Lightning talks are brief and punchy so the audience can hear lots of exciting ideas in a short space of time. But giving a lightning talk is really not about squeezing a whole talk into five minutes. It’s about making your point clearly; saying something brief and interesting and that’s it. If you are used to giving more traditional talks you will need to be brutal with your content to get rid of any non-critical information.
Good lightning talks inspire and motivate people to find out more, they are not designed to provide all the background and detail needed to reproduce the work. If people want to follow up or ask questions, they can make contact with you or catch you at the break.
Pick your main idea
Choose one major idea that you want to get across to the audience and make it your number one task to build that idea. Make sure your idea is worth sharing by asking who does this idea benefit? If it has the potential to challenge, change or inspire someone else — it’s a winner!
Slash the details
Let’s talk again about the enemy of lightning talks: the details. Generally, people want to hear something new, not everything there is to know about something. Even if some background or detail is necessary, take a moment to stop and ask yourself ‘could I replace it with a shorter summary that you can explain easily?’ You’re talking to an intelligent crowd; be brave and provide the minimum amount of background to give the context to make your point. This will give you a chance to explain and link everything back to your main idea.
Get to your point early on. The goal is to talk about a topic in a quick, insightful and clear manner. Don't leave your main idea to the end.
Build on your idea piece by piece
Stir curiosity in the audience. You can do this by using provocative questions to identify why something is intriguing and needs explaining. You can present the audience with an unsolved question or an inspirational answer. Try exposing a disconnect and use anecdotes or metaphors to show how the pieces fit together. Aim to create and share ‘a-ha moments.’ Be careful not to use jargon, instead use plain language and concepts easily understood by your audience.
Prepare your presentation
Lightning talks can include presentation slides but they don’t have to. Some presenters have used prompt cards; then discarded each one over the shoulder in dramatic fashion. Anything goes! If you are using slides, use large images and as little text as possible. Use your headers and footers wisely. Remember, it is really important that you never read out the details on the slide (but you already knew that).
Practice, practice, practice
Try out your talk on your colleagues or the family pet. Practice against a timer. Practice standing up. Five minutes is a really short time when presenting. That said, make sure you go slow and steady. Reduce the amount you say rather than rushing to try and cram more in. There will usually be a ‘one minute’ warning sign and a ‘please wrap up’ sign. Do not exceed your time!
People remember the beginning and end of things. Do you want to include a call to action for your audience? In summary, remember that delivery is more important than content. This doesn't mean that your content shouldn't be good. However, it is always better to get across something that sticks in your audience's mind than getting them to forget everything you've just said. After all, you want them to come and ask you questions during the break!
Just go out and do it
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if everything doesn’t go exactly to plan. It’s all a learning experience. Nobody has died from embarrassment, so relax and have fun. Good luck with your lightning talk!
If you'd like to read up a bit more, here are some great resources:
Fowler, M 2004, "Giving lightning talks," Perl.com.
Software Sustainability Institute 2011, "Giving a good lightning talk," The University of Edinburgh.