Running lightning talks or Pecha Kucha

Lightning talks (or their siblings Pecha Kucha and Ignite talks) can be great fun. They’re basically presentation karaoke: You avoid death by PowerPoint – instead you get the occasional train wreck when the slides get away from the presenter. But usually, the giddiness of information overload in 5 to 7 minutes is very stimulating!

It just takes a little planning to make sure there’s room for the spontaneous energy to emerge. Here’s what makes lightning talks succeed, in my experience:

  • Stick to the timeframe. For example, every speaker gets exactly 5 minutes to show exactly 20 slides where each slide is automated and timed for exactly 15 seconds. (Pecha Kucha uses 20 seconds each.) Now, this sounds a bit counter-intuitive to squeeze hi-energy lightning talkers into a tight format, but scrupulously sticking to it is essential to keep up the energy for the audience. Speakers don’t get to control the slides – which is the imminent danger and spice of every lightning talk! 🙂
  • Figure in a bit of overhead time to explain the concept to the audience and to move from one speaker to the next. So for a 45-minute session, plan 6 talks or 7 at most.
  • Have an MC facilitate the session. He or she explains the format, hands over between speakers and leads the crowd in applause, cheering, jeering, whatever seems appropriate.
  • Curate the content, if necessary. Not every topic lends itself well to the restrictions of a lightning talk. Case studies and project stories of limited complexity usually work very well, as do Top 20 lists.
  • Go for lightning flashes of insight, not totall recall. In my experience, the audience can expect to remember 2 or 3 talks of 7 – and maybe 4 or 5 points that really struck them.
  • Lean on presenters. The one danger of a lightning talk buzzkill is speakers playing it too safe. Their slides look fine, but they only prepare one or two sentences per slide. They manage to deliver that sentence – and then wait 12 seconds for the slide to change. Sitting through that is quite lame for the last 15 slides… It’s difficult to avoid, but it’s more fun for everybody if speakers come with a tightly packed presentation – even if they stumble and then play catch up with the timer… Maybe encourage speakers to max out their topic and wring every last second from it, as if it was the last 5 minutes they ever had to share their enthusiasm.
  • Select a good sequence of talks. This is also a bit difficult to plan, but in general it works best to have speakers with less energy and slides with less “wow” go first and then work up to higher levels of energy and “wow”.
  • Demand the presos before hand. You need them to figure out the sequence and put them all on the same machine, so you can minimise the time between speakers. Some events publish the sequence before hand, others just announce it at the beginning of the session.
  • It’s not a contest. At least I don’t recall any lightning talk round scoring or voting for a winner. Instead, the Olympic sprit rules: “The important thing is not to win, but to take part”. They are more like a show-and-tell in school or like a sing-song round in a bar: Many people take turns, but everybody who contributes is cheered on, if only for valiant efforts.

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