Summary: A lightning talk series is a set of short talks given by attendees about things they’re interested in.

Tags: One-off, medium

Purpose: To get quick glimpses into what other people are working on, to share something cool you’ve learned lately, and to practice public speaking.

Materials: A timer. Your phone likely has one, but an egg timer will work too.

Announcement Text: "I have always found these fascinating and just remembered that nobody can prevent me from talking about them." - Scott Alexander

Do you have something you've been studying or thinking about a lot lately? Come give a Lightning Talk!

A Lightning Talk is a short talk on a subject of your choice. You'll have ten minutes to talk about your subject; remember to leave some time at the end for questions! We'll have a projector you can use to show slides on. Try and aim for variety of topics if you can.

Please don't feel like you need to be a world expert on the subject. Lightning Talks can be pretty casual. Don't worry too much about not being a good speaker, since if your talk isn't great we'll be moving on to a new one in a few minutes anyway. Please do feel free to use this as a chance to practice speaking, or to advertise your interest in a topic so that people who want to chat about it know you're a good person to talk to.

Description: First, you need to get the list of people and topics. You can do this via a google form linked from the announcement text, just having people email you directly, or more complicated methods if you like. Arrange this list into Time, Person, Topic in some form visible to everyone at the meetup, such as a publicly linked google sheet or a whiteboard with writing large enough for everyone to read.

You can also use a much simpler method, which is to let people arrive and then ask "Okay, who wants to go first?" or "Who wants to go next?" and picking someone at random from the volunteers.

Once people are talking, your most important job is to keep track of the time. Use an egg timer or a smartphone timer app. It can be helpful to hold up three, two, and one finger at the three, two, and one minute marks. (Be sure to tell people beforehand what the fingers will mean if you're doing this!) My usual response to people wanting just a little more time to talk is to invite everyone interested to find the speaker and carry on after the talks are finished.

Variations: The most common variation is the time for each talk. I'm partial to a strict 5 minute rule, including questions. That's a fairly aggressive and fast clock and people often want 10 minutes or even 20. At 30 minutes a person, I think you've moved outside the range of a "Lightning" talk. 

One variation is a ‘mandatory’ talk. Everyone who comes has to give at least a short talk, on any topic they choose. This is genuinely good public speaking practice and will also make some of your attendees anxious enough not to attend. Choose your own call on that tradeoff.

Another variation is a mandatory topic. You can run a Lightning Talk set where everyone speaking is speaking about Artificial Intelligence, or about Their Upbringing, or about Their Favourite Rationality Technique, or about A Cool Book They Brought With Them. In the same vein, you can have banned topics, such as Artificial Intelligence or Their Upbringing if for some reason you feel people talk about AI too much and want them to do less of that at this meetup. A middle ground is to declare that topics can't follow themselves, such that a talk about Land Value Tax cannot be followed by another talk about Land Value Tax. That risks getting multiple people "stuck" at the end, where the only talks left people wanted to give are on Land Value Tax.[1]

You can also vary what props or technology are usable, most commonly offering a projector or screen on which they can show powerpoint slides. I gently recommend against this. Visual elements are great, but you will spend time connecting each computer or pulling up each slideshow or messing with the projector cables. Especially for fast talks of 3~5 minutes, it’s easy to spend more time hooking up a speaker than listening to them speak. Still, it’s an option.

Notes: Having two spaces such as two rooms adjacent to each other is very useful. Not every person will be interested in every talk, and this lets them drift back and forth between a general socialization room and a room where people are giving talks.

The most important thing when moderating a Lightning Talk series is keeping the time. Some people (not all, but some!) will keep talking as long as you let them. Some of these people are bad at public speaking. The overlap between those two groups is boring and frustrating to listen to. My suggested counter-spell to this is to enforce time limits, including time for Q&A. If necessary, stand up on stage waving your arms and saying “thank you very much but it’s time for the next talk, please feel free to talk more about this later or in another room!” It’s not personal, they’re just out of time.

I suggest keeping the talks short, say, ten minutes at most. The more of these I run the more I want to set five minutes as the max. Nothing obviously breaks if the speakers have an hour each, but the ones who aren’t interesting to listen to tend to get worse the longer you let them go and the shorter talks tend to have more energy. For the same reason, I recommend against allowing people to sign up for multiple talks that are obviously a multipart thing. Brevity is a virtue! Your mileage may vary. I'm the kind of guy with Opinions on public speaking.

Speaking of which, I've found some success with giving the first talk myself, and giving it on some aspect of public speaking. A three minute talk on how to use the microphone, or five minutes on how to project to the crowd, or perhaps ten minutes on how to structure a talk, all will (if done right) contain information that is useful and pertinent to your audience. 

Lightning Talks is marked as One-Off. That's not quite right since you can obviously rerun lightning talk meetups, but running too many too close together risks running out of good and novel subjects for people to present on. Tentatively, I think you're fine to give such talks once or twice a year, could maybe do them once a quarter, and it would be too much at once a month. Your Mileage May Vary.

And yes, Book Swap is basically Lightning Talks with a mandatory topic and more steps.  

Credits: Maia's Meetup Cookbook calls these Short Talks, and writes up how to do them. Since I can't put notes or comments on Maia's Meetup Cookbook, I made this. I learned about Lightning Talks from the 2017 NYC Rationalist Megameetup, run by Taymon. (Shameless plug: Lightning Talks have become an annual tradition for the Megameetup, and the 2023 version is coming up on December 9th!)

Not In A Box Warning: So, I’ve been writing a Meetups In A Box sequence about how to run specific kinds of meetup activities. This post uses the same format, but isn’t in that sequence. Why not? In brief, because I cannot put this in a box. I haven’t yet figured out how to make your attendees have good public speaking skills and interesting inner lives or research areas. In Lightning Talks, the organizer isn’t bringing anything to do really other than an excuse to stand up and talk. It’s entirely possible that not many people will want to give a talk.

  1. ^

    Boston once had a Lightning Talk meetup that, as far as I know, was open to talks on any topic. Every single talk was on Artificial Intelligence. 

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3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:18 PM

One of the most valuable things I've contributed to my workplace is the institution of a set of 3 lightning talks every two weeks. Our data science team is about 30 people and we have a special Slack react that indicates "I want to hear about this in a lightning talk" and the organization is thus (usually) as easy as searching for all posts/comments with the react without the "I've already processed this lightning talk request", DMing the relevant person, and slotting them into the queue.

I wonder if there's some mutation of this plan that would be valuable for LW. Maybe even to create Dialogues? The really valuable part of the tech is that anyone can look at a snippet that someone else wrote, realize they think they'd like to hear more on that and (thus) probably a lot of people would, and add it to an organizer's todo list with very little effort.

Huh! That seems like a neat contribution and I might copy that for the next appropriate organization I'm a part of.

I would use an "I want to read the full post version of this comment" react, which might be the LessWrong website version. If I had a way to neatly collect Lightning Talk Request reacts for an in-person community I might use those too! Thank you for the suggestion. If enough people do have enough things to talk about the potential frequency for Lightning Talks goes way up.

Here's my lightning talk: I collect advice for learning how to play chess. The largest collection I've found is a slim book called "Rapid Chess Improvement" by Michael de la Maza.

Please send me the rarest advice you've heard of for improving one's chess ability.