Monthly Archives: June 2017

Lightning talks: snappy, illuminating and gone in a flash

Last week, in our Tips for fearless lightning talkers, Susan Milligan looked at how to prepare and get the most out of presenting a lightning talk at conference. This week we hear from speakers and audience members about what they thought of the experience.


Hazel Reid

Hazel ReidI get lightning talks and elevator speeches muddled up. Both are fast, to the point, explanatory and self-revealing. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? To tell us something about yourself that we didn’t know in as short a space of time as possible.

However, these two types of presentation are quite different. Everyone giving a lightning talk is restricted to the same length of time for their address and, certainly for the talks I went to, they are accompanied by PowerPoint slides. Whether that’s to help the listeners or the talker, I’m not sure. Elevator speeches, on the other hand, can vary in length – are you going up (or down) ten imaginary floors or just two? – and they need to answer the who I am, what I do and why kind of questions to give the listener a snapshot of the speaker. They’re useful for networking.

Lightning talks are ‘snappy, illuminating and gone in a flash (the clue’s in the name)’. They are also seen as an opportunity ‘for novice public speakers to have a go in front of a friendly crowd’. I’m quoting here from the ‘bumf’ from the SfEP 2015 conference, which is the last, and I think, only time I’ve heard them. I don’t remember ‘snappy’ or ‘flashy’, but illuminating, yes, definitely. Of the two lightning talkers who stand out in my memory, both were SfEP members and I knew each of them to speak to.

One, I’m mentioning no names, spoke about a former career as a sub-editor on a busy daily paper, an interesting and oblique slant on editing compared with ‘our’ version of the practice. That talk was good fun: there was humour and warmth, and perhaps a tinge (but only a tinge) of regret for the busy lifestyle and close companionship of a sub-editor’s day, now left behind.

The other speaker? Well, I confess that from here, two years later, I can’t remember anything about the content of the speech – which is not meant as the criticism it sounds like – 2015 was a bad time for me and my thoughts were often not where they should have been at any given moment. But I do have a clear memory of feelings. There was laughter, yes, and a ready wit, with those wonderful snappy, dry-humour sound bites that I wish I could master. (See, there you are, it was snappy after all.) There was also a feeling of surprise, a dawning realisation of something I had not previously been aware of, and then a strong sympathy or empathy that this person who I knew as witty, confident, clever, was actually, underneath it all, vulnerable.

So, lightning talks: as a listener, a good way to find out what makes someone tick, which can be fun, which can be sad, and which, I would think, must take a chunk of courage for someone to undertake, standing there in front of everyone. Exposed, as it were. For the listener, it’s entertaining, informative and sometimes surprising. For the speaker? Well, that’s something altogether different, I would think; wouldn’t you?

Sara Donaldson

Sara Donaldson Two years ago I attended my first ever SfEP conference. And two years ago I was asked to give a lightning talk at my first ever SfEP conference. Was I mad? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I do it again? Hell yes.

Now, let’s be honest here. I was petrified. I hadn’t given a talk for years. The last time I really stood up in front of an audience was when I taught a night-class, and that was uncomfortable every single time. But when Lucy asked me to give a lightning talk I said yes because it was only five minutes, and how bad can that be, right? Famous last words.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but I sorted myself out, dug out PowerPoint, made slides and wrote up a slightly tongue-in-cheek talk about superpowers. It was the only way to go as I felt I had no right to stand up in front of a bunch of editors and talk to them about my limited editorial experience.

What's your superpower?

When the time came, Kat and I sat together waiting as if for the call to the scaffold. It was her first time too. I can’t speak for her, but I was a nervous wreck. There was a room full of people. All looking at the speaker. All of them. Looking.

But you know what, when I stood up there, despite sounding like Minnie Mouse on helium, I think it went ok. People laughed (when they were supposed to). They paid attention. And no one walked out. I was in a room full of professionals and no one heckled, I didn’t pass out and the tech mostly worked.

I won’t say it was fun. It wasn’t at the time; it was an adrenaline rush, which is something completely different. But it was a worthwhile experience, and as a newbie it actually got people approaching me afterwards. People said they enjoyed my talk, they liked my blog … they actually knew who I was!

From first walking into the room and realising just how many people were in there (I honestly thought there would only be about ten people in the audience) to walking back to my seat afterwards, it was terrifying. But that’s a natural response for a slightly socially awkward, imposter-syndrome-suffering newbie. When I had time to reflect, I realised just how much I’d actually enjoyed it and how useful it was for my professional progression. I’ve done it now, I can do it again and it will be less scary.

What surprised me was just how diverse everyone’s talks were. When you are new you don’t know what to expect, but with everyone only having five minutes, the talks crammed in an awful lot of information. It wasn’t boring in the slightest, or preachy, or heavy. Everyone gave an interesting, informative talk without having to pad it out to reach the time limit, and the audience seemed to enjoy the variety.

