LightningTalks Howto

From HacDC Wiki

how not to run lightning talks!

by user:obscurite 11/21/2010

Since I'm no longer a DC denizen, and since my buddy William Gibb has been asking about taking over the Lightning Talks, I decided to commit my hard earned wisdom scars to the annals of HacDC. Since a wiki document is alive, it's likely that by the time you read this it may not be the document I originally created, but a much better one. Bullet points are in no particular order and are sloppily organized -- I'm sorry. Happy lightning talking.

HacDC Lightning Talks entry: LightningTalks


  • It takes weeks to collect a dozen speakers, so send email blasts to every listserv you can 2 months before the event, 1 month before the event, and 2 weeks before the event.
  • IRC channels like #hacdc are also a surprisingly effective way to snag cool speakers. Speculation on the social implications of this observation have been removed by the author's better judgement.
  • Specify that speakers MUST send you their talk title and a description when they contact you. You want to screen out anything really wacky (religious, total crackpot, etc).
  • Specify that slides are optional or required. I prefer leaving it up the speaker, as some talks use props or audience interactions instead of slides. Just make sure the speaker makes this decision up front so they don't show up to a talk that needs slides without them.
  • Make sure that speakers are asked to provide special needs like audio amplification/mics, or live video. They must specify if they do not want their photo or video taken beforehand (make this crystal clear). Slides are run off a central computer, so if speakers need to use their own computer, they should also specify this.
  • Speakers will often leave slides until the last minute, so make a deadline at least 3 days before the event to give stragglers a chance to catch up.
  • Update the WIKI as you accept talks. Have a section under "upcoming lightning talks" with speakers and cancellations, with their topics and the speaker names. This will be useful for MC'ing when the time comes and lets people know what to expect.
  • Email each speaker when you receive their talk proposal to tell them if it's accepted and ask them about slides, special needs, permission to take photos/videos, tell them about the deadline, etc.
  • Keep your own private comma separated list of names/emails to paste into emails to the speakers.
  • Email the speakers no later than one weeks before the event to remind them that slides are due and where and when the event is.
  • Email the speakers 48 hours before the event to remind them. It's amazing how quickly people forget and never put things on their calendar... seriously - your speakers will forget and go drink beer instead.
  • Make sure you get your space (at St. Stephens or wherever) booked before you announce the event date. It can be a pain to let people know of changed dates, so it's easier to double confirm the reservation first. Good weather and low competition for cool things going on that night can result in up to 50-100 attendees if the event is very well announced/publicized, while it can be as few as 10-20 on an off night.
  • It may be nice to announce that after the speakers there will be some sort of social -- going to a bar or whatever. This depends on your energy level.
  • If a talk is an obvious win (interesting, novel, funny, etc) then approve it right away. If a talk is on the fence (for example a company giving a sales presentation) then hold off. In my experience, most talks are worth approving right away, so this is rarely a real issue.
  • Always get at least 2 backup speakers, for a total of 14 approved talks. Worst case scenario, you have 2 bonus talks. Generally at least 1-2 people are no-shows.
  • If you are running short of speakers, ask for a volunteer or two for the missing spots. Some of the best talks are just from people in the audience talking about the cool stuff they do.
  • Keep a master list of past and potential speakers to farm for future talks. Consider making a list for these folks. Sometimes people want to speak but it takes them several months for the timing to work out.
  • When you see cool projects, contact those involved to ask about presenting. Never pass up something/someone with a cool idea for the lighting talks! Get them onto your speakers list if they bite. I've done this mentally in the past but an actual list would work a lot better.


  • Say something nice and fun t the crowd, like "Thanks for coming to the lightning talks. We have some awesome and fabulous talks about crazy stuff. HacDC is a nonprofit hackerspace that puts on great events like these. Support us with a donation or consider becoming a member! Lightning talks are 5 minutes long -- please save your inevitable questions for the end of our show, thanks!"
  • If speakers invite audience participation that's cool, but people who interrupt with questions should be firmly asked to save it until the end. Tough love will keep the event running smoothly.
  • Run the slides off a Mac - they are less vulnerable to the viruses that speakers will inadvertently include in their presentations, and they tend to "just work". Adobe reader works better than some versions of the Mac preview program for slides. (this bullet point is at the discretion of the organizer of course, and if they are stupid enough to use a PC that's cool and good luck getting linux to work).
  • Start a timer with an audible ring when each speaker gets up to speak. Give a 1 minute warning (DO NOT BE AFRAID TO INTERRUPT THE SPEAKER. YOU ARE THE BOSS MAN/WOMAN!)
  • When the timer goes off after 5 minute, politely but firmly tell the speaker they are out of time, and if they continue more than another 30 seconds, STAND UP AND SPEAKER OVER THEM and announce the next speaker.
  • Announce speaker's name and talk title before they come up in a clear voice.
  • Try to arrange the order of the talks so that there is a good heterogeneous mixture of serious/technical and light/nontechnical throughout the talks to break things up. Knowing the speaking style of the folks helps, but generally try to mix it up and keep people guessing. Feel free to save a zinger for the end. :)
  • Try to announce the talk order when the event starts, but generally let people know when they're coming up to speak as soon as you can. I've sometimes told people while someone was speaking that they were next, which has worked out surprisingly well, but somehow doesn't seem ideal.


