Growth Happens Outside Our Comfort Zone: How I Prepared to Speak in Front of 500+ People & Why I’m Glad I Did

Emily Carrion
Oct 3, 2016 · 11 min read
IGNITE Seattle Talk filmed by Bootstrapper Studios

A few months ago I stood on stage at Town Hall Seattle and delivered a five-minute talk at IGNITE Seattle #30 to more than 500 people.

It was exhilarating.

It was nerve racking.

It was over in flash.

So many people supported me.

And all the hard work was worth it.

Today I wanted to share WHY I decided to take on this challenge, HOW I prepared, and WHAT I learned in the hopes that it will inspire many of you to step out of your comfort zone, share more of yourself with the world, and experience exponential growth.

First things first, what is an IGNITE talk?

IGNITE talks are like mini TED talks. They are all five-minutes long, and the presenter’s slides automatically change every 15 seconds (whether ready for them to or not). The topics can be about absolutely anything, so in a night you can hear talks ranging from Bluefin Tuna, to the Smartest House, to your Muslim Neighbor, to the Perils of Online Dating.

IGNITE events started in Seattle, and are now held in 350 cities around the world. What makes IGNITE special is that its run by a crew of incredible volunteers, only costs five dollars to attend, and it truly is a community event.

Sound interesting? This is how to get your talk selected.

Yes, you have to apply to speak at IGNITE (check out official how to get your talk accepted recommendations).

This was not my first time applying to speak at IGNITE. I applied over a year ago and did not get accepted.

So, what did I do differently this time?

Last year, I wrote the talk first, and then hastily tried to come up with a title and description of the talk. This was backwards.

As a Marketer, I should have known better. Everything starts with a sexy headline or talk title to entice the reader/listener to take a second look.

So once I had an idea of what I wanted to speak about, I focused most of my time on a great title. I came up with 20 ideas (yes, I made a list of 20 possible titles). Then I ran them by my team of awesome marketers at work to see what popped.

We landed at: How to Hack Mentorship with A Twitter “Baller” List

I also wrote a dozen versions of the talk description and worked with Marissa Smith (my company’s Communications Manager) on making it provocative, concise, and impactful. We went back and forth for a few days, moved sentences we liked from different descriptions and landed on this:

Finding a mentor is hard. Learn how this introvert used Twitter Lists to develop informal mentors. Specifically I’ll share how to set up a “Ballers” list, how to start social conversations, how to turn informal relationships into in-person meetings, and how to rock your mentor meeting. I’ll talk about how following top engineers, angel investors and leading entrepreneurs on Twitter helped me catapult my career, and how it can do the same for you.

I submitted the talk well ahead of the deadline (which the IGNITE committee says helps).

Thankfully, the talk was selected. I was pumped!!

Moral of the story: Spend significant time on the speaking proposal, and ask for feedback from experts.

So why the heck would I want to do an IGNITE talk?

Because it is an incredibly awesome way to step out of your comfort zone, hone your public speaking and storytelling skills, and share something you’re passionate about with the world!

And here’s the backstory…

A few years ago I was asked to moderate a panel on Authenticity at Work at Seattle Start-up Week. Towards the end of the talk we asked the audience, how many of you have a mentor? In a room of 120, only a handful of hands went up.

This made me sad, because I attribute much of my personal and career growth to the help of a host of incredible mentors.

People in the audience said they didn’t know where to start and many asked us how they could find a mentor.

As an introvert who works hard to get out of my comfort zone to meet people, I shared how I have gotten around that by using social media — specifically Twitter — to identify people a few steps ahead of me in their careers that I can learn from and receive mentorship from.

This concept of receiving virtual mentorship and turning it into in-person mentorship really resonated with people, so I realized I needed to share it with more people, to help them leapfrog in their career just like I’d done.

