All Presentations Should Be Five Minutes Long

Last night I attended Ignite Seattle, a technology gathering unlike any I've seen before. Imagine 200 people packed in like sardines to watch a list of a diverse group of 25 people give rapid-fire talks to a captive, tech-savvy audience.

Anyone who knows PowerPoint presentations knows that a "five-minute presentation" after including setup time, switching between applications, waiting for your web browser demo to respond, etc., lasts a half hour but feels like an eternity. Ignite's presentation style is a slap in the face to convention: each presenter submits 20 slides which advance automatically every 15 seconds. Because the presentation laptop is already set up and has everyone's slides already on it, setup and tear-down time is kept to a minimum. There are no Q&A sessions, no awkward web app demos, no chat clients embarrassingly popping up messages, and none of the other annoyances that plague all levels of slideshow presentations.

The audience is a group that embraces every new technology out there. So many people had their MacBooks out and ready that there were deperate pleas for power outlets and I thought the wireless access point was going to be overwhelmed. (The presentation laptop was a MacBook Pro, and the camera recording presentations was hooked up to a different MacBook Pro.) I was pleased to note that the five-minute presentations were virtually devoid of Obligatory Corporate Logo-Filled Slides ("our customers"), mission statements, vision statements, and manifestoes. Trendy buzzwords like "blogosphere" and "folksonomy" were left off of presentation slides altogether; nobody wanted to stand accused of preaching to the converted.

Some presenters adapted their material well to the format. The best presentations were almost like short lectures where the slides in the background were very much a part of the background. Presenters who tried to "talk to" their slides by highlighting each bullet point fell so far behind they ended up missing slides entirely. My hat is off to Kathleen Dollard of GenDotNet, who traveled to Seattle from her home in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she works as a consultant. Kathleen had a vibrant, animated presentation that I swear was made to be given in 30 minutes; she ended up doing it at a speed six times as fast as normal, talking so quickly I honestly expected her to collapse at the end.

My one-time boss Scott, who closed the evening with a rousing talk about how he went from effigy to hero in one week, suggested to me today that 80% of the presentations were pitches of some kind. Of the notable presentations:

  • Two presentations, one by Beth Kolko of the University of Washington and one by Danyel Fisher of Microsoft Research, discussed the rapid growth of the Internet in developing nations in such places as southeastern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and rural Latin America. The images are fascinating and I'd like to see more than ten minutes' worth of reporting about this topic.
  • Two presentations, one by Dan Shapiro of Ontela and one by 3ric Johanson of the Shmoo Group, eschewed bullet points and text completely. They simply selected 20 photographs to play in a slideshow behind them, keeping our attention focused on the speaker. Good idea. (The Shmoo Group did not have anything to pitch besides their own conference next year; 3ric's colleague also stood in the background successfully hacking co-organizer Bre Pettis's voice mail during the presentation.)
  • Bruce Leban, now of Google but one of the forces behind Microsoft's popular Puzzle Hunt, described how to make a good puzzle. Then by doing some simple search-and-replace on the slides' text, he described how to make a good user interface. Lesson: If you want to design a good user interface, you must first learn to write puzzles.
  • Jonah Burke gave a somber, compelling presentation on The Darfur Wall, a project meant to raise money for charities to aid the relief efforts in the Sudan. Their page contains 400,000 numbers representing the largely anonymous death toll from the genocide to date. A donation of $1 lights one number up. Think of it as an altruistic version of the Million Dollar Homepage.

The whole event was fascinating and exhausting just to watch. I can't wait for the next Ignite event!