So, you’re planning to attend a meetup or event, and there’s a slot for lightning talks. Do you feel tempted?
The lightning (or flash) talk is a short but powerful format which can be used to convey significant and useful concepts in a very short time. If you’ve never spoken at an event before, it can be an ideal way to get into it — the risk is low, as the audience will be sympathetic and on your side, and you aren’t asking for a big chunk of their time.
Times vary for lightning talks, and sometimes the time will be specified. I feel as though 90 seconds is a good point to aim for. For this amount of time, you don’t even need slides!
The purpose of this article is to explain how to quickly put together and deliver a lightning talk. By quickly, I mean that you can do this even after you’ve arrived at the event!
Anatomy of a Lightning Talk
Talks come in all shapes and sizes, and all of the good ones have a certain structure to them. The best talks tell stories, which have a beginning, a middle and an end. Your lightning talk, though short, must therefore have a structure to it.
Here’s a three part structure that I think works well. You’re very welcome to re-use it as shown.
- Context — Where you explain what people need to know to understand your story. You may include here the thing that inspired you to tell it, as well as a sketch of the background to the tale. [20s]
- Story — Where you tell the main body of your story, and make your key points. [50s]
- Call to Action — Where you summarise, and ask people to do or try something different as a result of hearing your talk. [20s]
Your structure and timings might be different from mine, but for greatest success, you should probably keep to three parts, and continue to give the middle part the most generous allotment of time.
There’s a history to this idea of story structure. Around 335BC, Aristotle wrote his “Poetics” which is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory. In it, he said that a story should have three parts — a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since then, the idea of dramatic structure has become deeply baked into the way we experience and think about stories, and it applies as much to your lightning talk as it did to the ancient Greek Tragedies. I don’t recommend that you break with this tradition — at least not to start with.
So what do I do?
Here’s a suggested approach, to get you from your idea to a viable lightning talk. You can do this in the 2 minutes leading up to your talk, or you can prepare it weeks in advance, and rehearse. It works fine either way.
- Decide on a topic — What will your talk actually be about? This sounds obvious, but it’s a required first step! Make it something that’s important — something you care about.
- Decide what outcomes you are looking for — Think about what you would like people to do or think differently after hearing your talk. Do you want them to try something? Do you want them to go back to their workplaces and enthuse to their team about your topic? Do you want them to speak to you afterwards about it?
- Decide on the most important one or two points to make — You haven’t got long, so narrow it down to what’s really essential. Only include things in your lightning talk that will have a real impact on achieving the outcomes that you defined.
- Construct your talk — Now, if you refer back to my proposed talk structure above, you will find that you have all the ingredients you need. In Part 1, you will be explaining your topic, and why you think it’s important. In Part 2, you will be making the important points that you need to make and in Part 3 will be your call to action, where you challenge people to do something, in line with the outcomes you are looking for.
So that’s how you create your lightning talk. Once you’ve done this, you can stand up and deliver the whole thing. It’s short and simple enough to do it from memory.
This method is tried and tested, I’ve used it myself and taught other people to use it. Next time you attend a meetup or event that has a slot for lightning talks, you now have the toolkit to give it a go. No more excuses!
Go on, I dare you!