Presentation junkies think of Ignite as a mini-TED. That ratchets up the pressure considerably. Like 15-minute TED and TEDx talks, five-minute Ignite talks are regularly given in dozens of cities around the world.

Every Ignite talk follows the same format: five minutes, 20 slides, with slides advancing automatically every 15 seconds. And the same approach to subject matter: "Enlighten us, but make it quick."

That may sound easy to those accustomed to giving longer speeches. Trust me; it isn’t. The pressure to be compelling, entertaining and easy-to-follow turns out to be very difficult when you’ve got only 300 seconds to tell your story.

I practiced my Ignite DC talk at least 50 times, more than I’ve rehearsed any other speech. - DW

I was lucky enough to have speaker coach Jill Foster at my side during four weeks of preparation for an Ignite DC talk recently. Four weeks to prepare for a five-minute talk, you’re thinking? More below on why it takes so much time.

Also in front of me, eye-to-eye: "Breathe, Debbie, breathe." And in my ear: "Close your eyes and imagine the audience." Jill is a delight to work with because she’s always upbeat. She pries under the surface to find out what her speaking clients are really worried about. She offers support and encouragement as well as preparation tactics.

I play dumb in this Q & A with Jill Foster

Here’s my Q & A with Jill. I ask her questions based on my own experience preparing and delivering an Ignite talk, as well as a few others that you may have.

DW: A five-minute talk seems like it should be pretty easy. What is the most challenging thing about creating an Ignite talk?

JMF:  Exercising our inner editor to prepare for an Ignite talk is the number one challenge I’ve observed. Our human brains are naturally drawn to telling complete stories; and consciously or not, we equate being complete with being long. So it’s a hearty (but ultimately creative) process to work with Ignite’s 5 minute constraint.

In other words, figure out what your "story" is and then cut it down to a handful of bite-size pieces. I found this to be the most difficult. The talk can’t be a shapeless topic; it has to be a story with a beginning, middle and end. I knew I wanted to talk about the phenomenon of baby boomers’ rapid adoption of social media. But what was the story? See video below for how I structured it. - DW

Help! How do you speak to 20 timed slides?

DW: Ignite presenters tend to focus on how to speak to the slides - 20 slides, 15 seconds each. Why is that the wrong way to go about preparing for Ignite?  

JMF:  Slides underscore and visualize but they do not convey context or provide a cohesive pool of meaning on their own. The speaker and her spoken narrative shape the core framework of meaning.  Visual media can intensify this but only after greater relevance and groundwork have been established with a clear content arc and storytelling effort.     

Our precision of language - and human, unique expression style - create orientation to the audience on two key points:  why they should care about the speaker’s point of view and the credibility of the speaker.  Visual media is not the main driver; it’s a clarifying element to this relational process between speaker and audience.

I’ve used a professional designer to create some cool slide decks for me. But Jill and I decided it wasn’t worth the investment of time and money for Ignite. The slides just need to be good enough. Instead, spend time on rehearsing the talk, she advised. - DW

Jill, what are your lessons learned from TEDx?

DW: You’ve given a TEDx talk yourself. Tell us your biggest lessons learned from that experience and how you are applying them to your work as a speaking coach. 

JMF: Wow, it was invigorating and one of the most challenging talks I’ve given, mainly because I let the strength of the TED brand psych me out! So that’s the first huge lesson:  the event host or related brand is something to respect but in the end, it’s the audience’s experience that is core.

Nancy Duarte said in her book Resonate: speakers are mentors to the audience about a particular idea. And the audience ultimately, at the end of your talk, is the hero of that idea—the hero who will exercise in the world those most valued and relevant parts of your idea. Being able to observe your content arc and your one main idea from the audience’s vantage point is everything.

TEDxPrinceton was fantastic. The staff hosted an event with the theme: Women, Technology, and the Conversation Era. It was an irreplaceable experience that brought into focus another reminder about developing presentations: simplicity and clarity take time to discover.

Simplicity and clarity take time to discover.
- Jill Foster

Rehearsing is invaluable to achieve greater clarity of mind; but even before that stage, our minds - when preparing for a presentation - have been mulling over the content and envisioning engagement with the audience.  A lot of that type of reflection happens unconsciously. So allowing enough time to prepare provides a superb and critical meditative benefit between our speaker ‘brain’ and quality of delivery.

This is Jill’s most important advice: it takes time to simplify and clarify your story. It took me several weeks. And then I practiced my talk dozens of times. More than I’ve rehearsed any other presentation. - DW

Can you turn a 5-minute talk into a longer keynote?

DW: Is it reasonable to think that a 5-minute Ignite talk can be turned into a 50-minute keynote?

JMF:  You bet.  A short talk can be a great seed to a longer, keynote-calibre presentation. What’s vital is knowing your goal for expanding the narrative. Is the benefit for the audience clear? Are the deliverables obvious for an audience to invest 50 minutes of their time? What stories and anecdotes can advance your one key message that your 5-minute talk first inspired?

I’m a big supporter of shorter talks in general. If an opportunity arises to deliver a longer address, including three or four audience engagement segments or Q&A periods are useful for energizing audience involvement and attention.

I’m working with Jill on a longer keynote on the topic of baby boomers, marketing and social media for Amplify 2011 in Sydney in June. - DW

What’s your one word of advice? I’m assuming it’s practice, practice…

DW: If you had one word of advice, what would it be?

JMF:  How about two words: listen and empathize. There’s a favorite mindset when it comes to presentation training and development: listen, listen, listen from the audience’s point of view….whether it’s a keynote, Ignite talk, or sales pitch.  

Audio is king. Studying what our voices sound like via audio recordings really helps us as speakers empathize with our listeners. And as key messages become clearer in your preparations, read aloud and record on an audio device - like the iPhone’s voice memo app.

Just listen to your voice and the precision of language. Does it resonate with you? Does the content arc transport you to the specific concluding idea or call to action that was first intended? When our minds are focused just on our voice (rather than all the other visual stimulus from video), we can more directly empathize with the audience experience. It’s a powerful, powerful process. 

I use Bottle Rocket’s Voxie app on my iPhone. I can record and save the audio. I can also have the audio snippet transcribed and emailed to me. This proved extremely useful as I tried out different phrasings for the 15-second intervals of an Ignite talk. 

I then compiled all the bits of transcribed audio into a master speech document. This is one of the rare times when I wrote out every word of my speech. I fiddled with it endlessly til it sounded right and also fit the time limit. - DW

 DW: Thanks, Jill. And now back to work.

Useful links

How to give an amazing Ignite talk by Shaun Dakin

How to give a great Ignite talk by Scott Berkun

Seven Ways to Set Your Presentations on Fire by Shonali Burke

Making Your (Power) Point by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

Video archive of Ignite DC talks

Jill Foster’s TEDxPrincetonLibrary talk

My Ignite DC talk (thanks to Geoff Livingston for the nice intro)

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