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Some guidelines on how to give a lightning talk
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Some handy guidelines on giving a lightning talk

Many conferences offer the opportunity to give lightning talks. These are short 3-5 minute talks that you give at a conference or meeting. Typically you sign up for them at the meeting and there will be several people giving talks within a given session.

Lightning talks are great opportunities to highlight what you're working on and can be on many different topics, including technical talks, community building, project updates, documentation and many more! Lightning talk sessions that have a variety of topics are the most interesting! There's not a selection process in most lightning talk sign-ups so it's a great opportunity to have a diversity of topics and speakers. If you're considering whether or not to sign up for a lightning talk, sign up! You are at that conference, working on something that brought you there. You have something interesting and important to say!

The short format is great because you're not up presenting for that long. It can also be intimidating though, because there's an improv type feel to them. However, it doesn't have to be like that. You can prepare for a lightning talk just like a longer format talk. In fact, outlining what you want to say and practicing a few times can be even more effective, because you have just a few minutes to get your main point across.

So, what do you put into a lightning talk? I'm sure there a lot of ideas, but I basically consider them like that leading paragraph in a newspaper article. Hit the key information and tell people where they can learn more. Since newspapers follow a Who, What, When, Where, Why format, we can follow that same general format for a lightning talk (in a slightly different order).

Components of a Lightning Talk

  • Who
  • What
  • Why
  • How
  • When upon
  • Where


Who are you? What gives you the perspective to give this talk?

Introductions are important. Especially if you're from a group that is under-represented in the field of the meeting, it (disappointingly) helps to establish your credibility. It also helps the audience understand your perspective for the talk though, so it's always useful.

Example: I’m Tracy Teal and I’m a graduate student in mathematical ecology studying ecological models of fluffy-tailed mammals.


What are you going to talk about?

What is it that you're going to talk about in your lightning talk. Let the audience know right away, so they know what it's about and can put the rest of your talk into context.

Example: I’m going to talk about the model we’ve developed to understand the ecological dynamics of squirrels on university campuses.


Why is this an interesting and/or important issue?

Why should people care about this topic?

Example: This is particularly interesting because with current campus squirrel trends, squirrels are going to drive out all other fauna and potentially exclude the student population. We had to develop a new model however, because existing ones were developed for non-fluffy tailed mammals, so we had to incorporate that in our model. This model will be appropriate for this particular issue, but will also be a resource for other fluffy-tailed mammal studies.


How are you doing this work or approaching this problem?

At a technical focused conference, there's a tendancy to focus most of the lightning talk on this component. However, if people are interested in the topic, they can most easily find out about how you're doing the work by looking at your existing documentation or github repo, so you don't necessarily need to spend that much time on it. Sometimes the 'how' is the novel element that you want to discuss, but you can introduce why the new 'how' is important and still hit the highlights here.

Example: We created an R package that build on the multi-variate statistics R package 'vegan' and extends it to include tail length and fluffiness.

When upon

When upon. What are the results of this work or what are potential outcomes?

OK, this isn't quite 'when'. The idea here is 'when upon' your solution or approach is implemented or used what are the results or potential outcomes.

Example: So far using this model we’ve seen that in the west coast the squirrel population is set to take over the student population, but in the midwest there’s less of a trend. We think this might be because of temperature differences and people eating outside year round and leaving food, versus eating inside, so we’re going to investigate that next. Also our fluffy-tail model has been adopted by people in the skunk community, where they found it more appropriate.


Where. Where can people learn more about the project or where to contribute?

People are now really excited about your project or work! Where can they learn more or go to contribute to the project. This is the big win! If you're looking for contributors this is where they can join, or if you want to provide a new tool or information on how to do community organizing, this is where people can find that information. They'll remember your great talk, but this is what they can take home with them and follow up on.

Example: To find out more about this project, we have a github repo and a website.


Practicing can be helpful, so you get your timing down, and also so you feel more comfortable once you're on the stage. Even if you sign up that morning, since it's short, you can run through a practice during a break. Grab a friend or even a peer you just met at the meeting, and ask if you could practice for 3 minutes.

Another advantage of putting together a talk and a short slide deck and practicing is that you now have a talk ready to go for the future. It could be another conference or a short stand up in your organization. Or maybe it can be some interesting elevator conversation.


These notes are from a talk I gave at the Diversity lunch at SciPy 2017. The participants at that lunch developed an idea and 'pitched' that idea to each other at the lunch. They provided great support to each other, and gave some amazing talks on the future of Jupyter, Python packages, programmable buildings, a project on sustainable software and a software developer onboarding program at Clover Health! There were even more sign ups for lightning talks than there were spots. After this encouragement and opportunity to practice, the diversity of lightning talk speakers increased dramatically from the first day to the last. So, supporting people to give lightning talks could be a pathway to more diverse speakers at a conference and creating a more inclusive community.

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