First published on LinkedIn in September 2018
So, you’re planning to attend a meetup or event, and there’s a slot for lightning talks. Do you feel tempted?
The lightning (or flash) talk is a short but powerful format which can be used to convey significant and useful concepts in a very short time. If you’ve never spoken at an event before, it can be an ideal way to get into it — the risk is low, as the audience will be sympathetic and on your side, and you aren’t asking for a big chunk of their time.
Times vary for lightning talks, and sometimes the time will be specified. I feel as though 90 seconds is a good point to aim for. For this amount of time, you don’t even need slides!
The purpose of this article is to explain how to quickly put together and deliver a lightning talk. By quickly, I mean that you can do this even after you’ve arrived at the event!
Talks come in all shapes and sizes, and all of the good ones have a structure to them. The best talks tell stories, which have a beginning, a middle and an end. Your lightning talk, though short, must have a structure to it.
Here’s a three-part structure that I think works well. You’re very welcome to re-use it as shown.
Your structure and timings might be different from mine, but for greatest success, you should probably keep to three parts, and give the middle part the most generous allotment of time.
There’s a history to this idea of story structure. Around 335BC, Aristotle wrote his “Poetics” which is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory. In it, he said that a story should have three parts — a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since then, the idea of dramatic structure has become deeply baked into the way we experience and think about stories, and it applies as much to your lightning talk as it did to the ancient Greek Tragedies. I don’t recommend that you break with this tradition — at least not to start with.
Here’s a suggested approach, to get you from your idea to a viable lightning talk. You can do this in the 2 minutes leading up to your talk, or you can prepare it weeks in advance, and rehearse. It works fine either way.
So that’s how you create your lightning talk. Once you’ve done this, you can stand up and deliver the whole thing. It’s short and simple enough to do it from memory.
This method is tried and tested, I’ve used it myself and taught other people to use it. Next time you attend a meetup or event that has a slot for lightning talks, you now have the toolkit to give it a go. No more excuses!
Go on, I dare you!