The rectangle behind you

Why I love Ignite talks

Marcin Wichary
Dec 31, 2014 · 5 min read

Ignite talks are easy to explain. You have 20 slides. Each slide lasts 15 seconds. You have no control over the slides moving forward. What you have is exactly five minutes to talk about the subject of your choosing.

It sounds petrifying, but it’s a lot of fun. And it might be one of the best ways to become a better speaker.

I spoke at a few Ignite events. The three talks above were the ones recorded. Here’s what I loved about doing this and why I’d encourage you to try Ignite, too:

You can talk about anything for 5 minutes. As someone once said, the hardest part about public speaking is convincing yourself you have something interesting to talk about. There’s not a subject in this world that could not be made interesting for five minutes. (The Ignite’s credo is still “Enlighten us… but make it quick,” although it seems it no longer requires to present original ideas or research.)

You only have five minutes. This forces you to think of the point you might want to make, to cull from what probably is a much vaster and longer subject, to connect the points better. This will be hard. Possibly very hard. But what’s easy is holding and perfecting a 5-minute narrative — its beginning and end, its low and high points — all in your head. Much easier, at least, than doing that for a 20- or 40-minute one, let alone a talk that’s hour-worthy.

You can easily find time to practice a 5-minute talk. Rehearsing a longer talk could be a logistical nuisance, it’s hard to be great with timing when it’s all fake, and summoning energy for 40 minutes of talking, over and over again, is a tall order. But you can squeeze in a 5-minute practice session — indeed, many 5-minute practice sessions — anywhere. Before going to work, before going to sleep, in front of your confused cat (true story), on a bus while looking at your phone with slides… I never truly practiced talks before Ignites.

You get better at timing. The point of practicing any talk is not memorizing each and every sentence and fine-tuning their precise durations. The point is getting better at knowing what to say (if not how exactly to say it) and what to leave behind, in real time. Being prepared for an Ignite is knowing exactly what’s your time budget and how to use it — skills that will be useful for a talk of any length (whether you do or do not include skip and bonus slides). I have twice given a 40-minute talk where my last words where uttered at exactly 0:00:00 — and it was a magnificent feeling. Ignite gives you that for free, every time.

You get to practice failing. As a speaker, the audience usually won’t know about your mistakes unless you admit to them. “There should be a slide in here somewhere,” or “I forgot what comes after this” are almost always better left unsaid. The format of an Ignite — the slides relentlessly marching behind you whether you feel good about it or not — makes you get better at quietly recovering from failures. And even if you don’t… the usually informal Ignites are amazing in that the audience will be on your side and help you out if you stumble.

You are free to experiment. Five minutes is not a long time to do something very different. Try a new font. Try to be more funny. Try to be more poignant. Be very precise, or very loose about timing. Talk about a subject you know nothing about as a way to learn more about it. Talk about something you know a lot about, but differently. Do all of it in character. Do it in a foreign language. Use the stage. Do your slides in HTML. Ignites invite you to “hack the format.” I spent my Ignites to talk about ancillary interests — Golden Gate Bridge, vintage computer technology — and used one of them as an opportunity to learn a bit of After Effects and prepare my slide deck as one continuous movie:

Download the After Effects project (source code) for the above

Attending an Ignite event— even as a spectator — will make you a better speaker.

It’s almost like interval training. There are a lot of local events you can consider — I spoke at two in San Francisco — and you can also always organize one. I helped with a few internal Ignite events when I was a fellow at Code for America, and it was a blast, further lowering the barrier to entry since you’re talking among friends and loved ones.

Another format similar to Ignite is called Pecha Kucha — there, you have 20 slides, each lasting 20 seconds.

Can’t wait to see your talk! If you want to learn more, check out the article below… or a few of my favourite Ignites from my great friends:

Thanks to Mick Thompson and Brian Fitzpatrick both for reviewing this article… and telling me about Ignite to begin with.

The rectangle behind you, a series of articles about interactive presentations.

By Marcin Wichary (@mwichary)

The rectangle behind you

A series of articles about interactive presentations

The rectangle behind you

A series of articles about interactive presentations

Marcin Wichary

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Designer/typographer · Writing a book on the history of keyboards:

The rectangle behind you

A series of articles about interactive presentations