What did I learn that was unexpected? I learnt that I can actually do this. Despite being out of practice, feeling that I didn’t know anything interesting, and being literally scared stiff, I learnt that anyone can get up there and give a short talk. Editors are a lovely bunch who are supportive and attentive, and even the conference organisers and main speakers get nervous.

If you are asked to give a lightning talk, for heaven’s sake say yes. If you say no you’ll never realise just what you can do, and a few minutes of the adrenaline rush is so worth it. Don’t let the fear take hold.

For those wondering whether to go and see the lightning talks, I’d say give it a whirl. The diversity of talks is stimulating, never dull and often informative. You’re bound to learn something new and it’s a great way to be introduced to new things and new speakers, without committing a whole hour to one subject.

Katherine Trail

Katherine Trail Five minutes sounds like a long time to talk uninterrupted, with a whole roomful of eyes fixed upon you (and not just any old eyes, the beady eyes of editors and proofreaders at that). I was surprised, therefore, when I timed my lightning talk, telling my partner to interrupt me at the five-minute mark. I was rudely interrupted just as I was getting into the flow of things.

‘What?’ I snapped.

‘Time’s up,’ he said, gesturing at his stopwatch.

As I looked down at the whole side of A4 I hadn’t got to yet, I realised then that preparing a lightning talk was not a case of trying to fill five minutes, but rather of trying not to exceed five minutes.

When I was first approached about doing a lightning talk, I signed up with the airy confidence of someone who is signing up for something months in advance and hasn’t really thought about the implications. As it grew nearer, I became uncomfortably aware that soon, very soon, I would be standing at the front of a room attempting to keep the attention of a rather intimidating number of colleagues. As an editor, I’m no stranger to hacking and slashing things, but as we all know, it’s difficult when it’s your own work. Preparing for my lightning talk forced me to be utterly ruthless – and I actually think it was a nice little challenge in editing too. I slashed and cut and binned and tweaked until I was within the five-minute mark with a few seconds spare. I chose to use a PowerPoint presentation to give my talk some visual context (and only slightly because the thought of everyone looking only at me for five whole minutes gave me palpitations) and tried to make the tone informative but entertaining.

Of course, I needn’t have been anxious. As with everything I have done regarding the SfEP, the people were gracious, welcoming and enthusiastic. And what a superb icebreaker when the speaker before me unknowingly used a rather amusing mistake I’d let through in my former life as a newspaper chief-sub as an example of sentences with a double meaning! For the rest of the weekend, I was amazed at the number of people who went out of their way to find me and tell me how much they had enjoyed my talk (which was about my career in newspapers and the challenges of editing a large daily paper). I was also amazed by the diversity of topics discussed by the other speakers, and the different approaches and methods each speaker chose to deliver their lightning talk. One thing was consistent with all of them, though – they spoke with a passion which was infectious and genuine.

For me, doing a lightning talk was a fantastic challenge, speaking both as an editor and just in terms of character building. I won’t deny I was nervous, but the sense of accomplishment after more than made up for any nerves. I can’t wait to hear what this year’s speakers have in store for us!

Julia Sandford-Cooke

Julia Sandford-Cooke There’s always a conference session that I wish I hadn’t missed, and the first lightning talks was one. I forget why I missed it – I’m sure the session I did attend was excellent (as, of course, all SfEP conference sessions are) and maybe I thought I’d seen it all before. I’d first watched lightning talks at a writers’ conference and was struck by this miraculous resurrection of ‘death by PowerPoint’ – each slide was a photo or very short text, bringing the emphasis back to the content and making more of an impact than a string of bullet points ever could. But how would editors handle the challenge?

Well, I found out the following year when, somehow, I found myself giving such a talk and discovered it’s where the cool kids hang out. Stylishly compered by Lucy Ridout and Robin Black, it was the highlight of my weekend – after all, who could resist short, enthusiastic talks about subjects as diverse and of as much interest to editorial professionals as Barbara Pym novels, the ubiquity of Aristotle and life as a newspaper sub?

My own talk covered my disastrous attempt to learn British Sign Language (spoiler: I failed the exam). I don’t remember being nervous as it was so much fun –  more fun than learning sign language, anyway. Here’s a tip for prospective speakers: it’s amazing how fast time goes so I set each slide on a timer to avoid the talk overrunning.

Would I do it again? Certainly one day, although I’m already committed to running another session this year. But I am already looking forward to the latest crop of lightning talks, so do join me in the audience, eagerly soaking up our colleagues’ wit, skills and knowledge.

Sounds like fun?  If you’re interested in doing a talk, please email your proposed title and a one-line summary to by 28 June. This year we’re looking for talks around the conference theme Context is key: Why the answer to most questions is ‘It depends’. Or perhaps you just want to watch? That’s ok too. See you there?

