Spitfire Strategies

Sparking Great Ideas With Ignite

The Ford Foundation convened a group of donors, advocates, and experts to discuss big ideas for the future of the Internet. Recognizing the importance of the internet in our lives, and the big challenges that lie ahead, Ford came together with the Knight Foundation, Open Society Foundation and Mozilla Foundation to launch NetGain, a major new partnership to protect the web as a force for innovation, social justice and public good.

To kick off NetGain, Ford invited some of the world’s foremost experts on privacy, journalism, online organizing, digital access in developing countries, and more to present some of the grand challenges they see for the future of the Internet. A slate of high-level speakers presented their ideas, including Academy Award-winning documentary director Laura Poitras, the ACLU’s chief technologist Chris Soghoian, and #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Alicia Garza and more. You can view the talks here.

Each of these speakers could have taken an hour or more to lay out their case. So how could we make use of this incredible brain trust, without falling into information overload?

The answer is Ignite, a rapid-fire format for presenting visionary speeches in just five minutes. In an Ignite talk, speakers use 20 slides that auto-advance every fifteen seconds. This keeps the talk at a high level, and encourages speakers to boil down their messages to the most important points. Because it’s a high-stakes format, the energy level and attentiveness in the room is elevated, and the talks take on an urgency that sparks understanding and continued conversation.

So what makes a great Ignite talk? How can you give a visionary speech in just five minutes? Spitfire partnered with the Ford Foundation to help the Ignite speakers prepare their presentations. Here’s what we learned:

  • Start with a story. Stories bring us into your world and help us relate to your subject. Even though time is tight, starting with a story can go a long way towards conveying what you need us to understand. In a joint Ignite talk with ACLU technologist Chris Soghoian, filmmaker Laura Poitras uses the story of her work with Edward Snowden to explain why secure communication is so important for democracy and freedom. It sets the stage for Soghoian to dive into the important technical challenges.
  • The slides are a backdrop – not a treatise. This is a good rule of thumb for most presentations, but especially in an Ignite talk, the slides advance every 20 seconds, so you can’t expect your audience to read large blocks of text. Ignite speakers think of their slides as backdrops to their talks. Many speakers used beautiful, full-screen images, or single words to underscore their major points. For an example, watch how journalism expert Emily Bell shows striking images from the Charlie Hebdo attacks and other major media moments captured by citizen journalists to underscore the changing media landscape in her Ignite talk.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. With such a short time frame, there isn’t much room for error. The best talks are well-rehearsed and presented in an engaging way without notes. #BlackLivesMatter founder Alicia Garza shared her talk with another speaker, so she only had two-and-a-half minutes to use her polished presentation skills to portray a powerful message about why activists need an open and secure Web.

For a great example of a masterful Ignite talk and an introduction to NetGain, check out this video of Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, who served as the MC for the NetGain launch. Then, go to www.netgainchallenge.org to join the conversation about the future of our Internet.

“This has been a tremendous eye opener. It shows us how to pull the aspects of communications skills, from the message, to the audience. It forced us to identify our strengths and our weaknesses in an effort to become more strategic in how we prepare our messages and communicate them.”

- Training Participant

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