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Things I’ve Learned From Ignite – Ignite Leeds, Ignite London

2010 October 26

I am notoriously disorganised. Ask any of my friends, they’ll tell you – I couldn’t arrange a bunch of flowers. Ask my boss. Ask my wife! But for some reason contrary to all laws of nature, I have become an event organiser. The event is Ignite and, so far, I’ve done alright.

Over the last couple of years, Ignite has taken up a tidy chunk of my time. I attended the first Ignite in the UK, Ignite Cardiff on the 3rd December 2008. With my friend Imran Ali, I co-organised the first Ignite in Leeds at Old Broadcasting House on Jan 29th 2009, which I compered. I spoke at the first Ignite London, when Amy Thibodeau and Dan Zambonini invited me along as a guest speaker, and subsequently co-opted myself onto the Ignite London committee for Ignite London 2 and Ignite London 3. And I was principle cheerleader and MC for Ignite Leeds 2, though that was Imran’s show, really. So I’m thoroughly blooded in the ways of Ignite.

Earlier this summer, Andrew Tan, a student on the MA Innovation Management at Central St Martin at Holborn, London, asked the Ignite London Committee to speak to his fellow students about Ignite, as their final year assessment includes a lightning talk at the RSA. Andy Kervell and I were glad to volunteer. And it made me think about what Andrew needed to know before organising an Ignite, and what I’ve learnt since getting involved.

Some of this is obvious. Some of it could only have been learned through experience. These are not hard and fast rules, just suggestions, and for each one I’m certain there are a plethora of valid exceptions. There are plenty of people with more event organising experience than me out there who have their own, very successful ways of doing things. But for the newbie organiser, this might be a useful supplement to the instructions and advice on the Ignite site.

So here goes:

Why Ignite?

    Ignite is an innately democratic event. Every speaker gets the same length of time to hold court – 5 minutes, with 20 slides which auto-change every 15 seconds. Whoever you are, that’s your lot.

    The rules for Ignite are arbitrary. That’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with a few arbitrary constraints – that’s the basis of all sport, of all games, of all form poetry. 5 minutes, 20 auto-rolling slides works for Ignite. It gives the event momentum, it allows the speaker sufficient time to make a point but means the audience don’t have to wait too long if any given speaker isn’t working for them. The auto-roll cuts off the rambler. Any shorter and it would be unsatisfying, any longer and you’re cutting down the number of speakers your evening can comfortably allow.

    The format is open source, or at least not proprietary, unlike some other lightning talks. Ignite is not a franchise you have to buy into, that controls what you can and cannot do. This a bazaar, not a cathedral. O’Reilly are just there to help you make the most of it.

    The Ignite format promotes clearly-thought out, well-presented communication. That has to be a good thing.

    Anyone can organise an Ignite. It’s not a case of having to ask for permission, you just volunteer yourself and away you go.

    Wherever you are, there’s an audience there for Ignite, and there are a host of potential speakers on your doorstep with a wealth of knowledge ready to be passed on.

    Ignite is meritocratic – if a talk is good, there’s a mechanism in place to make sure people around the world will see it. Quality will out. This is one of the great advantages of Ignite having a larger infrastructure outwith your local event – word of a good talk will spread.

    It is fantastically heartening to hear so many passionate people up on-stage keen to inform you, to make you think, to make you laugh. It’s a glorious learning experience. And if you’re the person who has made it happen – well, doesn’t that feel good.


    You can put on an Ignite on your own, but it’s not as much fun. For the sake of your own enjoyment, it might be worth enrolling a friend or two into the operation.

    The more people on the committee, the bigger role the pub/coffee shop plays. As the number of emails increases, it’s wise to spend facetime with each other. It reminds you these are human beings with real lives you’re working with, not email-answering automatons. Talk about things other than just Ignite – it makes it more enjoyable, and it helps proceedings run smoother.

