Recently, I spoke about social innovation at Toronto’s first Ignite Talk. Ignite is a speaker series based upon Pecha Kucha, a presentation style used in creative fields like design and architecture, but increasingly popular amongst business and academic communities.

What I learned from this experience is something every entrepreneur needs to know: how to articulate big ideas in five minutes – the space of an elevator ride.

Since its inception in Seattle, Ignite has quite literally ignited around the world. Latest locations to adopt the talks: London, Portugal and Paris. What makes Ignite so unique – and what I didn’t realize when I was approached to speak – is the format. Ignite Seattle’s tagline should have been the tip off: “Enlighten us, but make it quick.”

Each speaker has but five short minutes to present a big idea. Speaking points are reinforced by a “locked” PowerPoint presentation of twenty slides on auto-play. The slides are preset to change every fifteen seconds, whether or not the point has been put across. Energy abounds in an Ignite setting. Part nervous tension (speakers and audience alike), part inspiration, the result is one high octane event.

My challenge: to spark the idea of social innovation using the Ignite template. Social innovation, considered a “big” idea due to its complex nature, is challenging to unpack under the best of circumstances. But when the tendency to be verbose would strike, the Ignite format would force me back into the proverbial elevator. Five minutes should suffice to pitch this – or any – big idea.

In the days leading up to the event, I couldn’t help but channel the spirit of American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, who famously chronicled his time at Walden Pond, lived in a tiny cabin for two years, two months and two days as an experiment in “simple living”. There, he produced many works including his memoir of Walden Pond, which he was able to condense into the equivalent of one calendar year.

Since I was unable to draw from a simple environment (in Thoreau’s case, the-middle-of-nowhere) as a source of inspiration, my mantra became two words that Thoreau once wisely uttered in reflection: “Simplify, simplify.”

Along with this Thoreau quote, there are a handful of “should-do’s” if you are to become a successful elevator goer. Whether a five-minute pitch, or a 45-minute presentation, these trusty points should help any entrepreneur to articulate a big idea:

  1. Know the format – It wasn’t until 48hrs before the Ignite talk that I found out about the five minute rule (in my defense, I was only asked to speak 72hrs before the event). Before making a presentation, make sure you have discussed time restrictions and structure with the organizers. A panel talk should be designed and delivered differently than a podium talk. It’s also a good policy to be prepared for Q&A even if it’s not required.
  2. Know your audience – In many cities that run Ignite, there is a heavy emphasis on technology, which draws an appropriate audience. In Toronto, however, it was more of a mixed bag: multiple industries, levels of leadership and age groups. The angle, tone and leading points may be different depending on the audience make-up. Ask any stand up comedian: audience can make it or break it, so know what – or who – you are working with.
  3. Frame the big idea – At the end of the day, you should be able to articulate a “therefore” statement. Remember the standard five-paragraph essay we all learned in English class? The last paragraph is where all arguments, including a reinforcement of the opening statement, are brought full circle in a tidy concluding statement. This point is also true of presentations: the big idea should boil down to a simple conclusion that can guide the structure thereafter. Think about this statement, then plot support points and practical examples.
  4. Make it edible – Create the presentation you would want to watch, not read. “Broccoli” in a presentation refers to unnecessary amounts of information and facts. Stay away from loading up on this kind of text-heavy broccoli. Portion your presentation using short and snappy written points in the form of guiding statements or simple numbers. Leave your talking points off the screen. And don’t be afraid to use images to help get the point across. Flickr is a fan favorite. “A picture says a thousand words” should be a guiding proverb for an “edible” presentation.
  5. Channel your inner Thoreau – Just when you think you have mastered the editing process, think again. No matter the length, remember to “simplify, simplify.” Put your talk in context: What’s the frame of the event? What’s your value-add? What one thing is your audience “take-away”? Question the assumptions you may have adopted around the idea you’re presenting (ie: “Is this the best way to say this?”). Stay away from lingo and info dumping – the audience cannot absorb everything you know. The audience should be left intrigued, inspired and informed, not overwhelmed.

And remember, if you were stuck in an elevator with the entire audience, what would you say?

Some resources to help Ignite your talk:

Lisa Torjman

Lisa manages social innovation projects for the Social Innovation Generation (SiG@MaRS) program at MaRS. See more…