Lessons Learned From Failing to Give a Lightning Talk

Originally published on 11/30/2015

15 slides, 7 minutes and 30 seconds, and the slides advance every 30 seconds, whether you're ready or not, all in front of an audience of several hundred of the sharpest people in the software business. That's the pitch for preparing and giving a lightning talk at Business of Software (BoS).

Not included on the package labeling is a tremendous amount of preparation work, watching your little wrist-mounted heart rate monitor document your rising heart rate reach into that zone that the treadmill tells you is a healthy range for vigorous exercise for a man your age as the time to take your shot to be 1 of 4 vying for the final slot draws nigh, or the fact that, having lost out to someone who bested you at that chance, the experience was still 100% worth doing.

Last year, I attended Business of Software just 6 weeks after my business partner and I filed paperwork to form our startup, 7 Interruptions. We flew to Boston, in part, to find out if we were crazy to even be chasing this idea.

We met great people, learned lots, and had already decided we'd be coming back this year when the lightning talks were presented. As the last of those short presentations finished, Dave leaned over to me and said, "You should submit one of those next year."

"I've heard it's really difficult to fit into the format, though," I replied.

"Yeah, but you speak at code camps and tech events, so you'd do great at this," he countered.

I nodded subtly, hoping I had done so in a way I could deny later as having been an agreement, and moved on to enjoy the rest of the conference.

Fast forward to this year, when blog posts on the BoS RSS feed (yes, some of us still rely on them) indicated a deadline and requirements for lightning talks. And, with the memory of seeing how difficult the timing of the format can be having faded, I actually brought it up to Dave and agreed that I'd do it.

As we talked about it, it was clear that many of the reasons Dave wanted me to do the talk were rooted in marketing and exposure for the 7 Interruptions message. My immediate reaction was visceral. I said, "If we can't come up with a message that would make sense without a pitch, as something that could genuinely offer value on its own, I'd feel like I betrayed the trust that a speaking slot carries."

Dave agreed and I opened a folder in Ulysses1 for writing the talk and a presentation file for the slides. I started the way I'm sure many of us would, by filling in slides. You know, the entirely wrong way. Hell, I hadn't even figured out WHAT I'd talk about, but I was already starting "talking".

It was as if I'd learned nothing from the small army of project managers over the years who wanted an estimate and a timeline from me for software I was supposed to build, before I even had the faintest clue of WHAT I was supposed to build.

Fortunately, my floundering became evident even to me and I wiped the Powerpoint file clean and called Dave to tell him I'd started over. He reminded me there was plenty of time before the end-of-July deadline for submitting something and that he trusted me to figure it out.

I joked that that's what project managers say to you 2 weeks before you actually fail at the impossible task they were 100% confident in your abilities to complete and they fire you for gross incompetence that they somehow rewrite history to make your fault.

I set the task aside for a couple of weeks.

When I returned, I created a "Notes" folder in Ulysses and just started throwing things in there that I thought I might want to share with people about improving the way they work. A few weeks later, after I added a 3500 word "note" about the context of work and another explaining the differences and appropriateness of synchronicity at work, I wondered aloud exactly how many words a 7.5 minute speech really is.

After some online digging, I found a bit of a consensus. But, like many before me, when faced with evidence that we don't like, dug a bit further in hopes of evidence more amenable to my preconceived notions, and eventually timed myself reading one of my ranting "notes", begrudgingly accepted the word "budget" I was facing. I had to not only figure out what to say to the BoS audience, but I had to do it with 1000 words or less.

For comparison, this blog post is currently hanging out right now at about 800 words. Yikes. I really needed to focus this thing. So, I asked, "What's the simplest version of what we tell clients that I can distill?" and started over yet again.

I framed it half a dozen different ways, hating each more than the last. This is where the video version of this blog post would show a sad montage of me, surrounded with piles of crumpled paper, running my hands through my hair.2

And, like someone working through the stages of grief, I bargained. I asked myself if maybe I should just do a talk on one of my hobbies instead of my work. That'd be so much easier. I was sure I could come up with a nice concise overview of home brewing or Irish music or woodworking or or or….

The next time I saw Dave, I attempted to float this change in approach, in the classic "joking (but not really joking)" format that would allow me to pretend I wasn't serious if the suggestion landed flat, and making sure I could see his face to tell how well it was received.

It was well received as a joke, but I quickly doubled-down on it having been intended as humor all along and continued to ponder.

I knew I had plenty to share. We talk to people about how they work and how to improve that all of the time. Our software platform was supporting all of the advice I give in those conversations. Dave reminded me of the tons of things he tells clients that start with "J says…" and how well received that advice is. 3

So, I fell back on what my education (one of those "useless" English degrees) taught me to do: just start writing. Anything. Including complaints about not knowing what to write.

I rambled on about my hobbies (clearly still looking for an "out") and eventually I found myself writing about a topic of regular discussion in our house: the fact that I have FAR too many hobbies. I had my "hook". I'd talk about how I manage to engage in so many hobbies and still keep moving forward on a startup.

So began the season of drafts.