    Make sure there isn’t another Ignite already happening in your area. Seriously, I learned this one the hard way. I had been trying to set up an Ignite in London for a few months. Eventually, I had a date and place lined up, I was about to announce the event, only to see that someone else had got in there before me. I had to back out (gracefully, I’d like to think) and let Amy and Dan, the organisers of the rival Ignite, have the floor. As it happened, it worked out well – Amy and Dan were fantastic and put on a great event, and out of sympathy they asked me to speak, and I enjoyed it so much I inveigled myself onto their team for the Ignite London scheduled for the first Global Ignite Week. When they headed off around the world for a year, I was able to help keep the event going, along with my fellow committee members, Claire Ross, Richard Johnson, Dave Joyner and the aforementioned Andy Kervell.

    It might be that your city is big enough for more than one Ignite, but it’s tricky. The team that gets in first get to bagsy the nomenclature Ignite Your_City_Name, for a start, which is the equivalent of owning the deeds to the house. There’s an argument that says that if the second event focuses on a specific audience, for example it specialises in botany, architecture, music, then that’s manageable. There’s no conflict, no cannibalising each other’s audience.

    When scheduling your Ignite, check for major sporting events. If you put your Ignite on at the same time as eg, the, World Cup Final, you’ll find your audience is decimated, and many of the speakers will find an excuse not to come along. You might think Ignite and football are two demographics with little overlap, but football overlaps with everything.

    Meet-Up is OK, but it’s the black hole of data – once it’s in there, it’s a swine to get it back out. Should you need to export your contacts etc, it’s not going to happen. Of the other online booking applications we’ve used, Eventbrite and Upcoming seem better.

    Some people will sign up to attend your event but will fail to show up on the night. (I’m not being snotty about this – I’ve done it myself on occasion). At Ignite London, pre-booked tickets need to be redeemed by 7.30. After that, they become available to anyone who turns up at the door on a first come, first served basis. This didn’t quite solve the problem as, though we had great initial demand for tickets, and though we also made it clear there would be tickets available on the night, Kilburn in North London was a little bit out of the way for people to risk it, and as such, we didn’t reach capacity.

    I know some Ignites charge the audience to attend. We haven’t done that at Leeds or London, preferring to fund the event through sponsorship. However, we were out of pocket at the last Ignite London, and we’re thinking of charging a small fee on bookings for the first 100 tickets. That would cover venue costs, would leave plenty of room for people to drop in on the night, (and to allow for the perception that if you turned up, you’d get in), and if the pre-bookers don’t show, that’s their choice – by paying, they’ve already helped us put on the event, so they’ve played their part.

    We reckon about 15 speakers is the right number. Though I’ve seen successful events with just 7 and with 18.

    We like to have two or three guest speakers, if we can. Ben Hammersley, Cory Doctorow, Russell Davies, Steve Bowbrick, John Graham-Cumming have all graced the stage in London at our invitation, but we were lucky that they all live in the area. A guest speaker is a known quantity when the majority of the programme is a gamble.

    If you’re organising, you might be better off not speaking as well. If you’re worried about your talk, you won’t concentrate on the event as a whole. Let other people hog the limelight – your job is to make sure everything runs smoothly. If there’s another Ignite travellable from where you are, maybe there’s an opportunity to crash the bill there, as Dan Roddy from Ignite Bristol did in London. It’s not a bad idea to get some experience of what your speakers are going through on the night. (This point applies only to ordinary people – there are infinitely gifted people in this world who will effortlessly cope with anything thrown their way. Adrian McEwan is one such person!)

    A couple of rules we set ourselves at Ignite London – if someone had used a particular talk at a previous Ignite (either in London or elsewhere), we prefer not to use it. You can see pretty much every Ignite talk online, so it would be unfair to ask the audience to stand through something they could see from the comfort of their own home. And if we can help it, no one gets to speak at two Ignite Londons in a row. It’s better to mix the line-up a bit.

