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How to give an Ignite Talk

by cory on February 24th, 2009
Whoo, I gave a talk at Ignite NYC last night. The talk was incredibly fun and I had a great time, but it was also really challenging. The rules are: you get exactly 20 slides and they each auto advance after 15 seconds for a total 5 minute talk. On the face of it, a 5-minute talk doesn't sound so bad, but when you have no control over the speed of your slides it can get difficult. I like to call my friends when I'm walking home from the subway and leave them a voicemail. Sometimes I start into an anecdote and then start rambling and become aware that I am about to get cut off and then have to try and wrap up my story before the voicemail ends, which makes it that much harder to stop the rambling. That's kind of the feeling of giving an ignite talk except multiply it by about 20. I also had the added bonus difficulty of having the wrong version of my slides show up (yikes!) and I had to ad-lib my way through a few parts. Here's some advice that I would offer future igniters: 1 15 seconds is way shorter than you think Be careful not to try to cram too much information into a slide. A good rule of thumb is you want about 1-3 sentences per slide, max. To get a feel for your own pacing, mock up 2 or 3 slides in powerpoint and then run the show in 'rehearse timings' mode and see how long it takes you. Believe me, you'll be surprised how quickly the time goes. 2 focus You only have 5 minutes. Not enough time for an indepth analysis with technical information or 40 bullet points. Speaking concisely and quickly , it will take you between 45 and 75 seconds (3 and 5 slides) to explain a simple example or tell a short story. Accounting for transitions and filler, this only gives you time for 3-5 major points. So keep it simple. 3 practice If you're like me, when you don't know exactly what you want to say you're going to ramble. In addition to making your talk boring, this sucks up your time and you'll look up and realize you're now three slides behind. Figure out what you want to say and practice it until it becomes rote. When you're standing in front of the audience you want the words to be automatic. If you learn visually, try writing a script and practice reading from it. An ignite talk is unique because of the 15 second constraint. In addition to practicing what you're going to say you need to practice how quickly you're going to say it. What worked well for me was to chunk my talk into the major points/anecdotes that served as timing 'checkpoints.' I practiced talking through each of those until I had a good sense for how much time I needed for each and then built up my slides around those timings. This gives you a little more control of your timing. It's easier to slow down than speed up, so if you find yourself getting to the end of a 'chunk' ahead of your slides, you can slow down and emphasize. This is good for the audience too; they'll be able to understand you better. When the first slide of your next chunk appears you can launch into it, confident that you're right on time. After I had an outline of what I wanted to say, and a good feel for my timings, I created an audio "click track" that beeps every 15 seconds. After I had converted my slides to PNGs and put them on my ipod I could practice the talk by listening to that audio track and talking along with it, flipping slides at each beep. It's a great way to practice on the subway. Don't be afraid to mumble or even talk out loud while you're practicing. This is New York after all; there's always some crazy person talking to himself on the train. It might as well be you. Update May 28: Here, I've added the click track that I mentioned: click track (2.8MB mp3). Good luck! If you read this and it helped your talk please leave a message in the comments. Here's my talk, which admittedly doesn't make much sense without my narration. Hopefully there will be a video online soon that I can link to. Popularity Dialer IgniteNYC Talk

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  1. Hi,
    I am the main developer of HornetsEye. I just noticed that you're planning to give a talk at Euruko2009 (unfortunately I don't have time to attend) which may potentially cover this Ruby extension. So feel free to contact me if you encounter any problems using it 😉

  2. Good post - do you have that audio track file somewhere? Might be of use to other people doing ignite for the first time.

    I did an ignite talk recently about doing an ignite talk - let me know what you think:

  3. Hey Scott, I read the Art of Project Management a couple years ago and I really liked it.

    I just updated the post with the click track, here's the url directly:

    That's a great ignite talk. The point you make at the end about practicing the talk before you've even created any slides is a good one that would have been useful for me.
    Also, you're right about the importance of stories. The way you talk about something is at least as important as what it is that you're actually talking about. I'm often amazed at the extent to which that is true.

  4. yes, the audio track is at the url that I linked to in my comment above

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