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Lightning Talks: Making Presenting Less Scary and More Fun

What are the benefits? How do I get started? How do I keep it interesting?

By: Jason Stadther

Lightning Talks are short presentations, usually between 5 and 10 minutes long, that focus on just a few key points. The goal is to cover the most critical information only and get folks excited to learn more.

At TrueCar, I define them as short, informative, and somewhat informal presentations designed to share ideas, concepts, best practices, or basically anything you think might be of interest to your colleagues.

Slides are great, but optional. We also love live code demos or just plain old public speaking. Most of our topics end up being technology or industry specific, but we also get a lot of great presentations that have nothing to do with tech, from “How to train your cat” to “Tips for building a raised-bed garden.”

Two other formats for Lightning Talks you might find interesting are called PechaKucha and Ignite. Both feature an auto-advancing slide deck and a fixed time per slide.

The Benefits of Regular Lightning Talks

  • Improving your public speaking. It’s often called the most common phobia in America, and most of us have struggled with it at some point. Short presentations can be a great form of exposure therapy: the more you do it, the less frightening it becomes. I try to keep an informal vibe to the talks by striking up casual conversation with some of the presenters while we wait for the audience to join. We do not take live questions at our talks. We have a dedicated Slack channel where folks can ask questions. This keeps the overall meeting time down and can help reduce the fear of the unexpected.
  • Learning to be concise in conversations. Brevity is a powerful tool in all forms of communication. Whether it’s a Slack message, email, or 15-minute virtual stand up meeting, if you want people to pay attention to what you have to say, you need to get them interested quickly. Lightning Talks are the whetstone for honing your samurai sword of brevity.
  • Onboarding material and documentation. Many of our presentations are simply the result of someone being asked the same question over and over again. How do I pull in this specific dataset? How do I use this internal tool? I highly recommend recording your Lightning Talks and linking to them from your documentation. If you use an internal YouTube or Vimeo account, watchers get the added benefit of increasing the playback speed, condensing your already brief topic into a super-lightning talk.
  • Making social and personal connections. Presenting your personal passions and side projects can help you form great social connections. When you find out someone else in your company has converted their van into a campervan, that’s how a bond forms. The #1 reason people stay at companies is because of bonds they form with coworkers.
  • Introducing new technology. Did you just launch some new internal framework? Are you switching from REST APIs to GraphQL? A recorded Lightning Talk can be a great way to quickly introduce this to the company. At TrueCar we have been a Ruby on Rails shop for a long time. At our Lightning Talks, an engineer started a series on the interesting aspects of the programming language Rust. In a very grass-roots fashion, it sparked the interest of other engineers and architects and we started asking ourselves, would this particular feature or service be better suited in Rust? Fast forward a couple months and we are exploring a microservice in Rust.

Identifying Topics and Encouraging People to Present

When I set out to establish Lightning Talks at TrueCar, I started by reaching out to all the team leads and managers. I asked them to keep an eye out for interesting projects or common questions their teams get. In 1:1s with our engineers, we are frequently amazed by the stuff our teams build. Let’s celebrate their innovations with the rest of the company in the form of Lightning Talks.

If you’re looking to do the same, leverage those ice breaker questions from meetings or onboarding. Find out what hobbies folks have. What new skill are they trying to learn right now? I also ask our new hires: where did you feel our documentation was lacking? Or: what aspects of our platform were confusing at first, but make sense now that you’ve met with a fellow engineer? These are all prime topics for a Lightning Talk.

Keeping Up the Interest

You will need to regularly remind your managers and team leads to encourage folks to present. As a manager, if something sounds interesting to you, it will likely be interesting to other folks.

Lead by example: make sure you are presenting at these talks as well. Put as much effort into your presentations as you would like to see from others, but don’t go overboard. Two or three hours is the maximum amount of time I will typically spend putting together a deck and practicing my talk.

I also started a “bounty program,” where anyone can suggest a topic they would like to learn about. I’ll then try to track down an expert in that area.

Try a themed Lightning Talk, where all the talks are about a similar topic. We regularly have a hackathon themed talk where all presentations are a short pitch for an upcoming hackathon.

Conclusion

The benefits of Lightning Talks are numerous, and they can be a valuable tool for any organization. The biggest hurdles are getting the ball rolling and keeping folks engaged. Once you have an audience, the growth will be organic and you won’t have to search for presenters as much.

There are a lot of resources out there to help presenters create an effective presentation. I’ll be sharing my own tips in a follow-up post soon. If you have any other tips for running Lightning Talks or interesting topics, please share in the comments below. I would love to hear from you!

We are hiring! If you love solving problems, please apply here. We would love to have you join us!

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