I Did An Ignite Talk And Didn’t Blow Up!

I meant to write about this back in November, but November and December sort of got devoured, so maybe I can do it justice now.

Every November, our company does a little internal conference where people do talks and workshops and stuff for other people to learn from. When it came time to make presentation proposals, I was low on ideas, so I thought “Hmmm if I don’t have ideas enough for a 45-minute talk, maybe I can do an ignite talk about the new criteria in version 2.1 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. That’ll be less work and preparation. Yeah!” So I decided to take a deep breath and see how this went. I’m really glad I did because I learned a lot from it. I had to prepare less material, but about the whole less preparation and less work thing? Oh how wrong I was.

So in case you don’t know what an ignite talk is, here’s a quick description. Each speaker gets 5 minutes, in which they have to go through 20 slides, 15 seconds a slide, and the slides advance automatically! So if you lose your rhythm, it kind of looks like what happens when an orchestra’s parts go out of sync with each other. When your time is up, it’s up, and that’s it! When I was a kid doing public speaking, my folks would joke that if I took too long, the judges would get the hook and drag me off the stage. Well, in this case, they just might…in a polite way of course. So, here’s what I learned while trying to avoid getting the hook.

  • Usually, my presentations end up getting peppered with babble that I come up with on the fly. This does not work in an ignite talk. There is no room for rambling or excess things or repetition. Everything has to be timed out just so, so I have to plan my funny comments right into the script.
  • The first thing you have to do is break up your big idea into your major points. About 3 or 4 points make a good number.
  • Remember, it doesn’t have to be one point per slide. You can have a point that takes two slides and it’s just fine.
  • Time it as you go. Otherwise you could end up in a heap of trouble. Also, when you find a slide with timing that works, do a word count. Then you can sort of eyeball things as you go along. I found about 60 words ish seemed to fit into the time.
  • What I had to do was use a stopwatch on my phone, but have JAWS read the slide content. But keep in mind your screen-reader’s speech rate. If it sounds like an auctioneer, it might not be speaking at a rate that would be comfortable for you to duplicate. So change it if necessary.
  • If you’re using Powerpoint, you can make your slides make a noise as they transition to the next one. Here’s how. So you can practice and make sure you can fit into the assigned 15 seconds, and when it’s presentation time, you can hook an earbud up to the presentation computer, run your slides, and you always know if you’re on track or not.
  • Make it so you have room for error. So if you go off track and have to cut a slide out, your presentation still makes sense.
  • I admit I cheated a little bit. Since Ignite talks need pictures in their slides, I sent my slides to someone who is good at finding pictures, gave her some ideas of what I would want, and let her put the images in. But I’m sure you could figure out other ways to do it.
  • Practice your talk a whole ton. Practice so all you need is a couple of words to remind you how each slide is supposed to go. Practice in front of people who try to distract you and throw you off. Practice it until you can pretty much do it in your sleep. Practice, practice, practice! Then you cannot get flustered. Flustered people splutter and stammer and go off track and smash! Hey, look, there’s that out of sync orchestra I mentioned.

So here’s my Ignite talk. Here are my slides, and here’s the audio. If you wait a few seconds until I really get going, you can sync them up and hopefully it will work.

Admittedly I was still nervous, and I was having to talk a bit quickly to get everything in there, but it was my first try, so I’m not going to beat myself up too badly.

I think I’d do an Ignite talk again. I just need to remind myself that it’s a five-minute overview of something. If I keep that in mind, I’ll be good.

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