Young Leaders, DeepFakes and 7 Things I Learned at SXSW About How the World Is Changing (Again…)

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The world is changing so fast it often feels impossible to keep up.

Technology is one thing.

But so many other things are changing too. Take cultural assumptions for example. What was true a few years ago—or more dangerously, what we tell ourselves is true—isn’t necessarily true anymore.

Few events in the world do a better job of letting people think about and experience the future than SXSW (pronounced South By Southwest) in Austin, Texas.

Personally, going to SXSW was a bucket list thing for me. But to go there for the first time as a speaker was completely over the top (I spoke to tech and start-up leaders about 7 success killers even top leaders miss, based on the insights in my book, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.)

There are so many applications I took away from my four days at SXSW that apply to leaders in every field.

Here are 7 things I saw at SXSW about how the world’s changing.

1. Young adults will find the cash and time if the value’s high enough

One of the first things I noticed at SXSW was how young the crowd was. The average age may have been below thirty.

Which is interesting, because SXSW is not an inexpensive event. At all.

Registration starts in the low hundreds and rises quickly to well over $1000. And that’s just for admission. Add flights, hotels and meals to the bill, and you can drop three grand on attending before you know it. (Trust me, there are no bargain airfares, hotels or Airbnbs during SXSW).

It’s also not a small event. 75,000 people will attend this year’s SXSW, so it’s not like someone managed to get a hundred and fifty 27-year-olds in the room. No, this attracted tens of thousands of young leaders from around the world.

Yet when I talk to a lot of leaders, and they complain that Millennials and Gen Z don’t give, don’t attend live events and don’t have any money for whatever they happen to be offering.

Apparently not.

Sure, companies ponied up for some attendees, but if that’s the only explanation, I would have expected a lot more 45-60-year-old executives.

If you’re having trouble attracting the next generation, it’s likely because they don’t see value in what you’re offering.

Rather than blaming people for not embracing what you’re offering, offer something worth embracing.

If you’re a church leader like I am, the problem, of course, isn’t Jesus or the Gospel. But it may well be your approach to Jesus and the Gospel.

Rather than blaming people for not embracing what you're offering, offer something worth embracing.  Click To Tweet

2. Most organizations underestimate and underutilize young leaders

I spent most of my one-on-one time at SXSW talking to leaders age 30 and under.

Guess what they had in common? All of them were founders of new companies. One had bootstrapped his firm to 75 global employees. Two others were seeking another co-founder for their startup.

Another leader I spent an evening with is Brett Hagler, CEO and Co-founder of New Story who has raised millions of dollars to design the technology to 3-D print houses.

This summer, they’re going to Latin America to 3-D print entire communities. You read that right. They’re 3-D printing villages. (Check out Fast Company’s piece on this latest phase).  Brett is 29.

If your organization keeps 20-something leaders on the bench to learn, or only places them in junior roles, enjoy watching the future pass you by.

If your organization keeps 20-something leaders on the bench to learn, or only places them in junior roles, enjoy watching the future pass you by. Click To Tweet

3. Philosophers and Theologians Need to Catch Up To Engineers

Amy Webb gave a brilliant session on future tech trends. She highlighted just a few of the 300+ trends she notes in her 2019 report.

One thing that was clear from her report and others is that technology is advancing faster than our ability to know what to do with it.

Philosophers and theologians, to be sure, have some catching up to do.

Technology is advancing faster than our ability to know what to do with it. Which is an opportunity for philosophers and theologians. Click To Tweet

On everything from DeepFakes, to autonomous cars (do you program a car to choose to hit a pedestrian or alternatively crash into a cement wall, which may kill the driver?) to genetic engineering, we don’t really know what we’re doing to ourselves.

On DeepFaking, for example, consider this from Amy’s report (p.210…you can download it for free here):

Pair VR with the concept of DeepFake technology and you’ve got a frightening prospect: anyone could virtually take on an identity not their own, complete with a digitally projected physical appearance, voice, and movements indistinguishable from those of the individual they are impersonating.

In a distant-future era, with VR constituting a majority of human experiences, and with such shapeshifting abilities at everyone’s fingertips, it will become increasingly less possible to verify the identities of those around us.

Distrust will infect all social interaction, along with the intense mental strain of living under constant threat of identity theft, if not loss of identity entirely. New authentication techniques will be imperative if we are to maintain sanity and order in society, and we will need to be constantly vigilant in verifying the identity of those we interact with.

The post-truth culture we live in just got more complicated. Technology is outstripping ethics, and in an era where consensus around ethics and morality is splintering, the field is ripe for theologians and philosophers to speak meaning into our present and future.

One more question before we leave this point: who exactly owns your DNA? If you think the answer is clear, think again, particularly if you used a DNA service to learn more about your health or ancestry.

The crisis we’re facing today isn’t a crisis of information or technology, it’s a crisis of meaning and ethics.

The crisis we're facing today isn't a crisis of information or technology, it's a crisis of meaning and ethics. Click To Tweet

4. People Still Have Long Attention Spans and Deep Curiosity

So much for the idea that people have short attention spans.

Surprisingly, people still have long attention spans and deep curiosity.

As we’ve seen with the surge in long-form podcasting, something I value as a podcaster myself,  humans don’t have the attention span of a goldfish after all. There’s a huge market for long-form, in-depth, nuanced, complex and honest dialogue.

