Presentation Tips

Lightning Talks and Ignite Talks: A Beginners Guide

Samantha Pratt Lile
 | 
September 13, 2021
 | 
9
 min read
Lightning Talks and Ignite Talks: A Beginners GuideLightning Talks and Ignite Talks: A Beginners Guide

You’ve probably heard that the average human has a shorter attention span than a goldfish. While that tasty tidbit of fake news has largely been debunked, it initially spread through publications like wildfire because the idea has an element of truth. As any presenter will tell you, retaining an audience’s focus is tough. 

In fact, 80% of business professionals surveyed for a State of Attention Report admitted to shifting their focus away from the speaker in the presentation they had attended most recently. How do you deliver an effective and memorable message without losing that all-important attention?

It’s no surprise then that somebody figured out a better way to present. It is surprising, however, that it took until Y2K for it to happen. 

A brief history of lightning talks

Software developer Mark Jason Dominus noticed the ways in which so many speakers were anything but precise. They would drone on and on about details nobody really cared about, then gloss over a story that audiences will find interesting. Who can expect anyone to focus on such presentations for 30, 60 or heaven forbid 90 minutes?

Instead, Dominus decided to give speakers just 5 minutes to complete their presentations. He called the new format a lightning talk. And he wasn’t making any exceptions. At 4 minutes, he rang a small warning bell. When the speaker reached the 5-minute mark, he banged a loud gong and made them leave the stage. Dominus’ objective was “a desperate attempt to help people get to the point or at least to shut up quickly.”

Lightning talks proved to be popular and effective. Sometimes slides are even set to automatically progress after a certain number of seconds. Still, most professionals scoffed upon first learning of the format, considering it a joke. How do you take a 60 minute presentation and pare it down to less than 5? 

The key to a successful lightning talk is to provide an overview of a topic, not a thorough examination. Audiences will lose focus if presented with too many details, but if they are interested in the topic they can always follow up for more information. 

Pecha Kucha

Lightning talks were such a successful concept that they soon spawned similar yet more specific presentation formats. In 2003, professionals from architecture firm Klein-Dytham created a format to inspire creative professionals to more clearly express themselves with fun and interesting presentations. Astid Klein and Mark Dytham developed the presentation format they named Pecha Kucha, which means chit-chat in Japanese. The expressed goal of Pecha  Kucha was, “more show, less tell.”

The rules for Pecha Kucha were more specific than for basic lightning talks. Every presentation lasts exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds, which aligns with the amount of time most adults will pay strict attention to a presentation. In that brief period, a presentation must include 20 slides that are displayed for exactly 20 seconds each. 

Obviously, every second must be used effectively. What is displayed on those 20 slides is up for debate, but many speakers find success displaying images that support the points they discuss, while others will feature brief phrases that capture the subject discussed during the slide’s display. 

Ignite events

Pecha Kucha wasn’t the last lightning talk format to be introduced to presenters around the world. In 2006, O’Reilly Media’s Brady Forest and Bre Petis launched an event they called Ignite, a social gathering filled with short talks. In the Ignite format, speakers still are limited to 20 slides, which automatically display for just 15 seconds each to create a 5-minute presentation. 

How do you structure a lighting talk?

Before delivering their first lightning talk, plenty of presenters to this day question how they can possibly get their points across in so little time. But their minds might be placed at ease by imagining the brevity of the Gettysburg Address.

One of the most influential speeches in American history, a presentation that is credited with inspiring the Union to take control of a bloody civil war, consisted of just 271 words and was delivered in less than 2 minutes. 

Still think less can’t be more? It’s not as difficult as you might think to learn how to give a lightning talk.

When designing a presentation for a lightning talk, do not include more than one idea per slide, and be sure to include the following subjects related to your topic:

  • Who are you, and why are you a reliable source for your topic?
  • What topic are you presenting?
  • Why is the topic important to the audience?
  • How are you approaching your problem?
  • What are the real or potential outcomes?
  • Where can your audience learn more about the topic?

While some might suggest a lightning talk be limited to as few as three slides, a minimum of six would be necessary to cover the above components in a lightning talk presentation template. Ideally, a presenter will choose a topic with major themes that can be broken down into four or five main points. 

Lightning talk tips and best practices

Still unsure of how to design and deliver an effective lightning talk? The following tips and best practices will help you along the way:

  1. Make only one point per slide. Beautiful.ai’s Smart Slide templates make it simple for even amateaur presentation designers to create professional-quality designs. As content is added, artificial intelligence adjusts the design based on the principles of good design
  2. Use images generously. Remember, 90% of our brains are devoted to visual processing. Beautiful.ai users can choose images from a vast library of free stock images, icons and logos.
  3. Don’t rush. Don’t speak faster, instead say less.
  4. Use just one or two words on slides without images.
  5. As with any presentation, customize it for your audience. Beautiful.ai users can design custom themes with specific colors, fonts and other design elements automatically applied to every slide in a deck.
  6. Choose large, bold and clearly legible fonts. Beautiful.ai’s customizable themes and smart slide templates ensure that all your typography is the ideal size and weight.  
  7. Keep it simple. Avoid extra detail and never go off on a tangent.
  8. Outline your presentation before designing your slide deck, then create slides to communicate the main points in your outline. 
  9. Write a loose script with the information you want to include with each slide. 
  10. Practice frequently not only to improve your delivery but also to ensure you cover each slide in the given time period. Practice in front of others and request feedback, but also try recording yourself and watching it back to conduct your own critique. 
Samantha Pratt Lile

Samantha Pratt Lile

Samantha is an independent journalist, editor, blogger and content manager. Examples of her published work can be found at sites including the Huffington Post, Thrive Global, and Buzzfeed.