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How to prepare for an Ignite Talk

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What is Ignite?

Imagine that you’re in front of an audience made up of your friends, family, and people from your community, about to present a 5-minute talk on the thing you’re most passionate about. You’ve brought 20 slides, which advance every 15 seconds whether you’re ready or not. You have a few last-minute butterflies, but off you go—and the crowd loves it. Welcome to Ignite.

Ignite is a fast-paced geek event started by Brady Forrest, Technology Evangelist for O'Reilly Media, and Bre Pettis of Makerbot.com, formerly of MAKE Magazine. Speakers are given 20 slides, each shown for 15 seconds, giving each speaker 5 minutes of fame. The first Ignite took place in Seattle in 2006, and since then the event has become an international phenomenon, with gatherings in Helsinki, Finland; Paris, France; New York, New York; and many other locations.

Please read on, and follow this link for more details.

How to prepare

300 seconds kicks ass. This is super short, which means it’s easy to practice. There is no excuse for not practicing until it feels good. It also means you have to be tight in your points. 300 seconds equals 10 television commercials. You can make great points in a short time if you refine your thoughts. 

  • 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 slide – it will help you sort out what you want to say. You only need Four or five solid points to go 5 minutes. And practive with a timer before you make a slide. You’ll quickly discover how unlikely it is to run out of things to say during an ignite talk.
  • It is ok to breathe. There is no law that says you must fill every second with talking. When you practice, practice breathing. 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.
  • 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 5 most important things to know about X that no one talks about? The stronger the topic & title the easier the work is. Top 10 lists can work, but making 10 points is extremely hard – aim for 5 or 6.
  • Don’t get hung up on slides. 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. 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.
  • Watch some ignite talks! Some of the best ignite talks get posted to the ignite show regularly and you can see the many different ways people use the format. You can watch 6 different ones in a half hour. Do this. You’ll get ideas and confidence.
  • You can hack the format. The idea of a ‘slide’ is vestigial – they’re not slides anymore. I’ve hacked the format a few times, including using a special time counter deck to give me more flexibility (see photo at right).
  • Plan to lose your first and last slide. Time will get eaten by the audience laughing,by any ad-libs you do, etc. so plan for about 4:30 instead of the full 5:00.