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Dale Connelly, Resident Tourist: Speakers get five minutes to fascinate at Ignite Minneapolis

Nathan Rice communicates for a living. As the interactive director for a Twin Cities marketing firm, he often speaks in front of groups. So the five-minute talk he's about to give to several hundred spectators at the Heights Theater has been outlined, practiced, and polished. 

"I probably spent more time on this than I do on most two-hour presentations," he says. "I never get nervous. But for some reason I'm nervous about Ignite." 
He has good reason to worry. What is about to happen to Nathan Rice on the Ignite Minneapolis stage is a public speaker's nightmare.

Short, Sweet, and Scary

Ignite is the name given to an evening's entertainment for people who are interested in hearing new ideas from a cast of strangers, but don't want to sit through boring, overlong presentations. Since the first event happened in Seattle in 2006, Ignite has become a worldwide phenomenon, with regular sessions occurring in more than 100 cities around the globe. Its creators describe it as "a fun night of geekery and networking." 

The idea is to force speakers to give concise presentations with a strict overall time limit and a merciless, auto-advancing slide deck. Each Ignite talk is accompanied by 20 images that are chosen by the speaker. Each image displays for only 15 seconds. Do the math. The first slide goes up the moment you hit the stage, and five minutes later, you're done. The challenge is to keep up with your own ideas. Obstacles include normal performance jitters, the limits of human memory, and the unpredictable reaction of the audience. 

Oh, and the audience is drinking free beer.

  This year the event's official beer sponsor was the acclaimed local brew, Surly. Mykl Roventine, a popular presenter and one of the volunteer staffers who organized the evening, says sponsors are crucial. 

'The sponsors are pretty much paying for the event, so it's a wash at the end. To have the free tickets, and that everybody gets free beer--that's part of the tradition that we wanted to uphold."

This attractive tradition trumps the unpredictability of what you might get from seventeen different presenters.  Ignite Minneapolis 3 featured speeches about smoked meats, softball, home brewing, and re-organizing government. But specific topics matter much less than the individual speaker's passion.

Getting Ignite Right 

"For any talk, success is getting at least one of your points across clearly", says Scott Berkun, Seattle-based author of Confessions of a Public Speaker and star of a You Tube video called "How and Why You Should Speak at Ignite."  "Connecting with the audience in some positive and memorable way--that's hard to do in any situation, Ignite or otherwise."

How do you know if your speech has connected? Laughter and applause are one measure, but at Ignite, social media channels like Twitter may be a more accurate gauge of how people truly feel. Particularly if they re-tweet favorite quotes from your talk.  

Matt Ellsworth made a big impression in the hall and got a mixed reaction online with his talk, "Guerillionaires: Learning from the Leaders of Hip-Hop & Business." He started with the words "Thug Life" projected behind him as he paced the stage with aggressive confidence, moving like a gangsta, filling the room with his in-your-face attitude, and removing his business suit, piece by piece, to reveal rapper garb underneath. 

hotlou: Thug life dude @mattellsworth A++++++ the cougars in the room are going nuts as he's removing his clothes.

girlmeetsgeek: It's official. I'm terrified he's going to leap off the stage and maul the audience with rap music and some feisty hand motions. 

REMedina: Who is this man and why is he not my boyfriend? Friends, MAKE IT HAPPEN.

Who's Afraid of Forty?

Jennifer Kane won accolades for her intensely personal talk about turning 40. Her language was, to say the least, salty--a tactic that goes over well with the Ignite audience. She used the full height of the theater's screen to project a startling black and white photo of herself, reminiscent of the iconic image from the film Citizen Kane. An important difference though--Orson Welles did not have nearly as much to say about vaginas.  

wendy5by5: Oh yeah. @JenKaneCo just brought it.

KDFindley: Damn. @JenKaneCo just made me feel so much better about turning 40 this year! 

KelleeMagee: "Because you can't motorboat a personality": BEST quote from #ignitempls

The Tweet Factor

"It's like when cameras first existed," says audience member and Ignite Tweeter Magee, referring to audience members engaged with their devices. "Like suddenly everybody was seeing everybody through a lens instead of just experiencing [them]. But it's amazing to watch. And when somebody's boring, this (Twitter) tells you."

The millennial generation has embraced a style of virtual conversation and instant reaction that is part of being entertained, and unlike other producers, Ignite encourages it.

 "Lectures haven't changed much in 100 years," notes Berkun, "but the rest of culture has. Ignite is just one of many possible ways to reconnect lectures with modern culture."

Nathan on Stage

And the crowd at the Heights Theater is about to see a messy collision between two powerful aspects of modern culture--bawdy, boozy fun and earnest activism. As Nathan Rice takes the stage following Meghan Casey's laugh- filled account of the history of the vibrator, he faces a formidable challenge--shifting the beer-soaked crowd's attention from female orgasms to the pesticide Atrazine.

Rice tries to get the crowd on his side by acknowledging his absurd situation. 

"How in the hell do I follow vibrators, exactly?"

He makes a few more attempts to ease the transition, and whatever he really meant to say in these moments is lost. And then his mind goes totally blank. The slides Rice has chosen to illustrate his speech click steadily onward, racing ahead of his forgotten narrative. He smiles sheepishly, apologizes profusely, and points at the pictures while offering a few phrases plucked from his carefully constructed argument. 

"I tried to recover and realized it was past the point of recovery," he said afterwards. "It just got worse."

One of Rice's allies in the audience tries to bolster his confidence by calling out "The tweets are positive, the tweets are positive!" And in fact, they are. In the midst of his disjointed debacle, Nathan Rice is getting a group hug.

nicycle: Oh, this poor man. He is lucky he's so charming.
JudyGrundstrom: Hellz yeah! @nathandrice was awesomepants! Down with mutant frogs! Up with organic! Loves it. 

TravelinGypsy: New concept for #ignitempls, don't talk. Just point at the slides. Gets some good laughs. 

WhereitBlooms: @katenthekitchen I know, give him a beer…good topic too!  Poor guy. 

With Ignite 3 out of the way, will there be an Ignite 4? 

"Head Habanero" Patrick Kunz is certain there will be. He's just not sure when. 

"As soon as we put the word out that we're having an event, people are knocking the doors down to become our sponsors. We'd like to start doing it two, maybe three times a year."

For Nathan Rice, bruised but undaunted, it can't come soon enough.

"I would love to try it again," he says. "I hope they'll have me."

Dale Connelly co-hosted The Morning Show on Minnesota Public Radio for many years. As the Resident Tourist, he shares some of his favorite local places, events, and people. Connelly's last article for The Line was a portrait of the furniture designers Blu Dot, in our February 9th issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Mykl Roventine, presenter and volunteer, charms the crowd.

Jennifer Kane's risqué ode to turning forty, backed by a Citizen Kane-style self-portrait

Nathan Rice's ill-fated speech on Atrazine was supported by a giant map--and by a sympathetic audience.

Attendees watch, listen--and Tweet freely.

All photos by Bill Kelley



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