How to prepare to speak at Ignite Seattle

We do everything we can to select speakers with great topics and passions, but we also work hard to help them prepare.

As the Ignite Seattle speaker coach I run a session where we talk about common mistakes, tactics for preparing and how to develop a great story. It’s informal, fun and we usually feed people (hungry speakers are bad speakers). We also encourage folks to do a dry run improvisation with us to get feedback early on in their process. And of course speakers at Ignite are interesting folks and the session is a chance for them to get to know each other.

We tell speakers that since they’re speaking about something they know well and are passionate about, they could probably spend time thinking carefully about  4 or 5 stories or messages and simply practice and present that, without any slides, and do fine. We strongly recommend people develop their ideas, points and stories before they make a single slide. What you say and how you say it is by far the most important thing.


Here are the slides I use that covers the basic advice, including showing speakers photos of the stage and what to expect once they’re up there.

But others have written advice on preparing for Ignite. There is no right way to prepare of course and the ends are far more important than the means<

Summary of additional good advice:

Speaker Lineup for Ignite 21

The next Seattle Ignite is Sunday August 18th at the Fremont Outdoor Cinema. Tickets are $5.

Here is our list of amazing 5 minute talks and speakers:

  • How video games are like kissing – Jenny Kuglin (@jenkuglin)
  • Getting geeky about Civics – Web Hutchins (@civicsforall)
  • Where my girls at? (Or, How one obvious “discovery” revolutionized my world view) -Maris McEdward (@mmcedward)
  • Gleaning molten lessons – What I learn from Glass – Pallavi Garg
  • Wobbling Is Normal – Laura Lantz
  • High school majority: I like pink, but I that doesn’t mean I cant think – Riyanka Ganguly-
  • Going Fast on One Wheel – Bruce Dawson
  • Being a Tech Entrepreneur in Baghdad – Othmane Rahmouni (@othmaner)
  • The Geek Diet – Dan Shapiro (danshapiro)
  • From Refugee to Technologist: How I’ve Used Software to Persevere – Tai Pham
  • Tap me on the shoulder if you’d like to chat –  Jason Simon (@jasonasimon)
  • Urinals. A Political and Aesthetic Expression – Christian Hagel-Sorensen (chrhage)
  • How to write your own user manual – Heidi Miller
  • An hour of coding for every student in America – James Gwertzman (gwertz)
  • Baby, I Was Born This Way! (Or Why A Polish Psychologists Let Me Know I’m Sane Amy Voros (coachaddamy)

(Note: this is not necessary the order speakers will appear)

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 things that will surprise you about 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.

Pre-Ignite lecture: U.S. Government Response to Hackers

The next Seattle Ignite is Wed February 20th, at 6:30pm. We’ll have our usual pre-show games, but an alternative is this lecture on the U.S. history of government response to hacking, including commentary on the Aaron Swartz story. One ticket gets you access to both!

Phil Lapsley: The Government’s Response to Hackers, Then & Now

When: Wednesday, February 20, 2013, 6:00 – 7:30pm

Where: Downstairs at Town Hall; enter on Seneca Street. $5. Double feature!

Phil Lapsley, author of Exploding the Phone; believes today’s war against hackers is  more aggressive that decades past. With an eye toward culture, technology, and current events, Lapsley illuminates the forgotten history of the phone phreaks—and addresses how the FBI’s pursuit of them differs from the legal tactics used today against people such as Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide while facing more than 30 years in prison. Prosecutors alleged Swartz broke into a secure MIT computer closet in 2011 and downloaded articles from a subscription-based academic research service; his death has led to calls by lawmakers to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Get tickets here (includes access to Seattle Ignite).

How to write a good bio

Many good people write bad bios for themselves. We want you to sound as awesome as you are so please take our advice. These five simple rules make writing bios take less time, less effort and make everyone happy to learn something about you.

1. The more impressive you are, the shorter your bio can be.

For example, compare this:

Bob Smith won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, twice. He’s currently the head of Amazingness at Wonderment University.

With this:

Bob Smith spent 2001-2004 developing yard waste in Atlantic City, NJ. Then the better part of the 90’s working on psoriasis in Libya. For kicks, he studied in 2002-2008 licensing regulations for circus clowns in West Palm Beach, FL. Garnered a second place industry award while merchandising mouse yogurt in Las Vegas, NV. Had some great experience consulting about near-UFO experiences among visitors to  Ocean City, NJ. Spent two years licensing cannibalism for farmers, and recycling Pez dispensers.

Everyone wants your bio to be shorter. The shorter it is, the more people who will read it. No one is impressed by a long series of unimpressive things. If you have a great one sentence bio, people will be curious enough to find out more. On the other hand, if you have a bad and long bio they are certain never to want to learn anything about you.

2. Write for the real audience

If you are asked for a bio because you are speaking somewhere, perhaps Ignite Seattle, shape your bio to best fit what you are speaking about. Your bio will be read by people at that event to help them understand what you’ll be talking about.