    One of the lovely side-effects of Ignite is the cross-pollination between events around the UK. Adrian McEwan and Andy Goodwin from Ignite Liverpool came along to Ignite Leeds 2, along with Adrian’s magnificent creation Bubblino. Tom Scott has appeared in Leeds and London, as has Matt Edgar. Dave Mee organises Ignite Manchester and spoke in Leeds. Liz Kearton is due to speak in Bristol at the end of this month and she spoke in London at then end of September. There’s quite an alumni of Igniters across the UK now, and it’s heartening to swap stories with them and give them a nudge should interesting speakers be heading their way.

    Sort out your technology before the event. Make sure the venue has the appropriate connectors to unite the projector and your laptop. If you’re relying on an internet connection, check it works on your machine, check it again. Check it again. If any of the slides rely on sound, check it out prior to the event.

    Give the speakers notice on what laptop, what operating system and what presentation software you are going to use.

    Get all the slides onto one laptop. This is something to insist on. Open them before the event and set the auto-timer yourself.

    Some people will send their slides late. That’s OK. Don’t fret about it. Occupational hazard. Make sure you have a USB memory stick with you.

    If you can, add a countdown to each speaker’s first slide. That way the speaker knows when to start.

    Allow for change-over time between speakers. Your speakers deserve an introduction and a quick bio. Your IT person needs a few seconds to switch slides, to switch lapel mics if appropriate. It helps if you can have the speakers accessible to the stage.

    Allocate someone the task of recording the event, and of editing the footage afterwards. Hire someone, if need be. At Ignite London we’re very lucky to have Richard Johnson who does a remarkable job of filming unobtrusively during the evening, and then chopping it into bite-sized portions in a timely fashion afterwards. At the last Ignite in Leeds, Imran and I thought we had it covered, only for us to lose half the footage for each half of the show. (Sorry, Imran!)

    Flip cameras and their like are perfectly fine. If you can, have separate cameras for the screen and the slides. If you try and capture both at once, the slides are so bright that the speaker will be in darkness.

    Personal preference – if alcohol is available, schedule the more serious talks for earlier in the running order, and the more frivolous talks for later on. It’s not that drunkards are infantile, (OK, they can be) but once you’ve started on the belly laughs, to paraphrase John Shuttleworth, you can’t go back to savoury!

    Have a reserve speaker or two, in case someone drops out. And a caveat to the ‘organisers shouldn’t speak’ maxim is that it might be a good idea for you or one of your committee members to put together a talk which you probably won’t use, but which can be opted in should someone drop out at the last moment.

    Don’t worry if a few small things go wrong. Chances are the audience won’t notice, and if they do, they won’t mind.

    People will complain. Regardless of how good it is, someone will tell you the vol-au-vents you baked yourself were too tart for their palate, or that one of the speaker’s shirt is clashing unpleasantly with the mirrorball. I even got someone complaining that the event was free last time – (mind you, I was hassling him to buy raffle tickets at the time – sorry, mate). Good buzz can survive snippy comments. Thank them for their feedback and move on. Or ask them to get involved in the next one – that usually shuts them up!


    There are places all over the world with the same names. Make sure you’re not putting your name down for what you believe is London, Ontario when the event is in that other London, way over there in the UK.

    When submitting your proposal, stick to one, or at the far outside, two ideas. If you can’t decide which tale you are most compelled to tell, then how can the organisers decide for you? Include a couple of paragraphs on why you want to tell this story. Remember, this is Ignite – you need to show you can be both informative and concise.

    Even though slides play a big part in an Ignite presentation, the same rules apply as to any presentation. Work out the story you want to tell, work out the points you want to make within the story, then work out how you can best tell that story and therefore what slides you’re going to need. The slides are the final part of the puzzle, not the first.

    Your first slide will probably explain who you are and what you’re talking about. The last one will have your contact details. So you’re down to 18 for telling your tale.

