How to give a Lightning presentation – my personal story

Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in The Hague

Last Friday I gave a Lightning presentation at the 20th edition of the Families in Global Transitions (FIGT) conference at the World Trade Center in The Hague. It was the second time I had attended this amazing event, and also the second time I had the honor of presenting there. This time everything was different, though. The Lightning (also called Ignite) presentation is probably the most challenging session of the entire conference. It is a fixed format you have to stick to: you get six minutes to convey your message, you prepare a PowerPoint presentation of exactly 20 slides, and every slide is shown for precisely 18 seconds, over which you have no control whatsoever. Timing is absolutely essential. To make it even more challenging, I presented together with someone else; the other six presentations were all done by solo presenters.

This someone else was Birgit Kuschel, the founder of Connect Concept Consulting in Germany. For last year’s conference, the FIGT organization had invited us to present together, though we had never even heard of each other at that point! But it went so well that we felt it was a good idea to present together again this year. The title of our presentation was: “How to teach your brain to live a happy global life with neuroplasticity”, a topic which interests me a lot, but about which I was certain that many people in the audience would be bigger experts than ourselves.

We spent a lot of time on the visual aspects of the presentation – 20 stunning, but non-distracting pictures with no text, which would support our words well. As two non-native English speakers, we were struggling a bit with the text, which needed to be clear and describe exactly what we wanted to say in the minimum amount of words. A couple of times it went back and forth to my editor, and all the (near-)native speakers in our vicinity were forced to become audience members and give constructive feedback.

During our (lengthy) preparations I luckily remembered a lot of things about brain functions that I had learned during my studies of Organizational and Personality Psychology at college. I could also draw on my personal experiences when living in Italy, and while advising my clients on the most suitable schools for their children, we often talk about how to adjust with your family in the Netherlands. So this topic was certainly not alien to me. Besides, it would be good to show to the audience and my clientele that I can also talk about other things than the Dutch education system alone. Otherwise your repertoire gets a bit narrow; an image of myself I try to avoid. Still, the whole thing made me way more nervous than usual.

FIGT conference at WTC The HagueDuring the dress rehearsal the day before, I started to regret all the decisions Birgit and I had made related to our presentation. Although we had practiced a lot over Skype and knew the text by heart – even our children could recite some of the sentences just by overhearing us practicing – the official rehearsal went really badly. Our timing was completely off, we kept forgetting what we wanted to say, and we constantly had to wait for our own slides to appear on the screen. I was shocked at hearing my own voice through the headset I was wearing, and struggled to look at the audience and talk to Birgit at the same time. After these awkward 6 minutes I felt completely out of my comfort zone, and seriously contemplated going home.


We decided to skip a few sessions of other speakers, and retreated to a quiet area to practice some more. We quickly realized that we had been so focused on each piece of text being no longer than 18 seconds that our presentation was actually too short. At some point the gap was about 16 seconds; the length of almost an entire slide. We tackled this issue by introducing some ‘in-between sentences’ we could use or leave out according to the flow, and then it finally worked.

There were seven Lightning presentations in total, the other six all conducted by native English speakers, and we were scheduled somewhere in the middle. From the side door we heard the presentations before us going flawlessly, and that the audience was very engaged, so the bar was high. During the first slides I felt my knees shake terribly, and I tried very hard not to think of the 200+ people watching us – my biggest audience ever. Everything went so well, though. We talked at normal speed, our timing worked seamlessly, and we (almost) kept to the original text. Some members of the audience commented afterwards that it had felt like a natural conversation between two experts who both had personal experience with the subject. What a relief….and what a great experience!

FIGT conference at WTC The Hague

Would I give a Lightning presentation again next year? Not sure. It is a lot of preparation for just 6 minutes. But, seeing my name amidst all those great experienced speakers was fantastic. And I felt very comfortable with an audience full of intercultural specialists, global nomads, and parents of third-culture kids. So who knows? We’ll see!

Are you curious about the end result? You’ll find the recordings of our presentation here.

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