When I moved to Boulder in the fall of 2011, one of the first events I attended was Ignite Boulder. I was completely hooked: what could be more fun than a night of 5-minute lightning talks (or sparks) on a wide variety of (often geek-oriented) topics?
In the course of just one evening, I had learned so much about subjects ranging from politics and DNS to public bathrooms and cricket! The speakers were engaging and funny while often informative, and the audience of over 800 people (in the sold out Boulder Theatre) was energetic and enthusiastic (and tipsy). I really loved the speakers’ minimalistic slides, which usually consisted of a single image, phrase, or word, rather than a bunch of bullet points (I had become deeply interested in slide content after attending Tufte’s seminar in 2006 (fantastic BTW)).
After attending Ignite 17, I set a goal for myself to one day speak at the event myself. The goal felt very far-off in my head - maybe I would go for it a year or so down the road. So it was so thrilling to present at the very next event, Ignite 18!! The title of my spark was “Air Travel: There is (Sometimes) a Method Behind the Madness”.
If you’ve been toying with the thought of giving a big talk (at an Ignite-like event, a large conference, or wherever), here are my tips for making it happen.
Tips for speaking in front of a large audience
Act first, think later
When submissions opened up for potential speakers in March I thought about entering a proposal. But it had been less than a month since I’d given birth, so the timing seemed a little too quick (the first few weeks after giving birth are a crazy sleep-deprived blur for most parents). Would I even have time to make my spark as entertaining, informative, and beautiful (in terms of slides) as I hoped? Would I be a total embarrassment on stage, or sound nervous with a jittery voice?
Instead of overanalyzing, I decided to just go for it. With a few hours free at a cafe the day before submissions were due, I quickly put together a proposal on the topic of air travel. And hit submit.
After you’ve hit submit and committed to speaking, you can start to think about what you’ve done. But not too much! It’s important to…
Ignore those butterflies
It’s very important to ignore any nerves. Spending the month leading up to a big presentation picturing embarrassing scenarios over and over in your head is not productive at best, and can lead to your nightmares coming true on the big night at worst. Just push those thoughts aside. As my prenatal yoga teacher always said: “After the thought arrives, say “How interesting! How funny that my mind would go there and think that!” and brush it aside”.
Do not practice too much
Over-practicing is fraught with peril. If you memorize your presentation, you are likely to sound stilted, forced, and boring when you give the real thing. Even worse, you risk messing up when you inevitably get caught off guard. Speaking in front of a large group involves different dynamics from speaking in front of your best friend in the comfort of your living room; a large audience may laugh and clap when you don’t expect it, and you may have to modify your talk on the fly. If you haven’t rehearsed too much, you can roll with the punches and not (internally) freak out when faced with the unexpected.
Practice with others
It’s important to practice a little, though. I practiced my talk (a.k.a. ran through the entire thing without stopping) a total of 6 times over the course of 2 weeks: once by myself before the official Ignite rehearsal, once during the official ignite rehearsal, once before a smaller practice session with 3 fellow speakers, twice at that smaller rehearsal, and then once in front of my husband before the big night.
This turned out to work well. I only practiced once by myself, and received extremely useful feedback from spectators following the other practice sessions. My words and content changed a little each time I practiced. (The only sections I somewhat memorized verbatim were the first and last slide.) As a result, I was ready to roll with any audience reaction.
That’s it! I had an amazing experience, and I’m so glad I went for it. A video of my talk is here.