Advice for Tackling Lightning Talks

George Rodriguez is a senior principal materials data scientist. He earned his MS in statistics after earning his PhD in chemistry at the University of Rochester.

Interdisciplinary work leads to the exchange of ideas, methodologies, and practices between diverse fields. An example of such practices is the lightning talk. This format lasts 3–5 minutes, rather than the usual 30–50 minutes.

Despite their brevity, these micro presentations may be more challenging to deliver. However, a little thought and specialized preparation should allow you to strike lightning during these quick speaking opportunities.

The suggestions below are based on collective guidelines described in the June and December 2021 editions of Nature’s Career Guide, Patrick Winston’s Make It Clear: Speak and Write to Persuade and Inform, and the author’s experience with the format.


Conclusion as Title: Most symposium organizers circulate titles as part of the conference program. Providing the audience with the main point of your talk will initiate the information exchange even before the timer begins. If appropriate, drive excitement by suggesting the status quo may need re-assessing—controversy is good.

Be Direct: Don’t assume the audience will know the importance of your work; clearly state why it matters to them. This aspect is always important, but it’s even more critical for lightning talks since you do not have enough time to provide extensive background information.

Redesign Your Talk: Don’t just remove slides from a larger presentation until you think you have five minutes of material to present. Design the content with the condensed format in mind. It may help to think of a lightning talk as a brochure in presentation form. There should only be enough information to entice the audience to engage with you further. Focus on the following four pillars:

  • Minimum background justifying the work presented
  • Main point describing what was done—a few details are sufficient
  • Methods outlining how the work was done—optional in the three-minute format
  • Conclusion summarizing what was learned and next steps, if any

Simplify:  I could make this point by saying the nature and number of images in the appropriately redesigned deck should be as economical as the words and language used to describe them, or I could just say keep it simple. Use visuals and language to make your points without overloading the audience. Concision makes a big difference in these short presentations. The objective is to inform, not to impress. Brevity and discipline are paramount. (Juxtaposing long and short equivalent sentences in this section was intentional).

Practice: Rehearsing is critical to ensure you succinctly make your points. Minimize message drift often encountered (even welcomed) during full-length presentations. Practice with a stopwatch to develop a tight sense of time.


Start Strong:  Begin with your commitment to describe what your audience will learn.

Stay Focused: Opening jokes and tangential anecdotes bring character to longer presentations but are a distraction in the shorter format.

Set the Scope: Create and maintain a clear boundary around the idea being discussed. This approach supports the necessary focus and discipline.

Deliver a Story:  The talk as a short narrative helps avoid the mechanistic feel of the highly structured delivery required in lightning talks.

Pace Yourself: Do not give a full presentation in five minutes by flipping slides rapidly and talking even faster. It’s normal to speak quickly when the clock is ticking, but that isn’t the best way to convey complicated concepts of importance to you and your audience. Practice will help you maintain an appropriate pace.

Avoid Pointers: Highlights should be incorporated directly into the slides. Edward Tufte recommends ink minimization, but use of colors will allow you to visually guide the audience through graphics or specific features for easier reference during the talk without the need for a laser pointer.

Cycle Back: Return to the promise made in your opening sentences as you close the talk. It seals the deal with the audience and helps cement the most salient point.

Sum Up:  Finish by stating the take-away message—no need for the audience to infer.

Follow Up: Lightning talk sessions limit the interaction with the audience. Provide a mechanism for them to follow up (e.g., email address, website).

A successful lightning talk is easily achieved if you reset your thinking when preparing and delivering these shorter presentations. Even if you have described the material previously in a longer format, this is an opportunity to challenge your presentation skills and enjoy a fresh perspective of your work.