How to Survive Your First Ignite Talk

Two weeks ago today, I gave my first Ignite talk.1 If you feel like giving an Ignite talk yourself — and I think you should if there is anything in your life that you feel passionate about –, here’s a little story on how I not only “survived” that talk, but had tons of fun in the process.

Geek enlightenment

In case you haven’t heard about Ignite yet, this series of events is based on an intriguing idea: you can talk about (almost) anything you find worth sharing, but you get only five minutes and twenty slides, and the slides change automatically every 15 seconds.

This may not sound like a big deal, but even for seasoned speakers it can be quite a challenge to fit all that they want to say into this rigid framework. And people do have a lot to say — about a very wide range of topics.

Finding your topic

At SXSW 2009, John Gruber and Merlin Mann discussed how to turbocharge your blog with credibility. The very essence of that discussion is when Merlin explains what he calls a “controlling metaphor” for publishing something on the web:

Topic times voice. Or, if you’re a little bit more of a maverick, obsession times voice.

So what does that mean? I think almost all of the best non-fiction that has ever been made comes from the result of somebody who can’t stop thinking about a certain topic — a very specific aspect, in some cases, of a certain topic. And second, they got really good at figuring out what they had to say about it.

And if you have obsession without voice — or topic without voice — what do you have? You have basically a keyword search. […] And then, on the other hand, if you have voice without an obsession, you get a lot of, y’know, people commenting on the Thai food that they just had, on Twitter.

The same rationale also applies to Ignite talks.

If you plan to speak at an Ignite event, think about the topics you are truly obsessed with. The stuff that totally grabs your attention whenever you see it — that you cannot not think about.

When in doubt, just ask your friends. They will definitely know what makes your brain kick into gear, because they have had to listen to you talk about that one subject many, many times…

While, generally speaking, there is room for almost any topic at Ignite, some organizers explicitly state what kind of talk they would like to see for their event, like “family friendly.” As long as you respect this kind of minor limitation, you should be fine even with controversial subjects.

Now, what’s that thing about finding your own voice? You know, I find that term a bit limiting and would prefer to extend it to “voice plus perspective.”

It’s not only what words you will use, how you will combine the words into sentences, and how you will phrase those sentences. The point of view from which you are looking at your subject matter is at least as important as your “voice.”

To sum this up, a really great Ignite talk will make the audience think: “Hey, why have I never heard of this topic before?” or “Wow, I had never thought about this topic that way!”

Preparing your talk

There is no One True Way to prepare for an Ignite presentation. Just trust your instincts and rely on your experience with similar projects from school, uni, or work, and watch a few Ignite videos for additional inspiration.

What’s unique about Ignite, though, is the rigid format: 5 minutes, 20 slides, 15 seconds per slide. During your preparation, you need to keep in mind that there is no way to present every single detail of your topic within that format.

Five minutes are more than enough, though, to get your audience interested in your chosen topic, so that, if the topic strikes their fancy, they will want to learn more about it. Or join a cause that is dear to you!

Use your talk as a teaser: show your audience why your topic is important (at least it is sufficiently important to you that you want to talk about it, right?); how it affects them; and what they should do about it.

Regardless of how you compile ideas and then transmogrify them into a coherent talk: as soon as you have submitted a talk for an Ignite event, you should start taking notes about what comes to your mind when you think of your subject. That is probably the easiest way to make your subconscious continuously munch away on the topic.

As soon as you hear that your talk has been accepted, start working on your presentation. Before you actually implement your slides, check what formats the organizers requested for the formatting of your slides, the file type, etc.

Practice your talk early, and practice often: it’s a good idea to start practicing giving your presentation while you’re still preparing the slides. Here’s why: chances are that, as soon as you actually start practicing your talk with the slides you already have, you will see that the pacing does not work. At all.

Also, if you still have blank slides to fill, you might very well come up with a great idea about how to fill those gaps during your practice runs. Practice with your slides and keep modifying both your words and your slides until your talk — the combination of what you say and what your slides show — is in sync and feels just right.

If my personal experience is any indication, keep practicing even if you’re convinced that you have nailed your presentation. I skipped two days of practicing over the weekend before the show, and when I rehearsed my talk the following Monday, it took me a while to get into my rhythm again.

Giving your talk

On the day of the event, get to the venue in time. Attend the speaker briefing and sound check, make yourself familiar with the surroundings, and mingle with the attendees to get a feel for the atmosphere in the crowd.

Have your first alcoholic beverage of the evening after your talk. And try enjoying the talks of those speakers who come before you, even if you’re nervously awaiting your turn.

When it’s your time to climb onto the stage, relax. You will be talking about something you are passionate about and most likely very familiar with. You’ve gone through ample dry runs for this talk (right?), and the audience is on your side and eagerly wants to find out what you’re passionate about.

Get more advice

There is lots more advice out there on how to give an Ignite talk, but avoid getting sidetracked. Since you’ve already read a whole (way too lengthy, I have to admit) article on the subject, have a look at Scott Berkun’s excellent “How to give a great ignite talk” as well as the Tips page from Ignite Sidney.

And then do get started on your own talk and submit it for an Ignite event near you. You can always try to find more tips and hints, but do make sure you bridge that gap from wanting to give a talk to actually giving it.

Good luck, and have fun!


  1. You can find more details about my talk on The UI Observatory, my blog dedicated to everyday usability. 

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