Lightning talks, and not…

Two years ago at SCaLE I attended a workshop on building ignite-style lightning talks. I failed abysmally.

This week at PyData Socal I have been referred to by several people in attendance as somewhat of an expert. There are two lessons here:

  1. I’ve put in a lot of hard work and practice.
  2. Most people suck at giving these, or have no clue at all how to start. When everybody else is blind, the one-eyed person is king.

A number of people at the conference I attended the past two days expressed abject fear of doing a lightning talk, even those who thought they were fine doing longer talks. But in my experience, the constraints of lightning talks make them one of the easiest types to pull together and build useful skills for longer presentations. I would even argue that if you can’t do a good lightning talk, you probably aren’t organized and focused enough to give a good longer talk. It will end up a disorganized rambling mess.

What’s a lightning talk?

Wikipedia’s entry about them is a bit more vague than I prefer. Every conference I’ve attended has meant a five-minute, time-limited presentation. Most conform to the “Ignite” style of talks, in which you will have 10 or 20 slides, respectively either 30 or 15 seconds each, and no control of the presentation or projector. In extreme cases, you may need to provide static slides as pdfs, so you can’t even depend on animations, transitions, etc.

The point is to quickly present an idea, observation, or lesson in a manner that will get the key points across and (possibly) generate interest for people to do more learning on their own. It is not an exhaustive exploration of a topic, and it is best suited to fairly tightly-defined topics. Usually lightning talks are an opportunity for conference participants to quickly introduce something that isn’t addressed anywhere else at the conference, of personal or professional interest.

What it’s not

It is not a second chance to give the talk that was rejected by the conference, by cutting it down to 5-10 minutes and attempting to rush through slides that were designed for in-depth treatment. I’ve seen people try and it never works.

It is also not an opportunity for lots of interactivity (live demos) or question-answer sessions. There just isn’t enough time. Again, I’ve seen people try and it always fails.

What’s a good topic?

Good topics tend to address very specific events, ideas or activities. I find it’s helpful to start with a question. So, for example “An intro to the open source project I’m working on” is probably not a good topic. Software packages are big and have lots of factors to them. Even a smaller one can be done no justice in five minutes, though I’ve seen some people try. “How I solved specific problem X with open source project Y” is far more likely to yield a good result.

Good topics I’ve given or heard talks about include “You’re a Failure! Now what?” “How I got involved with the stupidest man in the world” (I had the misfortune of being tangentially connected to this debacle), “Operations lessons from a 17th century Samauri,” “4 steps for making great technical documentation,” “CS skills they don’t teach in school,” and “Sex, Secret and God: A brief history of bad passwords.”

A few things to note: Most of the topics are pretty constrained. The samauri probably only had a few lessons relevant to computer ops and as presenter you don’t even need to go through all of them; “4 steps” is constraining from the start; same for “skills they don’t teach in school,” after all you don’t need to present all of them either. Pick four. The topics also tend to be a bit humorous. Lightning talks are not lectures and work best if they’re a bit light-hearted in a way that captures attention.

Some day I’ll give a talk about “how my vacation to New Zealand changed my work in tech.” The key points can be covered in five minutes.

How to approach it?

It’s pretty easy and shouldn’t be all that intimidating. If you do it well, it can become a fun hobby and it’s a good way to organize your thoughts about a topic even if you never give the talk.

Key points

Once you have a sufficiently narrow topic, identify the key bullet points for the story. In a 10-slide presentation you’ll have an intro, a summary, and 8 points explaining how you got there. In a 20-slide presentation you’ll have 18 points, and may need to think a lot more about careful transitions, and about how to talk about an single point over more than one slide. This requires better speaker timing and as a result I think ten is the optimal place for most people to start if you have a choice. It’s also easier to deal with 30 second slides than 15 second slides if you’re not practiced.

Each of those points will become a slide. (For 20 slide presentations, you may have some points that extend over two slides.)

Images or illustrations

Lightning talks go by fast. Don’t put lots of words on the screen. Many lightning talks put no words on the screen at all. Pick an image for each point and make that image your slide. Don’t overthink it. A google image search is usually quite adequate. In some cases a flow chart, graph or other illustration might work well. Keep it simple, as it needs to be something people will look at and understand in seconds.

Talk through it

Don’t worry about timing initially, just talk through the slides. This will help you notice things that don’t fit, aren’t in the right order, or are obviously missing. Rework the presentation.

At this point, you have a very workable presentation. It should take as little as 2-3 hours to pull it together.

Practice!

You don’t want to spend your entire presentation looking at the screen practice what you’re going to say and do it with the slides advancing automatically at the 15 or 30 second intervals. Adjust what you’re going to say about each. Trim it mercilessly if you need to. Not every minor point or anecdote needs to be squeezed in. It is far better to have a quick breather if you don’t have enough to say, than to find yourself still talking about the previous slide.

Why you should do this

Virtually all the rules for lightning talks apply to presentations in general. Avoid word-salad on the screen? Always a good practice. Well-defined topic? Essential. Lots of images and graphic aids? It’s a best practice. Rehearse in advance and get your timing right? All good speakers do this.

Lightning talks seem scary, but as I noted at the top, they are one of the best ways to introduce yourself to public speaking in general. Once you can do one of these, you can easily relax some of the rules for longer presentations, add in demos, Q&A, etc.

There are lots of forums for giving these. Just do it.


Lots of examples. I attended all these in person. Not all are great presentations, but all adhere to the 5 minute rule and all the ones at SCaLE are “ignite” style talks with timed slides. What do you think will work for you? What never works?

UpScale talks at SCaLE15x

UpScale talks at SCaLE16x

Lightning talks at PyCon 2017

More lightning talks at PyCon 2017

Even more lightning talks at PyCon 2017