Conferences are a great way to learn from top industry talent, network with like-minded creatives and engage with new trends. But surrounded by large crowds and a long list of panels, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. Setting honest expectations and goals will help you get the most out of your experience—personally and professionally.

We sent our graphic designers, Cheyenne and Nicole, to experience the prolific cultural hub that is South by Southwest (SXSW). The conference curated 450 panels and workshops covering innovation across tech, music and film for over 300,000 attendees this year. The possibilities felt endless.

We’re sharing the insights that got them through one of the world’s largest creative festivals—and may help you find peace in conference chaos.

Celebrate the joy of missing out

As first-time attendees, the fear of missing out was real. When deciding which daily panels to attend, we prepared first-choice options and backups to our backups. But during the opening remarks, Hugh Forrest (SXSW Co-President) imparted anacronym to ease our anxieties: JOMO, the joy of missing out. Forget FOMO. Be present and content with where you are in life. In our case, that meant being confident in our choices and the talks we attended. When you switch from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset, there’s no shortage of incredible and creative moments at South by (or anywhere else you might end up). 

If there’s a popular speaker you’re looking forward to, commit to getting there early—even if it means missing the tail end of your previous panel. Cheyenne camped out to see Nick Kroll interview Conan O’Brien about his new travel comedy show. And on the flipside, know that it’s totally acceptable to bail on a panel if the speaker isn’t engaging or the content is too dry. Backup plans aren’t just for popular panels. 

Feed your curiosity 

It’s easy to fill your schedule with specific talks relevant to your industry. But sometimes, you’ll learn more by checking out topics that spark curiosity in other areas. And be honest with yourself: What will actually keep you engaged? Is your mind drifting to thoughts of lunch during your third viral marketing session? You’re more likely to gain unexpected insights when your interest is genuinely piqued.

We recommend breaking up your day with a few talks or workshops that call to you personally, not just professionally. No matter what industry you’re in, feeding your curiosity with various topics will enrich your research and insights. Don’t just choose talks— switch it up with hands-on workshops, meetups, and happy hours. There were dozens of graphic design talks at SXSW. But instead of filling our days with anything-and-everything design, we chose to mix up industry relevance with weirdness and fun. 

Cheyenne attended ‘Decoder’ Live with Nilay Patel, featuring Figma CEO Dylan Field and Celebrating 25 Years of ‘Office Space’ with Mike Judge. How often do you learn about the origins of your favourite tool and movie in one afternoon?

Embrace the unknown

At first glance, the SXSW speaker schedule included endless discussions on artificial intelligence: understanding AI, opportunities in AI, secrets of AI, the impact of AI—the list went on and on (and on) But unless you have hours to spend researching the background of each panellist or speaker, it’s difficult to know who’s an expert in the subject and who’s simply speculating.  Sometimes, you just have to embrace the unknown—whether that’s an uncharted topic or how good the content will be. Remember when we talked about backup options? This is when they really come in handy.

And sometimes, the best sessions are the ones you didn’t plan for. After bailing on a talk that didn’t feel engaging, Cheyenne snuck into Food is Medicine, a conversation about how food is the future of healthcare. Even though Monday doesn’t work with similar clients (yet), learning how the US government is tackling food insecurity through education was inspiring.

Nicole attended the panel “2050: Reimagining Future Cities Without Homelessness” with congresswoman Maxine Waters, and honestly, it outdid any of the dime-a-dozen AI panels by a mile. Sure, the topic has little to do with her role—but everything to do with her passions and Monday’s values. Seeing people in positions of power talk about their role in supporting disenfranchised populations left her with a (much-needed) positive outlook on the future of community building.

Lineups are your friend (and for making friends)

This last insight was a hot tip from SXSW pro and Monday CEO Amanda. The easiest way to network is to talk to people: no pitching, no business proposals, just simple conversation. 

Lines are everywhere at SXSW: the line for the next panel, the line for a product demo and, of course, the line for free happy-hour drinks. You probably have more in common with your queue neighbour than you think. Everyone’s spent hours immersed in new learnings, so there’s no need for small talk—you have all these ideas from the conference to discuss. Take the pressure off networking in a formal setting and say hi to the person next to you in line. Ask what they thought of the last talk. They didn’t attend the previous talk? No problem—what’s inspired them today? Next thing you know, you might have a workshop buddy and someone to visit in another city. 

There’s no formula for a perfect networking event. You might arrive with fresh business cards to give out at an industry workshop, but you could make your next business connection in the country saloon bathroom line. Sometimes, you have to plan less to make room for more opportunities. 

Heading to a sweet event soon? We wanna hear about it.