    Less is more. You can try to cram too much into your five minutes. John Graham-Cumming reckons each slide is a tweetsworth of dialogue. That’s a good way to look at it. (The arrival of lightning talks and Twitter at roughly the same time is surely worth a more in-depth study).

    Stick to the Ignite format. I know of one person who decided to go their own way – they got booed!

    There are plenty of ways to hack the format to put your own mark on it. You can be creative, even within the constraints that Ignite places on you.

    Be careful with stock photographs. They all look a bit generic to my eyes, even if they might raise a smile.

    Practice. Practice. Practice. Tweak your slides, tweak your presentation, try it again. Film it and watch it. Learn from it.

    It’s OK to have your notes with you, but if you’re spending even a short time reading them, that’s less time to address the audience. Don’t memorise your presentation word for word, but it’s best to have at least the gist of what you want to say loaded into your brain for immediate recall.

    Stay off the booze until you’ve spoken. You’ll just sound daft if your speech is slurred.

    Don’t worry if you make a bad start. You have time to re-group. You can turn it around. The audience will remember your last two minutes, not your first two, and besides, people don’t want to watch a robot, (unless it’s robots you’re talking about!). A few slips makes you human – you’ll get huge credit for battling on.

    The audience wants you to be good. They are rooting for you. Don’t be frightened of them. Either they’ve done it themselves, in which case they understand what you are going through, or they haven’t, in which case they are chicken, and you can stand before them in the smug knowledge that at least you dared to step up on stage. But they are there to learn, to be part of something. They won’t worry if a few small things go wrong. They are on your side.

    Enjoy it. This is a fun event.

    This is not going to make or break your career. But it does look good on a CV. The ability to speak in public is becoming ever more important in the modern working life. Among the many other benefits of speaking at Ignite, it’s also good practice – the next talk you do might be for a job, a pitch, for a VC. But don’t speak at Ignite just because it looks good – do it because you have something you care about that you want to help the world understand.


Being involved with Ignite has taught me a lot about what I am capable of. I can organise an event – albeit with a lot of help. I can step up in front of an audience and talk for 5 minutes and know it will be good enough so that I don’t get pelted with rotten fruit. And if I can do it, so can you.

But a word of warning – keep away from my fellow Igniters, Imran, Amy, Dan, Andy, Richard, Dave, Claire. I need them more than you do, and I won’t let them go without a fight!

I know I am going to think of a dozen more points as soon as I post this piece. Comments, please.

3 Responses Post a comment
  1. avatar
    October 17, 2011

    Awesome post! Just finished organising and running Ignite Galway here and it was great fun =)

    Have had your blog post open for the last two weeks since a Google search for advice and only now had the time to get around to it. The biggest things for me were publicity, projector and slide preparation.

    Publicity – The posters only arrived the week before and, in the end, only about 20 of them got put up. Almost everyone that came was via the @091Labs Twitter or Facebook page. A few via @IgniteGalway too. Had about 130 people turn up which was double what we needed to break even so were really happy!

    Projector – 3 laptops. It took 3 different laptops on the night to get on that worked with the projector. 2 hours before the thing starts, 2 Ubuntu laptops and finally the Windows 7 one did the job. One of the very few times I was happy someone had Windows…

    Slide Preparation – We had 8 speakers scheduled and, of that, 2 were in the day before and the rest in the few hours before the event. Next time we do it, we’ll have them send them in 2 or 3 days before. Also, like you said, OS and slide software. Having OpenOffice and Libre Office reformat things and bork the transitions is a pain in the ass, especially after you had already checked them in the same software on a different laptop.

    Anyway, cheers for the post!

    • avatar
      October 17, 2011

      Hi Padraic
      I am pleased to hear that you had a successful Ignite. Please let us know in advance next time and O’Reilly might be able to send you a couple of books to give as prizes.
      All the best

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