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Lightning Talks: A Guide for Beginners

A lightning talk is a very short talk where you share an idea, concept, or a bit of information you find interesting. They’re quick, easy, and a great way to practice. (Lovely example here!)

Planning: What Goes into a Lightning Talk?

A lightning talk should be about five minutes long, just long enough to give an overview and make people curious about your topic. You can talk about anything that’s related to the event’s general theme (in the case of PDX Python, anything even remotely related to Python).

First, you need a topic. Your topic might be:

  • A concept, process, or tool that you learned recently or are still learning
  • An idea for a website or product that would solve a problem you have
  • A retrospective, or what went right/wrong during a project you did or are doing
  • Anything relevant that the audience might be interested in knowing more about

Next, you need an outline for the content. Think about the audience, and the goal of your talk. Choose points to make that will be understandable by the audience and achieve your presentation goal. Remember how quickly five minutes goes by when choosing what to include!

Potential points of interest might be:

  • What could you use this for or when could you use it? Have you already used it? How?
  • When wouldn't it not be as useful? What are some contraindications to using it?
  • Resources related to the subject, including books, documentation, and URLs.
  • Are there any projects or companies that are using what you're sharing?
  • Is this something you'd like to collaborate with others on? Feel free to ASK!
  • What are some of the challenges related to using, building, or configuring what you're showing?

Preparation: Slides are Optional

You absolutely don’t need slides. However, if you’d like to make slides, use anything that you are comfortable with. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look polished, lightning talks don’t need to be! You might use Microsoft Word, Keynote, a PDF, or a web site. Even a simple terminal or console window where you enter commands can work well for presenting your ideas.

Keep in mind that the projector will be lower resolution, typically 1024x768, and that low-contrast slides don't present well. You’ll also need to make your terminal or console font very large so that everyone can see what you’re typing. If you're running code examples, have them written, debugged, and ready to go. Watching someone write code as they go can be great in a longer deep-dive type of talk, but it's not very well-suited to a lightning talk.

Live Demos: Proceed at Your Own Risk

You may have the urge to do a live demonstration of the thing you’re talking about. It seems like an easy way to help the audience see your vision, and it is… if it works! Following Murphy’s Law, however, we can deduce that your live demo will go horribly wrong. A failed demo can derail all but the most skilled presenters, but if you choose to do a demo and it goes wrong don’t worry! Have a backup story to tell that explains what the demo would have shown and revert to it if necessary.

Presenting: Your Own Five Minutes on Stage!

Take a deep breath and go for it. You are among friends, and nobody will mind if you make mistakes. Almost everyone starts out their public speaking career in the tech industry by giving lightning talks, so you can assume your audience has been in your shoes before. Throw caution to the wind and embrace your five minutes! :)

Practice can really help to soothe your nerves. Try it out on a friend. At PDX Python, we're not super strict on time, but it's good to time a run-through of your talk so can add or remove material if needed. Other events may enforce the time limit more strictly.

Be sure to bring everything you need to do your presentation. It’s wise to assume that the internet access will fail precisely when you need it. Load web pages you need into your browser beforehand. Bring the adapters you'd normally need to connect your laptop to a monitor or projector, and keep a backup copy of your presentation on a USB memory stick – laptops can and do fail, and this will allow you to use someone else’s laptop if the need arises.

The Follow Up: Audience Q&A and Individual Questions

After you’re finished speaking, the audience may have the opportunity to ask questions. You’ve given them some wonderful new information and they’re genuinely interested and want to know more. Sometimes people will ask things you don’t expect, or that you don’t know the answer to. It’s totally okay to say, “I’m not sure about the answer to that question, I’ll have to do some research,” or even just, “Thanks for asking that question. It’s a great one, and I don’t know the answer to it, yet!”

Sometimes people are too shy to ask questions during the public Q&A time, or they might think of their question too late. They may approach you after you are finished speaking to pose their question. If this happens to you, congratulations! You really piqued someone’s interest with your presentation. Don’t worry too much about having all the answers, you can think of it more as a continuing discussion about the topic with a potential new friend.

If you have your slide presentation or example code available online you can let the group know where to find it if you want to share it. Curious people may follow up with you if they’d like to collaborate or have feedback about your presentation.

Lightning Talks: A Guide for Beginners by Michelle Rowley of PDX Python is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.