5 tips to a killer Ignite presentation

Two weeks ago, I attended one of my favorite local events of the year: Ignite. In case you’re not familiar, Ignite is a worldwide phenomenon. What started as a relatively small event in Seattle in 2006, has now grown into 200-plus events around the globe.

Our version in Minneapolis has been around for three years–I’ve been lucky enough to attend the last two.

What makes Ignite so great isn’t the free beer. Or, the camaraderie (although that is great). Or, the venues (this year at The Heights was fantastic).

It’s the presentations.

For me, Ignite is a chance to sit back, relax and support some of my colleagues who take the stage. But, it’s also a chance to analyze and learn about the art of the presentation.

Because make no mistake about it, presenting is an art form. But, one that can be learned, practiced and perfected.

Each year, it’s great to see the variety of topics and presentation styles at Ignite. And it’s great to see people who don’t take the stage all that often at the usual conferences and events around town get five minutes to share their humor, a story or a how-to presentation.

But, during the last two Ignites I haven’t been able to resist the urge to analyze and critique the presenters–even if it was just internally in my mind. I can’t help it–this thing never shuts off 😉

And, over those last two years, I’ve noticed that there are certain keys. Predictors of success for a killer Ignite presentation–and when I say “killer” I mean one that solicits audience reaction. After all, isn’t that the purpose of Ignite? Sure, I want to learn, but I really want to be entertained. If I want deep, meaningful content, I have other venues in town to get that.

So, I share with you my 5 tips to a killer Ignite presentation (featuring videos and examples from last year’s Ignite):

* Body language is everything. If you get up on stage, stand behind the podium and stare at the screen for five minutes, you may find more folks getting up to refresh their Surly. But, if you use hand gestures, pace around the stage and use turns and twists effectively, it makes all the difference. There are so many things I love about Jennifer Kane’s epic “Douchebag Zen” presentation from Ignite 2009 (I wasn’t there, sadly), but her body language on stage is key to her success as a presenter. This is a must watch if you haven’t seen it yet.

* Don’t be afraid to poke a little fun at yourself. The best speakers I know are self-depricating–not arrogant. Cockiness doesn’t play in a presentation setting. Confidence is fine. Arrogance is something altogether difference. And it doesn’t work. Believe me. Try to make a few jokes at your expense at the outset of the presentation. Soften the audience up. Let them know you don’t take yourself too seriously. Then hammer them with your message. Last year, Julie Kucinski did a great job of injecting humor into her presentation. Content-wise, I though Julie was the cream of the crop in 2010.

* Own the stage. You can almost tell the people at Ignite that are going to rock it in the first two minutes they’re on stage. Why? Because they have a presence. They own the stage. What do I mean by that? They have attitude. They have confidence (not arrogance). And they believe in what they’re saying–and they’re having fun. At Ignite this year, Matt Ellsworth took a lot of heat for his presentation, but I thought it was brilliant. He OWNED that damn stage–whether you liked his content or not, you can’t take that away from him. Last year, I think back to Meghan Wilker’s presentation on Bollywood. The moment she got on that stage, she had energy and enthusiasm and it just kinda rolled her through the entire presentation.

* Tell stories. Lots of them. At Ignite Minneapolis, I though Jim Bernard of the Star Tribune did a wonderful job here. He worked in a number of stories about his winless softball team that absolutely made the presentation. Stories are probably the most important facet of any presentation. Without them, you have only facts, figures and a lame-ass Powerpoint presentation. With them, you have a presentation the touches hearts, minds and souls. And hopefully, something that will compel the audience to act in some way, shape or form. It’s tough with Ignite since the slides switch so quickly, and time is of the essence, but I thought Kristin Halvoson did a great job of working stories into her presentation last year (although she did talk about Mr. Clooney a bit too much for my taste).

* Experiment–and have fun for the love of God. It’s Ignite–it’s not TED. We’re drinking free beer in the audience. We want to laugh. We want to have a good time. Let us. As a presenter, that means HAVE SOME FUN! It also means experimenting with the presentation format. This year, Matt Ellsworth took some big risks with his presentation–and he took some heat for it online and at the Heights Theater. But, I thought it was brilliant. He took risks. He experimented. And, he was having fun. Got my laughs. Last year, I thought Meghan Seawell did the same thing. Hell, she even experimented with a hardcore Minnesota accent (although I’m not sure everyone picked up on that at the time).

Note: Photo courtesy of IgniteMpls via FlickR Creative Commons.

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12 comments on “5 tips to a killer Ignite presentation

  1. I think you can actually tell in the first 30 seconds which presenters are going to rock it…

    I think rehearsal makes a big difference. I spoke at Ignite DC last year, and I was terrified… TERRIFIED. Speak/present on PR/SM and at PR/SM conferences? No problem. Speak in the Ignite format to a bunch of techies? Oh God, can someone dig my hole for me already, please? So I rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed (had some terrific help in the form of @jillfoster) – and I ended up loving it.

    I did a post on my learnings from Ignite a while back, and a couple of things I’d add are: for heaven’s sake, don’t stand behind the podium. It’s tantamount to hiding from the audience. And please, please don’t read your notes. It’s just 5 minutes. If someone’s been lucky enough to have been chosen for Ignite, they should at least be able to go through their presentation without reading it. That also helps if something goes wrong (it will), because in that situation, you have to ad-lib.

  2. Thanks for the compliment, Arik! I think the energy you saw in that presentation came from how much I loved the topic and how excited I was to tell people more about it.

    But, like Shonali, I was TERRIFIED. You can hear my voice start to waver at the end as the adrenaline started wearing off. For whatever reason (the free beer? the tweeting?) that audience is incredibly intimidating.

    But I’m really glad I did it and I agree: Ignite Minneapolis is cool. And if you don’t like a presentation or a topic, just wait 5 minutes. 🙂

  3. arikhanson says:

    Funny–I was going to add a line about hiding behind the podium. Good add. I don’t remember anyone doing that this year.

    However, there were a few moments where the slides skipped and people did have to improv. That didn’t go as well and brings up another key point–expect the unexpected. Yes, you need to rehearse and practice, but you need to be ready for what happens when you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

  4. arikhanson says:

    I just remember your prezo because you brought so much energy to that first minute–and that makes all the difference at Ignite. I’m not surprised to hear you say you were terrified–it’s a tough gig. Which is why, even for the people that really lay an egg, I give everyone the utmost credit for just getting up on that stage. Like you said, the crowd is extremely intimidating and it takes a lot of guts to get up there. That said, one of my other tips would be to attend an Ignite before you present. Get a feel for what kind of prezos work–and which don’t. Get a feel for the crowd. What they respond to. What works for other speakers. Seemed kinda obvious this year the people who hadn’t attended an Ignite in the past.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hey Arik–thanks for the shout out. I was at the last Ignite and was so inspired by the folks you mentioned that I knew I had to give it a whirl. It was gratifying to connect with the audience, doesn’t happen all that often on such a scale. One of the things that makes Ignite so cool…

  6. Jim, I wasn’t at this year’s Ignite but I watched the livestream from home and your presentation was awesome! Nice job. 🙂

  7. Thanks, Arik! I’m honored to be included in this list. Your advice is great. Ignite is a really interesting art form. For all its rules, it leaves so much room for play. And no matter what direction you choose to take it, your advice works – own it. Dontcha know. 🙂

  8. Kent says:

    Nice article. I believe Steve Job is the best presenter in our century. He uses the same techniques as well in his presentation, the book called “The Secrets of Steve Job Presentation” mentioned some of the point as well.

  9. I’d never heard of ignite until i read this post.


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