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Anatomy of an Ignite Talk

Ignite SydneyI hadn’t heard of an Ignite Talk before my mate Roger told me he was thinking of giving a talk on our autonomous canyon navigating quadcopter idea at the upcoming Ignite Sydney event. Then he suggested I might want to submit a talk topic too, ranting as I do for a living.

What’s an Ignite talk? It is a “lightning” style 5 minute presentation given all around the world, on any topic you want to share. What’s more, it was started by Bre Prettis of Makerbot fame. Essentially a powerpoint presentation for those who hate powerpoint presentations, and the dreaded “death by powerpoint”. I felt somehow compelled to give it go, but there were a few problems:

#1 You only get 5 minutes. 5 freaking minutes? My average video length is 30+ minutes, I can’t even say hello in 5 minutes! I had given a talk before (off the cuff) on full time youtubing, and that went for a solid 3 hours.

#2 The slides in your presentation auto-rotate every 15 seconds, with a total of 20 slides. That means if you make a mistake in your delivery or timing, you are screwed – great, public embarrassment.

#3 #2 meant that rehearsal might be required here, I don’t do rehearsals!

#4 It would also mean writing a script, I don’t do scripts!

But was I going to let that stop me? Nope, I foolishly emailed off a proposal before I had time to talk myself out of this madness. My talk was going to be about how I make a living on Youtube, as that’s something that isn’t very common, but something the average person might be interested in. I called it “Make a Living on Youtube or Die Trying”. I figured the die trying part added a bit of mystique. Then, before I knew it, they accepted my proposal. Oh crap, I’m locked in now. Roger never did send in his proposal, thanks Rog. At least he would be there on the night to make fun of me when I failed miserably.

I wasn’t really scared of the projected audience of 500, I’d given a speech in front of 1000 people before and I did ok, but with one caveat – I spent many hours locked in my hotel room before the speech trying to write it and rehearse it. I sucked at it, it just wasn’t working, so I eventually gave up and decided to just do it off-the-cuff. After all, I have no problem with that in my day job in front of the camera.

But Rule #1 is you can’t just wing an ignite talk, no matter how good you are. Your talk has to match your presentation on the big screen behind you, and they auto-change every 15 second, you have no control over it. You can’t go over 5 minutes, and if you go a lot under you’ll probably get booed! Although some people chose to have a free flowing 5 minute talk, and have completely random stuff up on the screen that has no relation to the talk. But bugger that, I figure I needed cues from the slides, and I was right.
That’s Rule #2 (optional) – use the slides as a cue to pace your performance, that’s the whole idea after all.

So here I was locked into giving a talk on making a living youtube. Great, I can do that, let’s write a script, surely with that I can explain a lot in 5 minutes? So I made a list of key points I wanted to make on the subject. Advantages, disadvantages, adsense stats, what it takes, how I made it, how you can do it without millions of subscribers, about finding niches, and reputation and influence it can give you. And the stories about how I struggled to make hundreds of video in my tiny garage lab in 40 degree heat before I “made it”, the Microchip saga, and a whole host of other stuff (remember my 3 hour talk on this before?). But most important of all I wanted to convey how creating content is cool, and is a good thing to do whether you make a living from it or not.
And of course, being Australian, I wanted to take the piss out myself. If you can’t have a laugh at your own expense, then you are probably doing it wrong.

So I managed to wiggle my topic points down to 20 slides, and I had 15 second for each one, that should be plenty right? – Wrong.

We had a get-together to meet each other and how to pace our slides etc, and that was really handy, and it bought up several rules:
Rule #3 – don’t introduce yourself, the MC will do that for you, you’ll waste a slide!
Rule #4 – you will waste your first slide anyway, so have very little in it. The MC could run late, you could be delayed getting onto the stage, you could get nervous for a few seconds etc.
Rule #5 – Don’t cram your slides with every last second of material. If you do, you’ll likely run late on one slides and then never have time to catch up. That will snowball and lead to the dreaded “let’s skip this slide” improvisation.
Rule #6 – Don’t use bullet point. I don’t know why, just don’t, the Ignite crowds are fickle and will boo you so I’m told.
Rule #7 – Rehearse the shit out of it. Dozens and dozens of times at a minimum.
Rule #8 – Rehearse in front of someone or a small group.
Rule #9 – Rehearse in full auto-timing slide mode without notes.
Rule #10 – The audience are there because they want to hear your stuff, they want to support you, they will encourage you when you goof up, not laugh at you.

Phew, that’s a lot, and as it turns out, I found out that every one of them is completely true.

