When Life Gives You Lightning

Mark Twain once wrote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one.”

A lightning talk is the modern day equivalent of Twain’s letter. Each presentation is only five minutes long. The challenge lies in delivering something of value within that short timeframe. Lightning talks are a cornerstone of the software industry - especially within the Ruby community - and regularly occur during conferences and meetups. The goal of Hungry Academy is not just to teach us coding but also to bring us into the wider development world - which makes preparing and giving lightning talks an important part of the Hungry Academy curriculum. Every Friday morning, 8-12 of us deliver a talk on the topic of the week. Topics so far have ranged from the Ruby community at large to authentication and testing tools.

Why Important

Lightning talks are great for two reasons. They allow developers a less formal and less intimidating forum to practice presentation skills. Because of the nature of our work, we often do not have many opportunities to practice “soft” business skills. In the past this has led to developers taking the role of code monkeys that simply need to be fed tasks. Ironically, developers are in fact excellent problem solvers, and given the opportunity they can contribute greatly to the direction of their companies. Lightning talks help bridge the communications gap, turning mere coders into business leaders.

Meanwhile, giving a presentation in under five minutes reqires a clear, concise understanding of the topic. Your mastery will continue develop as you educate others. Lightning talks are a good skill to foster, increasing both soft business skills and technical mastery.

Tips on Preparing

Because lightning talks are shorter, preparing for them is different than for a standard presentation.

Here are five tips for success:

1) Center your talk around one point and make that point as early as possible. Although you usually have 5 minutes for the lightning talk, if the point can be made in two - take two. 2) Keep background information to a minimum. The audience for most lightening talks is made up of smart, problem solving individuals. They don’t need their hands held. Just make your point. 3) Slides are not required. Think of a lightning talk as a conversation you have with a group of your friends, but they keep quiet for five minutes. A fancy chart isn’t necessary to make your point. 4) DO NOT LIVE CODE. EVER. DON’T DO IT. DON’T EVEN TRY. Murphy’s law will bite you. Use a screencast or screenshot instead. 5) Practice. Your presentation is five minutes but without practice it is just a waste of your audience’s time. Remember who is watching - people who live and breathe efficiency.

Check back on the Hungry Academy site in the next few days and weeks as we begin publishing screencasts and videos from our weekly lightning talks!