Why Should You Prepare Lightning Talks and Wildfire Talks?

I can hear you now: “Isn’t it sufficient to have talks? Why define special types?”

“Why prepare ANY talk?”

“Ugh!”

Well, I’ll tell you, but first a touch of background.

It was probably five years ago when I discovered the concept of a Lightning Talk during a Utah Software Craftsmanship meetup. Some research tells me the idea has been around in some form or another since 1997 (Wikipedia).  I think Lightning Talks are great for a variety of reasons, but they don’t fit every situation.

During a retrospective of a couple of different Lightning Talk sessions we held at HealthEquity, feedback came up that some of the topics could have used expanded time and attention. We came up with a concept that, while also not new, we dubbed Wildfire Talks. Wildfire Talks are equivalent to a TED Talk in many ways. They deliver a short, poignant message and should meet the same criteria of a TED Talk, but aren’t branded and are usually only given in person.

You may have guessed, one of our goals in technology at HealthEquity is to develop leaders. We consider our senior individual contributors to be leaders in their own right. Public speaking and the art of persuasion is part of the gig in leadership, so we use these types of talks as an easy entry point to help folks learn.

Lightning Talks

If you aren’t familiar with Lightning Talks, they normally aren’t planned and scheduled. They are five-minute talks, and they are sometimes added to an existing meeting or meetup. I’ve also facilitated sessions composed entirely of Lightning Talks.

In both cases, every presenter for the session is already a member of the audience/meeting.

How does the audience benefit? I’m glad you asked! The format lends itself nicely to helping folks get exposure to a wide variety of interesting information in a quick format themed around a shared interest.

What I love most about Lightning Talks is the no-pressure approach to introducing people to public speaking. For someone who is nervous, five minutes is often long enough for the jitters to subside. They are also informal, so presenters can experiment with presentation techniques and find the methods they prefer.

The facilitator can smooth the way for Lightning Talks during your gathering.

To begin, set expectations for the audience by announcing you will open the floor up in increments of 5 minutes.

Audience Requirements for Lightning Talks

  1. Volunteer to speak.
  2. Applaud after every talk.

Folks volunteer (an important distinction for Lightning Talks) to talk about something within the bounds of a guiding statement the facilitator provides. An example guiding statement could be: “All talks should be related to new developments in technology released in the past ten years”. With the above guiding statement, talks could be about 3D Printing, Internet of Things, your favorite development tool, a cool new piece of hardware, how Bitcoin works, a new programming language, etc.

Presenter Requirements for Lightning Talks

  1. Introduce yourself.
  2. Stay on topic within the guiding statement.
  3. Slides/screen sharing is optional (and should only be used as punctuation).
  4. Gracefully end after 5 minutes including Q&A (signaled by the facilitator).

Optional

You can ask for audience ratings/comments (stickie notes work well for this) for presenters who would like them. It’s an excellent opportunity to get some feedback for those who want it, but don’t collect the data if the presenter isn’t interested.

 

TRANSITION

Wildfire Talks (or TED Talks)

Wildfire Talks are the evolutionary step from Lightning Talks toward a full 45-55 minute talk. In contrast to what we sometimes see from longer form talks, the intent is really to make one point and make it well.

A good rule of thumb is to follow the advice of Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo: focus on delivering something emotional, novel, and memorable wrapped in a clear beginning and end.

Unlike with Lightning Talks, Wildfire Talk presenters are asked to speak in advance. Each talk is approximately fifteen minutes, and although some people can get up and wing it for that amount of time, they would often be even better with a little preparation. When a facilitator selects Wildfire Talk presenters, they will want to choose people who’ve already mastered the Lightning Talk format.

Wildfire Talks can add detail and are often a more useful tool to convince people to consider something they might have been on the fence about before. Slides and screen sharing remain optional, but if you do use them, make sure their purpose is to give the presentation pop and drama, not as a checklist of things to present.

As a facilitator, if you are organizing a series of Wildfire Talks, consider narrowing the focus more than you would for a session of Lightning Talks. In four fifteen-minute sessions, you could have talks about:

  1. .NET is the Premier Open Source Framework
  2. Why are Some Development Shops Switching to F#
  3. Best New Features of C#
  4. Strategies for Writing Threadsafe Modern OOP Code in .NET.

Presenter Requirements for Wildfire Talks

  1. Introduce yourself including your qualifications to speak on the topic you’ve chosen.
  2. Stick to the single topic, don’t stray off course.
  3. Keep slides minimal and relevant.
  4. Stick to the 15-minute timeframe. The facilitator will keep time and give notice.
  5. Say what you’re going to say, say it, and say what you said (summarize, explain, summarize).

The audience must clap (they’ll want to).

I hope this is helpful. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to guess what a Lightning Talk was if you’d asked me. After giving a few of them, I had more experience in front of technical crowds and was able to see some patterns in my presentation style that worked well (and some that didn’t).

The Wildfire Talk concept was born of retrospective feedback after I facilitated an hour-long session of Lightning Talks at HealthEquity. I believe the benefit here, is focused learning for both the audience and the presenter. It still isn’t a huge time commitment, but the presenter can focus on getting better at delivery of content, and the audience gets the additional info they craved after a lightning talk on the same topic.

I hope you’ll take the opportunity to practice presenting.  Public speaking has been called one of the biggest fears of humankind. Take the small steps of learning to present Lightning Talks and Wildfire Talks, and you’ll gain competence much faster than you think.

Now. Keep your best talks on standby so you can trot them out the next time someone asks for speaking volunteers. You’ll be glad you did. You’ll spread learning about a topic you believe in. You leader, you.


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