How To Give a Great Ignite Talk

Using the abstract ignite deck

Ignite is a presentation format that’s simpler than Pecha Kucha but longer than lightening talks. In Ignite each speakers gets 5 minutes, and must use 20 slides with each slide advancing automatically after 15 seconds, forcing speakers to get the point, fast. Having slides that automate seems mad, and in a way it is, but the surprise is that for most speakers it forces them to be far more concise and thoughtful than they would in any other format. 

Even without the automation, my advice holds well for any kind of short talk. Why should anyone get the stage for 20 or 50 minutes if they can’t keep people’s attention for just 300 seconds? In many ways it takes more craft to make a short talk work well than a long one. 

Often Ignite events have a dozen or more speakers, creating a fun evening with a wide range of advice, stories and entertainments.

I’ve spoken at many Ignite events and here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Pick strong stories and big themes. What do you love? What do you hate? What is the best advice anyone ever gave you? Pick stories with big themes, since they require less introduction. What are the 4 most important things to know about X that no one talks about? The stronger the topic & title the easier the material is to create. Consider what one thing you want people to have learned when you’re done and make sure to drive that home at the end.
  • Outline 4 or 5 main points. You need a simple structure to make your message clear, and make sure people can follow along. Don’t assume you can just ramble your way through: the short format means you need to be more careful about how you use your time, not less. Ask yourself: what are the major lessons or points you want people to remember when you finish? That’s the structure of your presentation.
  • Figure out your points before you make slides. Talking about something for five minutes is easy – really, give it a shot once or twice before you make a single slide (practice with a timer) it will help you sort out what you want to say. You’ll quickly discover how unlikely it is to run out of things to say during an ignite talk. Once you know the 4 major points you want to make, only then work on finding images and slides to support what you’re going to say.
  • 300 seconds is easy to practice.  You can practice 10 times in an hour. Do it (The average Ignite speaker practices 5 times). 300 seconds equals 10 television commercials – you can make great points in a short time if you refine your thoughts.  The entire sermon on the mount can be read in about 5 minutes and The Gettysburg address takes about 2 and a half minutes.
  • It is good to breathe. There is no law that says you must fill every second with talking. When you practice, practice breathing. Give your audience a moment to digest the last thing you said. Take a moment between points. Like whitespace in visual design it’s the pauses that make what you do say stand out clearly. Give yourself a slide or two that’s for just for catching up and taking a breath.
  • Don’t get hung up on slides. What you say matters most. Good slides support what you’re saying, not the other way around. The last thing you want is to end up chasing your slides, a common problem at Ignite as you’ll never catch up. Pick simple images and if you must use text, be sparse (and use large 50+pt fonts). No bullet lists, just one or two points. Make the slides flexible enough that if you fall behind it’s easy to skip something to catch up.
  • Make your talk fault tolerant. Unlike normal presentations, if something goes wrong there’s no going back. You should build your talk into 4 or 5 pieces, where each piece could stand alone. Then if you fall behind, or something goes wrong, when the first slide for the next part comes up, you can easily recover.
  • Watch some ignite talks! Some of the best ignite talks get posted to the ignite show where you can see many different ways people use the format. Some good examples include:
  • You can hack the format. The idea of a ‘slide’ is vestigial – they’re not slides anymore. Put the same slide twice if you want to have more time to make a point.  Or don’t use slides at all if you don’t want them. I’ve hacked the format a few times, including using a special time counter deck to give me more flexibility (see photo above). You can see this in action in my ignite talk on Attention and Sex or grab the deck here if you want to use or hack it further.
  • Plan to lose your first and last slide. Time will get eaten by getting on and off stage, the audience laughing and by any ad-libs you do. When you practice allow for some extra seconds, especially in the second half of your talk, when you might need to catch up. Plan and practice for about 4:30 instead of the full 5:00.
  • Keep your fonts large. Assume people don’t see well. Even if they did, people will be trying to listen to you. The more you try to cram text on the screen at the same time, the less likely any of it will be understood. Same goes for complex diagrams – there just isn’t time. Simple images or photographs work best. And again, you are not required to use slide at all.
  • You can find royalty free images to use. Search Google’s Creative Commons,  flickr using the advanced options to show you creative commons images. Or try freeimages.com or istockphoto. Please attribute any photos you use with either the URL in small font on the bottom, or a last slide that simply lists all the URLs for photos that you used.

The rest of my advice is in the form of an ignite talk (from Ignite Seattle #6):

Photo credits for photos used in the above talk (they’re on the last slide but hard to see):

Also see:

If you’ve spoken at Ignite and have more advice leave a comment.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on how preparing helped… or didn’t :)

66 Responses to “How To Give a Great Ignite Talk”

  1. Mark

    Great talk, very informative keep up the good work.

    Reply
  2. MIchael D Walker

    This is a terrific way to get yourself to improve your public speaking skills. Also works great as a little format for doing videos too.

    Reply
  3. Jim Acesoft

    Ignite presenter should be well prepared, present to your topic atleast 10 times to your wife / friend to get used to time sync. It’s not that tough but not that easy either.

    Reply
  4. Rich

    Thanks Scott, some great advice here. Hate to nitpick but the link to “How to solve a song” is pointing to the “Commutapult” presentation.

    Reply
  5. Jennifer L Nazak

    Great article Scott, thank you! Next I’ll be listening to your talk on Attention and Sex. FYI the blip TV link appears broken (or at least my Mac doesn’t like it) – here is the YouTube link

    Reply
  6. Julia Wester

    Hi, Thanks for the article. Great tips! What I’m wondering is how you automatically advance the slides. In powerpoint, using the auto transitions seems to cumulatively make it longer than 5 minutes because no transition ever takes 0 seconds. Any advice? Thanks!

    Reply

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