The Secret Key to IGNITING Performance




Picture this: a lively audience of 500 hooting and hollering. A group of twelve competitively selected speakers, all with a lot of gumption and varying degrees of speaking experience. The challenge: to present an idea, message or story in five minutes, make it entertaining and keep it short. 5 minutes. 20 timed slides. Then you’re out.

Last week, I had my five minutes of performing fame:  How I Dumped Denial: 60 is NOT the new 40. I had a blast!!!

Always on the lookout for what makes a performance or event great, I made some observations about why the Ignite model works so well and offer them to you along with one secret key.

Why it works

Ignite Seattle is run by a staff of volunteers, who work together as an energized, well-organized team. Special bonus: they appear to like each other!

After hosting 36 events, the team has their procedures down–although at Ignite Seattle #36 they weren’t afraid to innovate or stir things up a bit. This Ignite included a make-your-own art section of the lobby as well as a play-with-a-costume photo booth.

The staff took care of us speakers, helping us to relax and prepare. Whereas some event organizers might say, “You’re selected/good luck,” Ignite offered us two advance opportunities for workshopping/practicing our talks–along with FREE DINNER and wine! Free food and great coaching is a winning combo! We were on an accelerated timeline to prepare our talks, and at the rehearsals, I watched as topics transformed, including my own. I can’t tell you how useful it is to try out material on a real audience rather than that not-always-agreeable face in the mirror.

The organizers take care of their audiences as well. They know their typical audience demographics and interests, and they take time to welcome everybody and then set up expectations. Ignite is not the MOTH (that quasi-professional story-event out of New York City, where people ultra fine-tune their talks). Nah, we were regular folks with something to share, and our Master of Ceremonies invited the audience to really support us.

They did that in spades. I’ve never experienced a more positive audience. I ended my talk with a little audience participation exercise; they complied with gusto–without missing a beat!

Now for the Secret Ingredient: Make it fun!

The audience was primed for fun–you felt it in the air. They entered the theatre after socializing and making art, and their mood was upbeat. The organizers were playful as well. They handed out a little box of dates to everyone so we could all break a Ramadan fast with one of the speakers; we closed with a bit of improvisational comedy.

One of the secrets to having fun as a speaker is to practice a lot. I did. Not just endlessly repeating a script, but walking my talk, miming my talk, finding ways to mix it up until the essence of what I wanted to say settled into my bones.

I can focus more on fun when I don’t have to worry about my words.

In the theatre, I had one job: to enjoy the audience. I knew if I had fun, the audience would have fun. That worked!



Unleashed, and



I coach presenters, and I’m going to underscore this secret: whether your topic is serious or light–if you are enjoying yourself, that spirit will radiate and help people connect with you.

And when audience members are having fun, they just might remember what you said.








How IGNITE Seattle! Ignites…

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 3.37.55 PMI had such a great evening this week speaking before 600 people at Town Hall Seattle, on a well worn stage that has seen poets, writers, academics and dignitaries. My claim to fame was a five-minute talk for IGNITE Seattle! whose motto is “Enlighten Us But Make It Quick.” In the spirit of the evening, I chose a talk that was not part of my professional portfolio but close to my heart: “Embrace Your Inner Clown.”

A friend, watching the live streaming of the evening event, wondered why people were still milling about on stage just minutes before the event. She asked me whether IGNITE Seattle! was “professionally run.”  I answered with a resounding YES!!!  I told her the organizers were a great team, and super tuned into their audience.  Just to prove it, I decided to offer five leadership lessons I took from IGNITE!:

Play to Your Audience

IGNITE Seattle! has a following and the organizers know it well. Without advertising (I didn’t see any at least), they packed the hall through social media and word of mouth, offering the best $5 entertainment in town. The audience, a bit geeky, hip and fun was diverse – ranging in age from 11 to 78 years old (including two of my guests!) From the stage, the crowd felt relaxed, informal and ready to learn.

IGNITE! doesn’t try to be a junior version of the TED talks.Their audiences want to be engaged, inspired, informed and have a good time. IGNITE! delivers that. As a friend I brought to the event said, “This would have been great even if you weren’t speaking!”

Go for Passion Not Pomp and Pretense

Credentials, degrees and speaking experience matter a lot less than a presenter’s passion for a topic. (One woman had never presented before!) Speakers don’t come to IGNITE! to market themselves or their professions – they present because they have something cool to share.

The IGNITE! team sets the tone for the event. You get the feeling that the group really likes working together. The organizers exuded a kind of relaxed, no-sweat, this-is-going-to-be-fun confidence, which, of course, it was.

Pamper Your Performers

The sandwiches from Paseo served at our first speaker prep session were a great way to start our work in the funky, fabulous Makerhaus – a design and fabrication studio in Northwest Seattle. The organizers generously offered us two optional prep sessions, lots of tips, and tons of encouragement. Rules were minimal: 20 slides, no more no less, and five minutes to present. Period. Oh, and we had to stand on a small, red rug on stage so we would be positioned well for video recording. The rest of their suggestions were informal (a.k.a. no dress codes!) and designed to encourage our confidence and uniqueness!

Stay Unbelievably Positive

The night of the event, speakers for each half of the evening sat in a few rows of pews near the stage, our own “bull pen.” I was second on stage, (gulp), but as soon as I heard the first laughter from the audience, I knew it was going to be all right. As I returned from the platform, I saw a host of hands sticking up in the air from the bull pen waiting to high-five me. Wow! The response from the audience was equally generous – the enthusiasm and positive vibe was infectious.

All fifteen of the speakers were great in their own ways. The range of topics was amazing – from the history of baby names, to food, to magic, to issues with girls bleeding in the developing world. Fascinating!

Polish didn’t matter. I loved hearing one speaker who would have failed the count of “ums” and “ahs” at Toastmasters. The audience went wild cheering him – he was the real thing, authentic, quirky and enthused with passion for his topic.

Keep the Beat

IGNITE! has a rhythm and knows it well. The evening pulsed. The M.C. gave a short, positive and punchy introduction and then we were off.  Each speaker climbed briskly on to the stage, spoke for five minutes, with the transitions just long enough to hear a wave of applause and welcome the next speaker on to the stage. Even the one promotional announcement from our illustrious venue – Town Hall – was brief.  The intermission gave us twenty minutes for drinks and socializing (an important part of the evening) before we started up again. We closed before ten p.m. and I made a ferry back to my island before midnight.  It couldn’t have been better!



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