Tips for fearless lightning talkers

By popular demand, lightning talks are making a comeback to conference in September. At a lightning-talk session each person speaks for five minutes, and five minutes only – there will be a timer! The talks tend to present surprisingly personal revelations and excellent advice, along with a few hilarious and blush-inducing ‘confessions’. They are received with warmth and appreciation, and a lot of laughter. What’s not to like?

In our next blog post we will be looking at how it feels to be a lightning talker and what it’s like to be in the audience [spoiler: it’s great fun]. But first, Susan Milligan offers her insight and some tips for fearless lightning talkers.

Lightning talks are snappy five-minute presentations meant to enlighten and entertain

Lightning talks are snappy five-minute presentations meant to enlighten and entertain

Why be a lightning talker?

So you’re thinking about answering the call to give a lightning talk at conference. What an excellent idea – you will make a contribution, share your knowledge or one of your passions, and rise to a challenge – and you only have to keep your audience’s attention for five minutes.

Such was my thinking when I agreed to give a lightning talk at a recent conference. And so it came about that I found myself watching with detached interest a pair of shaking hands – apparently joined to my arms and holding my postcard notes but otherwise curiously remote from my person.

I not only survived the experience – I actually quite enjoyed it. Trying out new and scary things is good for your confidence. Getting your message across within a strictly limited format is a very interesting exercise and teaches you more about concise and effective language than any number of workshops.

So here are my five tips for fearless lightning talkers:

  • Write out in advance what you are going to say. How many words do you think you can speak in five minutes? A lot less than you can read. I was surprised to find that around 850 words was my limit, unless I wanted to do an impression of an express train. Even if you are not going to read out your talk – and you’re really not – this will give you a sobering insight into how much you’re going to have to leave out.
  • Practise your talk until you are familiar with it, and time yourself so that you know you can do it in five minutes. Do this before you leave home. Don’t assume you will find time to do it in your room after you arrive – time at conferences has a habit of vanishing faster than the ice in a warm G&T.
  • Supply yourself with notes in a format that will keep you discreetly on track. I used postcards onto which I had glued the paragraphs of my talk, and I used colours for cues to change slide. Postcards are good as they don’t flap about like a sheet of paper (see trembling hands above). Don’t just rely on your memory, which on the day may leave you in the lurch and go off to a different session, and don’t rely on your slides to prompt you as this will give your brain an unnecessary extra task.
  • Speaking of slides, get in as many pictures as you can. Audiences react more to an image than to words on a screen. You can be inventive and not necessarily too literal.
  • Stand up straight, take a deep breath, look your audience in the eye and smile warmly at them. You’ve already got them on your side and you haven’t opened your mouth yet. (Except to smile.) Keep looking at them and smiling as you give your talk. You will give the impression that you are enjoying it and this will suggest itself to the audience as the natural thing for them to do too.

What, is that it over already? That really wasn’t too difficult. Now you can sit back and enjoy the rest of the talks. And the feeling that you really have achieved something today.

Susan MilliganSusan Milligan joined the SfEP in 2000. She works mainly for educational and academic publishers, academic institutions and administrative bodies. She enjoys involvement in the SfEP Glasgow group, which she helped to start up, and is a mentor in proofreading for the SfEP.

Has Susan inspired you?

If you’re interested in doing a talk, please email your proposed title and a one-line summary to by 22 June.

SfEP blog round-up May 2017

In case you missed them, here are some of the brilliant members’ blogs published in May 2017. If you regularly publish a blog and would like your posts included in future blog round-ups please get in touch.

Our Scottish mini-conference at the beginning of May provoked a number of interesting blogs from attendees. Here they are all gathered in one place.

The SfEP Scottish mini-conference: a summary by Denise Cowle

What I’ve learned about attending editing conferences by Sophie Playle

Conference capers by Sara Donaldson

My top takeaways from the 2017 SfEP Scottish mini-conference by Jill Broom

Other interesting blogs from members last month:

Why most grammar guides suck (and where to get answers instead) by Sophie Playle

A day in the life of a freelance copy-editor and editorial project manager by Hazel Bird

Freelancer FAQs by Karen White

What is good writing? by Liz Jones

You asked; I answered: How do I become a freelance proofreader? By Louise Harnby

How to query like a superhero – 5 tips for new fiction copyeditors and proofreaders by Louise Harnby

Thinking fiction: The novel-editing roadmap I and Thinking fiction: The novel-editing roadmap II by Carolyn Haley (published by An American Editor).

OSCOLA Back to basics: Footnote shortcuts by Liz Brown

Making the most of the QAT by Hilary Cadman

Collated by Tracey Roberts, SfEP blog coordinator

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP