Friday, March 5, 2010

Ignite Ann Arbor 3

You might have read this is Global Ignite Week (or #giw, pronounced goo?). Speakers in 40 cities worldwide have (or will) gather for Ignite-style presentations: short-form talks, 20 slides set to rotate automatically after 15 seconds. Last night I attended Ignite Ann Arbor 3 in Blau Auditorium, U of M. Sixteen speakers presented to an audience of more than 400.

Here are a few impressions:

The program was eclectic, offering a mix of topics and viewpoints. They used double-projection: the rotating slide deck projected onto one screen, while a static title/presenter slide showed on the other. Double-projection offers flexibility for a program like this. Before the program and during intermission, organizers used both screens to display different Twitter streams (based on hashtags) associated with the event. Beyond the Ignite presentations, the evening included a rock-paper-scissors tournament (my scissors were obliterated by a rock in the first round; no two out of three?) and a funky laser light show the served as a segue between Mike Gould's "Running with Lasers" and the 15-minute halftime break.

Presentations ran a wide gamut: niche procedural (e.g., how to kill a mastadon, Bolognese, lasers), local flavor (e.g., lunch gathering, Ann Arbor's pitch for Google super-high-speed), activism (e.g., Washtenaw County foods, water council), progressive business infomercial (e.g., electronic vehicles, home funerals), and researched specialization or curiosity (e.g., early television, dyes, British slang, molecular communication).

I expected most speakers to deliver from memory and impulse, but several did not. Had I to guess, I would say that two-thirds used some sort of note cards or more. The slide deck functions as a way-finder of sorts--certainly slides prompted the more extemporaneous speakers when they lost track of what they wanted to say. The most conspicuously scripted talk of the bunch--Gould's bit on lasers--also struck me as more rigorously done because the script, I suppose, allowed him to synchronize his delivery with the slideshow. It also seemed fine-tuned because the script allows a speaker to get words and phrases exactly right.

Knowing How vs. Knowing What
I had a more favorable impression of talks that shared procedural knowledge or that expressed some niche understanding of how to do something. That is, some talks were informative and also more clearly situated in the realm of personal knowledge, whereas others acknowledged working with outside sources to develop the talk. Ignites don't afford speakers much opportunity to incorporate elaborate evidence or to disclose much about working with sources. In at least two talks, speakers mentioned that they'd done research online, but in both cases they seemed to downplay those choices.

To put it another way, as I drove home, I felt more resolved in preferring talks about something I don't already know how to do or that I can't find out about by searching online.

Too Short to Establish Exigency?
I was chatting with a couple of people in the Blau atrium after the session let out, and a student from ENGL328 said she was surprised at how infrequently speakers set up the exigency for what they were going to talk about. The short-form presentation models (Ignite, Pecha Kucha, etc.) don't leave much time for an opening setup, yet, absent a brief setup (e.g., what is parkour, anyway?) a rapid delivery talk can be jarring or temporarily disorienting. This could be resolved in a few ways. The program could include a once-sentence abstract for each presentation. Or, the MC could read a one- or two-line intro to set up the talk. Would this reduce the impact of the presentations? I don't know. But a bit more Why this? Why now? would have helped in a couple of cases last night.

Which Leads Which?, Slideshow vs. Speaker
Yet another impression was that these talks touch off an intriguing tension between the slide deck's automatic rotation and the speaker's command of a deliberate message. In some cases, the message trumps the slideshow; other times, the slideshow is in the driver's seat. The tension is more clearly resolved in some talks than in others, and while I don't think I have finally a preference for one or the other, this speaker-slideshow tension to my surprise has become a point of noticing, even a point of fascination: Which leads which?

If my schedule allows it, I am pretty sure I will attend Ignite Ann Arbor 4. I haven't decided yet whether I will try to participate. To be sure, the evening left me with a richer sense of what is possible in this evolving genre of short-form presentations, and I now have many terrific examples recommend as students begin preparing their own Ignites as one of the final pieces in ENGL328.

For other impressions of last night's event, check out #ignitea2 on Twitter.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at March 5, 2010 1:30 PM to Unspecified

W.R.T. the issue of "Too Short to Establish Exigency?", IMO there is nothing fundamentally good or bad about the format. It simply *is* the format for an ignite talk. My take would be that if a topic needs a one or two sentence intro, the speaker should provided it.

Some talks will be better (or worse) than others. So be it. That's part of what makes ignite fun.

Posted by: F. Andy Seidl at March 5, 2010 1:50 PM

I think you're right, Andy. The range made the event quite fun, indeed, despite some of the unevenness from talk to talk. I'm not trying to perfect the format or come up with an ideal case. But I am interested in the problem of how a speaker in a varied lineup like the one we saw yesterday establishes exigency, and I have a hunch that the short-form constraints might in some cases impinge upon the 20 seconds it takes to establish exigency. I'm also thinking about what in this format is teachable or what qualities we would characterize as strong, impressive, or memorable within the genre, given its constraints. For me this involves thinking about what beyond the format makes a particular performance better or worse, rhetorically.

Posted by: Derek at March 5, 2010 2:01 PM