Recently I did my first Ignite-style talk[1]. It’s an interesting format: a 5-minute 20-frame slideshow set to auto-advance every 15 seconds. The format has its roots in the 5-minute lightning talks that I remember from early Perl conferences. In lightning talks the slides were optional, you just had to finish on time or get gonged. (I can still see Larry Wall cheerfully ringing the gong on others and just as cheerfully having it rung on him.) Ignite makes slides mandatory. The 15-second cadence invites you to think in stanzas; it’s a nice constraint to embrace.

The lore on how to prepare for these talks also has roots that connect Mark Fowler’s 2004 Giving Lightning talks to Jason Grigsby’s 2008 How to Give a Successful Ignite Presentation to many others more recently. Everyone agrees: practice. But how?

For mine I wrote a script in 20 stanzas and then set about tuning them to the required intervals. My first thought was to refer to a clock while reading the script aloud and editing it, but it was hard for me to look back and forth between the clock and the script. So I made a couple of audio tracks for timing. countdown-slide.mp3 says “3, 2, 1, slide” and then every fifteen seconds, “slide” again, finishing with “end.” countdown-5-10-slide.mp3 adds “five” and “10″ at the appropriate intervals. Both turned out to be helpful in different ways.

For tuning the written script to the intervals, I used the countdown-5-10-slide track which gave me plenty of cues to help gauge the edits. For practicing the script I used the countdown-slide track which emits exactly the stream of cues you get in the talk: start, a cue every 15 seconds, then stop.

As is often appropriate for an Ignite talk my slides were mainly pictures not words. I tried to search for and use only images licensed for sharing, but the discoverable pool of such images isn’t nearly broad or deep enough. So I fell back to grabbing images from Google and Bing searches, feeling guilty about that, and wondering what it will take to make the pool a lot broader and deeper.

I wasn’t sure at first I’d need the countdown-slide track — the one that just says “slide” every 15 seconds. If you practice and memorize the script while watching the slides then you’ve got your cues, no need for audio timing. But after a few run-throughs I got antsy and wanted to go for a hike. That’s where the countdown-slide track really worked, in a couple of ways. It not only provided the cues, it prompted me to visualize the slides. From then on I could practice anywhere I wouldn’t mind being seen talking to myself: running, hiking, driving to the airport. I hardly used the slides again.

When I did use the slides, in a few practice runs and then in the talk, I saw how helpful it had been to have visualized them, but not seen them, while practicing. I’d learned to do the talk from memory without the slides. Doing it with them was, by comparision, easier.

This makes perfect sense, of course. I think it’s related to how musicians memorize music: hear the tune, see the notes on the page, feel your fingers on the instrument. Then selectively omit the audio track, the sheet music, and even the instrument, and do the hearing, seeing, and feeling in your mind.

A couple of weeks later I was on a panel where I had up to 10 minutes to speak. I wound up using only 4 minutes, and while there weren’t any slides, I still wrote it out as a story told in memorizable stanzas. I think it turned out better than if I’d used the whole time for something less tightly constructed.

The 4-minute panel talk turned out to be harder to learn than the 5-minute Ignite talk, and now I see why. Even though slides weren’t required, I could have used them as practice cues! I guess that’s what Joshua Foer and other memory experts keep telling us: divide things into chunks, tag the chunks with pictures.


[1] The subject was barefoot running. I think it’ll be posted soon.