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16 Ways to Prepare for a Lightning Talk

Kathleen Garvin
16 Ways to Prepare for a Lightning Talk

Last week I delivered a speech at a large, local technology event. I was one of five speakers to address the crowd during the lightning talk session.

What is a lightning talk? Generally speaking, it's a micro presentation or pitch of some sort to your audience.

Organizers can choose different metrics, from time length to topic. The event I participated in was part of a week-long gathering for those in the tech and new media community. On Tuesday, I spoke under the umbrella topic, “The Future of Digital Marketing.”

Speakers could use visual aids, demonstrate a case study or pitch their company. Oh, and we only had three minutes to present. 

"Focused" is the name of the lightning talk game. Four of us used PowerPoint slides, while another one delivered a concentrated speech.

Leading up to and following the event, I compiled a list of takeaways from my speaking engagement.

1. "Don't get tripped up in the 'lightning' language." This was sound advice I received from one of the event organizers, Kate.

Upon hearing we had a short amount of time to talk, I worried about what I could fit in that timeframe. I crowd-sourced industry friends. I searched on YouTube. Few people I talked to had spoken for such a short period, and I couldn't find any quality examples on video.

After exchanging a few emails with Kate, she suggested I ditch "lightning" from my vocabulary and instead concentrate on a specific tip or focus.

2. Research the audience. Because I presented on “Media Day,” specifically under the topic discussing the future of digital marketing, I had an idea of who would show up. Still, the topic was far-reaching enough that the crowd could consist of both industry novices and pros.

What to do? I made the decision to skip any introductory slides (ex., "this is the definition of SEO"). However, I also avoided addressing anything too in-depth.

3. Outline. Back in school, I was never a fan of mandatory outlines for papers. Typically, I still don’t write that way. But time is of the essence during a lightning speech; you want your points to be strong and uncluttered. So, I recommend opening a new Word document and outlining your slides.

4. Less is more. Jumping off #3, I started with 18 slides and cut that down to 10 (including a title and "thank you" slide). Get rid of anything extraneous.

5. Write a script. I created a loose script based on what I wanted to say to supplement my slides. While I have a background in trade show exhibiting and as a brand rep, I’m still new to public speaking. I didn’t want to sound stale or rehearsed, but I wanted to be able to refer to specific points.

taco bell vs. mcdonald's6. Begin with an image. My slides were split with graphics (including screenshots) and bulleted text. After my intro slide, I began with a graphic and a quote. If you didn't know, visuals are processed faster in the brain than text.

7. Capitalize on something recent. I wanted to use an example showcasing our tools that didn't require a lot of explanation or even an SEM background. So, I discussed the fast food breakfast wars between Taco Bell and McDonald's. I took a quick look at the AdWords both were bidding on using our Ads History report.

8. Time yourself beforehand. I was set to present after 5 p.m. I would be speaking to an audience that spent eight hours sitting through studies and speeches, eagerly looking forward to dinner and cocktails.

While the hammer wasn’t going to come down exactly at three minutes, I wanted to be mindful of the attendees and my fellow presenters. So, I used the Timer function on my iPhone to see where I fell within the three-minute mark.

3 minutes timer9. Have a backup. I saved my presentation on a thumb drive I brought with me, and had backups stored in my email and Google drive. Nothing worse than panicking because you left your portable drive attached to your laptop at home!

10. Know the technology. If possible, find out which operating system you'll be using (Mac or PC?) and what kind of microphone speakers will use.

And, go with the flow: Everyone but the lightning rounders used a lavalier microphone. I brought two note cards with me for reference, but would need to work a presentation slide remote and handheld mic. Since I don't have three hands, I had to place my two-sided notes on one side on the podium. Thankfully, I had practiced quite a bit, and this didn't knock me off my game too much.

12. Speak slowly. I have a tendency to speak fast. Very fast.

While I subscribe to the Lil’ Wayne mentality of, “I’m not speaking too fast, you’re just listening slow” around friends, this is not an effective approach when speaking to an audience. Ninety-nine percent of whom, I’ve never met before.

What’s a naturally speedy speaker filled with nerves in a lightning pitch scenario to do? Rehearse, and breathe.

13.  Try to get a laugh, but don’t force it. I actually got laughs during a segment I didn’t necessarily expect. I included a Homer Simpson quote, a slide with surprising AdWords data and a sad clown (it made sense in the context). The second and more "serious" of the three got the biggest laugh.

14. Have a designated place for business cards. After I spoke, two people approached me immediately for more information on SEMrush. Score! Filled with adrenaline and excited to have people ask questions, I handed out my business card, but also absentmindedly stored theirs in random compartments in my purse.

Go into the event knowing which pocket or place holder you want to use for business cards. It saves you from the aggravation later.

15. Engage on social media. I attended a PeopleLinx webinar earlier in the year on social media. One suggestion was to add a hashtag to your presentation to encourage conversation.

For my three-minute talk, I included the event hashtag and my Twitter handle. Afterward, I was excited to find a couple of new followers and interactions.

16: Learn from the experience. I watched the presenter before me go through a quarter of his speech without holding the mic close enough to his mouth. I tried not to repeat the mistake, though I remember hearing my voice “pop” and become more audible in the room after I began. The event was filmed, so I can review my performance (through closed fingers) once the footage is released.

I hope that helps! If you've ever done a lightning talk and would like to share some tips, feel free to post them in the comments.

Kathleen Garvin

Asks great questions and provides brilliant answers.

Kathleen Garvin is an online editor and analytics wrangler for The Penny Hoarder, the largest personal finance blog. She's also a contributing writer for I Want Her Job and started a beginner-friendly digital marketing blog, The Maroon House. Kathleen is the former blog editor at SEMrush.
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