How To Give a Great Ignite Talk
Ignite is a presentation format that’s simpler than Pecha Kucha but longer than lightning 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 and have pauses. 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):
- Jason Grigsby’s advice on how to speak at ignite
- Cory Forsyths advice from Ignite NYC
- Learning from Pecha Kucha night
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 :)
Compfight is a simple way of searching for Creative Commons images on flickr.
Thanks Chris. Big list of other sources here:
I did an Ignite last week and blogged about my lessons (and slides) at http://adam.goucher.ca/?p=985.
Also see this excellent guide to pecha kucha, a similar format:
Maybe the other Ignites are better forums (fora?) but the Boston ones have been so crowded, loud, and hard to hear at – I’ve never been very interested in talking there and rarely in trying to hear anyone, either. I always end up at the back chatting over a beer, making it even more obnoxious for everyone trying to talk. I was surprised to see no tips on how to deal with a distracted audience that’s drinking and socializing, kind of like at a comedy club…
Lynn: actually when I spoke at the first Ignite in Boston, the one in Cambridge, it was an awful venue for speaking. I forget which bar it was, but it most of the people there were not listening, and they were also quite hostile by the time I got on stage as the opening speaker.
But all the other ignite events I’ve seen or been to were much more favorable. I haven’t heard many folks complain – anyone else find ignite events hostile?
I think it’s on the shoulders of the organizers to make the environment reasonable for speakers. At some point, say speaking in the middle of subway train station, there’s not much a speaker can do.
I’ll post something soon about speaking in unpleasant environments.
After speaking at both Pecha Kucha and Ignite events – and loving the swiftness,
excitement and audience involvement possibilities in both – the biggest factors
between a good and great events seem to be the quality of speakers (no surprise here),
a strong overarching theme, the venue that enables people to hear, see and feel
comfortable in the audience – and the seamless support of tech needs.
Like Scott, I make my living giving speeches and consulting, ironically on communicating to collaborate.
As a long-time advocate of storyboarding conferences and meetings
and varying the formats in which people “speak” at them (ignite, in conversation with….,
meet the pros, speed coaching, fast panels, etc.) I just wish more meeting planners would
mix it up more. Scott – bet you’ll stir things up
Here I’ve written more.
Another good pile of advice:
Scott, I’m helping organize an internal Ignite-styled event and would like to share your video with prospective speakers. Unfortunately, YouTube is blocked by IT here. Can I share internally, or is there another source (perhaps it won’t be blocked here)?
Thanks for the great tips, Scott. I just gave my first Ignite talk last week. (http://www.ignitesydney.com/speakers/ )
The thing that seemed to get me over my (big) nerves was defining beforehand the ONE point (roughly a sentence) I wanted to say during each slide. I had other things I wanted to say, but I realised it didn’t matter whether I said those secondaries or not. That helped me relax and let go, and it made my spiel SO much easier to remember!
As an introvert, it also seemed to help to do “power poses” shortly beforehand. (See Amy Cuddy’s great PopTech talk at
I think I’ll write a blog post about how I rehearsed, because I had a fairly involved setup!
On your last point – about finding images – I highly recommend the 1000s of free photos available through PPT itself. That’s where I tend to get pretty much all my photos, including for my Ignite talk. For a how-to and links to examples, see http://remotepossibilities.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/how-to-find-1000s-of-great-free-photos/
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It’s soo amazing and will like to be there to present my but its unfortunate I could not get visa to the program
I just wrote a little app for android that gives you a simple and beautiful timer for ignite and pecha kucha talks – I think this might help to give (or train for) a great talk:
I gave two Ignite talks so far:
I found it very useful to count the number of sentences I can say in 15 seconds. This paces me throughout the whole talk, and forces me to condense my thoughts into concise points.
Great talk, very informative keep up the good work.
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.
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.
Thanks Scott, some great advice here. Hate to nitpick but the link to “How to solve a song” is pointing to the “Commutapult” presentation.
Thanks for catching. Fixed.
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
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!
Great tips. I would also add my favorite method: use humor to build an emotional connection with the audience. :)
I like talking in public but still need more practice. Many thanks to Scott for these useful tips.