Sunday, December 27, 2015

So you've been invited to speak at Ignite...

A friend of mine was just invited to give an Ignite spark at a conference in San Jose.  She's an experienced speaker, but hasn't tried the Ignite format before.  Since I've spoken a few times at Ignite Boulder, she asked me if I had any tips.  It turns out I did.

So you've been chosen to speak at Ignite!  First of all, congratulations on your bravery!  This format makes seasoned speakers weak in the knees, so anyone who's willing to stand up there and bare their soul in 20 15-second chunks has my admiration (and my empathy).  It's the scariest, most fun public speaking experience you can have that doesn't involve tear gas.  Here are my tips for first time Igniters.

Know your main point before you start. You only have 20 slides, which isn't enough time to ramble, unless rambling *is* your point, in which case that's all you'll have time to do. When people talk about your talk, what do you want them to say? "Oh, right, that was the one about..."  And be prepared for the main thrust of the talk to change completely as you work on it.  Just as Michelangelo chipped away everything in the block of marble that didn't look like a woman, sometimes a new talk emerges as you work.  If it's good, go with it, but make sure to stay focused.  5 minutes.  That's it.

The geekier the better. Ignite is about passion and geekiness, and the best talks I've seen went deep on topics that I'd never known anything about before. One of my favorites of all time was from a woman who decided to knit a "weather scarf," that showed the average temperature in Boulder for an entire year, with one color-coded row per day. She walked through the problems she had to solve, from getting the data to building an app that could access a weather API to pull a year's worth of averages. It wasn't life-changing (unless you're also a weather obsessed knitter, I suppose) but it was funny, odd, and interesting all at once.

You can be inspirational, but don't try too hard. I've seen too many talks that went, "Here's this thing that I feel. Now go out and change the world!!!"  Meh.  I'm inspired by smart people's passion, not by generic rah-rah speeches.  Now, I have also heard powerful stories told from the Ignite stage, stories that packed a shocking amount of pathos and inspiration into only 5 minutes.  If you have one of those stories, then go for it: inspire us.  But if you don't, that's OK.  Rather than offering the verbal equivalent of an office motivational poster, teach us something fun and infect us with your passion.  That's far more memorable.

Likewise, humor is good, but this isn't standup. Don't let the laughs get in the way of the message. I try to have a sprinkling of jokes in my talks, but I'm up there to share something important to me while entertaining people. If you want to crack jokes for 5 minutes, try the open mic night at the bar down the street.  Same with language: keep it clean unless there's no other way to make your point. We had a talk earlier this year that was (intentionally) littered with F-bombs, and while it was clever, the speaker obscured an important message about getting involved in local politics behind the haze of cursing, and she got called out for it by people who disagreed with her.  One or two curse words can have a great impact, but if you don't need them, don't use them. Even if it's part of your daily vocabulary, it isn't for everyone, and some audience members will be distracted or turned off by excessive cursing.

Think about the "so what?"  I'm sure your talk is very interesting -- the organizers chose you out of a crowd of applicants, right? -- but people will hear 10-15 other talks that night. What makes yours stand out in the crowd? What's relevant to the audience, and what made you want to share it in the first place?  Why should they listen rather than heading to the bar or live tweeting their thoughts about the last talk?  Do you have a call to action? If you know why you wanted to share this idea, then make sure they do, too.

Tell stories. Our brains are wired to remember stories, not facts and opinions. If you can either open with a personal story or use one to illustrate your point, you'll have a much better chance of being remembered, because you'll be "the one where she..." rather than "the one with the compelling argument that I forgot by halfway through the next one." The most compelling talks I've ever seen were given by people sharing deeply personal stories and inviting us all to join them in learning from them.


Write it all out without worrying too much about time, then prune. As a general rule, you'll get 2-3 sentences per slide, so the total will be around 50 sentences (no run-ons). Aim for about that length, but don't worry about slide timing until later. In 2 out of 3 of my talks, I got completely stuck because I was worried about presenting ideas one slide at a time. I had to go back, ditch it all, and just write. Then, when I went back, the words started to line up with the slides.

Done pruning?  Great, now distill your speech down to its essence. You'll need space for breathing, laughs (hopefully), and reacting to what's going on around you, so you'll want the talk itself to run about 4:45. To get there, you'll need to cut your second-favorite joke, that clever little tangent, and the second point that seemed so brilliant when you came up with it in the middle of the night. Remember your point and get rid of anything that doesn't support it.

Structure: someone once told me to divide my talk into quarters, with 5 slides for an intro, 5 for expansion, 5 for supporting points, and 5 for conclusion and call to action. I'm too verbose for that, so I tend to go in thirds: 3-4 slides for intro, 10-12 for expansion of the argument, and 2-3 to wrap up. My most recent talk on faith was the most tightly structured that I've done, and that was how it came out. I've seen people play with the format, some more successfully than others, but I think either approach is a good starting point.

Slides: use pictures, not words. An Ignite talk comes at the audience quickly, and anything that divides their focus will dilute the impact. They only have 15 seconds to hear your point and scan the slide, so if you make them read then chances are that they'll do that instead of listening. A picture by itself or with a brief caption is ideal. If you have to use something more complex to support your point, then don't compete with it. Give the audience time to read it, then continue with your talk. I personally love to let my slides provide most of the humor. You can find pictures that either support what you're saying or subtly undercut it for humorous effect, which draws the audience in and lets them know that you aren't taking yourself too seriously. Key word: subtle. If you just put a hilarious picture on screen, then you're going to either disrupt your own talk while people laugh or you're going to have to step on the laughs, which discourages any more from coming.

Pro tip: if you have a slide that perfectly fits the point you're making, but your point is too long, you can "cheat" by using the same slide twice. It's a little distracting when the slide advances without changing, but only for a second, and it's better than racing to cram 30 seconds of thought into 15.

Practice.  A lot.  Being comfortable with your material gives you the ability to deal with the unexpected, whether it's an old version of your slide or a drunken heckler in the audience.  I like to practice my rough draft with a stopwatch first, to see how close I am to the right total time, then practice with my slides auto-advancing every 15 seconds.  Doing that helps you find the rhythm and see where you're rushing to get everything in before the next slide, places where your words don't have to synch up exactly, and moments where the timing is really critical (like when the next slide provides the punch line).  Learning where you have room and where you don't will make you more comfortable when you're live.  Unlike in other presentations where you have some control, those slides just keep moving, so you have to hang on for the ride.

Enjoy the adrenaline rush.  I've performed on stage and spoken in front of large crowds, but nothing gets my heart pounding like stepping onto the Ignite stage.  I think it has something to do with the suddenness of it: one minute, you're in the audience listening to someone else, then, 20 seconds later, you're on the stage speaking.  And did I mention that the slides don't wait if you aren't ready?  If you're like me, you'll be out of breath for the first couple of minutes, you'll enjoy the rest, and then you'll be exhausted.  Or, as my wife put it when someone asked her whether she enjoyed her first Ignite talk: "I'll let you know as soon as the nausea passes."

Good luck, and I'll be cheering for you from the bar.

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