Lightning Talks are brief presentations (typically just 5 minutes) given at a single session of a conference or other forum. They may have started back in 2000 at Yet Another Perl Conference (YAPC). Mark Jason Dominus organized a session with a series of 5 minute talks and then showed up with a gong to enforce the time limit. According to the Wikipedia the tradition of short talks at programming conferences actually goes back further, at least to 1997. Lightning Talks are an excellent format for fitting a variety of viewpoints into a meeting.
Generally there are no limits on the visual aids that can be used for Lightning Talks. There may be none, just still images, or even images plus video. Some brave souls even have (gasp) tried live demonstrations of software. There is a YouTube video of an excellent Lightning Talk on “Ubiquitous Offline Shopping” by Wesley Chun from the 2008 Python conference. There also is a longer YouTube video on “Race Driving 101” by Joe Nuxoll which consists of a 4 minute presentation with still images followed by an amazing driver’s eye-view video of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
However, there also are two more recent formats which add two further and sillier constraints:
(1) exactly 20 still images
(2) each still image shown for exactly either 20 or 15 seconds.
Pecha Kucha (Japanese for “chit chat”, or the sound of conversation) began in 2003. It was devised by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham in Tokyo as a night for young designers to show their work in public. They came up with a “patented” formula of 20 images for 20 seconds each, so each presentation was exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds long. Daniel H. Pink wrote approvingly about Pecha Kucha in Wired magazine back in 2007, and then Garr Reynolds also blogged about it.
Ignite is a heresy of Pecha Kucha devised in Seattle in 2006 by Brady Forrest and Bre Pettis. They decided that each image instead should run for only 15 seconds, so each presentation would be exactly 5 minutes long. Both formats unfortunately have been spreading like kudzu or meth labs.
Fixing both the number of images and the time for each image is silly. It is just a kludge: a clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem. Usually a kludge just solves one problem by introducing another. In this case it fixes the global problem of getting through an evening program by screwing up the individual presentations. A fixed timing of 15 or 20 seconds per image is a reasonable way of setting up a photo album to run by itself in a digital picture frame. It is a lousy way to force a human being to do a presentation. Personally I don’t see any advantage to being drafted into the PowerPoint Marines Military Marching Band.
Now, there is actually nothing new about the advantage of a brief presentation format. In 1996 Ron Hoff wrote a book called Say It in Six (subtitled How to say exactly what you mean in six minutes or less). Hoff in turn borrowed the brief format from Toastmasters International. Their Competent Communication basic manual teaches how to do public speaking via a series of 10 speeches. Eight of those speeches have time limits of 5 to 7 minutes. Counting an over-run allowance of 30 seconds, their upper limit is 7 minutes and 30 seconds. Now, I’m not sure if that speech limit goes all the way back to the founding of Toastmasters in 1924. I do know that they have not changed it for the past 25 years!