Lightning talks are short presentations that focus on just a couple of key points. Done well, they are a great way to get your point across in a small amount of time. The time restriction forces speakers to edit their message to focus on the most important elements.
Scientists and technologists often use lightning talks to shift their approach from “look at everything I know” to “what is the most important thing for you to know right now?”
How can lightning talks help agile leaders?
For IT and business leaders, lightning talks can be a valuable tool to sharpen delivery and showcase the value of complex information. They can be particularly useful for introducing new topics, presenting a challenge or call to action, and sharing knowledge and experience. They can also be a refreshing way to provide status updates.
Agile leaders often use lightning talks to foster collaboration and enable their teams to share insights in a focused, “time-boxed” way. Teams can also use these occasions to offer feedback to the product owner and other stakeholders at the end of a sprint. Product owners can also use this format to share their vision or business needs with scrum team(s) for upcoming sprints.
[ What does agile leadership mean in the age of hybrid work? Read When agile meets hybrid work: 4 must-do's for leaders. ]
Lightning talks: 3 main formats
- Has a predetermined time limit, usually between 5 and 10 minutes
- Use of slides (any number) is optional
- Slides are advanced by the speaker and can be displayed for any length of time
PechaKucha means “chit chat” in Japanese, and this format is based on the idea of "talk less, show more.” It differs from a traditional lightning talk in the following ways:
- Requires 20 slides
- Slides advance automatically every 20 seconds
- Length is limited to exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds
Like PechaKucha talks, Ignite talks also require 20 slides, but with two key differences:
- Slides advance automatically every 15 seconds
- Length is limited to exactly five minutes
How to give a good lightning talk: Organization
Here’s how to structure a lightning talk (Heidi Waterhouse’s ideas were helpful in creating this list):
- Confirm the format and required length of your lightning talk
- Write its title
- Write your conclusion (think of this as marking your destination on a map)
- What is the idea you want to convey? Limit your answer to one line only
- What is the main objection to this idea or problem faced? Limit your answer to one line only
- Bring the idea and the main objection together. Focus on the outcome you want to achieve, and acknowledge the tension between elements
- Finally, go back and develop only the content that is absolutely crucial. Focus on your idea, your main objection, and how they come together.
Think of this process as mapping the landmarks on a journey, focusing on the most important elements to guide your audience to their destination without getting lost along the way.
If you use slides in your lightning talk, be thoughtful about the images you choose and make sure they convey your message effectively. When you add text, use as few words as possible.
Here’s an example to keep in mind as you design your slides: A fish shop owner plans to put a sign in the window: “Fresh Fish Sold Here.” Which words can they remove without detracting from the message?
The answer? All of them. If people can see the fresh fish in the window, a sign is unnecessary.
Think about how you can use pictures to communicate your message quickly. With only a few minutes to present, you need to use every second thoughtfully.
Lightning talk presentation tips
Once you’ve created your content, the final challenge is to prepare. Could you do the whole presentation with your eyes closed? If you are able to do your presentation without looking at your notes – and without using your slides – you are ready.
With sufficient preparation, even if you have a last-minute logistical nightmare on the day of your presentation, you can provide value to your audience, your team, or your customer by communicating the most important thing for them to know now.
If you’re doing an Ignite talk, consider using a practice timer.
What are lightning talk events like?
Lightning talk events can be informal or highly structured. They typically have a fixed number of speaker slots available and require that all presenters follow one specific format to provide continuity in structure across the range of topics chosen.
In Agile projects, lightning talks are often used for “lunch-and-learn” sessions, where the team listens to solutions, ideas, or other relevant content related to the sprint or larger project. You can also use lightning talks to present a topic and then debate the content (don’t forget to time-box the discussion as well).
Lightning talk examples
You can find plenty of examples of lightning talks online, including the PechaKucha and Ignite formats. You’ll also find examples of what not to do to help you avoid making some common mistakes. Check out more examples and advice for agile leaders in the Open Practice Library from Red Hat Open Innovation Labs.
If you attend a public lightning talk event, it’s a good idea to add your name, email, Twitter or Instagram handle to your slides as a footer rather than at the end.
How could you use lightning talks in your agile sprints or other team work? Please share your experiences and ideas below.
[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]
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