We often get asked why do speakers only get 5 minutes? The answer is obvious to us: most presentations, most of the time, aren’t very good. One reason why is that with 20, 30 or 60 minutes, there’s no natural way for speakers to make sure they get to the heart of their story or lesson and stay there. We take seriously the idea that if you can’t use 5 minutes on stage well, why would we give you more? We’re convinced a shorter format helps speakers do a good job, even inexperienced ones. It forces them to prepare, practice and refine. It also creates energy, drama and allows more people to share the stage at our events.
Although Ignite began in Seattle in 2006, there is a long history of short-form speaking events. In 1917, The Four Minute Men worked for the U.S. government to convey information to citizens. More recently, in 2000, software developer Mark Jason Dominus realized most speakers were far from concise. They go on too long and rarely make their points clearly no matter how much time they have. His solution? Instead of giving them 60, 30 or even 20 minutes, just give them five. The time limit was the only rule, and he called this format the lightning talk. Today events do 99 second or 60 second talks, and in some cases allow anyone brave enough to walk up to the microphone to take a turn.
In a similar spirit of brevity, Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham from the architecture firm Klein-Dytham wanted to inspire creative people to express themselves more clearly. In 2003 they started a new format for presentations called Pecha Kucha (pronounced pe-chak-cha), with the goal of making presentations fun and interesting, and increasing the number of speakers that can present in a few hours. Their format is 20 slides and 20 seconds for each slide (20×20), for a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
In 2006 Brady Forest and Bre Petis, who worked for O’Reilly Media at the time, created the first Ignite event, an evening of short talks and socializing here in Seattle. It was an experiment to see if the Seattle community wanted a more dynamic and social speaking event. They simplified the format to 20 slides, with 15 seconds per slide, to make a nice round number of five minutes. It went well. They promoted the idea of the event and there are now dozens of them around the world.
Here at Ignite Seattle, two of our major goals are sharing diverse stories and teaching the craft of storytelling. To achieve this we provide free coaching to all of our speakers to help them master the five-minute Ignite format as well as gain confidence in all of the core skills of public speaking.
[This is a revised version of The End Of Boring Presentations, Forbes.com]