Around the end of January I found out that I had been accepted to give an Ignite Talk at South By Southwest this year. This was an exciting prospect, I wasn’t entirely familiar with Ignite!
The Ignite format is a very fast-paced lightning talk with a strict structure: 20 slides that auto-advance after 15 seconds each, giving you a total of 5 minutes for the talk. This format is similar to Pecha Kucha which is 20 slides for 20 seconds each.
Preparing and doing the talk was a whirlwind. But I’m happy with the talk I gave, and I’d like to share some pointers on preparing an Ignite Talk.
Content: go deep, not broad
Content is probably the hardest thing to decide on, considering the time limitations. If you have been accepted to do a talk, then you probably have a talk title and and a theme you want to hit.
My talk title was “Blind People Want To Use Your Apps.” As with any topic, there were a lot of different directions I could have taken it, but I chose three main points that I wanted to discuss and supported those three points with examples.
It can be tempting to try to fit a lot of content into your Ignite Talk, but going deep on three things allows the audience to follow along and understand those main points rather than struggling to keep up as you fly through 10 points. My talk opened with a personal story about why I am passionate about helping visually impaired users, three myths related to app accessibility, and a final closing.
Slides: a complement to your talk, not a substitute
When making my slides, I originally slid back into the traditional method of simply talking about content that already appears on the slides. I noticed quickly that this was a waste of time and also that other Ignite speakers had few or no words on their slides.
I reworked my slides so they contributed to what I was saying, rather than having the slides restate exactly what I talked about. In the end, I kept my slides very simple, to the point that if I had to go on stage without the slides, I would be fine because what was important was what I was saying, not what I was showing.
As the talk drew near, I would set a stopwatch on my phone and practice without my slides, to make sure that I would be able to do the talk without them.
Here’s an example of one of my slides:
I kept it simple, with 3 words and used a visual to complement what I was saying aloud.
Slides are also important for getting a measure of how much time you have. Every point should be made in 15 seconds, or if you want to slow something down or talk about for more than 15 seconds, you can also repeat the same slide twice. This was my favorite tip from Scott Berkun’s helpful video on why and how to give an Ignite Talk.
Ultimately, I ended up not using the same slide more than once, but modifying the talk slightly so that my timing wouldn’t be thrown off by switching from 15 seconds per slide to 30 seconds on one slide.
Practice: a requirement for Ignite Talks
Practicing is the most important part of an Ignite Talk. Try to get your slides done as soon as possible, and spend the majority of your time practicing.
When you first start out, it seems like 15 seconds is no time at all and over before you know it, but the more you practice, the better understanding of time you’ll have. Between practice rounds, I would listen to a YouTube video that has a timer that beeps every 15 seconds. I did this silently for one minute the first few days before I practiced, and it helped me tailor my time perception to the 15 second interval.
When practicing your talk, set Keynote to auto-advance after 15 seconds by adding a Dissolve animation to all your slides. The image below shows what the Keynote Animations pane should look like on each slide. Make sure to set the duration to 0s and the transition to start automatically.
Once you have it down, the best thing you can do is find an audience to practice with. The talk is only five minutes long, so it’s not a huge time commitment for your audience. I did this with my friends, family, and coworkers at least once a day in the final week leading up to the actual talk. You will get better each time you speak, and will also receive feedback from different audiences. This is great, considering the audience for the actual Ignite Talk will probably be diverse.
My last tip for when you’re practicing is to continue your talk even after you make a mistake. It’s easy to stop the talk and reset from slide one when you are practicing, but that’s not something you can do when you are on stage giving your talk to an audience. Your talk is not going to be exactly like any of the times your rehearsed. If for some reason you go over time or miss a point, it’s important to have practiced how you are going to recover.
Delivering your talk
The day of your Ignite Talk, try to attend other speakers’ talks to see how they formatted them and get a quick five-minute briefing on an interesting topic. You’ll notice that most Ignite talks are very thoughtful and well executed, which is something that happens when you are forced to leave your bubble, cut down content, and practice your talk in such a small time frame. Then take a final look at your slides and get ready to speak. Before you get on stage, ask yourself what you want the audience to remember about your talk and make sure you hit that point.
Your conference may use a confidence monitor on-site. The confidence monitor is set up to face you, allowing you to see your Presenter Notes from Keynote. In my case, this monitor provided no indication of time passing between slides, so don’t lean on the display for help with timing (or really, at all).
If you do make a mistake on stage, then just breathe and forge through. Ignite audiences know how hard it is to do a talk in this format. They want you to do well. And your talk is only five minutes, so remember: you’ll be off the stage soon!
You can tell the audience to reach out to you afterwards, or you can provide additional resources, in case they want to learn more about your topic. I did this by pointing my audience to a landing page with my slides, and encouraging people to reach out to me on Twitter.
Doing an Ignite Talk has helped me grow and learn a lot as a speaker. I had to break out of my current way of doing presentations and create a brand new talk to fit the Ignite format. I was forced to be thoughtful about what I presented to the audience and, as a result, I’m proud of the final talk I gave.
I would encourage you to give an Ignite Talk at a conference, or even just try out the format of this talk for your next meeting. People will be able to hear a lot of information in a short period of time, and speakers will be concise and purposeful about what they’re presenting.