Four Steps to a Lightning Talk

Lightning talks are all the rage right now. They’re a short-form presentation talk usually lasting around three to five minutes. They’re a good way to communicate new ideas quickly and to start conversations.

Every year, my program’s student chapter of the American Library Association hosts QuasiCon, a day-long conference for information students and professionals. QuasiCon is a small, low-stakes conference, providing a good atmosphere for students to give their first professional conference presentations. This year, I decided to give a lightning talk, a presentation format that was entirely new to me. Here’s the general process that I followed when preparing my presentation, as well as some tips that would have made my presentation a lot better.

1. Find a topic

First, do some brainstorming about what you want to say. I started from a paper I’d written for class. Unlike a full conference presentation, though, you’re going to have to condense your paper down into five or so minutes. Don’t make the mistake of trying to hit on all the points from your paper in those five minutes; there’s no way you’re going to be able to do that. Instead, pick one point. That’s the point that you’re going to talk about in your presentation.

One way to brainstorm from a paper would be to write down all the arguments you make in that paper and then narrow them down to the ones you’d most like to talk about. You might ask yourself which of the topics are most applicable to the conference you’re attending, which of the topics are the most novel, and which of the topics require the least amount of background knowledge from your audience.

2. Prepare

After seeing other people’s lightning talks, I think mine faltered the most because it lacked a story. If at all possible, find something within your topic that you can talk about as if you were having a conversation with someone else. Because of its short format, the lightning talk lends itself to a more informal presentation style, perfect for storytelling. Provide your audience with a narrative!

When preparing your lightning talk, avoid giving a lot of background knowledge. Some is certainly going to be necessary, but don’t get caught up in giving the whole history of your topic—you just don’t have time for that.

At this point, you should be ready to put together a PowerPoint (or some other visual aid), if you think you’re going to need it. PowerPoints can be very useful for lightning talks: they can provide a space to display extra data that you don’t have the time to talk about or they can be a place to show funny gifs to keep the audience interested in what you’re saying. The main thing with PowerPoints is to make sure they’re working for you. Don’t make slides that are too distracting because then your five minutes will be over and no one will have heard what you’ve said.

3. Practice

You should always practice presentations, but with only five minutes you definitely need to practice. Practicing will not only make you feel more confident when it comes time to present, but will also shed light on whether or not you’re within the time limits.

Remember to keep in mind how you talk when you’re under a bit of stress. I, for example, tend to speed up. This isn’t a good thing, but is important to remember when you’re timing yourself. Also, the good news is, the more you practice the less nervous you’ll be.

Make sure to practice with your PowerPoint, if you’re using it, as well. You don’t want to be fumbling with slide transitions in the middle of your presentation and taking up precious seconds.

4. Present

You know what you’re going to say, you’ve got all the visual aids you need, and you’ve practiced—you’re all set! Now take a deep breath, get up there, and tell your story.


Looking for more presentation tips? Check out these past posts from Carissa and Brianna.


Zoë McLaughlin is a Master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or at her personal blog.

Featured image by Carolina Ödman at Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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