  • Make sure wifi is available at the meeting place, but let speakers know that internet isn't a guarantee, but a hope. This will prevent people from relying solely on websites -- which hasn't been a problem in the past, but could become one very quickly when the internet is down for any given reason.
  • Set up the screen, projector, and laptop at least 30 minutes before showtime. If A/V is available, make sure that is working too. Tape down power cords preferably. Get a posse together (3-4 people max) to help out.
  • Load and test the slides on the laptop before the event (preferably 24 hours before) if possible to catch stupid things like format conversion errors or whatever.
  • Make sure you have a VGA adapter or DVI adapter or both depending on what project is used. This can be a real PITA if the laptop with the slides doesn't have the right adapter.
  • Set the Projector where people on both sides of the room can see it. If the speaker/podium is blocking the screen from one side, ask the audience to sit on the side of the room where it's visible.
  • Have a designated A/V person to record, encode, and post the videos. This historically is a hard thing to nail down, but anyone with an iphone3gs+ or mini camcorder can fill in. Organize this at least two weeks beforehand and have a backup if possible.
  • At the very least, make sure someone takes decent photos of the crowd and at least one speaker for the website. Once I forgot to do this and I felt really crappy. Pics or it didn't happen, as they say.
  • Organizer should post the slides to the wiki after the event and blast the speakers to let them know.


  • Prepare your slides by the deadline and revise them if needed before the event. Do not save this for the last second, or you will be missing out on making your talk as good as it can be. Just a little prep time goes a loooong way.
  • Speak in a clear, audible voice. Ask the audience if they can hear you in the back and speak up if not.
  • Practice and time your talk at least once to get the major kinks out and make sure the timing is right. Many speakers think they're giving a 5 minute talk, and only get halfway through when the alarm goes off because they didn't practice.
  • It's better to finish at 3 or 4 minutes than to run out of time and not finish!
  • Be natural and relaxed, don't try to fake it. If you're comfortable the audience will be too!
  • If you're doing slides with any kind of multimedia, make sure the presentation converts to a format that can be played reliably on the presentation laptop being used (probably a Mac). It's not uncommon for sounds or video clips to get lost or fonts to get out of wack. PDF is a safe bet, though not as sexy.
  • Don't count on internet access. It'll probably be there, but it may not be. Email your slides to the organizer on time and in a format they can display.
  • If you need to do anything unusual like connect to remote servers, display videos, amplify audio, etc, then TELL THE ORGANIZER ASAP.
  • If you plan to use some kind of novel presentation format like 100% audience participation please tell the organizer ASAP.
  • The organizer is responsible for the safety of all attendees and speakers. Do exactly what they tell you to do, please.
  • The MC will tell you when you have 1 minute remaining. If you're falling behind, summarize and bring the talk to an end as gracefully as possible. Don't leave the audience in the middle of your talk.


  • What is a lightning talk?
    • Lightning talks are serial 5 minute presentations. The mode of the presentation is arbitrary but most often takes on the traditional form of slides and progressive explanation. The topic is more or less arbitrary within bounds of reason and should appeal to the sensibilities of the intended audience.
  • Who can give a lightning talk?
    • Anyone can give a lightning talk on any topic and no standard of expertise is officially required, though a well researched talk is always preferred.
  • How long is a lightning talks event?
    • Lightning talks are typically about one hour long, with 10-14 speakers.
  • Can I ask questions?
    • Yes, if the speaker invites them, but otherwise wait until after the speakers are done for a QA session.
  • How do I become a speaker?
    • Get your a talk title and description to the organizer or MC right away. Your contribution is welcomed.
  • Why are lighting talks 5 minutes long instead of 10 or 15 minutes? Too short!
    • While you're right that lightning talks are limited in scope due to time constraints, that's the point. The brevity serves two main purposes. First, the audience doesn't have a chance to lose interest - a good lightning talks generates more questions than it provides answers, much like good art. Second, speakers have limited pressure because they are only responsible for entertaining or educating the audience for 5 minutes, and lightning talks are supposed to be low-pressure and inclusive. Hopefully now you understand why 5 minutes is an ideal length for a lightning talk. Questions can be asked during QA for more details and talk slides are posted to the wiki after the event.