Lightning talks

AdaCamp was a two-day unconference dedicated to increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. This page is part of the AdaCamp Toolkit, which helps you take AdaCamp’s tools and practices and apply them to your own event. You can re-use the text of this page under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license with credit to the AdaCamp Toolkit.

Lightning talks — a session of very short talks by your attendees on a wide variety of topics — are good way for your attendees to get to know each other a bit better and appreciate the awesomeness their fellow attendees bring to the event.

AdaCamps held lightning talks after lunch on each day of the two-day event.

Rationale for our model

AdaCamp lightning talks were very short (90 seconds) and very limited in what visual support we allowed (one still slide only).

This has a lot of limitations: it’s very much not what experienced speakers are used to (particularly speakers who rely on slides for anything from communicating data in graph form through to light relief); the subject can’t be at all complex and there’s not time for much nuance.

However lengthy AdaCamp lightning talk sessions would detract from the unconference and group-curated event. At the same time as we wanted short sessions, we wanted a lot of speakers, because the goal of our lightning talks was to add to people’s fellow-feeling at the event by showing their huge range of interests. So we ended up with a 20 minute session containing 10 talks. Having such short talks:

  • fills the slot with a wider variety of fun topics than a few longer talks does;
  • gives as many attendees as possible a chance to gain speaker experience and confidence; and
  • is more accessible and less threatening to novice speakers, particularly after seeing the first session; talks of this length can be prepared by novice speakers within 24 hours.

You could consider the AdaCamp Toolkit lightning talk model if:

  • you have a lot of novice speakers at your event
  • your event isn’t primarily about participants sitting listening to talks; or
  • you want to use lightning talks as a form of ice-breaker to give a flavour of the event.

Staff needed

  • A lightning talk scheduling staffer: advertises for lightning talk submissions, receives the talk submissions and schedules them for the available slots.
  • A slide deck staffer: receives the slides and assembles them into a single slide deck, as below.
  • An MC: announces the lightning talk session to the audience and explains how it is going to work, announces each speaker.
  • A timing staffer: has a device with a large countdown clock on it (such as a tablet or laptop screen), starts it at the beginning of each talk, and holds it so that the speaker can see it. For speakers with vision difficulties, it may be preferable for the timing staffer to say out loud when there are 30 and 15 seconds to go.

At AdaCamp, the scheduling, slide deck assembly and MCing were usually done by a single volunteer, and the timing by another, but using up to four staff would be possible.

Lightning talk submissions


  • One week before the event: open calls for lightning talks.
  • Two days before event: reminder about lightning talks.
  • One day before the event: close the call for submissions, notify selected speakers, and tell them where to send their still slide and what the deadline to send it is.

The audience is often more keen to give lightning talks once they see the first round, so consider re-opening submissions for the later rounds after the end of the first one.

Reviewing and choosing lightning talk submissions

See the Ada Initiative’s guide to lightning talk submissions, which includes a sample submission form.

At AdaCamp we usually didn’t have more willing speakers than slots available, but when we did we would select speakers randomly, rather than first-come-first-served, to avoid a “people who check their email a lot get to give the lightning talks” effect.

Sample email about lightning talks

Subject: Sign up for Lightning talks at EVENT!

Hi EVENT attendees!

EVENT will feature lightning talks at DATE(S) TIME(S). Lightning talks are short talks, very strictly timed, one after the other without question and answer time. They will be TIME seconds long, and the timing will be strict. There will be up to NUMBER of them each day.

You could give one! (Yes, you! Even if you’ve never given a talk before!)

Your talk may have any structure: it could be a talk, a song, a performance piece, a demonstration. It can have one presenter or more than one.

The limits are:

  • It must take no more than TIME seconds.
  • If you are going to display an image or slide you can only display at most one image or slide, it will be the same one throughout the talk, and you won’t have access to a mouse or keyboard.

Lightning talks do not have to be on the topic of EVENT TOPIC – we’re keen to hear about your interests outside of EVENT as well.

There are a few limitations on topic:

  • No recruiting please (i.e., no “come and work at COMPANY”).
  • No advertisements for commercial projects or products.
  • Since this is a plenary session without alternatives for people to attend if they are uncomfortable or uninterested, please keep your content and images suitable for a wide audience — specifically no discussion of sex, no pornography, and no discriminatory language.

Want to give a talk? Even slightly have the inkling that you might want to give a talk?


Please submit by DEADLINE!

Lightning talk sessions

Number and length of talks

AdaCamp lightning talks were 90 seconds long. We held them in plenary sessions after the lunch break, to kick the afternoon sessions off. We held 10 talks per session.

For AdaCamp-style lightning talks, we recommend you stick to a maximum of 10 talks, of 2 minute talk slots, and a total session length of around 20 minutes, including transitions (so about 15 minutes of speaker time).

Slide deck

Create a slide deck consisting of alternating slides:

  • a title slide with the talk title and the speaker’s name
  • (optionally) a single still slide provided by the speaker

Load the slide deck onto a shared or staff member laptop and use this laptop throughout the talk.

AdaCamp speaker slides varied widely, including graphs, charts, photographs and drawings. Suggest to the speakers that their own still slide could contain a URL with more information, and contact details for them, if the audience is likely to follow up on the topic.

Running the session

Get the laptop and slide deck set up and tested before anything else.

Before the talks, line the speakers up in the order of their talk, ideally seated in the front row of the room. If any speakers are missing, issue another call for them and then ask the slide deck staffer to delete their slide before the session begins.

For each speaker:

  • slide deck staffer: advance the slide deck to the talk title and the speaker’s name
  • MC: read out the talk title and speaker’s name
  • the speaker comes to the front and the MC hands them microphone or stands aside from them
  • slide deck staffer: if the speaker provided a slide, advance the slide deck again to their slide, otherwise leave their name and title up
  • the timing staffer starts the clock and holds it up where the speaker can see it
  • the speaker gives the talk

At AdaCamp speakers were excellent at self-policing their time limit, but if someone exceeds it by more than about 10 seconds, the MC should step towards them and gently state that their time is up, and then announce the next speaker.

Things to watch out for


If there’s a microphone, the MC should briefly show the speakers beforehand where the microphone needs to be in relation to their mouth.

Watch for speakers who aren’t talking into the microphone or can’t be heard. If it’s because they don’t want to use the microphone or have forgotten to, the MC should stop them very briefly and insist. If it’s because it isn’t working or isn’t at the right height the timing staffer should stop the clock, the MC and venue staff should assist them in getting set up, and they should be invited to restart from the beginning.

Talks containing upsetting material

Commonly upsetting material should not be allowed in lightning talks if they’re held in a plenary session, because attendees are often stuck in the middle of a row and can’t practically leave the room, and there’s no alternative sessions to go to. Warn attendees in advance to avoid discussion of commonly upsetting topics in their talk and review talk titles and slides before the session with this in mind.

Both the MC and conference staff in the audience should be aware that they may need to halt a lightning talk that breaches the anti-harassment policy or contains material that’s not allowed in the lightning talk session.

The best way to do this is to step forward, quickly inform the speaker that the talk needs to end, and advance the slides to the next speaker. Conference staff will probably need to take the speaker aside to discuss what happened with them, and may need to make an apology to the audience as a whole at the end of the session.

Lightning talk styles to avoid

Don’t make lightning talks or any other front-of-room speaking mandatory at your event; it’s a very common phobia.

At AdaCamp many lightning talkers were relatively novice speakers, and the audience were genuinely interested in their topic. We didn’t put the speakers under pressure for the sake of it, this isn’t pleasant for either the speakers or the audience. We therefore avoided some of the more aggressive lightning talk features at some tech conferences:

  • speakers needing to swap their laptops onto the projector or advance through their own slides or similar (at all, let alone with the timer running)
  • demos: while these are compelling when they work, they usually require setup time and have a high risk of failure
  • adversarial audiences shouting down the speaker as they run out of time: “FIVE FOUR THREE TWO ONE OFF STAGE OFF STAGE OFF STAGE!” (Don’t show the timer to the audience.)


Lightning talks

PechaKucha and similar models

These are also tightly structured talk models with longer slots (about 5 minutes) and multiple slides, but with forced slide transitions (eg, a new slide every 30 seconds whether you are ready or not):