Struck by 'Lightning'

Karen Hoelscher on the conference format that's like speed dating, only instead of meeting a new person, you meet a new topic every 10 minutes -- and go home with new ideas, instead of a new partner.

August 30, 2010

You know the drill: as you approach the podium for your presentation you mentally rehearse your catchy opening, visualize your main points and corresponding examples, and remind yourself to allow time for a spirited discussion at the end of your one-hour session.

Hold on a minute. You don’t have an hour this time. You have ten minutes. That’s right, ten minutes. And you’ve submitted ten PowerPoint slides that will advance automatically, one per minute, when the session facilitator displays your first slide.

You’re presenting a lightning talk, and two or three other fast talkers are presenting right after you, in the same hour.

Sort of like speed dating, only instead of meeting a potential dating partner, lightning talk attendees meet a new topic every ten minutes. And, like speed dating, if one of the lightning topics interests you about as much as listening to Uncle Andy describe his gall bladder extraction, no worries – a new topic is coming right up.

Recently I had the chance to deliver a lightning talk at the 26th Annual Distance Learning and Teaching Conference in Madison, Wisc. I was curious about how this new session format would be received by attendees, presenters, and conference organizers who were experimenting with lightning talk sessions for the first time.

Leafing through the advance program I noted myriad lightning topics: using iPhone enhanced instruction, establishing visual presence in the virtual classroom, evolving interactive Adobe Presenter lectures, learning to fly in 3D immersive settings, and using effective strategies with Gen Y’ers in the online classroom. Ten minutes on any of these topics would be like a snack at a tapas bar. Intriguing.

To expand my perspective, I decided to attend multiple lightning talk sessions, interview presenters, attendees, and conference organizers, and research the history of this super speedy presentation format.

What I learned surprised me.

Lightning-like sessions have been in the computer presentation world for nearly a decade, with as many variations on the theme as there are types of lightning (9 by my count).

According to Paul Anjeski, who facilitated the trio of lightning talkers in my session, the format promised a series of hallway conversations on a wide range of ideas grouped around a theme.

Conference organizers Jane Terpstra, Kimary Peterson, and Louise Fowler expected these “grab and go” multiple topic sessions to complement the traditional experience of sitting through longer sessions that focused more deeply on one topic.

They scheduled lightning talks in two types of venues at the conference: in trios or quartets during 45- or 60-minute sessions where people listened attentively in rows of chairs, and at an informal evening social where attendees munched appetizers in a ballroom and wandered from corner to corner, where vendors and university types hit them with their best 10-minute lightning talk shots.

During the conference I dug a little deeper and learned how the lightning talk concept evolved from the business world.

In 2003, Tokyo-based architects Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham developed a precursor to lightning talks called Pecha Kucha (“Peh-cha kuh-cha”), borrowing a Japanese reference to the sound of conversation. It was conceived as a rapid-fire way – 20 slides, 20 seconds each -- to attract people to an experimental event space where young designers could meet, show their work, exchange ideas, and network.

Since then, Pecha Kucha Nights have sprung up in over 80 cities around the world, where professionals use a limited number of slides to not only show their creative work, but speak about their travels, life experiences, hobbies, collections, or other interests.

The evenings consist of a dozen or so presentations where each person shows 20 slides, each displayed for 20 seconds and advancing automatically, during a period of 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

The success of the Pecha Kucha form, as with lightning talks, depends on the presenter’s personality, strength of ideas, and ability to tell a clear, succinct story using images, text, white space, and words.

My lightning session slides mimicked the Pecha Kucha model before I learned about it.

Most of my slides contained photos and a small amount of text to provide a visual connection to the story I told about my topic: developing roleplay video for streaming to my teacher education course website. As I’d expected, it was challenging to stick to my outline of simple points and ignore the urge to profess. Really challenging.

My opening slide featured a small map of the U.S. pinpointing the location of my hometown and my university affiliation. And my closing slide provided a set of takeaways encouraging attendees to replicate my project. In between, eight slides told the story of how I recruited theater students and local educators as actors and cajoled a university videographer to shoot and edit the footage. With no budget.

To get feedback about the overall value of the lightning talk format, I lingered after various sessions to see what people were thinking. Most of my informants had attended several rounds of lightning sessions during the conference and weren’t shy to share.

As conference organizers had hoped, listeners appreciated learning a little about a lot of different topics they could investigate further. They left them wanting more, which is a likely goal of every presenter.

Attendees raved about how much fun it was to pick up tidbits, snippets, and quick ideas about all kinds of topics. Many noted the value of learning practical applications they would use in their work, and their intention to connect with a presenter or two during the conference to ask follow-up questions. It was clear: the lightning topic sessions got peoples’ heads spinning with ideas.

As good consumers, they also had ideas about improving the lightning talk format. Like encouraging presenters to use less text and more images, be more spare and well-rehearsed in their remarks, create links at the conference website for more information, and make themselves available immediately after the session in case people have questions. And to go with the flow as their slides advanced, rather than being surprised and apologizing for talking too much.

Conference-goers eagerly look forward to lightning sessions at the 2011conference and suggest they be more clearly clustered around topics. Several people suggested having sessions repeated, or, better yet, having one continuous track (versus several) of lightning talk sessions running throughout the entire conference. This would allow them to pick and choose and not have to miss any lightning talk sessions.

Presenters were equally enchanted with the lightning talk format, appreciating the challenge of creating short, targeted presentations that required them to be precise about their goals, versus having a long leash that allowed verbal walkabouts during their presentation. “It’s a new art form,” one presenter observed, “one that I ought to use more in my teaching.”

Like many professors presenting lightning talk sessions, I was intrigued by the opportunity to share the stage and present a few ideas in a few minutes, using a few slides. In fact, I plan to use the 20/20 Pecha Kucha format to introduce myself to my students as the new academic year begins, and invite them to do the same.

Indeed, any shred of astraphobia I may have harbored prior to my lightning talk experience has vanished. Who knows? Now that I’ve tamed my fear of lightning and thunder my next career move may involve something like, say, fulminology.

Seems like once you’ve conquered your apprehension of something new, it’s time to study it in earnest.


Karen Hoelscher served on the design team for the original version of the Oregon Trail computer simulation produced (c. 1983) by the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC), and evaluated videodisc technology with law students at Harvard University, where she earned an education doctorate. She is professor of education at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.


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