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What is a Lightning Talk at a Scientific Conference?

 Dr. Danny M. D’Amore, Publications and Marketing Specialist
 August 2021

What is a lightning talk?

A lightning talk (or data blitz) is a succinct oral presentation lasting from 3–5 minutes, often supported by a few PowerPoint slides or visuals. The most successful lightning talks match the number of slides with the length of the presentation (with a rate of 1 slide/minute). There are a few deviations to this format, such as Ignite Talks and PechaKucha, but one feature unifies these different forms: show, don’t tell.

Lightning talk vs. elevator pitch

One might compare a lightning talk to an elevator pitch, but that isn’t quite right. While they both have the same relative time constraint and can act as a teaser for an audience, a lightning talk has two major differences: the use of slides, and the emphasis on storytelling. When time is limited, it is important to have one coherent thread that links each slide together and allows your points to flow together in a meaningful way. The slides you choose should be as impactful as what you say, illustrating each point you are trying to convey to your audience.

Remember, if audience members want to know more, they can come and talk with you afterwards (or, depending on your conference, come see you at your poster or your oral presentation later). Consider your lightning talk like a trailer. Introduce your audience to your project, what you did, what you found, and why it matters. Keep your talking points in a logical order to enhance the flow of your talk and help it feel more like a story than a rapid expulsion of facts.

How can you construct a successful lightning talk? Here are five simple guidelines to keep in mind.

1. Limit text on your slides. If possible, use only images, and keep each slide as simple and straightforward as possible. Remember, this is not an oral presentation; it is a lightning talk.

2. Limit your slides. If your venue does not have a specific format (for example, PechaKucha has a specific format of 20 slides, with 20 seconds spent on each slide), 1 slide per minute is a good place to start.

3. Limit the points you are trying to make. A good rule of thumb is one point per slide. Consider your lightning talk as a teaser or a trailer, not the main event.

4. Set your slides to auto-advance. This will help you keep to your time limit.

5. Practice, practice, practice! With such a short time frame, it is exceedingly difficult to check notes. This will also help you get your timing correct, so you do not find yourself at the end of your allotted period with only half of your points made. If you can, find a friend, family member, or colleague to practice with before your presentation.

Above all, don’t stress! Lightning talks are meant to be different and fun, so if your talk does not go exactly as planned, take a breath and carry on.

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