So I came back armed with all this knowledge and confidence, and I looked at many ignite videos and it didn’t look that hard, I just had to write a script and rehearse.
So I wrote my script and tried timing myself talking about each point. My first slide that I thought would take the 15 seconds to speak actually took 45 seconds! WTF?
And so it was with ALL of my script, not one of my slides I could nail it in the allotted 15 seconds.
Damn, I had to slash every major point in half, but that still wasn’t good enough!
Wow, this was not easy. And it was at this point that I had to abandon hope of telling the stories I wanted to tell, and really had to chose the stuff that was important, almost to the point of superficiality, and, funny.
That’s the other thing, this wasn’t a conference centre with stadium seating with you 50 feet from the audience. This was a lively throbbing crowd of 500 people, most standing up and packed in like sardines in a stand-up comedy/live band like venue, and all liquored up. What do they want? They want to laugh, that’s what. They want to be informed but also entertained.
So jokes it was. If I couldn’t add in at least a few jokes and take the piss, I shouldn’t be there.

Finally I was able to nail it down to 20 slides that attempted to convey:
– I’m one of those youtube wierdos
– The views on youtube are staggering, and a million people make money on their videos
– 99.9% of them don’t make any worthwhile money
– I suck compared to the big and talented players
– Even with a small number of views, I can make a living from this. But it takes other means.
– Making videos to an appreciative audience is much more satisfying than my old day job.
– I make money on the ads, and it’s a drop in bucket compared to what Google make
– It’s not easy work, it take a lot of time and effort
– Even without talent, or a set of boobs, you can make it. Content is king.
– I struggled for the first few years
– You have to take a lot of abuse and crap
– Most successful people don’t plan this, they do it for fun and then it just grows.
– How I eventually up-staged my former company
– You can do it to, you just have to try

Phew, that’s a lot!
But I got my stats, information, and important points, even if they weren’t implied.
Strangely though, I never mentioned what my videos were about, but I figured that was also a point – it doesn’t matter what you do, you can always find an audience.

So I practiced the whole thing maybe 5 times, and I never did really nailed it before I turned up to the rehearsal, I can wing it, it’s only the rehearsal. And not only that, I was to go first! Ouch, I had no idea how the small audience of other presenters would react. I bumbled my way through it, holding a beer bottle as a pretend microphone, but I goofed a few slides, and just wasn’t my enthusiastic self. It wasn’t easy in front of an audience of other presenters who were no doubt nervous and just thinking about their own presentation to come, but there were the occasional glimpses of hope. I wasn’t alone, few of the others really nailed the rehearsal either. We all needed some work.
Rule #11 – You always do better on the night in front of hundreds of pumped up people. It’s just “the vibe”.
And so it was, ALL of us really nailed it on the night.
The extra rehearsal helped, and in the end I figure you need to do it maybe 20 times, after you have memorised it.
The other thing at rehearsal was that I moved around too much, that was BAD apparently, because it would screw up the video on the night. They even put a big X on the floor where we had to stand on on the night.

So how did I go on the night?
Well, I was going in at #5, deliberately I was told, to finish off the first round of talks “with a bang”.
The place was packed, standing room only, and people pressed up against the stage, there was nowhere to hide.
I was pretty confident and pretty pumped, I would walk on stage with vibrant energy and simply trust that I could come up with each short point and could get visual cues from the slides on the machine in front of me if needed. Heck, I could even wing it if I got in trouble I thought. The MC hyped me up, I grabbed the mic and strode confidently onto the stage, and then it all fell apart!
Rule #12 then hit me – make sure you get there early and stand on the stage to get a feel for it.
I didn’t do that of course, so had no idea I was about to get hit with thousands of watts of blinding lights when I hit the stage! FARK! I’ve get sensitive eyes and I couldn’t see anything!
That really threw me, so I balked, and then someone laughed and I laughed back. I was burning precious time and I knew it.
Damn, I was sure I had wasted my first slide as predicted, and kept looking back at the screen instead of the notebook in front. I was stumbling.
Then I threw in an improv comment about not being able to see the audience, more time wasted, and I knew it!
But after the 2nd slide when I stopped looking at the screen and realised I was back on track, it just started to flow.
Luckily my first few slides had some spare time, otherwise I might not have been able to recover.
Most of the jokes worked, the place was in stitches at some points, I could barely hear myself, and I really wanted to stop and laugh for a bit too, but the clock was ticking!
Rule #13 You can’t stop and enjoy the moment like many stand-up comedians do, you have to deliver your talk non-stop, over the laughter if required. I hadn’t really though of that before, but all the rehearsals must have imprinted on my mind that the clock was everything, just keep the pace.

In the end, I think I pretty much nailed it, and strode confidently off stage after having done one of the coolest things I’ve done. What a rush! I wanted more!

And so it was with all the other presenters, we all nailed it after some very ordinary rehearsals. It’s amazing how you deliver on the night, the crowd just wouldn’t let you fail.

So there you have it, my first time ever giving a scripted talk. And likely not my last.

Should you give it a try? Hell yes.

The very ordinary rehearsal:

The final talk on the night:

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