Presentation Reflections

Preparing an Ignite Talk

Public speaking
Credit: flickr / hfb

Ignite is an intimidating format. 5 minutes is not a bad length of time, but the auto-advance format is very unforgiving. I’d had that topic in mind as an Ignite talk for a while, but it took me a long time to have the courage to actually present it. And by have the courage to present it, I mean… be talked into it by Melle.

I should prefix this preparation list with the fact that I like to feel very prepared. I do some amount of public speaking, but I am still a software engineer so it is a long way from what I do all day! I’m not comfortable standing up in front of ~350 people and the only way for me to do it is to feel like I have done everything I can to not screw it up.

Picking a Topic

I think all good talks can be summarized by a sentence, and that sentence should contain the core message. 5 minutes or 45 minutes, that sentence is the string that holds it together coherently. This is particularly true of an Ignite talk. The format is unforgiving if you stumble or lose your place, but even more so if you don’t have a strong message. I’ve seen many Ignite talks that tried to pack in too much, but I don’t think ever one that put in too little.

I actually found my topic playing with a humorous intro for another talk I gave (Art, Life and Programming for Girl Geek Dinners Ottawa). I’ve cut the standard intro of “I’m Cate, I work on X, and I’m going to talk to you about Y” and instead try to weave that into the introduction (I’m pleased with how that worked out in Software Engineering for Superheros). And so I started my talk by telling the story of the guy who didn’t believe I was in CompSci, and used this to illustrate the point that programmers don’t just have an image problem – we have a communication problem. There was enough there, and people laughed enough, that I thought I could make it into an Ignite talk.

My topic in one sentence: Humans and engineers are different, and often the two groups fail to communicate.

Choosing a Title

I think there’s a lot of good advice on writing headlines, all of which applies here. I was terrified to go first, but I was also lucky to – because that is quite possibly the most engaged the audience will be. I’ve noticed at these events that I can’t process the amount of information, so diverse and so fast. At the last Ignite I was extremely jet-lagged and so don’t remember large chunks of it. Your title is the first opportunity you have to wake up the audience and remind them that this talk was one they wanted to listen to. It’s important to remember that the audience comes from every kind of background, and they don’t have the same frame of reference. So keep it accessible.

Deciding What to Say

You can opt to time your talk to your deck, like, the slide with the X means start talking about Y. This might be easier to remember, but is much tighter because you’re working within 15 second exact chunks, rather than the larger 5 minutes. Or, you can have your content and have the slides follow, illustrating your points rather than giving you points to talk to. This is more forgiving, and I think flows better. I’ve noticed that the other way often has an effect of making the timings seem contrived.

So, I opted for the second way. I wrote out what I thought would be in my talk, and then read it aloud. It came to about 3 minutes 30 seconds. I was reading aloud to my boyfriend, so he commented where he thought I should be adding stuff, so I followed his suggestions, read out loud again, and came in at 4 minutes 50-ish.

I think it’s important to have less and add rather than have too much and cut. Two reasons for this – not every topic is right for an Ignite talk. Having too much may be a sign that the topic is too broad. Second, I think you will get better flow by taking your core point and then adding in things that work than by having lots of important points and culling.

I read it aloud again to see that my time was consistent, and then again two more times. My (long suffering boyfriend, who heard this talk more than any person should) put in *’s every 15 seconds (you can see this in the slides and commentary). We went through again to check that that was consistent too.

Preparing the Deck

Then I added images that worked with where I was at each *. I tried to keep them general, and beautiful to look at. When I couldn’t think of what would work, I went looking for pictures of penguins. Someone said afterwards that she thought the penguins represented conformity. Unfortunately, I’m not that deep. I just like penguins! There is an Alec Baldwin meme at Ignite Waterloo, which I have never really got – probably because I missed the first Ignite and don’t really know who he is. It makes everyone laugh, but I wasn’t going to introduce anything into my deck that didn’t fit or make sense. So, I tried to make penguins the new Baldwin.

For one slide (the xkcd tech support one), I put it twice on consecutive slides, because I thought it might take longer than 15 seconds for people to process it, and it fitted what I was talking about for that 30 second bit well.

Then I set the slides up to auto-advance on the computer connected to the TV whilst I read from the text on my laptop. We were checking timings and that the content flowed with the slides. I had to adjust my timing a bit, but once we were happy I sent off my deck.

That was probably when I accepted it was really happening. Eep!

Practise, Practise, Practise

My practise set-up was as follows: slides auto-advancing on the TV, and text in Google Docs on my iPad. I was standing up (something they encouraged us to do in Extreme Blue). I just kept going through it over and over again (with my poor boyfriend watching and looking at the flow). I tried to use my iPad less and less, as a safety net, and eventually put it down and went through without.

I focused on timing, and remembering what I was saying. Normally I don’t memorize talks, I have talking points that I’m passionate about. But I think for short talks you have to memorize (this was a key thing we learned about presenting in Extreme Blue).

The content changed because I wanted it to sound natural, you don’t talk like you write. I had the word “ascertain” in my text, which I never say in conversation. So that sentence changed to use “ask” instead.

Having learned the timing, I was able to adjust my pace, adding pauses or an extra couple of words depending on whether I was on, or under time. I talk quite fast in general, and the pauses wouldn’t coincide with a slide change, so I hoped this would seem natural.

The day off, I was doing a last run through and my boyfriend noticed that I’d cut a sentence. Probably it had happened a while before, but neither of us had noticed until then. I left it out, figuring that often if you don’t remember it, it’s probably because it doesn’t flow.

On the Day

I did a couple of last run-throughs before leaving, and made sure I was happy with my outfit. I picked flat shoes – it’s important to be comfortable on stage and I didn’t want to be fidgeting.

We did not leave early enough! Did not realize how far away the venue was, and ran into roadworks and the car started acting up a bit. I was freaking out! But luckily they started a couple of minutes late and I was just in time, with not too much time to get nervous. I was perched on the edge of a chair, shaking, when my friend comes up behind me and touched me on the back saying, “nervous?”. I jumped and yelped.

I also had not realized that there would be a physical microphone. Thankfully we’d used them last summer and so I remembered. It was weird trying to get it the right distance from my mouth as I started off, but once I had that figured out it was OK, I hope. They called me up, and I hit spacebar and went for it.


Physically shaking, I went straight to the bar and said “I need liquor”. They said “what kind” and I said, “liquor!”. Eventually I walked away with a vodka and orange which reduced the physical shaking a little. I am ashamed to admit that I do not remember much of the people who followed me as I was still so strung out.

Then I checked the twitter feed and saw that people were saying nice things about and to me. I tried to reply to everyone who has used my handle thanking them for their nice comments. And I enjoyed the second half, at least! People were really, really kind. The audience is so supportive and they want you to rock it, which really helps.

There wasn’t much food there (food has to be done by the venue for bigger venues, which is annoying) and so we stopped off on the way home and I had some milkshake. Milkshake is pretty much my crisis strategy.

What I didn’t expect: I slept for about 10 hours the night following. Probably the result of being so strung out. I was also very socially exhausted and ended up working from home in the afternoon because I was getting very stressed being around people. I’m not particularly extroverted, so allowing for some anti-social space afterwards was very necessary!


I spent a lot of time preparing. Most of a Sunday on the slide deck and content, and then probably 6 hours of practise. The format is just as tough as I thought, but following the strategy outlined above made it manageable.

But, three people tweeted they were going to encourage their daughters to be software engineers. Which makes it all worthwhile!

Challenging, but a good challenge. I’m glad I did it.

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