Lightning Talks

Image: EA Norway

This guide was compiled with resources from EA Sydney, Rebecca Baron, EA Red Deer and Vaidehi Agarwalla.

A lightning talk is an activity where one or more speakers each present a very short talk that lasts only a few minutes each (usually 5-10 minutes). Speakers are usually already members of the group.

Benefits of Lightning Talks

  • For speakers:

    • Get speakers actively participating and engaged

    • Prompt speakers to do their own research on EA topics, or formalise current ideas

    • Get feedback on their ideas

  • For everyone:

    • Being exposed to new ideas or perspectives

    • Sparking new discussions

    • Provide a structure format for feedback/discussion

Purpose of Lightning Talks

There are many different ways to do a lightning talk. Depending on the size of your group, the level of EA knowledge and your capacity as an organiser, you may choose to run your lightning talks in different ways. Lightning talks can be used:

  • In small groups, such as small group events, workshops or fellowships, to encourage members to learn something new or improve their understanding on a topic.

  • At retreats to present ideas that might be brought up over the course of the retreat

  • In medium-sized and large groups as a more formal event with the goal of educating attendees as much as involving speakers

  • At conferences (like EAGx) to help spread new ideas, help members become more engaged and facilitate new conversations

Lightning Talk Prompts

You can let your speakers talk about whatever they want, EA-related or otherwise. However, sometimes having a topic or theme helps potential speakers get more ideas about potential talks. Here are some that might be useful for your group:

    • Answers to the same question (e.g. "What's something about EA you disagree with?")

    • Advice

    • Sharing experiences, e.g. making lifestyle changes, working on a project, etc.

    • Something you changed your mind on recently

    • A framework, tool, or process you've found helpful

    • Your career so far

    • A summary of an article you found interesting

    • Findings from a research project or paper you've done or written

Small/Informal Lightning Talks

In smaller groups, motivated members might be excited to look into existing EA resources such as 80,000 Hours, the Open Philanthropy Project, or other EA organisations and create a short presentation summarizing one of the articles.

At EA Red Deer, the organiser casually asked if anyone was interested in doing a lightning talk on a topic, and when a few people raised their hands, they put that on the next week’s agenda. After the meeting, the organiser sent an email with a starting article from 80,000 Hours and next week one member came back with a simple, but effective summary of the article, plus some additional research.

Tips/Ideas:

  • Don’t have any expectations that members will follow through with their commitment to create a presentation. Keeping expectations low and having a back-up activity planned will avoid making members feel bad if they get busy and don’t do the presentation.

    • When members do go ahead and create a presentation, they should feel appreciated instead of doing something obligatory.

  • Supplementing the Lightning Talk with a video before opening things up for questions and discussion might allow people to round out their understanding of the topic.

  • Suggest focus papers/articles/topics to potential lighting talkers based on their interests; even if they choose another topic, this can spark ideas

Planning an informal lightning talk

  1. A few weeks before the event, let participants know that a lightning talk is taking place. Let them know if there is a theme.

  2. Some groups have used an open sign-up sheet and moderated it.

  3. The format of the talks varies - some groups do back-to-back talks, while others may do talks with short Q&As.

  4. This can be followed by freeform discussions where everyone can talk to each other and the speakers for about 30 minutes.

Example: EA NYC threw a Cause X the med event (see their sign-up sheet). At the end of their event, they also voted on the best cause X.

Larger/Formal Lightning Talks

More formal versions of this activity will likely work best for medium- or large-sized groups who have a regular set of members. Lightning talks take a fair bit of preparation work, so it’s good to start planning them about 4 weeks before, or longer if you want to provide feedback to speakers and have a more intensive vetting process.

Lightning talks usually last for about 5-6 minutes followed by a few minutes of Q&A (so roughly 10 minutes per speaker including transition time). Depending on the number of speakers you have, you may want to adjust the times accordingly. Remember that the goal is to engage with the ideas, so it might be better to have fewer speakers or budget for more Q&A time (if you have lots of promising speakers, you can always throw another event!) For a twist on the standard presentation + Q&A format, you could also try following the Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank model of presenting ideas (possibly with a cash prize).

For planning a lightning talk for an EAGx, please see this guide.

Planning formal lightning talks

  1. It might be beneficial to float the idea of a lightning talk casually, well in advance of hosting the event so that people have it in the back of their minds. If you meet someone working on an interesting project, let them know that they will have a platform to present their idea in the future.

  2. At least 4 weeks before the event: let your group know you are planning a lightning talk event. Send out a brief application form (see this application email template). For smaller groups, you might need to do individual outreach to members.

Suggestions for application questions:

  • Name

  • Speaker background: career, how they were introduced to Effective Altruism and the group

  • Working title of your talk

  • Asking to provide a one-sentence summary and a bullet-point summary of their talk.

  • Asking to explain why they think this talk would be valuable to the EA community.

  1. At least 3 weeks before event: due date for an expression of interest/application form to be filled out.

  2. Have a few core members from your group review responses before accepting speakers.

  • In the case that the speaker does not align well with EA concepts, provide feedback and politely decline.

  • You might want to give accepted speakers a little feedback, questions or words of encouragement and let them know they can contact you or other core members with questions. If you don’t have the capacity to provide feedback, you can always ask other core members if they would like to. You can also suggest online feedback groups (e.g., the EA Editing and Review Facebook group or Aaron Gertler at the EA Forum).

  1. At least 2 weeks before the event (the earlier the better!): send out confirmation emails to speakers and ask them to share their slides and talk draft with you one week before the event.

  • If you do the following, you might budget an additional week:

  • Give personalised feedback on their talks

  • Ask speakers to send a practice recording of their talk based on the feedback you have provided

  • Provide feedback to speakers. For example, speakers often go over time, so let them know that this commonly happens and share tips on how to avoid it.

  1. At least 1 week before the event. Check in with speakers if they have not emailed their slides (if they are using any) and a rough draft of their talk. Create a single presentation with all the slides or titles/speaker names. Schedule the order of speakers, and the duration of each talk with time for questions.

  2. A few days before the event: let speakers know about:

  • When they should arrive (~20 minutes before the event start time)

  • Speaking order

  • General schedule for the event (i.e. if there will be socialising before/after the events and a break between talks)

  1. Day of the event: Before the event begins, brief speakers on:

  • Using AV equipment (clicker for slides, microphone), or screensharing for virtual events

  • Voice projection (i.e. how the speaker needs to talk to be heard in the room you're in)

  • Speaking order

  • How they will be indicated on how much time they have left (Eg. 2 minute, 1 minute, 30s)