2015 will be the year you pitch a NICAR lightning talk

Sisi Wei
6 min readApr 8, 2014

In recent history, Lightning Talks have become a crowd-drawing staple of the NICAR data journalism conference. For one hour, a set of 10 speakers each give fast-paced 5-minute talks on topics they pitched a few weeks earlier and were voted on by that year’s conference attendees. Here’s why you — YES YOU! — should pitch a talk next year.

2013 was my first NICAR ever. I knew some of my fellow attendees, but a majority of the time, it felt more like I knew of them. A month before NICAR started, I learned about the lightning talks, and that any conference participant could pitch one. I really wanted to do it.

Let me help you understand about how misinformed I was at this point:

First, back then I thought that lightning talks were much more official and structured than they have to be. For example, I was convinced my slides were required to auto-advance every 15 seconds. Turns out, that’s not true at all. You can fill your 5-minutes however you’d like.

Second, in my naïveté, which really worked out to my benefit, I thought that everyone who went to NICAR pitched a lightning talk. It’s not that I thought it was required, but I thought everyone thought of it as the fun thing to do. So I said to myself, why not?

I ended up pitching two talks, and through the crowd, both were selected. I picked one to give, because preparing two lightning talks seemed both unfair and way too much work for me. I ended up picking the one titled, “Let’s Make Games for News.”

I probably practiced it over and over and over, before the conference, on the plane, during breakfast and after lunch. The entire hour before the lightning talks slot in the schedule, I went to my room and practiced 10 times in a row, which took around 50 out of the 60 minutes in an hour. Two years ago, I probably thought I wasted those last 10 minutes doing things like walking around or drinking water, and could have fit in two more run throughs. Now, I’d done my fair share of public speaking in high school through competitive speech, but by the time I got up there and Derek Willis handed me the microphone, I remember this weird tightness in my chest (spoiler: not a heart attack, we’re good), and my fingers being completely cold. I think I forgot to breathe for the first minute or so, but soon after that, the rush of the moment took over and my practice paid off. It went really well.

After the lightning talk, my anonymity was basically gone. People I hadn’t met started approaching me, and it honestly gave me some of the most wonderful exposure in my career thus far. This is one of the biggest reasons why I think everyone who goes to NICAR should pitch a lightning talk.

In 2014, I pitched two more talks, because again why not, and again, both of my talks were voted in the top 10, so I picked one of them to give. My motivations this year were different though. In 2014, after the first 24 hours after submissions opened up, the only pitch from a woman was by my extraordinary colleague Lena Groeger. In fact, Lena emailed me after I’d left work that day, and said:

Was gonna chat you but you left. You better propose a NICAR talk because I am the ONLY FEMALE. Wut!

I complied the next day.

Any woman who does what I do and had the luck of showing up in my chat buddy list that day, probably got a message from me encouraging them to do the same. I think I probably insisted calling one of them that very night to workshop possible ideas.

I’d like to say with honor that Lena’s pitch that year was the most popular talk on the pitch voting boards.

But sadly, it came to my attention recently that there are many people (including both women and people of color) who do not feel comfortable pitching a lightning talk at NICAR. I won’t spend this post talking about the reasons why. Instead, if this applies to you, I want to both (1) give some encouragement and (2) offer my help.

The Encouragement

  1. If you don’t pitch a lightning talk, you won’t be giving one. Guaranteed.
  2. If you’re intimidated, you’re not alone. Many people whose pitches get selected are intimidated when they submit them. It’s nerve-wracking to put yourself out there, especially if you’ve convinced yourself that there’s no way your pitch will get picked. Fight through this.
  3. You don’t have to be an expert in the field to pitch a talk, instead pitch talks on recent projects or topics you enjoy. I pitched a lightning talk about games! It was something I thought about in my spare time because I like playing games. The examples in my talk consisted of work that I had nothing to do with, as well as concepts I played around with in college.
  4. Your talk doesn’t need to be polished and done before you pitch it. I wrote my entire 2014 talk the night before. Despite how much fun it was to feel like I was in college again and eating Jimmy John’s while working on “homework” I’d assigned myself, I would have much rather been hanging out with other NICAR folks, so I’m not suggesting you follow in my footsteps. But hopefully this shows you that you just need to have a concept and not a polished talk, to pitch it.
  5. The worst that could happen is a bruised ego. Because even the hours you spent crafting your pitch has landed you with a pitch, about a concept you want to speak about. It can be re-used for another conference. Plus, pitching at all gives you exposure. Even if your pitch doesn’t make it, people who are interested in your topic might contact you.

Totally convinced you should pitch? Go to http://lightningtalks.ire.org/. You’ll be able to propose talks until Sunday, Feb. 15th. Voting will begin the next morning on Monday, Feb. 16th and run until Sunday, Feb. 22nd.

If you’re not convinced yet, keep reading.

The Offer

If you want this, but feel intimidated, or uncomfortable, or feel like the environment isn’t friendly, e-mail me.

I will coach you, prod you, encourage you, help you figure out your topic, read your pitch and give you suggestions.

It’s something that I’ve done privately in the past — reaching out to specific women that I felt have something to say, or sometimes just whoever happened to be online. But all of you have something to say too. Let’s get your voice out there.

This of course, isn’t a guarantee that your pitch will be selected. I don’t have that kind of wizardry. But it certainly means you’ll have a shot. (And believe me, you’ll also have a good shot without my help.)

I have no idea what kind of response I’ll get, but on the off chance that I’m lucky, and so many people email me that I can’t handle the volume, I will ask past lightning talk speakers to help me coach you, prod you, encourage you. Do everything I’m promising to do right here.

I won’t tell anyone that we’re talking if you don’t want me to. And I promise that I will encourage you so hard that I will become pretty pesky. So consider this your warning.

But in return, I need you to do something first. Take some time to think about what you’ve done at work, or as a hobby, that the NICAR audience would be interested in hearing about. Write that up, and put it in the body of your email. Send me any relevant links. The ideas don’t have to be long, just long enough so that I know what you’re talking about, and I want you to send me at least three.

me [at] sisiwei [dot] com

I hope to hear from you soon.



Sisi Wei

Soon to be Director of Programs @OpenNews. Ex-AME @ProPublica. Co-founder of @Codewithme. Prev @PostGraphics. Maker and player of games.