For example, if you are speaking on fly fishing, don’t do this:

Sally Shmeckes is a software developer and designer who has written code in every language known to mankind.  She works mostly as a hired gun for startups in trouble, who need a superhero to help turn trainwreck projects around. She studied 3-D Film Theory and Anti-Nuclear Architecture at the University of Ridiculousness, and has 3 children if you count her husband.

Do something like this instead:

Sally Schemkes is a veteran software developer and designer. Her Dad taught her to fly fish before she could walk and she has fished every day since he died. She’s on twitter at @sallyschemkes56.

3. Invert your pyramid

Put the important facts first. The fancy term for this is the Inverted Pyramid. Assume with each word in your bio that fewer and fewer people will keep reading.

This is good:

Bono is the lead singer for the rock band U2. He is an advocate for many important political and social causes. His real name is Paul Hewson. He owns many interesting pairs of glasses.

Not this:

Bono likes the color red, especially on Tuesdays. He loves to drink whiskey (on all days). He learned to drink whisky from his childhood friend Zippo, when they went to school together at Mount Temple Comprehensive School. His real name is Paul Hewson, He is best known as the lead singer for the band U2.

4. Be clever only if you’re certain it’s actually clever

From the Department of Made up Facts:

  • Percent of people who think they are clever: 64%
  • Percept of people who are actually clever: 6%

If you think you are clever, and write what you think is a clever bio, get feedback on it from someone you know who is actually clever. If they approve, you have our blessing. One good joke in a bio is more than enough.

5. Watch the slashes Jack

A sad trend born of Twitter are bios where people self describe themselves by a dozen different traits. This makes you look like someone who sucks at everything. It’s fine to be a Jack of All Trades, but to insist on telling everyone you’re a Jack of All trades mostly makes you Jack of Many Annoyances. Our species has small brains: we need you to tell us the one or two of your trades that will be most relevant to us, or to what you will be talking about.

Instead of:

Nina Nana is a designer/juggler/smuggler/hellraiser/accountant/anti-ninja/metallurgist/snake charmer

Since this is a bio and not metadata listing for SEO purposes, have some courageous clarity:

Nina Nana is a designer who has mastered juggling, smuggling and many glorious pursuits of diverse ingenuity.

That’s all. Happy bio writing!

[Note: The second example from #1 is a revised creation of the auto bio generator.]

Pitches vs. Talks

For every Seattle Ignite we get dozens of submissions. Some fall right on the line between being an interesting talk and being a sales pitch. Sales pitches have their place, but Seattle Ignite isn’t it.

We know our audiences don’t like it. They don’t want to merely be sold something.

Instead the heart of any Ignite talk should be one of the following:

  • Inspiration
  • Education
  • Entertainment
  • Great Storytelling

If along the way or at the end you mention the URL for your website, or your twitter handle, that’s great! We very much want people to learn more about you, or your project, when your talk is over. But don’t confuse your 5 minutes of fame with a free 5 minute advertisement. If you go too far we’ll have a hard time inviting you back.

If you want to talk about a book or blog:

  • Pick stories, facts and lessons and talk about those (one chapter or post is enough)
  • Think of the talk as the movie version of your book, not the trailer for the movie
  • Deliver substance, not teasers

If your talk is about an organization or company:

  • Focus on a personal story: such as who founded it, how and why
  • Focus on a meaningful result: the story of one person, family, place or thing that was helped (or not)

If your talk is about a cause or campaign:

  • If it’s a non-profit there is more room for pitching – we’re a community and like to help community builders
  • You should still focus on telling a great story though

If you’re not sure if you’re going to far, we’re happy to help guide you. If you really just want to market to our audience, consider being a sponsor.

Catch Dan Pink at Town Hall January 9th

Our friends at Seattle Town Hall have a nice doubleheader next week on Wed. January 9th.  If you buy tickets to either talk you get entry for the other.

at 6pm: William Janeway, an active venture-capitalist for decades leading the Warburg Pincus Technology Investment team (which sounds impressive but I’ve never heard of), will be talking about his new book Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy, an examination of the triad of government, finance and entrepreneurs. He thinks in triads and wears a bow-tie: what more could you want? Tickets here.

at 7:30pm: popular business writer Daniel Pink offers a fresh look at sales and persuasion, showing how economic forces have changed how people approach convincing each other to do things, in his new book To Sell Is Human, a title that either makes you cringe, or gleeful at the prospect of the sales that await in your friendships – Please go and tell me my cynicism is unfounded! Tickets here.

Also coming soon at Town Hall:

  • Jan. 14, James Weatherall discusses The Physics of Wall Street (or: Predicting the Unpredictable). Apparently he also likes cats. Tickets.
  • Jan 21Oliver Burkeman: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking – advocates a “negative path” to happiness by embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty, a perfectly timed talk for Seattle in January. Tickets.