Why you should give a lightning presentation

Short-form presentations are so hot right now. From TED to Ignite, via Pecha Kucha and your local conference’s “lightening talks”, the trend is moving from hour-long presentations to something more digestible, around 5–10 minutes long.

Here are some reasons why you should give a short presentation.

The barrier to entry is lower

If you’ve never spoken at a conference before, it can be hard to get started. Organisers will be reluctant to give you a 30- or 60-minute slot in front of paying customers if you haven’t proven yourself elsewhere.

A lightning presentation is the perfect place to make a reputation as a speaker, while honing your skills. Because they feature multiple speakers at each event, and the events are often frequent, the organisers are always looking for new presenters.

It forces you to practice

Often when I’m at a conference, the speaker will note that they haven’t had a chance to prepare, or that they didn’t write these slides — sometimes they even encounter a slide they’ve never seen before. I always think why are you even on-stage?

When you give a lightning talk you only have a few minutes, so you‘re forced to practice and get it right. Because your talk is so short, you can run through it fully, multiple times — this is rare to see with a longer presentation. And with each run-through you get better and more comfortable with the material.

It helps you cut to the chase

Many long presentations start off with an Agenda slide (tell them what you’re gonna tell them) in which the presenter gives away all the secrets of their talk before they actually say them. They then move on to the About slide so you know their fascinating (not really) back-story.

With a lightning presentation the short time-frame forces you to grab the audience’s interest straight away. There’s no time to waste on pleasantries (which are boring for the audience anyway) so you can just start with something interesting.

It’s not about dumbing down the content, but more about finding the essence of your topic. A good lightning talk is like a pitch to the audience — if they’re interested, they’ll find you afterwards for more details.

Short presentations are more fun

In The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, it’s noted that most of his presentations were broken into short components of around 10 minutes or less. This is because (no matter how interesting the topic) most people’s attention will start to wander after a while.

An hour of varied lightning presentations, from multiple speakers, is far more enjoyable than a single one-hour presentation. You’ll have more fun as both a presenter and a member of the audience.

It helps you to become more visual

Inexperienced presenters build their slides directly in PowerPoint, which helpfully guides them using terrible templates. Every slide has a default heading, followed by 7–10 small bullet points (and maybe a couple of small pictures to “mix things up a bit”).

These slides don’t work in a lightning talk (or, arguably, at all) so you’re forced to try new presentation styles which can more quickly convey your message to the audience. This can lead you to expand your presentation repertoire with more visual slide design approaches, and other ways to stand out from the crowd.

It will help with your longer presentations too

Once you’re experienced with shorter lightning presentations, you’ll inevitably find that your longer presentations improve as well. You may even find that you don’t need the full hour to present your topic, as you’ll have honed the skill of getting to the point, and making it well.

No-one ever complained about a great presentation which finished early.

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