Avoid my mistakes in your Ignite talk – part 1 [Video]

Short of time? Skip the intro

Ignite Sydney logoIf you’re thinking of speaking at an Ignite night, this post can help you avoid the mistakes I made in my own Ignite talk.

And even if you give some other kind of speech, the tips you’ll find in this post (like about humour, gestures and opening lines) should still help.

In this post and my next, you’ll find a critique of various aspects of my talk on this 3-point scale:

  • Strong
  • Dubious
  • Weak

(That’s the same scale I used to critique Allan Pease’s TEDx talk on body language.)

Here’s how the self-critique’s split between my 2 posts:

  • This post looks at the aspects of my Ignite talk that I rate as Dubious.
  • My next post covers the points I rate as Strong or Weak.


The bottom line

Overall, I’m satisfied with how my talk went (especially given that it was being filmed, and that the crowd of a couple of hundred was one of the biggest I’ve ever spoken to).

There’re plenty of things I wish I’d done differently

I’m pleased with some parts, and even proud of a couple of aspects. (More on those next month.) But naturally, there are plenty of things I wish I’d done differently

To start, here’s a summary of the topics and tips I’ll cover today – if you want to skip ahead, just click any of these links:

Before you read my critique:

Critique (part 1) – dubious aspects of my talk:

Also in this post:


Watch my talk yourselfScroll up to Contents ↑

Compare your notes with mine

Before you read my critique, watch my 5-minute talk and judge for yourself about its stronger and weaker aspects.

If you want, you could even pause the video whenever you see or hear something of note, and jot down what happened and the elapsed time shown on the video. Then compare your notes with mine, below.

How nervous do you think I seemed?

For instance, how nervous do you think I seemed? And what signs can you spot to help you answer that question?


What is an Ignite talk, and how d’you give one?Scroll up to Contents ↑

An Ignite talk’s a 5-minute slide presentation, and its trickiest feature is that each slide advances automatically after 15 seconds. (Therefore, you’ve exactly 20 slides in total.)

I found it a great experience – but nerve-racking!

To date, I’ve given just one Ignite talk, and I found it a great experience – but nerve-racking!

Here, I won’t go into the details of how you can prepare for an Ignite talk. If you’re interested in those specifics, please see these great posts – from public-speaking experts:


Here’s why I’m criritiquing my Ignite talk, and why nowScroll up to Contents ↑

There’re 3 main reasons I wrote this post:

  • I recently saw a fab video by Aaron Beverly, who at the time of writing (August 2020) was the reigning World Champion of Public Speaking.

    In his video, Aaron critiqued one of his own talks. (And not just any talk, it was the biggest speech of his life – when he won the world title.)

    I found the frankness and humility of Aaron’s self-critique inspiring.

  • It was one of the biggest talks of my life

  • I just rediscovered the video of my Ignite talk (from 2012) online. (The only thing in common with Aaron’s speech is that it was one of the biggest talks of my life! That was due to the size of the crowd, and that the event was being filmed for use on YouTube.)
  • I’ve critiqued other people’s talks (like this Toastmasters video and this video about networking), but never one of my own. So – prompted by Aaron’s inspiring self-critique – I decided it’s time for that to change.


Critique (part 1) – dubious aspects of my talk

OK, with all that said, let’s get into the critique


Dubious: Using my opening line as a bridge (but messily)Scroll up to Contents ↑

Several months before the event, I wrote the blog post that my talk was based on. And that led to my talk’s title:

Ban Q&A hypnosis

Then, by pure luck, one of the Ignite talks before mine actually was about hypnosis (which I knew about in advance). What a gift!

Sadly, my opening line wasn’t at all smooth!

In theory, that made it easy for my opening line to smoothly bridge from what people had heard earlier. So it’d all feel like a natural progression.

But sadly, my opening line wasn’t at all smooth! I stumbled, and at the end of the line, some people might’ve thought I stumbled again:

“We’ve already heard from a hypnosis… a hypnotist tonight, and it’s
not just hypnotists who can put people into a trance – put them to sleep”

In hindsight, I think this would’ve been a better opening line:

“Remember the hypnotist you heard from – earlier tonight? Well, it’s
not just hypnotists who can put you into a trance, or put you to sleep”

Why’s that better? I’d say there are 6 reasons:

Pausing’s vital for any successful speech

  • Crucially, it’s conversational – urging the crowd to answer (in their heads, or aloud) – rather than people just hearing a monologue.
  • It splits the original opening line into 2 shorter sentences, which makes the ideas slightly easier for listeners to absorb.
  • It uses the word “you” in place of the less personal (and less audience-focused) “we” or “people” that I used on the night.
  • It makes room to pause (4 times: at the dash, the 2 commas, and especially between the sentences) – and pausing’s vital for any successful speech.
  • It adds vocal variety (also known simply as contrast) by emphasising the word “hypnotists”.
  • By adding the word “or”, it clarifies that the last few words of the line were intentional, and weren’t another slip!

Most of those are just small tweaks, but they add up to a very worthwhile improvement. (For a makeover of a talk’s call-to-action, see my critique of Allan Pease’s TEDx talk.)


Dubious: Speaking fastScroll up to Contents ↑

What did you think of how fast I spoke? I think it was too fast, which is often a sign of nerves. And that makes audiences uneasy – partly due to concern that you might go badly wrong!

You need to have plenty of contrast between the fast and slow parts

Speaking quickly’s also a key reason I stumbled on my words quite a lot. (I didn’t rate my speed as Weak, though, because I did pause at times.)

The upside of talking quickly is that it can convey passion for your topic. But you need to have plenty of contrast between the fast and slow parts. (Despite my pauses, I don’t think I slowed down enough.)

