How I Wrote My First Ignite

I recently made my first venture into public speaking in the tech world at Denver DevOps Days. For some idiotic reason, I decided to do my first talk as an Ignite. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a 5-minute talk with 20 slides that auto-advance at 15 second intervals. Many of the experienced speakers I have spoken to tell me that this is much harder to do than the traditional 20-30 minute talk. I wish I had known that before I started.

Wrong Start

I sat down to write this talk, and I thought about how to write it. The first thing I did was write a bunch of content and an outline; I was operating under similar procedures to what I would do for a blog article. This proved almost worthless, as it was just a bunch of bullet-points with an entirely incorrect structure. I needed a better way to write that was focused on speaking, not blogging.

When in doubt, over-engineer

So I started on a different approach. As an engineer, I naturally over-thought the process and went super technical. I fired up my favorite writing software Ulysses and I started a new section. One of my favorite parts of Ulysses is the ability to set goals. You can set goals on all sorts of things: words, paragraphs, reading time (varying speeds), etc. So I set my total time to 5-minutes, and then started writing sections. I set the the time for each section to 15 seconds, and started writing bits of the talk. The part where I really over-thought it was when I actually recorded my out-loud speaking rate and compared it to what Ulysses thought the reading time was. After this complicated process, I had some sections that roughly translated to slides in my Ignite.

Next, I put together my slides, grabbed a couple pictures, and kept the text to a minimum. You can check them out here, but they don’t mean much without the content. I pasted my content into the presenter notes so that I could practice using the Keynote app (which is awesome btw).

Wait, what am I doing!?!

This is where I started get scared. I realized that I was going to be delivering this to like 200 people and that the slides were going to go no matter what I did. I could just freeze, stand there, and watch the slides go by. Oh boy.

Practice, Practice, Practice

So I set out to practice. I practiced a few times myself, always with the auto-advance turned on. I think this is really important. Since timing is the key to an Ignite, timing should be central to every time you practice. So I never turned off the auto-advance. I also read my notes a lot. Don’t do this. I will expand on that later, but don’t do that. Seriously, don’t read your notes.

Since the topic was related to my work at the time, I setup a time to give the presentation to my co-workers. I delivered it to a few people in my office. This was great; it gave me the experience of terror without embarrassing myself in front of more people than I usually do. They gave some awesome feedback on my content and delivery. I used those notes to re-write large sections of content, and then used my complex Ulysses timings to tweak which content went with which slide. In the end, I think the timings in Ulysses proved to be a worthwhile tool.

How did it go?

I delivered the talk. I almost threw up before and after, and I was shaking the entire time. The feedback was good, and most of my peers and mentors liked it. I wasn’t happy with it. Remember when I said, “Don’t read your notes.” Well I read my notes. I read the entire presentation because when it came time to do it, I was so scared that I couldn’t do anything else. People who know me know that this isn’t normal for me. I like talking to people, and I really like talking to people about things I care about. What happened was, I was so worried about timing that I failed to get into a natural flow. I attempted to over-engineer my talk so much, that I would have had to memorize it word-for-word.

Does this approach work?

It worked for me. I like the way it all came together, and in the end my timing was excellent, my only issue was in delivery, which can be fixed.

If I had to tl;dr this:

  • The Ulysses timing approach is helpful, just don’t overdo it
  • Practice a LOT. Always use auto-advance
  • Don’t memorize, know what you want to say and get into a natural flow
  • The shaking doesn’t show up in your voice as much as you think
Written on September 10, 2018