Ville Hellman

@efexen

How to start Lightning Talks

In case you’ve not heard the term before lightning talks are short presentations — literally fast transfers of information.

I started lightning talks at my previous couple of companies and they quickly became my most successful initiatives gaining rave support from everyone from owner/founders to temporary summer interns.

Here’s some notes to help you introduce lightning talks at your company including why I think they’re great, rules I’ve found useful and other things I’ve learned running them.

Why

Lightning talks are simply short concise presentations usually given by a single presenter on a topic of their choosing to a voluntary audience.

There’s a ton of great benefits both direct and indirect I’ve witnessed as a result of running these talks and here’s some of my favourites.

Knowledge Sharing

Sharing the knowledge we’ve gained is one of the most valuable things we can do with our time and this is the number one reason why I initially started these talks.

Sharing knowledge creates a culture that celebrates those who make the extra effort to gain an understanding of something and encourages others to do so.

It helps highlight talents, ideas and passions and provides an opportunity for the speaker to gain a deeper understanding of the material by considering how to present it to others.

Practising public speaking

Most people including myself are terrified of public speaking yet would like to get better at it. The best way to feel less nervous and get better at it is by practising.

Speaking at an industry conference in front of hundreds or even thousands of your peers can be a daunting debilitating prospect but practising on a smaller friendly audience in short slots can give you the confidence to submit that proposal.

Even if you are a confident speaker it’s still a great way to keep your skills honed and an excellent opportunity to try out a new style or technique.

Test out ideas

Do you have an idea that you’d like to gain some feedback on? Maybe you’re considering writing a blog post or even a book? Maybe you have an idea for a local user group or conference talk?

Lightning talks are a great way for you to test out your idea on a small audience and gain valuable feedback.

The Rules

Whilst the lightning talks are relaxed and informal in nature I found the following rules helped make them effective.

Topic

The topic can be anything the speaker finds interesting and wants to share.

Whether the topic is related to the business, their job role or not; the idea is to keep this entirely open. The same applies to the level of the talk, the speaker may decide to make the talk accessible to everyone or make it extremely technical, assuming a high level of previous knowledge on the topic.

The reason this works well is that the topic should be announced before hand which gives the audience an opportunity to decide whether they want to attend or not.

You shouldn’t restrict the topic to be industry or technology specific as you want the barrier for entry to be as low as possible, also you might miss out on great talks that while not directly relevant can still work to motivate and inspire the attendees.

Audience

If feasible, I would recommend an open invitation to the entire company. Some of the most interesting talks I’ve witnessed weren’t from Development but from other departments.

I’ve also often heard great things from attendees from other departments about the technical talks by developers even though by their own admission some of it may go over their heads.

Likewise, exposing the developers to other parts of the business can lead to a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, what everyone does. It may even spark some great new cross departmental initiatives.

Scheduling

The ideal day for holding the talks tends to be Fridays, especially if you already have weekly meetings scheduled for that day.

Momentum plays an important role with establishing the talks and weekly talks are ideal if the size of the company allows for it, fortnightly is a good alternative for smaller teams or if you struggle to find enough speakers for every week.

Once a month tends to be too infrequent and if anything comes up it can easily be months without the talks taking place.

The important thing is to try and select a time slot that is as convenient as possible for as many people as possible to maximise attendance.

Time slot

The talks should be between 5 and 15 minutes in length followed by up to 15 minutes of questions or discussion. It is important to emphasise the 15 minute limit and the speaker should be made aware that they will be cut off if they exceed this.

It is important to stick to these times as it allows you to make a promise to your attendees that this won’t take more than a maximum of 30 minutes of their time. This encourages people to attend talks they might be unsure of as they are aware of the time investment ahead of time.

This can also make all the difference in getting management buy in as it’s strictly time boxed. A further added perk is that anyone wanting to give a PechaKucha format talk can do so within these rules!

Timing wise I’ve always preferred the morning as many may be too busy tying up loose ends to make a clean break for the weekend in the afternoon.

Helpful notes

Here I’ve collected some notes that will hopefully help you make lightning talks a success.

Outline

I’ve found it helpful to MC the lightning talks and follow this format:

  • Welcome everyone and thank them for coming
  • Mention the talk next week
  • Introduce the speaker
  • Remind everyone how to get involved speaking
  • Invite applause for the speaker
  • The talk followed by questions
  • Thank the speaker & final applause

This can be extremely simple. The script I follow goes roughly like so:

“Happy Friday everyone, thanks for coming. Next week we have Dorian talking about Controllerless Phoenix Apps. But now we have Ollie who’s going to tell us about Ember Data. I’m always looking for more speakers so if you’d like to speak come and talk to me. Give a hand to Ollie.”

Finding Speakers

You may find getting people to speak either very easy or very slow to start with. If you are fortunate enough to have plenty of people signing up then get organised, create a simple schedule and stick to it.

Unfortunately the beginning can be quite tricky with most people unsure and not wanting to be the first ones to go. That’s why I’d highly recommend having your first lightning talk be about lightning talks themselves! This is a great opportunity to demonstrate the idea and communicate everything across.

To further encourage everyone to get involved I usually present the following ways they can do so

  • Want to talk and have a topic in mind? Let’s get you scheduled in!
  • Don’t want to talk yet but would like to hear about a particular topic. Make a note of the topic for the next group.
  • Want to talk but don’t have a specific topic in mind. Get a topic someone has requested or check the list below for sample ideas.
  • Don’t want to talk and don’t have ideas. Attend and show support for the speakers ;)

Finally: Nagging works. Even if you have the next 4 weeks filled up always be on the lookout for more and build a healthy pipeline. If possible have a general talk ready you can give if someone has to cancel unexpectedly and nag some more. It can be tough in the beginning but momentum is a beautiful thing.

Choosing initial topics

It can be tricky to come up with topics in the beginning as you might be unsure what is appropriate.

The best advice I can give is that you want to choose something fairly narrow in scope, 15 minutes is not a lot of time and most topics could end up feeling rushed if squeezed in.

Some easy topic ideas to get started could include:

  • “A day in the life of X “— A brief description of your job role
  • “Key takeaways from the Lean Startup” — A short review of a recent book you’ve read
  • “S in SOLID” — Explanation of a programming principle or technique
  • “Hidden psychology in supermarkets” — Interesting topic you’ve read about recently
  • “Watch me Flex(box)” — Introducing a new technology
  • “A Web Love Story” — A short story of how your career started

Filming

It’s a great idea to film your lightning talks. Not only can you make them available to everyone internally who couldn’t make it but also you could choose to publish an appropriate selection to Youtube or Vimeo showcasing the company culture which could aid with hiring.

The benefits are great but the camera can also make the speaker feel uncomfortable and could cause someone to not speak!

For this reason I always ask the speaker in private prior to the talk whether they are comfortable being filmed and make sure they know it is ok to say no.

Conclusion

Now it’s up to you. Here’s a short checklist of how to get started step by step

  • Ask around to see if you find any early interest or speakers
  • Get management buy-in (see the Why section at the top for ammo)
  • Prepare your first talk to introduce the talks
  • Send out an email inviting everyone along
  • Find someone to speak the following week you can announce
  • Host your first lightning talk!

Creating a culture of knowledge sharing is incredible and I hope this post has given you the tools and inspiration to start hosting lightning talks at your company.

I would love to hear about your experiences and any further learnings you may have gained running these yourself. Please do get in touch on Twitter @efexen and if you have any comments or questions I’d love to hear them.

Finally if you enjoyed reading this post can I ask that you do recommend it and share it with others.

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