Creating an Effective Ignite Talk When You’re Short on Time

My presentation secret weapon: write the talk from memory in longhand (sorry about the handwriting)

Ignite talks are officially described as “presenters get 20 slides, which automatically advance every 15 seconds. The result is a fast and fun presentation which lasts just 5 minutes.”

Ignite talks can certainly be fun, but they also can be frustrating as hell to develop and do well, especially when you’re under a time crunch.

Recently I was asked to give an ignite talk based on my article “More Than The Game”. I had plenty of time and plenty of confidence that the article could be easily adapted to the format. All went well until it was pointed out to me that the talk sounded more like a promotion for my company than the intended perspective on the opportunities for UX designers in the gaming industry. Almost none of the material seemed appropriate, but the subject was already signed off on, so I had to find another direction for the talk.

I needed to start from scratch but, perhaps ironically, I had very little time. I hastily constructed a plan of attack that looked like this:

  • Start with a few key points
  • Write it as I speak it
  • Develop my timing as I develop the content
  • Refine by rehearsing

The talk turned out incredible and my performance was nearly spot on, save some adjustment in the beginning when someone accidentally started the slides without me realizing. However I was prepared for surprise, adjusted decently, and was even comfortable enough to improvise a little throughout the talk.

My plan of attack proved so effective that I’ve formalized it into a more proper method. In case you ever have to create an ignite talk with a short deadline, I hope this works for you.

Ignite Talk Time-Crunch Method

1. Set up your framework

  • Create presentation with 20 slides that automatically advance
  • Identify your top 1–3 points (you won’t have time for more)
  • Sketch a rough outline including how you’ll support the key points
  • Add everything to your slides
  • Start talking along to the presentation

Don’t worry too much about whether you’ve got the proper slides, yet. You’ll learn as you go where there needs to be adjustment.

2. Reserve key slides

The first and last slides should be reserved for opening and closing graphics. The first will likely be on the screen before you push play, so consider placing your title and credits here.

The last slide is a great place to say “thank you” or to end on a memorable note.

3. Decide how to start and end strong

People generally remember the beginning and end of most anything, so get a sense of how you’ll kick things off and resolve as early as you can. Build confidence.

4. Be conversational (and capture that)

As the slides roll, talk as you would to another person and try to make your points. Listen for the phrases that the sound most natural and clear as they will become the core content of your script.

Stop and write down anything that seems to be working well.

5. Craft quotables

Strive to shape your best takeaways into memorable phrases worth sharing. I find it helpful to imagine what I’d like to see audience members post on Twitter (though they don’t always post what I expect).

These quotables can be challenging to think up as you go, but they can be written and reworked anytime. Keep them where they are handy to glance at while rehearsing and see what pops out as important or useful. Work them in when you see a good spot.

6. Write to reinforce

Your audience only has five minutes to understand and remember what you’re saying, so most of your talk is best spent reinforcing key points.

Revisit your script often and evaluate whether you’re driving your points home in the simplest, most effective way you can.

7. Give yourself plenty of breathing room

To be comfortable and sound natural, you need to give yourself lots of room within each slide. Don’t cram words. The fewer words you use, the more memorable you’ll be and the more room you give yourself to adjustment should your timing waver.

Be concise and work at saying more with less.

8. Develop transitional phrases

Transitions between slides are much easier when you have phrases that leverage the point of one slide to land on the point of the next slide.

It may be helpful to give a little space before and after these to let points sink in and to adjust your timing.

9. Make simple slides

Choose one graphic per slide and avoid bullets at all costs. There’s no time to read them or say them!

Once again, remember how short your talk is. Support, support, support your key points.

10. Rehearse. A lot.

Ignite talks are most stressful to the unprepared. You can mitigate this stress by developing the script in a natural, conversational way and rehearsing as often as time allows.

A few tips for rehearsing:

  • Try to do the whole presentation every time
  • Record yourself, review, and adapt
  • Visualize your performance

Bonus: Secret weapon of rehearsal

In spare moments, write your script from memory entirely in longhand. Seriously. Longhand.

Walk through particular moments or the entire talk, careful to stop where you’re feeling a little unsure. Go over those spots a couple times then continue. If you notice yourself thinking of things differently than you’ve been rehearsing, capture those thoughts and check for opportunity to adjust the script accordingly.

I’ve done this several times now for presentations and it’s always been effective.

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