How to Deliver a Successful Ignite Talk in 10 Steps

So you’ve accepted the challenge and agreed to do an Ignite talk. And now the terror sets in: what have I gotten myself into? Relax. I did my first one this spring and it was a fun, though time-consuming, challenge. Here are my top 10 tips on how to deliver a successful Ignite talk.

What Is an Ignite Talk?

Just to review, an Ignite talk is where you have five minutes to deliver a presentation, and you must do it with exactly 20 slides. Here’s the tricky part: the slides advance automatically every 15 seconds.

If that sounds a little nerve-wracking, you’re right, it can be. But if you properly prepare, it can also be a great experience. One that I think will make you a better presenter in any format.

Here’s an Example

I encountered a few technical difficulties with my Ignite talk, but I have recreated it by narrating the slides in this video, which serves to illustrate many of the tips that follow.

1. Read and Watch Everything You Can

It’s really hard to envision an Ignite presentation, so it pays to do your research. Here are some of the sources I was referred to when I prepared mine: a sampling of Ignite talk videos; 8 Tips for Your Ignite Presentation; and, if you’re in pinch, The Fastest Way to Create an Ignite Presentation.

Those are just a few — there’s tons more out there if you look.

2. Don’t Just Shorten a Full-length Speech

You’ll be tempted to simply condense a longer presentation you already have into an Ignite talk. But that’s going to be very, very difficult to do well. If you have to use existing material, you can’t just condense — you have to cut. Mercilessly. Cut whole sections. You’re just not going to have time to make that many points.

I based my Ignite talk on my 11 Deadly Presentation Sins speech. But instead of trying to get it all in, I focused on one main point that was relevant to my audience of PR people: why do so many smart communicators deliver such bad presentations? I definitely used a few points from my standard presentation, but I also created a lot of new material. (Some of which has made a great addition to the longer presentation. Win!)

3. Have Just One Idea Per Slide

This, by the way, is great advice for a presentation of any length, but it’s especially important for an Ignite talk. One idea per slide! That idea should be conveyed with a bold visual (see the next tip) and just two or three sentences of narration.

4. Make Your Slides Visual

Once again, this is important for any kind of presentation, but it’s critical for your Ignite speech. The audience only has 15 seconds to absorb each point, and it’s impossible for them to both listen to the words you’re saying and read a bunch of words on the screen.

You’ll notice I have very few words on my slides. Some have none it all. That’s the way to do it.

You may have heard the stupid 6/6 rule somewhere — that you should have no more than 6 lines per slide, with no more than 6 words on each. Well that’s 36 words, which is about 30-to-35 too many. Here’s what that slide will look like:

How to deliver an ignite talkThat’s too much information for an audience to absorb. For more on this point, I refer you to the 2:15 mark on the video. Do not read the words on the screen!

5. Slow. Yourself. Down

You can tell when someone has just condensed a long presentation into an Ignite speech. They’re talking like their hair is on fire, trying to cram way too much information into a sliver of time. A good public speaking pace is about 125 words per minute, so 15 seconds amounts to about 30 words per slide.

I actually counted the words in my slide notes and found that each slide averaged around 33 words.

If you find you have to rush through your slides, you need to cut more ideas from your presentation. It’s not a speed-talking contest.

6. Allow Yourself a Little Space

You do not have to fill the entire 15 seconds with talking. In fact, one clever trick is to throw in one wordy slide and say nothing, letting the audience read it themselves. I prepare about 12-to-14 seconds of narration for each slide. That way I can either include some pauses to let the points sink in, or I can throw in a quick ad-lib in the moment.

By speaking at a normal pace, not only will it make you feel more relaxed, your audience will feel less tense watching you. Believe me, nobody’s going to fault you for not talking enough!

7. Be Flexible

On the other hand, if I can see the clock, I will adjust my cadence to fit the time, slowing down and speeding up here and there. As with any speech, it’s good to vary your speed, slowing down for emphasis (see 1:39 and 1:54 on the video) and speeding up where a story needs momentum, for instance.

Though the pace should match the content, of course. You shouldn’t have to go slow to correct a miscalculation in your timing. Slow down only where you’re making a very important point.

Now here’s a pro-tip if you’re really feeling at ease: you can actually throw in extra words if you see you’re ahead of your planned pace. In my sixth slide (Your Brain on PowerPoint, at the 1:15 mark), I added the words capitalized here: “by putting an end ONCE AND FOR ALL to death by PowerPoint.”

I do this a lot because I’m always fiddling around with emphasis and exact wording, but if you’re easily flustered, you may want to just stick to the script. Which brings us to our next point.

8. Script it Out

You do plan on scripting your speech, don’t you? You’re not just going to “wing it?” Because I assure you, nobody wants to see you wing it. Nobody. (See 3:45 on the video.)

The only way to deliver an Ignite talk successfully is to script it out. Now you don’t have to do it absolutely verbatim (see next tip), but that is definitely the safe way to go.

If you have to, and it’s allowed, you can bring notes to the stage to help you, but that’s not going to be nearly as effective as internalizing it.

9. Practice, Practice, Practice

Even more than with a traditional presentation, rehearsal is essential.

I don’t know how many times I practiced my Ignite speech, but I’m certain it was well over 100. I started working on the presentation about two months in advance and rehearsed in four phases:

  1. Read with Notes. Start by setting your slides to advance automatically every 15 seconds. Set the slideshow so you can see both your notes and a timer so you can anticipate when the slide will change. Run it over and over in this mode until you get the timing down. You’ll find you’ll have to cut or add words to fill the space on each slide.
  2. Practice Without Notes. Next, start running the presentation without the notes and see how you do. One of the benefits here is, the more you do it, the more you’ll find new and improved ways to express each idea.
  3. Go Off the Clock. Now turn off the timer on the screen. It’s a good idea to get used to this because you may not have the luxury of a visible timer when you’re on stage.
  4. Practice Without Slides. Here’s where you start practicing in your head, over and over and over again. Practice in the shower, practice at the gym, practice on your commute — out loud where you can, in your head when necessary.

By now you should have the content internalized. If you’re this prepared, where you don’t even need to see your slides to cue your thoughts, then you’re ready for anything. Which you should be. Because anything can happen.

10. Keep Calm & Carry On

Like I said, my Ignite talk had multiple technical snafus, but I managed to get through it. A big part of that was preparation.

For instance, I was told we’d be able to see our slides as we spoke. Turns out we couldn’t it — there was just a screen behind us. Luckily, I’d practiced without my slides.

If you find yourself in this situation, you may able to see the change in light from the projector to signal that a slide has advanced. You can also position yourself at a bit of an angle so you can use your peripheral vision (see photo). And if you have to steal a glance at the screen, it won’t look as bad as completely turning around and putting your back to the audience.

How to deliver an ignite talk

And when mistakes happen, as they inevitably will, relax, breathe deeply and just carry on. Keep moving forward without dwelling on the negative and you will be rewarded for showing grace under pressure.

Master the Ignite Format and You Can Conquer Anything

Practically every one of these tips can be applied to standard presentations — limiting yourself to one idea per slide, making your slides less wordy and truly visual, slowing down (most presenters speak too fast), varying your pace and rehearsing the hell out of it.

That’s why doing an Ignite speech is not just a fun and exciting experience — it’s actually about making you a stronger presenter in any format. So if you have the chance to do an Ignite talk, I highly recommend it.

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