So I started by writing about what I’ve learned (Turn Your “Work Crushes” into Informal Mentors with Twitter Lists) and speaking about it. I gave a lunch-and-learn talk about mentorship at my company Apptentive, and I gave a talk called Use Informal Mentorship to Catapult Your Career at the Women Who Code Conference earlier this year.

The feedback I received from other women who had applied my advice and seen a big difference, is what encouraged me to want to share it with more people. So… I took the risk, and applied to share it at IGNITE. The rest is history.

But how did I find out about IGNITE you ask? A big kudos goes out to Monica Guzman who shared about her work as one of the Founders of IGNITE at a company speaker series. I was further convinced after one of my mentors Shauna Causey gave an awesome IGNITE Talk called YES for One Year: Confronting a Fear, and when a friend Shalendra Chhabra delivered another great IGNITE Talk called America From The Eyes Of A First Generation Immigrant.

Sometimes you have to hear and see others doing something incredible before you can see yourself able to do the same thing.

How I Prepared for my IGNITE Talk

Warning: Giving a five-minute talk is WAY harder than giving a 20 or 30-minute talk. Giving a five-minute IGNITE talk is even harder because your slides change automatically which means you have a lot less control over the pace of the talk.

I found out my talk was accepted I had 36 days to prepare. Here’s how I did it…

Outline key takeaways

I’d given a longer version of the talk before, so I began by deciding which key stories I wanted to tell and what key takeaways I wanted to leave the audience with. I talked to people who heard my WWC talk and asked them what was most impactful about that talk so I could keep it in.

Based on their feedback, there were three things I wanted the audience to take away from the talk:

- Mentors rock, and even introverts can find and cultivate mentors

- It’s easy to set up a Ballers List of mentors you want to follow via a Twitter List

- Social media can be a great tool to learn from mentors and eventually meet them in person

Practice, practice, practice

Ok, next step. I shortened the WWC original talking points by cutting as much as possible and began working on the slides. I’d need 20 slides in total (1 slide per 15 seconds). I mapped the most important stories I wanted to tell for each slide, and then started testing and practicing out loud how much I could say per slide.

I found that reading from notes and speaking without notes is a very different pace. Therefore I had to cut every extra word, every word or phrase that was hard to say, and learn what came out the easiest.

The IGNITE team are PROS! They walked us through every step of the way including very specific slide guidelines, talk recommendations, practice sessions, and lots of cheerleading. They let us do dry runs in front of other speakers. This piece was incredibly inspiring. I saw that I needed to up my game because the other talks were so good.

Per the IGNITE teams recommendations, I practiced out loud, standing up, holding a “microphone” (aka water bottle). I scheduled times to practice in front of people I really admire. My teammates at Apptentive gave me feedback on pacing, body language, and content. With each piece of feedback, I’d make the talk better and better.

At night, I’d visualize myself on stage. I’d practice feeling how awesome it would feel when I was done. I’d listen to the audience cheer and I’d see the big smile on my face having successfully finished.

I spent extra time making sure I could nail the intro. So much of delivering a talk is about momentum and I wanted to start off on the right foot. I did the same for the ending. I wanted to leave the audience on a high note, and make it memorable.

The day of

The energy kept rising. My fellow IGNITERS brought their A-game. Scott Berkum, the MC, warmed up the crowd with humor and community spirit.

Town Hall began filling up. What was incredible about this particular audience is that everyone wants you to succeed. They understand that each of the speakers is just like them. Most of us were pretty new to public speaking, yet were eager to share something we were each really passionate about.

I ran my intro lines in my head over and over and cheered wildly for my fellow IGNITERS who went before me.

Then it was my turn…

All the butterflies flapped in my chest. I flashed a big smile at Scott and walked on stage. Robi Ganguly gave me the idea of creating dramatic effect by starting with my back to the audience.

The words came spilling out of me.

I smiled. I caught smiles from the audience.

I saw my godmother Gene. I saw my mentor Paula. I heard my friend Erin laugh and cheer. I saw my colleague Luna recording.

