Learning from the bravery of others – the Ignite 20slides/15secs/5mins presentation style

An RSS feed pointed me to the latest IGNITE presentation gathering in Phoenix in late February, 2009. The purpose of an IGNITE gathering is simple – allow a community to gather and be an audience to a special kind of presentation. Speakers each have  20 slides which stay on screen for 15 seconds each and automatically move to the next.

There are no screen builds or transitions and no limits on the speakers’ subjects.

Commercial pitches are allowed but there are provisos, to wit:


We want Ignite to be about promoting and sharing burning ideas. If those ideas happen to take the form of the company you work for, the startup you’re trying to get funded, or any other self-serving commercial interest, then so be it. We’re fine with it, really. But whatever you present had better be interesting, because that’s what it’s going to be judged on in people’s minds. if you’re going to market to people at Ignite Phoenix, you’d better be smart about it. Because if you’re not, it won’t be pretty…”

Think about this for a moment. You have 15 x 20 = 300 = 5 mins to present on a topic using slides you’ve created which will change on cue every twenty seconds. Your task is to keep the audience engaged, amused, entertained, informed, and most likely provoked while keeping in memory 20 slides.

To be frank, when I saw some of the presentations, they acted as a reminder of all the rules and guidelines I teach in my Presentation Magic workshops, mainly what not to do. First, let me show you how I went about viewing the presentations, using software I located at Macworld 2009 called Web2 Delight from an Indian software company, called Global Delight.

Web2 Delight allows you to search a number of popular video and picture aggregators sites such as YouTube and Flickr. It then allows you to either stream the videos in a separate window, or download them, choosing to convert them on the fly for import into your iPod, Apple TV, iPhone or burn them to CD or DVD – a great time saver.

Using the URL for the Phoenix Ignite BlipTV location here, this is what the screen looks like when Web2 Delight locates the videos:

Web2 Delight display of some of Ignite Phoenix's video collection

Web2 Delight display of some of Ignite Phoenix's video collection

By the way, Web2 Delight has a sister product called Voila, which is an advanced screen shot maker and library which I will blog about in another entry because it has some great features presenters who use slides will want to utilise. I used it to create the screenshot, above.

When you pass your mouse over each thumbnail, an icon appears allowing to either stream the video, or download it to a desired location on your hard drive. A red progress bar appears in the thumbnail window, and you can simultaneously search and view other videos.

The download is a one-pass operation, whereas other YouTube apps. have a two-pass operation, once to download the flv file and the other to convert into your preferred format, such as mp4.

Ok, enough of the technologies, I’m using… why my interest in Ignite? And why am I sharing it with you?

Because, despite the look and feel of some of the presentations which look suspiciously like the Cognitive Style of Powerpoint (you know what I mean,

• 7 x 7 rules for lines and words per slide,

• chintzy clip art,

• overexposed backgrounds,

• pixelated images, and

• basically a presentation that is presenter-centric, not audience-centric)

• oh, and lots of pointless bullet points ;-),

the emphasis with the Ignite community is to help people think more about their presentations, and break some rules.

An Ignite was held in Sydney in late January, 2009 (I didn’t know so I didn’t go – perhaps Melbourne is ready for one) and here is the guff from its website:

“Why Ignite?
You may have heard of Ignite. It’s a presentation style pioneered in the US by some guys who wanted to spice up their presentations – and it quickly became a worldwide phenomenon.

The idea is simple – make the presenters stick to a rigid format of 20 slides, each of which changes automatically after 15 seconds, giving a guaranteed 5 minute presentation.

Why is this a good idea?

It forces the presenters to think long and hard about every slide. How many times have you heard the presenter say “this slide isn’t important”? Well – get rid of it then!

Conversely, there are the presenters who talk to a single slide for 10 minutes, by which time you’ve lost interest, the plot, and probably the will to live.

Ignite is all about making the slides dynamic and exciting, and forcing the presenters to think about what they show.

If you’re sick of Death By Powerpoint, then come along to Ignite Sydney, where you’re guaranteed a fun night of entertaining and educational presentations.”

Now both Sydney and many other cities’ Ignites are online now, some using BlipTV and others YouTube.

What is clear when you watch some of these videos is how tough it is to organise one’s timing, such that one doesn’t break some of the Rules of Multimedia knowledge transfer which have been offered the presentation community by evidence-based researchers such as Richard Mayer and John Sweller.