And people’s curiosity runs deep. Deeper than you think. One of the features of SXSW is that people line up for talks…sometimes for hours.

So forget the idea that people have zero patience for great ideas and points of views.

Application? The problem with your message may not be that you’re shooting too high, it might be that you’re shooting too low.

The problem with your messaging may not be that you're shooting too high, it might be that you're shooting too low. Click To Tweet

And what about length?

Well sure, not everyone stays for all 11 days of the event. I was there for four but easily could have stayed longer (and plan to next time).

Because our culture is so geared to choice and autonomy, what most of us who create content of any kind are learning is that 5 minutes of boring is five minutes too long. 60 minutes of fascinating isn’t nearly enough.

What most of us who create content of any kind are learning is that 5 minutes of boring is five minutes too long. 60 minutes of fascinating isn't nearly enough. Click To Tweet

5. The companies who act like human beings are the companies that are going to make it in the future

One of the drop-the-mic moments that happened for me was in a session led by Minjae Ormes.

In it, one of the presenters shared this quote (source unknown): the companies who act like human beings are the companies that are going to make it in the future.


As life becomes more digitized, randomized and anonymous, people crave personal and real.

So when you think about your public interface, the more human you become, the more real you are, the more connection you’ll build.

You absolutely need the latest and best technology. But the more human you become, the better your chance for impact is.

The companies who act like human beings are the companies that are going to make it in the future. Click To Tweet

6. Sometimes authenticity gives you authority. Sometimes it doesn’t.

This one’s for communicators who like me, spend a lot of time speaking in front of Christians.

I speak at a church that specializes in reaching unchurched people, but it’s still church. Similarly, in the conferences and events I speak at, whether that’s in the church conference world or business world, the audience often has a lot of Christians in it.

I just loved that this wasn’t the case at SXSW.

I do believe that authenticity is the key to preaching in a way that reaches our culture today.

Sure, people admire your strengths, but they resonate with your weaknesses, but I noticed something at SXSW that will make me change my approach the next time I’m in front of a group where almost no one shares my faith.

I usually lead with my vulnerabilities when I speak. I’ll talk about my weaknesses, a struggle I had or a mistake I made, and it builds instant rapport….in the church world. 

I spend a lot of time reading my audience when I speak, and what I sensed is that the vulnerability made some people uncomfortable. In the end, the authenticity resonated (I had a number of people from major corporations ask me if I did consulting because they don’t spend nearly enough time talking about it), but it took a while to get there. It wasn’t instant, like is most of the time I speak.

So it got me wondering.

So here’s the pivot I’m doing next time.

I sensed what the corporate audience was looking for was authority…what right do I have to speak into this space and what right do I have to speak to them?

Those are great questions. After all, Christians (and pastors especially) don’t have a lot of credibility in the culture anymore.

Even though I didn’t lead by announcing I was a pastor (I shared that later in the talk), I realized I needed to establish authority earlier in the talk.

You can do that in a variety of ways:

  • Describing the problem you’ll address in a way that’s hyper-relevant to your audience
  • Telling a story that’s directly related to the subject your addressing.
  • Sharing data on why what you’re talking about matters.
  • Sharing your credentials on why you have expertise on a given topic.

The day after I spoke, I rewrote my talk, opening it (for the next time) with data outlining why the subject is so important, sharing what’s at stake for the audience and leading with the most pressing problem I sense the audience will be leaning into. I moved the more personal, vulnerable things toward the end of the talk.

My big takeaway? In most Christian circles, authenticity gives you authority. When dealing with a non-Christian audience, authority gives you permission to be authentic.

The really sad part? Many Christians never get in front of truly unchurched audiences or people to even test that out.

In most Christian circles, authenticity gives you authority. When dealing with non-Christians, authority gives you permission to be authentic. Many Christians never get in front of truly unchurched audiences or people to test that… Click To Tweet

7. Production and Branding Are Very Much Alive

There’s a debate about the peak of attractional churches, and I do think we’re moving into an era where real is the real deal.

But don’t let that convince you that branding, production, AVL and cool is dead.

There was an interesting paradox at SXSW. The branding for the event was everywhere. You couldn’t look left or right without seeing a banner, graphics or a step-and-repeat set up for selfies and photo-ops. Not to mention a decent merch counter.

So branding isn’t dead.

But it wasn’t drawing attention to itself.  It wasn’t saying look at how cool I am. It was just, cool. (Side note: In my view, people at SXSW tried way less hard to be cool than I’ve seen in many church circles.)

It’s almost as though branding is just something you do…it was baked-in, omnipresent and almost like wallpaper.

That’s just where our culture is at right now.

There are two branding mistakes church leaders make.

First, is to put too much stock in it, as though better branding will be your salvation. Of course, it won’t be. As ad legend David Ogilvie said, “Good marketing makes a bad product fail faster.” No, branding is just a part of life in 2019.

Which brings us to the second mistake: the tribe of church leaders who don’t brand who criticize churches that do. That’s also an error. Branding, good production and AVL can help you share your message in a relevant way.

The reason relevance still matters is simple: the culture doesn’t listen to people it deems irrelevant. Neither do you.

The reason relevance still matters is simple: the culture doesn't listen to people it deems irrelevant. Neither do you. Click To Tweet

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.