Lightning Talks

Lightning Talks

A lightning talk is a very short talk, up to 5 minutes, where you share an idea, concept, or a bit of information you find interesting. They’re quick, easy, and a great way to speak in front of an audience for the first time. Lightning talks allow people to discuss topics that were not covered fully or partially at the conference.


You will register for lightning talks in person at the conference. At the beginning of each day, we will set a basket that you can put your proposal in. We will announce a cut off time, and after that we will pick from the submitted talks and announce who will be speaking that afternoon.

We generally have two baskets for people who submit talks:

  • First-time speakers
  • Experienced speakers

We do this so we have a mix of first time and experienced speakers. We also want first-time speakers to know that we care about them having a chance to get on stage.

Planning: What goes into a lightning talk?

A lightning talk should be about five minutes long, just long enough to give an overview and make people curious about your topic. You can talk about anything that’s related to the event’s general theme (in the case of Write the Docs, anything even remotely related to documentation).

First, you need a topic. Your topic might be:

  • A concept, process, or tool that you learned recently or are still learning
  • An idea for a website or product that would solve a problem you have
  • A retrospective, or what went right/wrong during a project you did or are doing
  • Anything relevant that the audience might be interested in knowing more about

Next, you need an outline for the content. Think about the audience, and the goal of your talk. Choose points to make that will be understandable by the audience and achieve your presentation goal. Remember how quickly five minutes goes by when choosing what to include!

Potential points of interest might be:

  • What could you use this for or when could you use it? Have you already used it? How?
  • When wouldn’t it not be as useful? What are some contraindications to using it?
  • Resources related to the subject, including books, documentation, and URLs.
  • Are there any projects or companies that are using what you’re sharing?
  • Is this something you’d like to collaborate with others on? Feel free to ASK!
  • What are some of the challenges related to using, building, or configuring what you’re showing?

Preparation: Slides are optional

You absolutely don’t need slides. However, if you’d like to make slides, use anything that you are comfortable with. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look polished, lightning talks don’t need to be! You might use Microsoft Word, Keynote, a PDF, or a website. Even a simple terminal or console window where you enter commands can work well for presenting your ideas.

Keep in mind that the projector will be lower resolution, typically 1024x768, and that low-contrast slides don’t present well. You’ll also need to make your terminal or console font very large so that everyone can see what you’re typing. If you’re running code examples, have them written, debugged, and ready to go. Watching someone write code as they go can be great in a longer deep-dive type of talk, but it’s not very well-suited to a lightning talk.

Live Demos: Proceed at your own risk

You may have the urge to do a live demonstration of the thing you’re talking about. It seems like an easy way to help the audience see your vision, and it is… if it works! Following Murphy’s Law, however, we can deduce that your live demo will go horribly wrong. A failed demo can derail all but the most skilled presenters, but if you choose to do a demo and it goes wrong don’t worry! Have a backup story to tell that explains what the demo would have shown and revert to it if necessary.

Presenting: Your own five Minutes on stage!

Take a deep breath and go for it. You are among friends, and nobody will mind if you make mistakes. Almost everyone starts out their public speaking career in the tech industry by giving lightning talks, so you can assume your audience has been in your shoes before. Throw caution to the wind and embrace your five minutes! :)

Equipment: Be self-sufficient

Be sure to bring everything you need to do your presentation. It’s wise to assume that the internet access will fail precisely when you need it. Load web pages you need into your browser beforehand. Bring the adapters you’d normally need to connect your laptop to a monitor or projector, and keep a backup copy of your presentation on a USB memory stick – laptops can and do fail, and this will allow you to use someone else’s laptop if the need arises.

Finishing up

If you have your slide presentation or example code available online you can let the group know where to find it if you want to share it. Curious people may follow up with you if they’d like to collaborate or have feedback about your presentation.


Thanks to the lovely Portland Python Users Group for use of this content.

Lightning Talks: A Guide for Beginners by Michelle Rowley of PDX Python is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.