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 editor@lucyridout.co.uk by 22 June.

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