I gave my first Ignite! talk in San Francisco. I was super honored to be asked, especially given what a Math Forum fangirl I am. The lineup was AMAZING. I hope you’ll watch all the talks.

An Ignite! talk has a unique format: 5 minutes, 20 slides, 15 seconds per slide. The slides auto-advance whether you’re ready or not. Ten of us presented in an hour.

In my mind, I wanted to really nail this talk. I wanted to script it and practice it and polish it and rehearse it for a month so I could give it in my sleep. In my real life, I had so much work piled up between the time I finished my book and the time I set sail for San Francisco that I didn’t get to start drafting the talk until seven days before I was to give it and I hardly had time to practice during conference week.

I found the process of choosing a topic interesting. I gave a pretty political talk at ShadowCon last year, and decided to go for something more substantive this time. I chose to talk about the last big chapter in my book. It’s the biggest chapter, actually, which makes it a strange choice for a 5-minute talk. But it’s my favorite, (shh! don’t tell the other chapters), and I liked the challenge of seeing if I could get the framework into 5 minutes, even if I couldn’t even start on the classroom stories and specifics.

I learned that 15 seconds is enough time for me to say 3 sentences. I tightened my script until I was pretty happy with every word. I started practicing in the odd 5 minutes here or there in my hotel room in San Francisco. Everything was smooth with the script in my hand. Then the night before Ignite!, my awesome roommate, Jenny Jorgensen, made me put the script down and give the talk to her, and the shit hit the fan. It was a hot mess.

ignite script 1.jpg

ignite script 2.jpg

I always say that the first time you give a talk to an audience is like cooking your first pancake. This analogy comes from Scott Hamilton talking about ice skating in the 80s. I wish I could find the reference, but I’ve looked and failed. I swear, he said it on TV and it stuck with me. No matter how much you’ve practiced, there’s nothing like getting out in front of the crowd to make you realize where you need to turn up the heat or thin the batter. Practicing in front of Jenny made me realize I was about to give a first pancake to 1,000 people. Not my favorite feeling.

The morning of the Ignite!, my dear friends Graham Fletcher and Kristin Gray met me in at 7:30 in an empty room to let me screw it up in front of them a few times so I’d give a second pancake to 1,000 people. I felt better after. Not great, not confident, but better. Mostly, I felt lucky to have Graham, Kristin, and Jenny as friends. Such support.

I think there are two plausible ways to do an Ignite! One is to script it out and then practice the hell out of it until you really do know it cold. The other is to bullet point it and have it feel a little more improvisational.

What I did this time was find the no-man’s land in the middle. I scripted it out enough that I lost the normal, extemporaneous flexibility I have to change my words and keep going. When I said the wrong word, what was happening in my mind was, “No! I decided to say dispute here, not debate!” I was tied too tightly to my script. But I didn’t have the time to practice enough to deliver the smooth performance I would have liked.

I’m not sure if there will be a next time. The main thing I noticed in San Francisco was how relaxed and happy I was the next day, in a normal 60-minute session. I could walk around, check in on people, add tangents, be funny, go with the flow. I never would have thought 60 minutes would feel long and relaxed, but compared to a 5-minute Ignite!, it was joyful. I felt so much more in my element. I’m really more of a long-form girl.

I am grateful for the opportunity, though. It pushed my skills as a presenter and forced me to tighten up my thinking. I learned a lot. Mostly, I learned to always have a turn-and-talk or something for the crowd to read at slide 3 so I can take a drink of water when my inevitable cotton mouth shows up. That’s the one thing I can count on.

Well, that and my friends.

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0 thoughts on “Ignite!

  1. I love the realness of this post, especially the scan of your notes. You did a great job!. Ignite talks are equal parts thrilling and terrifying and one of the most intense investments of time for such a short presentation. There are few other formats where the phrase “I need to work on the last 45 seconds of my presentation” don’t make people laugh.

    Way to go!

    1. Thanks so much, Robert! I wish I’d gotten to the place you were in before your ShadowCon talk. You were so prepared, which was part of why your talk was so powerful! I still have lots to learn about presenting from folks like you. 🙂

  2. I like how you broke down the four different types of group work, highlighted the need (and right) for individual time, and tied it to professional as well as classroom colleagues. Great framework to think about and build on!

  3. I re-experienced your Ignite! this morning, then had to stop in the supermarket to read your post as soon as i saw it :). Thanks for your insight into the format. Ignite looks interesting to me; as a fledgling PhD student, I gave a three minute talk about my research to a similar-sized crowd with no slides. For most academics, those three features are terrifyingly out of their comfort zone!

    It’s always interesting to compare someone’s perception of their performance with your own view. For what it’s worth, I thought you nailed it. (I think I used those exact words at the time ;).) You distilled a substantive amount of thinking on a key habit of mathematical work to its essence.

    So you stumbled over a couple of word choices. You might have done the same if you’d had it completely committed to memory (makes me think of Graham’s example of reading the book to his children — not the same, but similar). I understand too well the desire to have it perfect — if you don’t think it was perfect, it was pretty damn close!

    I suspect that you’ve given many more 60 minute presentations than 5 minute ones. So perhaps don’t be too quick to judge your compatibility with the format. What you say is so worthwhile that we need to hear both your elaborated long-form and your distilled short-form versions. 🙂

      1. I love ALL THE SMILEYS. 🙂 And thank you! I hope I didn’t come across as fishing for compliments. I genuinely wasn’t. Just processing.

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