Advice for getting accepted at Seattle Ignite

Ignite Seattle is a special event, with one of the largest (800+) and most engaged storytelling audiences you will find in our city. We take open submissions for talk ideas and want to help you to pitch us well. This post explains the best possible advice for getting your talk accepted.

(Based on co-organizer Randy Stewart’s Ignite talk called How to Pitch an Ignite talk)

Important Facts

  • It’s a show, not just a set of talks.  Talks get accepted or rejected based in part on how they all fit together to make a great evening for our audience. While we don’t have themes, we do pick talks to balance out each other in terms of topics, tone and style. For example, you might have a great proposal for a talk about How to make Swiss Cheese, but it just happens to collide with three other cheese making submissions and we can’t have all of them in the same evening. It’s healthy to realize there are some reasons talks don’t make it in that aren’t specific to the submission itself. And it’s OK to resubmit talks at future Ignites.
  • Talks are strictly 5 minutes long with automated slides. You can speak about anything, but all talks must consist of 20 slides, each timed to be on screen for 15 seconds, for a total of 5 minutes (Similar to Pecha-Kucha). It’s an exciting and dynamic format and if you’ve never seen an Ignite talk, watch some. Don’t worry too much about slides, it’s you and your story or lessons that matter most.
  • There are only 12 slots / we average 60 submissions. This means far more people are rejected than accepted. This is competitive, so bring your best. Show your draft to friends and get their feedback. But don’t take it personally if you’re rejected – these slots are precious and you’re competing with Seattle’s best.
  • The organizers meet to vote on who gets accepted. We review all submissions, mostly blind except for the title and description, with a short window of time for discussing each submission. We quickly filter out poorly written, under-thought or vague ones.
  • Your submission will be reviewed in a huge spreadsheet (shown below). Submissions that are concise, clear, compelling, smart or funny prove to us you’ll do well in the Ignite format, where you’ll have similarly tough constraints.
  • 98% of speakers at Ignite are glad they did it. Ignite is challenging but a great professional and personal opportunity. If you’re going to submit, do it right.

Four kinds of talks

We’re very open minded about what approach you want to take, but to help you get started there are four kinds of talks we often see.

  • Personal story. This is where you share a life experience you had that was profound, interesting, exotic, powerful, or funny in some way that is relatable to other people. Keep in mind that there is a difference between something that was interesting for you (“I won the lottery”) and making it interesting for the audience (“Here are the surprising things I learned from winning the lottery”). Good storytelling is about making your experience relatable or interesting to others. See I Fix Evything or A Transgender Band walks into a Rural Town.
  • Teaching a lesson or sharing an idea. Perhaps you have expertise to share, or a way of looking at the world you’ve developed that other people can learn from. This can be professional knowledge or from a hobby that you have. See Design for Conflict, Robots are not coming for your job, Dating lessons from a Dominatrix or Forgive and Remember.
  • Reporting on an interest project. Maybe you built something unusual, went on a special trip, or are part of a volunteer organization that does good work. Your talk can be reporting on those experiences and inviting the audience to learn from, or be entertained by, them. See Cats, Rats, AI, Oh My! or The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
  • A combination of the above or something new. There are countless ways to combine these different talk forms so don’t feel limited to picking one. However most talks to tend to go more strongly down one of these paths than another. And we do love challenges and interesting concepts that don’t quite fit: live performances (we’ve had acrobats, jugglers and musicians), fictional narratives or something we’ve never even heard of before but sounds like our audience would appreciate.

Invest in a great title

Spend the time necessary to come up with a great title. By showing you can name your talk something short, informative, compelling and perhaps funny, you prove you’re worthy of a slot on our stage. Ignite is about concision. Show us you’re good at keeping it short. By working hard on the title I promise you, the talk itself will improve.

When the organizers meet to review submissions, we look at a giant spreadsheet of the submission data (see below). It’s overwhelming. An easy way to cut through the noise is to give us a strong quality signal in your title.

ignite spreadsheet 2

Good titles distill big ideas into a single, easy to evaluate sentence. We read the descriptions of course, but nothing gives us more confidence in you than your title.

Good titles from past Ignites include:

  • SCRUM management for wedding planning
  • Fighting Dirty in Scrabble
  • Hacking Birth
  • Commut-A-Pult
  • Build your own Standing Desk
  • Welcome to the Psych Ward
  • What cities can learn from Burning Man
  • How Science is Destroying My Childhood

These titles express an interesting angle on a topic. These angle choices can make a seemingly boring topic suddenly fascinating. It’s easy to imagine what the talks will contain, and even when it’s hard to imagine, they are compelling enough that we’d want to find out.

