TED and TEDx talks are the holy grail for speakers who want to move hearts and minds. But five-minute Ignite talks are an excellent warm up. Like TEDx’s, Ignite talks are regularly given in dozens of cities around the world. I was invited to give two in Washington D.C. Here’s the story of how I prepared for one of them.

Every Ignite talk follows the same format: five minutes, 20 slides, with slides advancing automatically every 15 seconds. And the same approach to subject matter: “Enlighten us, but make it quick.”

That may sound easy to those accustomed to giving longer speeches. Trust me; it isn’t. The pressure to be compelling, entertaining and easy-to-follow turns out to be very difficult when you’ve got only 300 seconds to tell your story.

I spent four weeks preparing for my five-minute Ignite talk, working with speaking coach Jill Foster. I rehearsed it at least 50 times. Why did it take so much time? Read our Q & A below.

Q & A with a speaking coach

I asked her questions based on my own experience preparing and delivering an Ignite talk, as well as a few others that you may have.

DW: A five-minute talk seems like it should be pretty easy. What is the most challenging thing about creating an Ignite talk?

JMF:  Exercising our inner editor to prepare for an Ignite talk is the number one challenge I’ve observed. Our human brains are naturally drawn to telling complete stories; and consciously or not, we equate being complete with being long. So it’s a hearty (but ultimately creative) process to work with Ignite’s 5 minute constraint.

In other words, figure out what your “story” is and then cut it down to a handful of bite-size pieces. I found this to be the most difficult. The talk can’t be a shapeless topic; it has to be a story with a beginning, middle and end. I knew I wanted to talk about the phenomenon of baby boomers’ rapid adoption of social media. But what was the story? See video below for how I structured it. – DW

Help! How do you speak to 20 timed slides?

DW: Ignite presenters tend to focus on how to speak to the slides – 20 slides, 15 seconds each. Why is that the wrong way to go about preparing for Ignite?

JMF:  Slides underscore and visualize but they do not convey context or provide a cohesive pool of meaning on their own. The speaker and her spoken narrative shape the core framework of meaning.  Visual media can intensify this but only after greater relevance and groundwork have been established with a clear content arc and storytelling effort.

Our precision of language – and human, unique expression style – create orientation to the audience on two key points:  why they should care about the speaker’s point of view and the credibility of the speaker.  Visual media is not the main driver; it’s a clarifying element to this relational process between speaker and audience.

I’ve used a professional designer to create some cool slide decks for me. But Jill and I decided it wasn’t worth the investment of time and money for Ignite. The slides just need to be good enough. Instead, spend time on rehearsing the talk, she advised. – DW

Jill, what are your lessons learned from TEDx?

DW: You’ve given a TEDx talk yourself. Tell us your biggest lessons learned from that experience and how you are applying them to your work as a speaking coach.

JMF: Wow, it was invigorating and one of the most challenging talks I’ve given, mainly because I let the strength of the TED brand psych me out! So that’s the first huge lesson:  the event host or related brand is something to respect but in the end, it’s the audience’s experience that is core.

Nancy Duarte said in her book Resonate: speakers are mentors to the audience about a particular idea. And the audience ultimately, at the end of your talk, is the hero of that idea—the hero who will exercise in the world those most valued and relevant parts of your idea. Being able to observe your content arc and your one main idea from the audience’s vantage point is everything.

TEDxPrinceton was fantastic. The staff hosted an event with the theme: Women, Technology, and the Conversation Era. It was an irreplaceable experience that brought into focus another reminder about developing presentations: simplicity and clarity take time to discover.

Simplicity and clarity take time to discover.
– Jill Foster

Rehearsing is invaluable to achieve greater clarity of mind; but even before that stage, our minds – when preparing for a presentation – have been mulling over the content and envisioning engagement with the audience.  A lot of that type of reflection happens unconsciously. So allowing enough time to prepare provides a superb and critical meditative benefit between our speaker ‘brain’ and quality of delivery.

This is Jill’s most important advice: it takes time to simplify and clarify your story. It took me several weeks. And then I practiced my talk dozens of times. More than I’ve rehearsed any other presentation. – DW

Can you turn a 5-minute talk into a longer keynote?

DW: Is it reasonable to think that a 5-minute Ignite talk can be turned into a 50-minute keynote?

JMF:  You bet.  A short talk can be a great seed to a longer, keynote-calibre presentation. What’s vital is knowing your goal for expanding the narrative. Is the benefit for the audience clear? Are the deliverables obvious for an audience to invest 50 minutes of their time? What stories and anecdotes can advance your one key message that your 5-minute talk first inspired?

I’m a big supporter of shorter talks in general. If an opportunity arises to deliver a longer address, including three or four audience engagement segments or Q&A periods are useful for energizing audience involvement and attention.

What’s your one word of advice? I’m assuming it’s practice, practice…

DW: If you had one word of advice, what would it be?

JMF:  How about two words: listen and empathize. There’s a favorite mindset when it comes to presentation training and development: listen, listen, listen from the audience’s point of view….whether it’s a keynote, Ignite talk, or sales pitch.

Audio is king. Studying what our voices sound like via audio recordings really helps us as speakers empathize with our listeners. And as key messages become clearer in your preparations, read aloud and record on an audio device – like the iPhone’s voice memo app.

Just listen to your voice and the precision of language. Does it resonate with you? Does the content arc transport you to the specific concluding idea or call to action that was first intended? When our minds are focused just on our voice (rather than all the other visual stimulus from video), we can more directly empathize with the audience experience. It’s a powerful, powerful process.

Speech Writing Tools

I use the recording app on my iPhone to record and save the audio as I’m rehearsing. Then I send the audio file to Rev.com to be transcribed and emailed back to me. This is extremely useful as I try out different phrasings for the 15-second intervals. I compile all the bits of transcribed audio into a master speech document. Preparing an Ignite talk means memorizing – and timing – every word of your speech.  – DW

Useful link

How to give a great Ignite talk by Scott Berkun

Tips on creating slides from Ignite Phoenix

Updated June 2017.