Surviving Ignite in three easy steps

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.

You do not have notes.Frank Catalano - Ignite Seattle 11

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 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: