Thoughts on preparing an Ignite-style presentation

Creativity loves constraints, and the Ignite style of presentations has lots of constraints. Your speech has to fit into five minutes. You have room to make one point and perhaps tell one story. You have twenty slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds, although you can slow down by duplicating slides or speed up by using timed animation. You’re giving your presentation to a live audience, so you need to be part actor and part stand-up comedian. Oh, and you’re just one in a long line-up of five-minute speeches, so you need to stand out if you want people to remember your point.

My first Ignite-style presentation will be The Shy Presenter, which I’ll share at IgniteTO this Wednesday. It’ll be a fun experiment that builds on a lot of things I already do for my regular talks.

Full notes

So let me take apart my process to see how I can improve it, or if I’ve picked up any tips that other people might find useful.

I write about a topic before preparing a talk for it so that I can find out what I know, whether it’s useful, and whether I care enough to invest a few hours into preparing a presentation. (Yes, it’s that old skills-needs-passion sweet spot. Handy!)

Ideally, I’ll have blogged about a topic often enough to figure out the key points I want to communicate, and then it’s just a matter of reviewing the previous posts, summarizing them, and editing the points. Not having lots of blog posts about a topic is often a danger sign, as I learned two years ago:


But sometimes an interesting presentation opportunity comes up, and I’ll flesh out new material after people have okayed my title/abstract.

I’ll mindmap what people come in with, what I want them to leave with, and what I can put together to help them along the way.  I also find it useful to braindump a quick list of points I might want to make.

I like making my talks short. I usually try to fit my talks into 7-15 minutes, which is good practice in finding the core of a message and putting together a few supporting points. A good way to estimate this is to take your target words per minute and multiply it by your time, adjusting for pauses. I usually aim for 150wpm (in the middle of the 140-160wpm often suggested by books on public speaking), although I often end up speaking at 180-200wpm. Then I read things through and tweak the text until it fits.

Keeping it short and simple also makes it easy for me to remember. The shorter it is, the more I can improvise to fit the needs of time.

I post my speaker notes online. It lessens the surprise, but it makes the notes easy to share, search, and get feedback on.

Then I split my notes/script into segments. For Ignite, that’s about 37 words per segment. Editing smoothens things out.

At this point, I can usually think of a few simple ways to illustrate each segment. Sometimes I write out the visual sequence and then storyboard it. Other times, I go straight to the storyboard. Sometimes images or segments pop into my imagination, and I rework my writing to include it.

Then I draw the pictures and make slides. I usually use Inkscape because that makes it easy to edit my drawings to reasonably resemble my imagination. I’ve been experimenting with MyPaint lately, though. It takes more work, but it’s interesting.

I post the slides on Slideshare and add it to my blog post, again trading surprise for sharing, search, and feedback.

Once I’ve boiled the idea down to slides, I can work on remembering the key points for each slide. If the key points flow together and people get interested in a topic, they can always look up the full notes on my blog. That means I don’t have to worry about following the script word for word. So if it turns out I have less time than expected, or more time than expected, or I forget something or people want to learn more about something, I can adapt.

And then there’s the blog post on the day of the presentation, and the blog post following up on what I learned from the presentation, and the blog post following up on people’s questions, and the blog post about any revisions, and the blog post about process or content tips (like this one!), and the tweets and Slideshare embeds and all of those other things that mean that the four hours or so invested into preparing a presentation pay off several times over…

Here’s a totally numbers-from-a-hat estimate:

So that’s how I generally prepare my talks. =)

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