A few months ago I saw my first Ignite talk at Devoxx UK and I was swept away.
I have always enjoyed demoing work I’ve done, and presenting isn’t something I shy away from. However, I’ve always found it hard to get going; making sure I’m always delivering the right message (or at least a consistent message), making sure it’s light-hearted enough to be engaging whilst containing all the relevant information. I can spend several hours trying to get the slides animated just so.
And then there’s the rehearsals. Rehearse too little and you end up waffling and prone to going backwards and forwards over the slides trying to find your place. Rehearse too much and you can say everything without thinking, but it can come out in a bit of a drone. Nothing is new and exciting for you anymore, and neither will it be for the audience.
So, what is an Ignite talk and why did I find it so compelling?
The concept is deceptively simple: 20 slides which change automatically every 15 seconds, to give a pacey 5-minute talk, and since everyone knows the slide will be changing in a few seconds, it adds a sense of trepidation as the speaker tries to stay on track.
My first attempt at giving an Ignite talk was to share my experiences at Devoxx UK with the rest of the Rightmove backend community. I realised that the number of sessions I’d gone to at the conference was more-or-less 20, so I figured that I could describe each session in one slide, and also cover off what an Ignite talk is. This might sound like a lot with only 15 seconds per slide, but I had spent some time reducing each session into the most useful bullet points on each slide. I found in rehearsal that 15 seconds is surprisingly long and thought it would work.
Of course it didn’t!
It started quite well, and I found my flow for the first few slides. I was able to say everything I wanted, most importantly expanding on the bullet points on the slide within the time limit. Sometimes, I even found myself waiting for the slide to change. And then it all went wrong! I was half-way through explaining the first bullet point, and the slide changed!
I mean – I had another three things I wanted to say and now the slide is on something completely different!
I managed along for another few slides, but I was losing my way more and more, slides changing too quickly and now I was struggling to remember what I meant to say.
By about slide ten I was about to give up. I had just started apologising for the Ignite talk clearly not working and having to do something else, and then the side changed again.
And at that point, I realised the most important thing. Because when the slide moved on, so did I. There’s no point in worrying about things going wrong. There’s no time. Once you start, you’re on it till the end. And at the end I realised that most people hadn’t even realised I had screwed up!
Now, I don’t think this was the best way to give an Ignite talk. I did have way too much information I wanted to convey on each slide. There also wasn’t much in common between each slide. This was both jarring and didn’t allow me to move smoothly from one slide to the next. So, lessons learnt are:
- Not so much text on each slides (pictures work well).
- Tell one story across all the slides.
With this in mind, I wanted to try another Ignite talk. And for this I thought of a different approach. At Rightmove we give regular product showcases where each team gives updates on current and upcoming work to the rest of the company. So, I discussed the possibility of presenting something using an Ignite talk with my product owner and she suggested we use the format to talk about our current work on search suggestions. This time there would be two of us.
We worked together to figure out what we wanted to say: what problem we were trying to solve, what ideas we had come up with, what the current design looked like, how we would measure success, etc. This led us to come up with about 10 or 12 initial slides which we could put in order. We decided to split it up so each of us would discuss different themes which would enable one person to speak on a few slides before passing to the other.
Rehearsals were rather eventful. We spent around an hour practising the talk and making improvements. I’m not sure we got through it to the end without bursting into fits of laughter. It’s so easy to be derailed by someone fluffing their lines, missing your mark when the slide changes, or just forgetting what to say.
We managed to hone the talk down, and although not the full 20 slides in the end, it was enough to get the message across.
The talk was a bit more stressful! We gave it over Zoom which made it harder to have the chemistry we had in person during rehearsals. We each needed to keep track of time and it was more stressful trying not to forget anything.
Reflections on my experience
After giving the Ignite talks, I thought it was one of the hardest things I’ve done. Probably more fun rehearsing but it was very stressful trying to keep it going. But now I’ve had a couple of months to reflect I’m beginning to think this would be more useful in other places.
Almost certainly it would help being in person. Having a live audience who can react to mistakes would be good. And having another person presenting means you can interact with each other, and this can relieve some of the stress.
As for how useful Ignite talks are, I think they help keep a talk succinct and on track. The time limit per slide significantly adds to the stress of talking in front of others and will probably deter many people from even trying it. And when you give the talk, you will almost certainly forget something, so may not be great for disseminating critical information.
Why not give it a try yourself?
Even so, I think the planning of the talk is invaluable when thinking about longer talks, or more technical subjects which might be hard to grasp. Seeing if you can keep it to 20 static slides is a good lesson in breaking the subject matter down to manageable chunks.
So next time you need to give a talk and you want to try something new … do it as an Ignite talk!