets of platinum (not just gold) in the hundred of proposals in my set. Here are a few things that can help you idea shine.


Create a catchy Title that is focused and specific. Combine ideas to express them in new ways. “What Captain Picard Taught Me about Public Speaking” is better than “Rock Your Next Speech!”. Also, be careful about using current events in your title because those events may be obsolete by the time March comes around.


As of this writing, you can attach two videos (one hosted on YouTube and the other hosted on Vimeo) to your PanelPicker entry. Make sure you attach well produced videos that match the context of your idea. Ideally, the video should feature the speaker (if a solo panel) or several of the panel members (if a dual or panel presentation) listed under the Speakers section. It’s even better if the video shows the speaker(s) talking about the topic of the panel.

The evaluator tool used by members of the AB shows the videos as icons that, when clicked, open the vides in Youtube or Vimeo. Please include a video in your proposal. It is very difficult to judge the speaking and presentation skills that will be present in the session without a video. In fact, not including a video is almost an automatic “No” from me when it comes to the question “Do you see this as part of our event?”. I can’t agree to what I can’t see.

One benefit of including a video from Vimeo is that you can replace the video later. This is important because once you submit your PanelPicker proposal it is locked by the system. However, if you include a Vimeo video, you can update the video with new information or just provide a better produced video.

You can also attach a link to slides hosted on services like Slideshare or Speakerdeck. Slides are very helpful for evaluating how you put together your ideas, and I highly recommend including them. Make sure these are links to pages you control. That way, you can modify these pages after you submit your proposal which locks it in the system. This is key if you want to provide updated information like breaking news or even additional slide content.

The recent version of the PanelPicker also lets you provide another resource link. You can use this to link to your personal site or to another site that better explains your idea.

The best links are to pages that feature the idea being proposed as well as the speakers. I don’t recommend just putting links to the companies where one or more speakers work. For example, don’t just say that a speaker works for Google and include a link to Google.com. Link to a sub-page at Google.com that lists the speaker. If such a page isn’t available, then it’s better to link to the “About Me” (or similar) page on their personal website.


Write a focused Description (specific is better than general). This is especially important for a panel discussion because it can be difficult for multiple people to address a topic with the appropriate amount of depth if it’s too broad.

Questions / Learning Objectives

Make sure you include interesting questions in the Question section. I’ve seen a lot of proposals that simply restate the title or what’s in the description of the proposal. In fact, use the Questions Answered space to introduce a topic you’ll cover in your presentation and then frame it in the form of a question.


Grammar and spell check your proposal. Multiple times. By multiple people.


These are guidelines that will help you get a vote from SXSW AB members like me. While even very good ideas don’t make the cut, following these guidelines will better position your idea for success.