The support felt awesome.

And then it was over.

The clapping and cheering sent a huge smile across my face, and a surge of pride. I did it. Hopefully it resonated with people.

At intermission I was blown away by how many people had shown up to support me. I felt so blessed. An overwhelming sense of gratitude and joy filled my heart.

After eight more incredible speakers shared their stories, the IGNITE crew and all the speakers headed to the after party.

Follow-up was fun too! Dozens of audience members shared that they were creating their Ballers List and I got to meet many of them in person.

Moral of the story: Practice… no really, practice your socks off. Visualize giving the talk. And enlist support.

What I learned and am so grateful for

1. Things don’t always go as planned.

I’d love to say that the talk went perfectly, but it didn’t. I forgot a transition and paused. But the beauty of the IGNITE community, is that the whole audience was cheering me on the whole time, excited for me to find my rhythm and keep going. How cool is that!

I also thought I would have written this post the week after the talk, but low and behold, I broke my wrist days after the talk playing soccer. What’s crazy about that experience is I was so grateful I broke my wrist AFTER the talk instead of before it.

Life isn’t perfect, and is more beautiful when it isn’t.

2. You grow the most when things are REALLY hard

This was a very hard talk to prepare for. Five minutes is short, the slides automatically change, it’s on a big stage in front of a big audience, and it’s being filmed. I invited a lot of people to attend, and didn’t want to disappoint them or myself.

All in all, my guess is I spent 40–50 hours preparing for the 5-minute talk…

I can wholeheartedly say, that I grew so much as a person, because I proved to myself that I can do it. And because of that, more seems possible.

This was REALLY hard — but that also means my next talk will be easier.

3. It’s all about the people

I was completely blown away with people’s willingness to help me, in people’s willingness to show up, and by the incredible IGNITE community.

So many friends, family, and teammates helped me in this journey. They gave me the space and time to prepare (thanks Lazaro). They listened to me practice and provided feedback (thanks Marissa, Ashley, Robi, Kelly, Rachel). They helped me the day of by making me look and feel beautiful (thanks Christy for doing my makeup, and Rachel for doing my hair). They sent texts, messages, and voicemails cheering me on from near and far.

And they showed up!

The Seattle IGNITE team was there for me from the very beginning, throughout the journey and there to celebrate afterward. Scott, the IGNITE MC, and Justin, the IGNITE speaker wrangler, gave awesome feedback and the practice sessions. Larry was the slide wrangler who let me keep submitting new versions of my slides. The videographer and photographers were incredible.

And, I’m incredibly grateful for the other IGNITERS! From the very first time I met many of them at our first pitch practice I was blown away! Some of the dry runs were absolutely incredible and THEY inspired me to bring my A-game. I didn’t want to let them down. I felt so much love and support from each of them. I learned so much from their expertise, passion, and willingness to be vulnerable. I laughed and cried with them.

I am also so grateful for everyone who followed me on Twitter, who created their own Ballers list and who I met that night, and who I’ve met over coffee since that night.

So many doors have opened, and so many new connections have been made!

Now, it’s your turn

How and when will you challenge yourself to speak in front of an audience? From Toastmasters, to speaking up at work or on a panel, to IGNITE or TED, there are so many ways to share something you’re passionate about.

For those who have told me you’ve been inspired to speak at IGNITE 31 in November. I will be there to cheer you on!

You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. It is worth stepping out of your comfort zone. If you choose IGNITE, the community will support you through your journey.

I believe we’re at our best when we’re growing, don’t you? To receive a weekly dose of inspiration and curated articles to challenge us to be our best selves, sign-up for my Sunday newsletter The Inspira at

And if you think someone in your network could benefit from this article, please share!

Emily Carrion

Written by

Mom, Wife, Marketer, Executive, Board Member, Investor. Obsessed with growth, how our minds work, rich conversation, advancing women, and mentorship.

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