Earlier this month, I took part in ritualized torture. Others call it an Ignite presentation.
Ignite, for the unignitiated, is something of a nerd presentation death march. You have a topic, which you propose. You have five minutes, which is firm. You have 20 slides, which relentlessly auto-advance every 15 seconds.
At the suggestion of a couple of previous Ignite presenters, I proposed a talk for Ignite Seattle 11 that was aligned with my personal interests, and about which I felt passionate enough upon which to pontificate: “How Science Is Destroying My Childhood.” My pitch: “I love science: As a kid, I marveled at planets such as Pluto, wanted to see a real dinosaur, and enjoyed mysterious sea creatures. My love of science spawned a career including stints as a science and tech reporter, science-fiction writer and, lately, tech industry consultant. But science is slowly erasing my childhood, and Pluto was just the start. It appears no planet — or creature — is safe.”
Having never even attended an Ignite before, I did not expect to be selected on my first pitch attempt. But not only was I selected as one of 14 presenters at Seattle’s King Cat Theatre, I was selected to go first.
How did I survive? By doing three things:
- Creating a story with a natural arc and progression. Without notes — and with a face full of lights making it nigh-impossible to visually connect with an audience — I had to have a story, not a presentation. A story I wanted to tell. Others have wisely advised Ignite presenters to pick something you love, you hate, or you’re good at. But you also need a narrative drive. Come up with one that naturally flows with how you’d tell a story to a group of people in a restaurant. Or bar after a couple of drinks. Because Ignite does have a bar.
- Focusing on slide images, not words. This is almost a no-brainer. If your approach to an Ignite presentation is slavish adherence to covering all points on a slide in exactly 15 seconds because you have to match your comments to bullet-pointed text, you have created an almost-insurmountable single point of failure. Instead, use images that approximate your topic (there’s a wealth of them at Wikimedia Commons, which was my starting point) and only an occasional projected word or sentence. That way, if your timing drifts, your slides don’t undermine you.
- Practicing practicing practicing practicing practicing. Others have said this, too. But I’ll take it one step further. Practice when you’re not ready. I practiced in front of my computer, in front of my spouse, in front of a laptop in a different room, and sometimes when I was in the middle of something else and just fired up the PowerPoint and went for it. I didn’t expect to do well each time. But each time, I discovered how much of my story I really knew, how much of my story was superfluous and could be dropped (because I kept not remembering it in the main narrative), and most importantly, how to recover from my own personal fail whale.
The result? In front of a real audience the very one time it counted, I didn’t forget a single key part of my story arc. I didn’t run out of time. And I didn’t fall off the stage.
I’ll post the video once Ignite has it available on IgniteShow.com so you can judge for yourself. All I can say is, I’m glad I did it. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson: Nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind as the certainty one is doing an Ignite presentation in the evening.
Update 3/25/11 Ignite has posted the video of the talk, recalling that joyous, terrifying time: