How to Ignite your town

August 12, 2011

You may have heard of, or better yet attended, an evening of Ignite. Ignite is an event organized by volunteers, where participants are given five minutes to speak about their ideas and personal or professional passions, accompanied by 20 slides. Each slide is displayed for 15 seconds, and slides are automatically advanced. Or, as described on the Ignite website:

"It's a high-energy evening of 5-minute talks by people who have an idea—and the guts to get onstage and share it with their hometown crowd."

One of the most successful Ignite events takes place in Boulder, Colorado. A team of courageous volunteers has grown Boulder's audience to one of the largest in the world - 1,400 at the most recent event. In anticipation of the 16th Ignite Boulder coming up on September 1st, we asked organizer Ef Rodriguez to share his insights into Ignite Boulder's success.

Ignite Boulder draws a large crowd. How do you get people to keep coming back?
Ef: I inject as much creativity as I can into the event. Many Ignite events rely solely on the strength of its presenters to carry the night. We pair that with shimmering little touches throughout the event. From the way we recognize our sponsors to the addition of live music during intermission that keeps toes tapping and fingers snapping, we like to disguise a night of knowledge as a genuine spectacle. I'm convinced that ideas take root when an audience is sufficiently dazzled.

Ignite BoulderWhat's the selection process for determining who will present?
Ef: We open submissions to the community for a week. Then submissions close and voting begins. The top seven vote-getters are admitted as speakers. My team selects our own seven, from all walks of life, which equals 14 speakers. We look for social value when allowing speakers in. We frequently get people who want to talk about how amazing they are or how the company they work for is the cat's meow. That's not interesting. We've seen it in the feedback and in the audience's reception. If you're not teaching us something, you don't belong on stage.

What presentations have received the strongest reactions?
Ef: The worst presentations are always the ones that consist of a single complaint stretched into a five-minute rant. The best presentations are the ones that aren't obvious. If you can give the audience a five-minute look into something they know very little about, you'll hold their attention long enough to smack them with the crowbar of knowledge.

Ignite Boulder at Boulder TheaterHow have the presentations changed as the event has grown?
Ef: They've gotten much better-rehearsed. Ignite Boulder began in a classroom at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Fewer than 100 people, most of whom knew each other. Now, we fill the largest venues in town. Hordes of complete strangers are staring you down as you're speaking, so preparation has increased exponentially. The stakes aren't any higher, but I think expectations are.

What do you do to prepare first-time Ignite presenters?
Ef: We conduct a mandatory rehearsal a few weeks before the event, just to ensure that our speakers are on the right track. We work with them exhaustively, helping with slides if needed, tempering their anxieties with the realities of the event. You'll hear me say, "It's only five minutes!" a lot. It's very easy to lose sight of how little time you have on stage. Five minutes goes by in a blur. So I try to impress that upon each speaker - it's only five minutes.

"We also do a pre-event pep talk for our speakers. I've deliberately added 9 percent more pep to the talk with each event. It's the least I can do."

What tips can you share with members of the community who would like to present?
Ef: Attend the event first. Explaining an Ignite event is notoriously difficult. People hear "slideshow" and tune you out. I recommend coming to the event to get a sense of how it flows. It's not just a bunch of Powerpoint decks. We've worked very hard to cultivate a true sense of community around Ignite Boulder, and there's certainly room for everyone to join in. Secondly, meet people and ask questions. Ignite Boulder is dangerously approachable!

Map of Ignite EventsYou can follow @IgniteBoulder and Ef (@Pug) on Twitter. View past Ignite presentations from around the world here on SlideShare.. There are Ignite events in more than one hundred cities worldwide. Find information about how to start an Ignite in your town, as well as videos of past events on the Ignite website. Go ahead...but remember, it's only five minutes.