The most prominent rule I’ve seen broken (and hey, I’m as guilty as the next person, perhaps more so since I do know better!) in the Ignite videos – and the format of a fixed 15 seconds doesn’t help – is the overload produced when audio and video channels collide. That is, our two main senses for retrieving data and beginning the process of making sense of it – every pun intended – are the auditory and visual-spatial organs. When the two offer the brain much the same message, albeit in two different forms, there is a better chance of not being overloaded and remembering the main message, than when the two channels are receiving dissimilar material.

With the 15 second rule in Ignite, presenters are faced with either having really rehearsed their timing and words, much like an actor hitting their marks, or an opera singer being one with the orchestra; or allowing the slides to cue them in to what to say. Each is not without its difficulties. The former requires hours of rehearsal and practice, most likely more than most presenters will want to spend for what’s really just a fun night out.

The latter, while much easier, runs the risk that the slide runs the show, and the presenter becomes an adjunct to the visuals, not a very satisfactory outcome. In other words, if the slide changes while the presenter is still talking, guess where the audience’s attention will go?

I spend a considerable amount of time both discussing this and demonstrating in my Presentation Magic workshops such that the audience experiences what I’m demonstrating, and hopefully will make an effort to change their ways.

I don’t want to select for you some of the IgnitePhoenix casualties – those who really had a hard time integrating what they were saying with what they were showing – because what they did deserves positive reinforcement, not public humiliation. You can go look for yourself and see if you can detect what I’m talking about…

But I did find one or two who not just gave engaging presentations, but seemed to hit their marks nicely, such that from the video alone I didn’t suffer overload or channel conflict.

The one I liked the most so far (and I haven’t see all) is Pamela Slim’s, whose newsletter and blog on being entrepreneurial I subscribe to.

You can see Pamela’s Ignite presentation, here. (You can scroll to the bottom of this blog entry for the entry)

(UPDATE: I’ve looked at a few more from Phoenix, and the one more that stands out is called “Toilet Training” by Dan Messer. He takes us through a history of effluence, from Roman times through to the modern electronic self-flushers. What makes his presentation stand out is his ability to weave seemingly unconnected historical events into a seamless storytelling for the entire five minutes he has to present. So many of the other presenters are telling the audience facts with little use of the slides to enhance their message delivery. Truly, see each of these presentations as mini-lessons in presentation giving. Most are what not to do, a few are gems, and they will be easily recognised, even if the subject matter holds no initial curiosity for you.)

Now there are some concerns I have with the Ignite idea, in that we might just be replacing one cognitive style of Powerpoint with another. But clearly, in its favour, Ignite will simply not sustain the way so many presentations continue to be conducted (all text and reading) and so it does represent a small advancement.

But I’m not sure it represents a necessarily brilliant advance which best matches how information can be shared. I mean, could you imagine a film as brilliantly edited as “Apocalypse Now” (Walter Murch) being held to 15 second scenes?

For now, the Ignite concept, which began in Seattle in 2006, represents another effort to help us question the social norms which have seen Powerpoint become the lingua franca of information exchange, and anything which helps us question its dominance in 2009 gets a conditional vote of approval from me.

Update: Trawling about the blogosphere, shows my hometown of Melbourne will have its own Ignite on April 1, 2009, and yes I have put my hand up via email to have a go, all my caveats above notwithstanding.

I’ve writtent to the local organiser, Stephen Lead, with some questions of clarification (e.g. is 20 secs a maximum or fixed amount, are movies allowed to be embedded, animations too? etc) and I’m having to assume that if it follows the Ignite guidelines it will be shown via ..ugh, Powerpoint. But at least it will restore Powerpoint to what it’s good for – as a picture show application.

The Melbourne information is here, so enrol and come along and have some fun!

One response to “Learning from the bravery of others – the Ignite 20slides/15secs/5mins presentation style

  1. I like the idea of Ignite, and Pecha Kucha, for the discipline they require and the creativity that discipline can inspire. But, similar to your comments above, I also fear that some people might take them as more “rules” to be rigidly adhered to (like 7×7 or Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30). The only rules I think are important are: remember your message, think of your audience. Everything else are guidelines to help.

    Having said that, I’ve entered April 1st in my diary and hope I can attend. Maybe I’ll even enter – should be fun. 🙂

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