Preparing for a Lightning Talk

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This is a guest post from Joe Corkery. Joe is Vice President of Business Development at OpenEye Scientific Software in Cambridge, MA. Remarkably, Joe has been with OpenEye for nearly 13 years helping it grow from 3 people to over 40 at last count. In an earlier life, Joe ran away from writing code to attend medical school, only to be drawn back in after graduation. Despite not having access to a prescription pad, he is passionate about drug discovery and the impact computers have on that process, among others.

Joe gave a Lightning Talk at Business of Software 2010, and he has been gracious enough to share his experience with us. In his first guest post, Joe explained why you should give a Lightning Talk. In this guest post, Joe shares some insider tips on preparing for a Lightning Talk. Thanks for sharing, Joe!

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So, if you are anything like me, you probably put off preparing for your Lightning Talk as long as I did in preparing this blog post. Sorry about that! Nevertheless, I think the advice is still valuable and applicable even this close to the meeting.

Have a provocative and memorable title

The title of my talk in 2010 was “How to make a billion dollars in 7.5 minutes” and based on the conversations I had at the meeting, it really caught people’s attention and piqued their interest. When you only have 7.5 minutes and are sandwiched between a number of other speakers, it is a huge help to have people thinking about your talk before it begins and able to remember the hook afterward. However, it is important that the subject matter of the talk relate to the title, because otherwise, remember the title won’t reinforce your actual performance.

Put your name on your slides

I know it seems like an obvious thing, but it easy to forget (I know I did), so make sure that your first slide has your name and the title of the talk on it. I had forgotten to do this and was very fortunate that this was pointed out to me as I was loading my presentation onto the conference computer.

In addition, put your name on the last slide too. Either your first slide or your last slide is going to be shown during the transition between speakers, so you might as well keep your name in front of people so they don’t forget who you are.

Network

In my previous post on Why You Should Give a Lightning Talk, I talked a lot about how giving a Lightning Talk would enhance your ability to network at the meeting. What I didn’t mention then though is that as a result of those efforts, you can start to build a little hype (and/or mystery) around your talk and if you are lucky, find a way to incorporate some inside jokes for the crowd.

Practice

I know this should go without saying but you need to practice, a lot, (much more than you might think). Getting the timing right is extremely difficult especially when you are not the one controlling the advancement of the slides. Once you have the slides created and the basic content down, you need to go find a quiet room and set PowerPoint up to auto-advance your slides every 30 seconds and just keep practicing your talk. By the time you actually present, you should know exactly how long it takes you to present the content of any given slide. Unfortunately, what you won’t know is how the audience will react to each slide, so you need to prepare built-in talking transitions for each slide that can be adapted to the unexpected laughter or to the deadening sound of silence as you realize that nobody got your joke.

In addition, I would also recommend that you practice presenting with a big digital timer in front of you counting down (as well as counting up) your time so that you’ll be prepared for either circumstance when giving your talk. I found the experience of watching a timer count down to be very disconcerting as it threw off my internal time tracking process (I had practiced using a stopwatch that counted up).

Your slides are context not content

One thing I noticed in reviewing the previous years’ winning talks as well as those that I thought went well my year is that their slides were very minimal. The slides were usually just brief touch points occasionally visited during the talk that provided the audience a reminder as to what you are talking about.

Making your slides too central to the talk sets you up for a significant challenge because if your slide needs to be visible to make your point, you may find yourself stalling while you wait for the slide to advance if you didn’t have your timing just right. Trust me, idling at a transition can be very painful to watch as well as experience.

Furthermore, don’t even think about putting enough text on your slide so that you are tempted to read from the slide. There is nothing worse than watching a speaker read their slides and in a situation like this, you can’t afford to waste any time not engaging the crowd.

Be relevant (and funny)

I have to admit that I was really excited about my talk because it was drawing from my background in drug discovery and exploring how lessons learned there could be applied to software development. I agreed that it seemed like a bit of a stretch and Neil even asked me when I applied whether I could make it relevant. In the end I think it was relevant enough and I think people could see my passion for the subject matter, but when I saw Patrick’s and Portman’s talks the next day I knew I was in trouble because they were talking directly to the audience in a language they could understand and to which they could relate. When you couple that with both of them being very funny, the game was up.

Learn from previous winners

Sadly, I was called out of town last year and missed the Lightning Talk session much to my dismay so I don’t have a lot to say about the winner at Business of Software 2011 except that I heard great things about the talk afterwards. But what I do know is that the videos from the winners from the previous years are available online and I’ve included them below for your convenience.

Watch Justin Goeres’ talk from BoS 2011.

Watch Patrick McKenzie’s talk from BoS 2010.

Watch Mark Stephens’ talk from BoS 2009.

Watch Alexis Ohanian’s talk from BoS 2008.

Prepare for disaster and be ok with it

Sometimes things just go wrong and there isn’t anything you can do about (especially when the clock is ticking). The more gracefully you are able to handle your slides not working as behaved the better off you’ll be. That being said, do everything in your power to avert disaster in advance. One way of doing that goes back to a previous point – don’t put a lot of content (especially media) into your slides!

Heck, if you’re really serious about it, trying practicing your talk with no slides at all to prepare for the case when all your slides come out all one color.

Lastly, have a good time

Win or lose, giving a Lightning Talk at a conference like Business of Software is a great and rare opportunity. I met more people at that meeting as a result of the talk than I could have imagined – it truly was a unique opportunity, so embrace it!

See you soon.

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