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How to prepare and deliver a five-minute IGNITE speech

by Shari Graydon

I confess, I didn’t want to do it.

"Ignite" presenters at the March 9th Women Making Change Soireé included Meg Beckel, CEO of the Museum of Nature; Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua; youth engagement expert, Ilona Dougherty; and Informed Opinions' founder and catalyst, Shari Graydon, seen here with Minister of Women's Equality, Patty Hajdu, and MP Karina Gould, who also spoke at the event.

“Ignite” presenters at the March 9th Women Making Change Soireé included Meg Beckel, CEO of the Museum of Nature; Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua; youth engagement expert, Ilona Dougherty; and Informed Opinions’ founder and catalyst, Shari Graydon, seen here with Minister of Women’s Equality, Patty Hajdu, and MP Karina Gould, who also spoke at the event.


International Women’s Day 2016 had already delivered an abundance of workshop and speaking opportunities to me this year (eight in the space of 10 days, three of them out of town), and I didn’t need the added stress of trying to adapt my 20- or 30-minute presentation into five minutes.

Especially since the second constraint imposed by the “Ignite” format is that your five minutes must be accompanied by 20 (!) slides that automatically transition every 15 (?!) seconds. I’d once seen a world-famous architect fail to remain standing on that treadmill, and thought, “That’s insane!

Indeed, when I train others to speak, I discourage the inclusion of more slides than minutes. Partly because many presenters — in academia and government especially — remain attached to text-heavy slides — though I adamantly discourage those, too! A bad idea at the best of times, densely worded slides are particularly infuriating when only left up for 15 seconds.

The truth is that placing more than a few words on a slide forces your audience to choose between either reading those words, or listening to the ones coming out of your mouth. Research has shown that we can’t do both at the same time. Some will choose one, some will choose the other, and you’ll have no idea who’s following what.

Some presenters’ solution to the dilemma is to make their deck and their script identical. Another bad idea. Most people can read much more quickly than you can speak, and you reading the text on your slide aloud will simply make the assembled audience wonder why you didn’t just send them your notes and save them from having to show up in the first place.

All presentations are at least one part performance, and the imposed restrictions of the Ignite speech ratchet the performance dimension up a notch.

As any experienced speaker knows, it takes more time to prepare a compelling short speech than a longer one. You can’t waste time with throat clearing thank-yous; you have to get to the good stuff right away. (In fact, this is a recommended strategy for any length of speech.)

And when you’re on a restricted timer, you need a tight script. Having delivered two and three-minute commentaries for CBC radio and TV, I was familiar with the discipline required. I knew that repeated rehearsals in front of my computer (as opposed to in my head on my morning walk) would be necessary.

But I have enormous respect for Julia Sanchez and her colleagues at the Canadian Council on International Cooperation, and they were keen to accommodate the suggestion of Meg Beckel, CEO of the Museum of Nature, who was hosting the Women Making Change soireé. Her pitch was that the Ignite format made for a much livelier evening, and the presentations — if done well — would spark conversation and engagement. So I re-allocated some sleep and recreation hours to invest the necessary time to exercise some rusty muscles.

In selecting my content, I excerpted one story from material I deliver often, included two easily-explained pieces of research, and added in a current cultural reference that I thought would resonate. I then raided my new book and a friend’s Facebook page for some additional large format images to supplement the ones I already use, and kept the text to an absolute minimum. (60% contained only images, and the others all had fewer than 10 words apiece.)

Museum of Nature staff requested our slides two days in advance of the event so they could queue the four decks up in the assigned order. This meant no messing with the sequence during the rehearsal phase, which is something I almost always do. For me, the process of imagining the presentation in a focused way involves revisiting who I’m speaking to, how I can best engage them, and what I want their take-aways to be. Fiddling with my deck is usually involved.

On the other hand, being tied to the already submitted order forced me not to make last-minute changes. And although I didn’t memorize my script word for word, I did make sure that I could deliver the content associated with each slide easily within 15 seconds, and that the images themselves cued the best path into that content.

The clearest advantage of a 5-minute speech from a performance perspective is that you can practice it a dozen times in a little more than an hour. So I did.

In the process, I built in pauses. Because research suggests that people remember less what you say, and more what they think about what you say. This means that unless you give them time to digest your words, their recall of your message will be minimal.

At the event, I had the advantage of speaking first, diminishing my opportunity to become intimidated by the brilliance of others, or distracted by the less-than-ideal room set up. (Although the venue was beautiful, the two wall-mounted video monitors were many feet to either side of the lectern, forcing audience members to choose between watching the presenter, or watching her slides.)

The pressure of the format also delivered more of an adrenalin boost than usual (some label this nerves, but I think the trick is to embrace the momentum you get from a racing heart!) And it was over before I knew it.

I would do it again if asked.

From an audience’s perspective, in particular, I can see the appeal. Most of us have at least 5 minutes of interesting content, and the approach did ignite subsequent conversations.

But as a presenter, what I didn’t like was that the transitioning slides prevented me from making room for the audience’s response. When people laughed and wanted to express appreciation with applause mid-way through, I had to interrupt the spontaneous exchange to keep up with the clock.

For me, one of the pay-offs of presenting is the relationship you create with people in the room. The rigidity of the Ignite format limits the possibility of that.

But it’s still a great way to discipline yourself to do less with more, to become clear about what’s most important, and to rehearse — out loud, repeatedly — in advance of the presentation.

In fact, afterwards, it occurred to me that Informed Opinions could apply our hands-on theory-plus-practice workshops to the Ignite form. The exercise of adapting content to such restrictions might really help those accustomed to an hour-long lecture or meeting format to let go of text-heavy slides and master concision.

In the meantime, I’ll be incorporating some of the insights I gained into the full-day session I’m delivering on Building Your Presentation Impact April 12th in Ottawa. A few spaces remain open and you can register here.

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