Preparing (and cheating on) an ignite talk

Posted by Joep Weijers on February 5, 2019

An igniting matchIn an ignite talk, a speaker has 20 slides to present a topic to you. The slides automatically advance every 15 seconds, so they have exactly 5 minutes to get their point across. Topics typically include quick pitches of software tools, methodologies, but fun topics are also game: I’ve seen a speed course Dutch, and a talk about coffee.

The format is entertaining for the audience as well. It is really great to watch if a speaker has his timing right and nails all the slide transitions. If the speaker’s timing is way off, and they rush to make the next slide transition, the talk can be a bit chaotic. But so far I’ve experienced an informal atmosphere at ignite sessions. The audience still appreciates a chaotic, but still entertaining and informative ignite. Most people will realize how hard it is to give a good ignite.

The ignite format really is challenging for a speaker. Several experienced speakers say that they prepare and rehearse their ignite better than any other conference session they may present. Quite contradictory though, ignites are also the easiest way for beginning public speakers to get into conferences to speak. For example: the 2017 Devoxx conference in Belgium got 572 applications for the 111 conference session slots, but they had fewer proposals (8) than ignite slots (12). I also believe a conference program committee can be a bit more relaxed when accepting ignites. The topic of an ignite need not strictly be relevant to the conference, as more fun (off-)topics are typically also tolerated. Additionally, inviting new or unknown public speakers is less of a risk for the program committee. In the worst case they wasted a 5 minute slot on an underwhelming speaker.

Igniting your public speaking career

So if you want to get started in public speaking with an ignite, you’ll want to prepare as well as you can. Preparing an ignite talk is similar to a preparing any other public talk:

  • Choose a topic. Go for something that interests you, but try to make it fun and/or relevant for the conference.
  • Choose a format. You are limited to 20 slides, but you can fill them as you like. Bullet-points, single-word-slides, images or animations are all valid options.
  • Think up the story that you want to tell about your topic.
  • Create the slides. Incorporate your topic into the slides, according to the format you chose.
  • Rehearse. Get the timing right.
  • On the day itself: control your nerves.
  • Have a blast on stage! The five minutes will be over before you know it.

Joep Weijers presenting his ignite talk Pipelines: breaking the wall between Dev and Ops


Now here is a way to cheat: you have 20 auto-advancing slides, that is the rule. But nobody says that those slides have to be unique. So you need 45 seconds to talk about a slide? Duplicate that slide and put it in 3 times.

Are you afraid that you’ll screw up your timing? Then you can use the cheat method I use for my Pipelines: breaking the wall between Dev and Ops ignite talk. I decoupled my story from the slides. This gives me 5 minutes to tell my story, while the slides do their own thing in the background. I only occasionally glance at the slides to see if I’m on schedule to finish in 5 minutes. This gives you one less thing to worry about in an already somewhat stressful environment.

But isn’t cheating frowned upon? I don’t see it as cheating, it is more like bending the rules. If you have a clear and well-presented message, people tend to not mind how strict you followed the presentation format. So far, the only person calling me out on it, did it in a fun way. And he cheated himself by putting double slides in his own ignite talk.

In conclusion: Ignite talks are challenging to give, fun to watch and a great way to get started with public speaking, but do bend the rules in your favor!

About the author: Joep Weijers

Joep is a Developer Experience Engineer at TOPdesk with a keen interest in delivering quality software continuously. He loves playing around with Jenkins Pipelines, GitLab CI, Selenium, Docker, Kubernetes and keeps in touch with his inner developer by educating his colleagues on testable Java code.

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