Preparing for a Lightning Talk

So, I had intended to write this before the Business of Software 2011 conference this October as a bit of advice to the Lightning Talk presenters at that meeting. I gave a Lightning Talk at the 2010 conference and for me it was one of the absolute highlights of the conference. Unfortunately, I didn’t get this written until after the meeting… However, as it is never too early to start preparing for the 2012 meeting, I’ve decided to post it now anyways.

For those of you who are not familiar with the concept of Lightning Talks, they are very short time constrained talks in which you are allowed a specific amount of time for set number of slides. At Business of Software 2010, we were given 7.5 minutes to cover 15 slides (each of which automatically advanced every 30 seconds). Usually, Lightning Talks are given as part of a competition and the audience votes on the best talk at the end. Sadly (for me), I didn’t win, but I was very glad to see Patrick McKenzie take home the prize for his great talk. So, on to the advice:

Have a provocative and memorable title

The title of my talk was “How to make a billion dollars in 7.5 minutes” and based on the conversations I had at the meeting, it really caught people’s attention and piqued their interest. When you only have 7.5 minutes and are sandwiched between a number of other speakers, it is a huge help to have people thinking about your talk before it begins and being able to easily remember the hook afterward. However, it is important that the subject matter of the talk relate to the title, because otherwise, remember the title won’t reinforce your actual performance.

Network

Just like having an interesting title is important, so is introducing yourself to the audience in advance. I didn’t fully appreciate the value of this until Mark Stephens (who won in 2009) kindly walked me (and a few other willing presenters-to-be) around the cocktail reception introducing each of us to new people and informing them that we were giving Lightning Talks. Amazingly, this was a great icebreaker for conversation (which frankly for me was reason enough to bring the matter up) but it also allowed me to engage the crowd in a comfortable setting and get some advance feedback on what their expectations were based on my title. Not only that, it enabled me to create some inside jokes for the crowd for the talk. Lastly, it also serves as a great frame of reference to reintroduce yourself to people after the talk is done because they’ll likely remember you from the initial meeting as well as your talk.

In addition to meeting the crowd, you should take every opportunity to get to know your other presenters. Preparing for and giving a Lightning Talk is a very stressful experience and I found a great deal of camaraderie grew out of the process amongst the speakers who got to know each other.

Practice

I know this should go without saying but you need to practice, a lot, (much more than you might think). Getting the timing right is extremely difficult especially when you are not the one controlling the advancement of the slides. Once you have the slides created and the basic content down, you need to go find a quiet room and set PowerPoint up to auto-advance your slides every 30 seconds and just keep practicing your talk. By the time you actually present, you should know exactly how long it takes you to present the content of any given slide. Unfortunately, what you won’t know is how the audience will react to each slide, so you need to prepare built-in talking transitions for each slide which can be adapted to the unexpected laughter or to the deadening sound of silence as you realize that nobody got your joke.

In addition, I would also recommend that you practice presenting with a big digital timer in front of you counting down (as well as counting up) your time so that you’ll be prepared for either circumstance when giving your talk. I found the experience of watching a timer count down to be very disconcerting as it threw off my internal time tracking process (I had practice using a stopwatch that counted up).

Your slides are context not content

One thing I noticed in reviewing the previous years’ winning talks as well as those which I thought went well my year is that their slides were very minimal. The slides were usually just brief touch points occasionally visited during the talk that provided the audience a reminder as to what you are talking about.

Making your slides too central to the talk sets you up for a significant challenge because if your slide needs to be visible to make your point, you may find yourself stalling while you wait for the slide to advance if you didn’t have your timing just right. Trust me, idling at a transition can be very painful to watch as well as experience.

Furthermore, don’t even think about putting enough text on your slide so that you are tempted to read from the slide. There is nothing worse than watching a speaker read their slides and in a situation like this, you can’t afford to waste any time not engaging the crowd.

Put your name on your slides

I know it seems like an obvious thing, but it easy to forget (I know I did), but make sure that your first slide has your name and the title of the talk on it. I had forgotten to do this and was very fortunate that this was pointed out to me as I was loading my presentation onto the conference computer.

In addition, put your name on the last slide too. Either your first slide or your last slide is going to be shown during the transition between speakers, so you might as well keep your name in front of people so they don’t forget who you are.

Be relevant (and funny)

I have to admit that I was really excited about my talk because it was drawing from my background in drug discovery and exploring how lessons learned there could be applied to software development. I agree that it seems like a bit of a stretch and even Neil asked me when I applied whether I could make it relevant. In the end I think it was relevant enough and I think people could see my passion for the subject matter, but when I saw Patrick’s and Portman’s talks the next day I knew I was in trouble because they were talking directly to the audience in a language they could understand and to which they could relate. When you couple that both of them being very funny, the game was up.

Learn from previous winners

Sadly, I was called out of town this year and missed the Lightning Talk session much to my dismay so I don’t have a lot to say about the winner at Business of Software 2011 except that I heard great things about the talk afterwards. But what I do know is that the videos from the winners from the previous years are available online and I’ve included them below for your convenience.

Watch Patrick McKenzie’s talk from BoS 2010

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYKunVYC width=”480″ height=”381″]

Watch Mark Stephens’ talk from BoS 2009.

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYHI1UsC width=”480″ height=”350″]

Watch Alexis Ohanian’s talk from BoS 2008.

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AdOcQgI width=”480″ height=”390″]

Prepare for disaster and be ok with it

Sometimes things just go wrong and there isn’t anything you can do about (especially when the clock is ticking). The more gracefully you are able to handle your slides not working as behaved the better off you’ll be. That being said, do everything in your power to avert disaster in advance. One way of doing that goes back to a previous point – don’t put a lot of content (especially media) into your slides!

Heck, if you’re really serious about it, trying practicing your talk with no slides at all to prepare for the case when all your slides come out all one color.

Lastly, have a good time

Win or lose, giving a Lightning Talk at a conference like Business of Software is a great and rare opportunity. I met more people at that meeting as a result of the talk and much to my amazement, people remembered me from last year’s talk at this year’s meeting!

Anyways, if your goal is to meet new people at the conference (which it really should be because the people are awesome), give it a shot, particularly if you aren’t a natural social butterfly or can never find the right topic to break the ice, because the Lightning Talk will do it for you.

For a great review of the actual Lightning Talks from 2010, be sure to check out Patrick Foley’s blog on the subject as well.

See you in October!

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One thought on “Preparing for a Lightning Talk

  1. Pingback: Business of Software UK 2014

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