So You Want to Be a Better Presenter and Pitcher? The Power of the...

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So You Want to Be a Better Presenter and Pitcher? The Power of the Education ‘Ignite Talk’

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Apr 14, 2016

So You Want to Be a Better Presenter and Pitcher? The Power of the Education ‘Ignite Talk’

2006 wasn’t just the year of the world’s most famous TED Talk. It’s also the year that Ignite Talks—a rapid-fire presentation style—originated.

These bite-sized presentations take up no more than 5 minutes each, and are starting to show up in more and more education venues—spreading virally like EdCamps, and popping up at conferences like ISTE and EdSurge’s own Tech for Schools Summits. The movement has grown steadily to a total of 350+ Ignite organizing teams since the first event debuted in Seattle in 2006.

Speak with educators and entrepreneurs, and there’s talk of applying the Ignite Talk model to professional development, student projects, or investor pitches. Why? According to Ignite Talk co-founder Brady Forrest, it’s an easily-approachable format that forces people to talk succinctly and hone their public speaking—a skill that just about anyone who presents to groups of people or students should work to develop.

EdSurge caught up with Forrest and a number of Ignite Talkers to learn more.

What the heck is an “Ignite Talk”?

Back in 2006, co-founder Forrest was working at O’Reilly Media in Seattle while a friend, Bre Petis, worked at MAKE Magazine in the same city. The two decided that they wanted to do a “geek” event, where a number of different people would share thoughts on interesting and fresh topics. Subsequently, they hosted the first ever Ignite Talk series with an audience of 200.

Fast forward to 2016: there have been 350+ Ignite Talk events (99 of them are annual and listed here) in more than twenty countries. That doesn’t even account for the informal Ignite Talk models that conferences, governments, school districts and companies have adapted for their own use. “Ignite has spread because it is easy. It’s this nice way that larger conferences can get their attendees up on stage. It’s additive,” Forrest says.

Essentially, Ignite Talks are five-minute talks where speakers can delve into a topic of their choice. But there’s a catch—the presentation must be accompanied by 20 slides, for only 15 seconds each. (Here’s an Ignite Talk on how to give an Ignite Talk.) The presentation is timed so that slides automatically advance—meaning no time for rambling or tangents.

“You have to have your talk ready to go, and when your time’s done, they cut you off,” shares Nicholas Provenzano, a Michigan educator with more than 50,000 Twitter followers who gave an Ignite Talk at ISTE two years ago.

Forrest also says that the beauty in Ignite’s format comes with its accessibility: “We can bring first-time speakers on, and those people get the chance to be a rockstar. That extends to the audience, too—if they don’t like a topic, it’s over in five minutes.”

This is interesting… but why would I give an Ignite Talk?

If there’s hesitancy in choosing whether or not to apply to give an Ignite Talk (or set up an Ignite series of your own), Ontario Ministry of Education Officer Brandon Zoras has a piece of advice: go for it, because the Ignite Talk format ensures you make your point. And in both education and entrepreneurship, getting to the point—rather than taking listeners on a long, circuitous route of thought—is a good thing.

“It was very hard to give up control, but it kept the message clear and succinct. The timer was going, the talk was going to happen. It really led me to plan a little deeper, and I felt like I had to be on-point with that I was saying,” he says.

In Zoras’s Ignite Talk, shown above, the former science teacher shared five different technologies, and detailed both the fails and successes that happen with each. Over in Boston, Jacqueline Gonzalez, Program Manager at Students at the Center Hub, gave one recently on “Tips for Combating the Lame-ification of STEM.” The topics vary—but the outcomes for both presenter and audience is the same.

“You can only say so much. I feel like they’re more authentic,” Gonzalez says. “Ignite Talks are snapshots of the day-to-day. Here’s a problem that I saw, and here’s how I’m trying to fix it.”

How Ignite Talks can be adapted in schools and startup pitches

Ignite Talks have been adopted in various industries, but Forrest is especially optimistic about education. For those entrepreneurs and investors tired of the same old pitching structures, Ignite Talks might be a way to restructure Demo Days. And for schools, Forrest has seen the model adopted both as a professional development exercise and as a student project. “We’ve seen a lot of teachers that assign it,” he says, adding that he and his team are working to collect school case studies and draw up an Ignite curriculum.

Gonzalez agrees with the professional development implications, especially for busy teachers who might not have time to watch video tutorials or glance through manuals. She explains: “If they’re just looking for best practices, there could be a real value to this. There are some actual takeaways in an Ignite Talk that you could implement the next day.”

Like all things, the Ignite Talk model isn’t perfect. For example, adjusting to a 5-minute structure might present new challenges that require cutting out important information—information that a presenter might not want to lose. But educator Brandon Zoras is excited to have one more thing to add to his skill arsenal—and he’s hoping that someone else catches on, too.

“I think it would be funny to see Ken Robinson do an Ignite Talk,” Zoras admits. “I wonder how we can make that happen.”

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