Making conferences interesting: Fast-paced talks w/ Ignite and TEDx

Fast talks enliven conferences. Ignite and TEDx are two models of fast-paced, engaging and fun conferences which can be adapted for both public-oriented conferences and professional conferences. It’s a refreshing break from long lectures and panel discussions…

Ignite talks — Presenters get 20 slides and five minutes to make their point. I saw this for 2 hours yesterday morning at “Ignite Smithsonian,” during which 2 dozen speakers spoke and organizers showed a few fun video interludes. The organizers posted a video steam for anyone to watch online, and are planning to chop the stream into individual videos as well. The first Ignite took place in Seattle in 2006,  inspired by Pecha Kucha Nights (see below). Ignite was started by Brady Forrest, Technology Evangelist for O’Reilly Media, and Bre Pettis of, formerly of MAKE Magazine. The Ignite team at O’Reilly Media continue to serve as a mother ship, coordinating events to prevent overlaps, listing events that use their presentation model, and providing a suite of logos and branding. Ignite events sometimes also have contests. Anyone can run an event using the Ignite approach. See some tips from speaking coach Jill Foster on prepping for a short, appealing Ignite talk. Read how to run an Ignite event.

TEDx talks — Short, carefully prepared talks, demonstrations and performances in under 18 minutes. TED started out in 1984 to bring together people from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Originally, TED events were highly secretive, and attendees had to sign nondisclosure agreements, but in the 1990’s TED changed the paradigm, and made every TED talk available for free online. TED rose to notoriety because videos of their talks are often a lot of fun to watch. Owned by the nonprofit Sapling Foundation, TED’s business model sells expensive tickets to 1000+  well connected attendees (akin to Davos and Clinton Global Initiative). Profits are used to cover event costs, pay speakers’ travel expenses (no speaking fees), and provide the public a robust web site and online videos. As of July 2010, TEDTalks have been viewed 300 million times. TED grants free licenses for small, independent conferences to organize events under the TEDx brand that “maintain the spirit of TED itself: cross-disciplinary, focused on the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.” Regardless of whether branded as TEDx, anyone can adapt their guidelines for running an event. See TechDirt’s article on how posting free videos increased TED’s popularity and their ticket revenue. Read how to organize a TEDx event.

PechaKucha Night — 20 images x 20 seconds (6 minutes 40 seconds). The concept was a precursor to Ignite talks. Devised in Tokyo in February 2003 as an event for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public. Originally designed as a one-off event, it gained popularity in Tokyo and spread to other countries. The central organizers try to ensure only one event series per city, though encourage the PechaKucha 20×20 format to be used for any topic. Read about the format at

Lightning talks — The computer science community pioneered short presentations at the start of academic conferences, to give attendees a sneak peek of what was to come and help attendees decide what talks to attend. One of the first lightning talks was at a computer science conference about the Python language in 1997, where they were called ‘short talks.’

Some examples

For a sampling of past and upcoming events, see the social conference directory’s listings of Ignite events and TEDx events.

After an event

To share the knowledge from the event with a broader audience, Ignite encourages event organizers to blog about it, post presentations, and also upload a video. TEDx org also requires an audience survey be sent out, and other steps for closing out an event which are good tips for any conference organizer.


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