I'd gotten the advice years ago and heard it re-iterated in good books on presenting that it was better to write a speech and then put slides in to support it than the other way around. Given how poorly my instinctual reaching for Powerpoint had gone when I first started, I decided to follow the advice of experts to write it out.

I turned on the word count goals and set them to 1000 words and wrote my first draft. It was horrible. The 2nd and 3rd drafts were marginally better. A form and structure was starting to emerge that framed the techniques I use in my hobbies, at work and with clients to be more effective in how we use our time.

By draft 4, Dave and I met to go over it out loud.

When I finished, Dave's face told me he wasn't entirely happy with what I had. After some back and forth, he was able to articulate that it sounded too much like how I write and not enough like how I talk. That hit me square between the eyes and so I approached draft 5 with that in mind and actually started with a blank sheet.

This time 'round, I noticed something. The techniques I was listing for more effective use of time and effort were coalescing into the kind of list that most of us can't help but click on4. I counted them and realized that, with a bit of reorganization, they'd form a list of 7 Principles for Reducing Interruption at Work.

The principles were ALL things we say to clients frequently. They were ALL things we talked about as being core to our platform's design. They were ALL things I see people on the wrong side of at work.

This happened late enough in the process that I had already submitted the proposal with a title of "Getting Better at Getting Better". What's particularly interesting to me is that even our previous creation a workshop curriculum that goes along with a client implementation didn't give us a digestible list like this.

We'd talked multiple times about how we really wanted something like this but had never been able to figure out what it was. The grueling process of trying to articulate our core philosophy in 7.5 minutes managed to accomplish what previous efforts hadn't.

Draft 6 was focused on the list of principles, simple explanations and how to put them into practice. From there, we put it into slides, figured out that a few of the principles needed 60 seconds/2 slides instead of 30 seconds/1 slide, and put imagery to support the talk in place.

As that was coming together, I heard from the BoS staff that, because they got so many submissions, they had filled 3 of the lightning talk slots and chosen a few more of us to compete for the final slot.

So, I kept going, because at that point, the lightning talk itself was no longer the sole focus. We had a great list of principles that we started referencing in daily conversation internally, with customers, on social media, etc. We put them up as a blog post and are re-working marketing materials to include them. We're working on videos explaining each. In short, the work of writing this lightning talk has resulted in a shift in how we are approaching our marketing and sales.

The lightning bolt's thunder was reverberating.

On Monday morning, I sat in the BoS audience, my crutch of a bundle of 15 notecards clipped together and in my sport coat pocket as I waited for the lunch announcement, which would mean that I and my fellow contenders would give our talks to each other, and a couple of BoS folks. My wrist-mounted heart rate monitor confirmed the rise in heart rate that I was starting to feel in my chest.

I've done quite a bit of local speaking at tech events. It doesn't bother me to live-code in front of 500 people. But, that's in a format where I have 45-75 minutes and control over when slides advance. My normal presentation pace includes rapid slide transitions, often with individual slides lasting less than a second on screen, a far cry from the format for these lightning talks.

My turn was in slot 3 of 4. I gave my talk, completely surprising both myself and Dave in that I actually slowed down vs how I'd practiced and had to cut a sentence here and there to keep pace with the slide changes. My voice cracked in the way it only seems to when I'm at my most nervous, but I finished.

Considering that most of my lunchtime audience was other people ALSO giving lightning talks, the response was positive.

We voted amongst ourselves, laughing nervously at Mark's joke about Labour Party elections as he tallied the ballots. Aaron's talk about treating the startup experience as a climb instead of a leap was selected, which meant the other 3 of us weren't. We all congratulated him on his moving forward and joked that we all at least would get to relax and enjoy the rest of the conference (which I most certainly did).

On Tuesday, as the lightning talks started, I felt a pang of loss at not being part of the group, which is probably only natural. But, when Joe called those of us not selected to come up and be recognized along with those who WERE selected, I was proud to do so. I did some damned fine work along the way, learned quite a bit, and grew a bit personally.

There's something that gets said in many books and presentations on creativity about constraint. Constraints are where innovation and good art come from. Under the pressure that comes from not having infinite options, we humans rise to the occasion. The BoS lighting talks offer just such an occasion.

Eisenhower once said that: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." I feel that way about this whole experience. The presentation itself and the giving of it to the BoS audience, while that started out being the goal/plan ended up not being the point. But, having a focus within the constraints provided exactly the right environment for creativity to flourish.

I'm going to be putting this lesson into practice more often going forward. I hope you will too.

"But on the whole, tho' I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious in obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavor a better and happier Man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it" - Benjamin Franklin

P.S. To understand the real constraint that the lightning talk imposes, consider that this blog post is more than 2x too long to work as a lightning talk.

  1. http://ulyssesapp.com/ ↩︎
  2. The rapidly emptying whiskey bottle at my elbow to be included or excluded as a directorial decision in editing. ↩︎
  3. BTW, this paragraph pushed me over the 1000 word line, making this blog post too long to qualify as a lightning talk. ↩︎
  4. and that places like BuzzFeed abuse in articles that reveal the 5 Things You'll Never Believe We Found Under The Sink In The Break Room. ↩︎