How to Give an Ignite Talk

How to Give an Ignite Talk

Have you heard of Ignite Talks?


Neither had I until somehow I had applied to do one… and been accepted… and only then did I realise that ignite was not just a cute name for a talk. It was an actual type of talk.

Oh dear.

As a reformed non-public speaker, I will now happily say yes to any interesting speaking opportunity that comes my way.

So, what is an Ignite talk?

In its original format, an Ignite Talk is a presentation containing 20 slides which are auto-forwarding every 15 seconds.

I’ll pause while you let that sink in.

20 slides.

15 seconds.

Over which the presenter has no control.


The format of the talk I was giving had been tweaked slightly from the standard to 20 slides, auto-forwarding every 20 seconds. But still….

But that sounds easy I can hear you say, that’s a talk of only 6 minutes and 40 seconds with 20 slides.


Yes, I thought that too, until I tried it. What it actually means is that you have your one topic with one message. You need to break that down into 20 bite size pieces of information lasting no longer than 20 seconds each. What starts out as easy suddenly turns into 20 x 20 mini talks which stand alone with their accompanying slide but can all be linked together to create one message.

And you cannot stop, no matter what happens, your slides are moving and you have to keep pace with them.

Not so easy now, is it?

Where do you start preparing a talk like that?

What follows is my method, it may not work for everyone but it was successful for me and I would use it again.

  1. Choose your message - this is a short, fast-paced presentation. You only have time for one message, make it count.
  2. Choose your pillars - In Talk like TED, Carmine Gallo explains the power of three. 1 message, 3 main points, 3 sub points, 1 concluding call to action. I use this format as a starting point for any presentation I do.
  3. Don’t get fancy with your slides. This is not the time for animation, music or embeded video. Keep it simple. I create nearly all my presentations using HaikuDeck (you need a paid account if you want to export them to PowerPoint). I created 20 slides, each of which were a single image which represented that part of my talk.

Would you like to use my Talk Planner to prepare for your own talk. You can download a copy here, no email required, just click and it will open in a new window:


Let the writing commence

I grabbed my Talk Planner and started brainstorming. I knew that I would be talking about Building a Global Village so my main message was done, then I needed my three pillars, three main points and a call to action.

A quick Google search told me that I should be aiming for between 750 to 800 words for a speech lasting just under 7 minutes.

800 words? Fine, it’s a topic I love and can talk at length about. I formatted my pillars and my main points and got typing.

It wasn’t long before I had cruised way past 800 words.

Time to edit.

I tightened up the language. I got other people to read it. I was really happy with it. And then, it was time for the slides.

Which is where things got a little tricky.

I had a great speech. It had natural break points. Those natural break points did not occur consistently at 20 seconds. They did not fit the slides.

I found this out when I read it out loud and had someone mark off where each 20 seconds fell on a printed copy of the text.

After a small pause to beat the pages of the talk against my desk, I got back to work. I started to chop the talk into 20 core pieces. Some of the pieces ran to 19 seconds (that’s ok, I can add an extra deep breath). Some ran to 40 (that’s ok, I can break them into 2 slides and decide which one to cut later). Some ran to 32 seconds or 14 seconds or some other random number.

I hated those slides.


What happened next?

Once I had forced my slides into some sort of order and practiced daily to keep my pace and breathing in time to the slides, it was time to take it live.

Luckily I was able to rehearse the day before with the other ignite speakers so we could swap tips and make last minute adjustments. This was invaluable.

On the day, I calmed my nerves. I was practiced, I was rehearsed, I was ready. Then it was my turn. I stepped up to the lectern, I got one slide in, and right there is where I got the call that all speakers hate. A voice from the back of the room, “We can’t hear you!”

My microphone had failed.

And breathe.

I ripped the mic pack off. Took a deep breath, matched my notecards to the slide on the screen, skipped ahead and just kept going.

The slides are moving, they’ll keep going without you, so you better just go with them.

And I can assure you, that while stressful in the moment, the mic pack died, I didn’t. It is perfectly possible to survive public tech failure.

By the time I got to my end slide, my call to action, my “are you with me?” I could hear whooping and shouts of “YES!”. Audience engagement, the holy grail for speakers.

Would I do another Ignite talk? Yes. Despite their easy breezy performance Ignites force you to be disciplined, to really hone what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. I think all speakers should do them.

Which is why I now offer you,

My Golden Tips for Giving an Ignite Talk

  • Prepare like you have never prepared for any talk ever before. You cannot wing an Ignite talk. Do not try.
  • Make it fun. Ignite’s are fast paced and energy driven. The audience wants to get useful/interesting/amusing information fed to them at high speed. Give ‘em what they came for.
  • Use note cards, 20 of them, put each section of the speech on a card and keep it close to you at all times.
  • Practice. If you can’t practice in front of people then use an app such as Screenflow to capture your presentation and audio. Then refine and perfect.
  • Enjoy it. You may miss a phrase, your mic may break down, your slides might get stuck, you can’t plan for these things and the audience knows it. Just get up there and have a good time.

Don't forget, you can grab a copy of My Talk Planner by clicking this link: MY TALK PLANNER

If you'd like to read through my Ignite talk on Building A Global Village, you can find it HERE.