As opposed to failed topic submissions like these:

  • Why I don’t mind Subway sandwiches
  • Ten ways to do something even I don’t care about
  • How web 8.0 disruption widgets will bore the world to tears
  • I’m passionate about “things” but too lazy to think carefully about my message or what I want to say so I’ll submit things I haven’t really thought about or distilled down and make everyone sad

Get us interested, but don’t be vague

A good title is 50% of your proposal, but a good description is the other 50%. A great proposal description balances our need to understand your story with the need to be concise. If you’re accepted, we can be mysterious and vague when we promote your talk, but please don’t be mysterious and vague with us. If you have 3 points to tell the audience, tell us what they are.

Descriptions are limited to about 100 words. You don’t need to detail every point in your talk, but don’t leave us wondering what you’ll be talking about.

A good example:

Title: How To Not Be The Slowest Gazelle On The Internet
Description: The slowest gazelle gets eaten by the lion. In the world of cybersecurity, you are probably one of the slowest gazelle. Unless you’re a movie star, a CEO, or a politician, you probably don’t need to be in the front of the pack. Just safely in the middle.

Luckily – it’s real easy to get to the middle of the pack. There is ONE thing you can do that will drastically enhance your personal security and safety on the internet – and that’s using complicated, unique passwords on every account and saving them with a password manager. Many people give advice. But I will tell you the secret to actually getting it done: identify the most important accounts and do those first.

A bad example:

Title: How A Cafe Changed My Life
Description: There was a time once when I had to make a tough decision, but couldn’t decide what to do. I went to a cafe and ordered some toast with butter. While I ate it I came to an incredible realization about my quandary. As I crunched on that last bite of toast, I realized what I needed to do. And that realization set into motion a series of events that changed my life. That cafe changed my life, the lessons I learned my work for you too.

Share your passion on any topic

There are no restrictions on your choice of topic. If we’re convinced you’re telling a great story, any topic goes. Over the years we’ve had one armed jugglers, street musicians and some dramatic personal stories that would be appropriate for The Moth or This American Life (if they were on speed). We’ve had topics that range from video games to Ultimate Frisbee, eating bugs to how to write a song, and once even had two speakers get married on stage (in 5 minutes).

We expect three things from you regarding topics:

  1. You’re passionate about it
  2. You’re knowledgeable (enough that you know more than most of the audience)
  3. You’ll share that passion and knowledge in ways the audience can connect with

And regarding content and requirements:

  • Avoid cliches in your title and description. Sharing what you learned from an experience is great, but try to avoid the phrase “life lessons.”
  • It’s okay not to have a takeaway from the talk. We’re not TED, and not every talk has to be actionable.
  • Don’t feel like you need to be a professional speaker or be a leading expert in a world-changing topic to qualify to speak. We want proposals from normal, everyday people.

Don’t pitch your business

Talks pitching your product, startup or consulting business will be automatically rejected. Don’t even try. We’ve made this mistake in the past and everyone in the audience knows in 10 seconds what you’re doing and they will hate you for it, and us for letting you on stage.

We do want you to promote yourself, but solely as someone who has given a great Ignite talk. It’s ok to tell your story provided it’s not centered on selling something. We have had speakers talk about something they invented or how they started a company (Rich Johnston from Vertical World) or a non-profit organization, but the focus was on the lessons and stories, rather than promoting anything. Think of your talk as a self-contained creation, and not a tool for some other purpose.

A good example of balancing self-promotion with giving an excellent talk is I Stalk Strangers Online (great title) by Carmen Hudson. Her talk was about her job as a tech headhunter and she successfully focused on sharing secrets and insider knowledge – it never felt like she was pitching her services, since she wasn’t. But here I am talking about her and her excellent talk (see how this works?)

How to submit your talk

Submissions typically close six weeks before the Ignite event and the talk submission form to fill out is always found here.

If you have questions, leave a comment.

Author: Scott Berkun

Author and Speaker, known for fine books including The Myths of Innovation, Making things Happen, Confessions of a Public Speaker and The Dance of The Possible. Speaker coach and MC for Ignite Seattle.

21 thoughts on “Advice for getting accepted at Seattle Ignite”

  1. Where is the form that one fills out to submit a talk? And submissions start being accepted January 12th, right? When I hit the hyperlink “the form to fill out is always found here” it takes me to a webpage without a form. Please advise what to do.

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    1. I believe all emails should now have been sent! Rejections don’t go out for a few extra days, because sometimes one or two of the selected speakers are no longer available, so we email a backup.

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      1. To be clear, I never received confirmation that my submission was received (submitted on 2/25), and I never received a rejection. So, is it safe to assume that my submission was never received? This is important in terms of what (if anything) I submit for Ignite #40. Thank you.

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      2. Unfortunately we did not receive your submission! Please keep an eye out for the confirmation email next time and if you don’t see it, please reach out. We use Google Forms so I have no additional information on what may have happened — Google is a mystery.

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