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How to conquer Ignite: the four Ps of polish

February 14, 2011

Video: “Birmingham, Food Capital of the World,”
an Ignite Birmingham talk by Wade Kwon


Too many people equate an Ignite 5-minute talk with “wing it.”

In some ways, a shorter presentation requires more care and preparation than a 30- or 60-minute talk. Good public speaking requires practice. Outstanding oration requires almost nonstop practice.

Having done sessions for 30 seconds and for 6 hours, I want to share some advice for Ignite presenters. You have 5 minutes, 20 slides and not a moment to waste.

For those not familiar, Ignite talks have a diverse lineup of speakers and topics. The gimmick is that each presenter can have up to 20 slides, which auto-advance after 15 seconds each. The goal is to share an idea or a passion with the audience. (But no sales pitches.)

In Birmingham, we had our fourth Ignite last week, and I was honored to be the kickoff person for the evening with “Birmingham: Food Capital of the World.” We do a great job rounding up people ready to stand before their peers to teach us. We could do a better job of preparing them for that task.

Slides from “Birmingham: Food Capital of the World”

Let’s learn about the four Ps of polish: proposal, PowerPoint, practice and presentation.

Ignite Birmingham 4, Wade Kwon, by Josh SelfThe proposal: I have no formula for what makes a perfect topic. A dry topic can light up the room with passion and wit. A fantastic topic can be rendered mind-numbingly dull with poor stage presence.

When submitting a topic proposal, think narrow. You have 5 minutes to get your point across, leaving little room to wander. At best, you’ll be able to back up your premise with two or three supporting points. Add an intro and a conclusion — “I’ve run out of time” is not a proper conclusion — and those 5 minutes can be constrictive.

Consider your talking points as you write your proposal title and summary. And make your title as sexy as possible. “Birmingham: Food Capital of Jefferson County” doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Food Capital of the World.”

An important question to consider is: What does the audience get from this? Understanding? Insight? Laughs? Be sure you have a good answer.

The PowerPoint: Simpler is always better. Fancy transitions and video clips are just begging the computer gods to derail your slides.

So what do I mean by “simpler”?

For starters, each slide should have as few words as possible. We’re not here to read your novella, Melville. You can create a deck with just images, no words. After all, you’re talking for 5 minutes … that’s a lot of words.

The words are signposts for you: They help you keep track of what’s coming up next in the speech. Any more than five or six words per slide will be lost on the audience.

Professional photos that fill the screen make for a dynamic presentation. It’s something I first saw in Mack Collier‘s talk at Social South in 2009 and have used more and more in different presentations.

Nonstandard fonts and unusual transitions may not work on the host computer. Even knowing all the quirks, I still had three slides with problems during my Ignite talk last week (more on that below).

Do yourself and your audience a favor: Keep it simple stupid.

The practice: One Ignite presenter started with the fateful opening, “I haven’t looked at these slides since I turned them in.”

I almost walked out.

Even the most polished keynote speakers practice all the time, including before they give the same speech for the hundredth time. This is why they command $5,000 and up per talk.

A 5-minute talk is short enough to practice on the commute to and from work, in the shower and while making popcorn in the microwave. Ideally, your first few run-throughs are in front of one or more people. This lets you know where to pause for laughter or for baffled looks. Your slides may already be turned in at this point, but you can still fine-tune your words and pacing.

Set your computer to loop the presentation. In 30 minutes, you’ll have practiced six times. In an hour, 12 times. Do not underestimate how much better you get each time you run through it.

When the slides are a surprise …
How to conquer Ignite Karaoke

Another Ignite presenter confessed that her nerves got to her, and that she blanked out when she hit the stage. But because she had practiced over and over and over and over, she went on auto-pilot and delivered a fine talk. (Not that I recommend you let your nervousness get the best of you.)

Practice while standing up, and use a video camera if you need to review yourself. You’d be surprised how easy it is to correct little distractions once you spot them. Try using a hairbrush as a microphone; get used to having one hand out of commission as you make gestures while you talk. (And if you’re holding notes in the other hand, you may not be gesturing much at all.)

Are you pacing? Plant your feet. I suggest only moving a couple of times during your 5 minutes and planting them for most of the time. Put your nervous energy into your passion for your topic through your vocals and your gestures.

Ideally, you practice to the point where you don’t need notes. Your slides are your notes. Having a written-out speech in your hand tempts you to read to us, but don’t do it. If you need to have notes on hand as a crutch, just use keywords to trigger the next idea.

The presentation: It is easy to let nerves drown out all preparation as you approach the stage. This is where practice pays off, trust me.

When you’re about to start, take a deep breath. Slow down. Your intro should come rolling out of you, as though you rehearsed it and it alone a hundred times. “Um, OK” is also not an acceptable way to start a speech.

Glance at your slides, but look at your audience. They do want to hear what you have to say. Showing that you’re handling it like a professional, that you value their time, goes a long way in winning over an audience.

Don’t read your notes, and don’t read your slides aloud. Talk to us. Share the enthusiasm you would have if you were talking to your best friend. And don’t hide behind the podium. The temptation will be to rest your hands on top, rather than use them naturally to gesture.

Pacing is extremely critical in an Ignite presentation. That 15 seconds per slide may seem like an eternity, or a blip. But it’s just 15 seconds, over and over. For someone like me who is used to changing slides manually, this is a difficult adjustment. I will never have a perfect 15 seconds of material per slide.

But I compensate in two ways. If I’m talking and the slide changes, I don’t abruptly halt. I finish my point as though I meant it to happen. And then I start talking about that slide. If I’m talking and run out of material while the slide seems to hang there forever, I begin the transition to the next slide. I know what’s coming next, so I start talking to lead people into that slide as though I meant it to happen.

I don’t speed up. I don’t slow down. But I do continue my speech as though the slides aren’t there.

Things will go wrong. Most commonly, the slides won’t display as they should. I had three slides with missing or hidden text. All I did to adjust was to recite the text no one could see. I doubt anyone noticed.

You might forget a point. It’s OK to pause and gather your thoughts.

You may think you’re panicking, and that everyone can tell. But mostly, it’s in your head. Keep going, have fun, don’t stop.

And end with a strong closing. Make it memorable, and bring home what you’ve been talking about for the last 4-plus minutes. Rehearsals ensure that last slide won’t sneak up on you, as it has for many unprepared speakers.

Ignite can be great fun, for the audience and for the speakers alike. The thing most first-time speakers discover is that it isn’t nearly as difficult as they had imagined.

Being a polished Ignite speaker isn’t as difficult as you might think. Submit a great proposal, design a succinct but visually appealing PowerPoint deck, practice thoroughly and deliver a smashing presentation. The four Ps.

And don’t forget the fifth … have phun!

Photo: Josh Self

• • •

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