All up, I agree with academic speaking-coach Jean-luc Doumont when he said:

“Speaking fast is not a problem –
doing it all the time is the problem!”
Jean-luc Doumont


Dubious: Using filler words like “so”Scroll up to Contents ↑

Did you notice how often I said “so”? And did it bother you? (By all means let me know!)

I said “so” 20 times

In my 5-minute talk, I said “so” 20 times. (That’s not so bad! 😊)

It’s not as if I used it in every sentence, but I do think I used it too much. And it stood out, as 80% of the instances were at the start of a sentence. So – if you forgive that irony! – there’s a strong pattern of me using it to connect ideas.

On the night, often I could’ve simply omitted “so” from the sentence, with no downside. Or, some of the time I could’ve even used another low-value or filler word (like “Now” or “Well”) in its place, to make my speech more varied and therefore easier to listen to.

Reduce filler words with these 3 tips

And beforehand, I could’ve reduced filler words with these 3 tips:

  • Practise numerous times
  • Record each of those run-throughs
  • Review the recording each time (without being too harsh a critic)


Dubious: Gesturing a lot (though poorly)Scroll up to Contents ↑

Have you used a hand-held mic much? We used one at the Ingnite night, and a drawback is you can’t easily gesture with both hands. (Mind you, a benefit is you have more flexibility than if you’re wearing a lapel mic. More on that next month.)

I’m in 2 minds about my gestures

I’m in 2 minds about my gestures. On the one hand, I did gesture quite a bit, which helps to engage people and conveys a feeling of being at ease.

But on the other hand, I didn’t use any of these best practices:

Also, between gestures, I tended to clench my hand (rather than using an open hand), which hints at my stress level. (Plus, my grip on the mic looked pretty darn tight)

Really, my talk was a gift for gesturing, too, because I talked about a 3-step process. So I could’ve easily held up 1, 2 or 3 fingers at the start of each section, to show which step I was up to.

Use gestures
that are bigger,
more varied,
and more helpful

As with reducing filler words, here too I’ve learnt to video each dry run. That way I can see my body language, and then think of ways to use gestures that are bigger, more varied, and more helpful to people.


Dubious: Mentioning two “taboos”Scroll up to Contents ↑

Did you hear me say anything that put you off? To me, there were 2 types of words that some people might’ve found off-putting:

  • Bad language
  • “Geeky” words

For the record, here’s the bad language:

“Now if you were in a presentation when that happened,
you’d probably get pissed… pissed off, or you might even just piss off!”

Actually, because that suited the young, trendy audience and the setting (which was a grungy music venue), I think that was fine (if you ignore my stumble).

Some people might’ve found these words boring

But when I used the “geeky” words below (which I’ve bolded), some people might’ve found them boring (and tuned out a bit as a result):

“…just last month I listened to a webinar and
the presenter got to the end of webinar…”

“…to join in the conversation… just go to my blog
– you can get there through this URL…”

To suit the audience and setting, I think it would’ve been better to replace those with slightly more casual terms, like these:

“…just last month I listened to a talk and
the presenter got to the end of the topic…”

“…to join in the conversation… just go to my website
– you can get there through this address…”

Find out what types of people are likely to attend

My takeaway on this is to research the audience to find out what types of people are likely to attend. For instance, it’s useful to:

  • Ask the organisers.
  • Watch videos from previous runs of the event.

Then, think carefully about what phrases, images, and other means of presenting the talk would suit them (and what wouldn’t). It can even help to come up with 1 or 2 “personas” to represent types of people in your audience (as marketers sometimes do).


Dubious: Using humour (but not well)Scroll up to Contents ↑

On the night, it seems the talks that the crowd liked best were funny and/or quirky. Those often got the whole audience laughing.

For instance, here’s a clip (of about 15 seconds) from another geeky talk that night. Unlike my talk though, this speaker got lots of laughs, and this is his 1st big one:

I admire how he set up his funny line

I admire how he set up his funny line so everyone expected him to say one thing, but he paused and then said the opposite:

“Aristotle… He managed to get almost all the details…
completely wrong”

There’s a great comedic lesson in that simple yet extremely effective technique.

In contrast, my talk was quite serious, and I didn’t say anything very funny! So although there were a couple of chuckles from the crowd at appropriate times, only 1 or 2 people laughed, rather than the whole room.

A good approach could’ve been to own the geekiness

Reflecting on that now, I think a good approach could’ve been to own the geekiness of my talk. For instance, I could’ve proudly said something like this near the start:

“This one’s for all the
geeks out there, like me!”

Being open like that would make the situation more clear-cut, which would make people feel more at ease. And when people feel at ease, they’re much more likely to laugh.

Still, perhaps my topic didn’t have much scope for humour. Maybe the best I could’ve done is use more humorous pictures, like this one of a dog that I used near the end:

Dog using a laptop

Mind you, the talk above (about rainbows) was a serious topic and used plenty of geeky content. (It was about making an app, and it included 1 or 2 diagrams, plus mathematical and biblical references.) Yet it still got some big laughs.

Maybe I’m wrong – maybe my talk was suited to humour

So maybe I’m wrong – maybe my talk was suited to humour. What do you think? (If you’ve any tips for how I could’ve used humour better, please let me know.)


SummaryScroll up to Contents ↑

This has been quite a long post, so thanks for sticking with it! Here’s a reminder of the points I critiqued this month:

Critique (part 1) – dubious aspects of my talk:

Look out for my next post, where I share the Strong and Weak aspects of my talk


What do you think?Scroll up to Contents ↑

Do you agree (or disagree) with my critique? Feel free to have your say in the comments – or on LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram. (Links are on my Contact me page.)


Related postsScroll up to Contents ↑


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