Speaking at Ignite San Francisco (And How to Create an Effective Talk)

I recently gave a talk at Ignite San Francisco. The presentation was well received and fun to deliver. Below are my slides from the talk. In this post I’ll break down my process for becoming one of the speakers (hint: just ask!) and how I built my talk.

If you don’t know Ignite, take a look at some of these. I learned about Ignite from my friend Karen Cheng, who had given talk previously. I asked for an introduction to the organizers and asked Karen’s advice on how to get chosen for a position among the speakers.

Ask For Help

Which brings me to the first things I learned from this experience: Ask for help! Even if you don’t need it, but especially if you can use it – ask people you respect for their thoughts and opinions. When possible, ask from a place of excitement rather than desperation. I’ve been on both sides and know that asking from desperation or being asked from a desperate person are both no fun. Karen gave me two pieces of advice. The first was an introduction to the organizers. The second, which I would never have thought to do myself, was submit three talk requests to be considered. I don’t know which of these made a bigger difference, but together they worked.

Introductions Matter

This idea is tossed around a lot but my experience of speaking at Ignite reinforced the idea. Having a friend on the inside, of course, means I’ll be more likely considered for a speaking position. This isn’t biased and unfair treatment, it just makes sense that the organizers are busy, have limited time, and are more likely to choose someone who is, by affiliation, not crazy, than someone they don’t know.

Scratching For An Idea

I take the word “scratching” from Twyla Tharp, who discusses scratching as a part of the creation process in The Creative Habit. My scratching looked like this:

Words on Topics of Interest:

  • Dance
  • Learning
  • Autism
  • Handstands
  • Giants
  • Questions
  • Motorlearning
  • Education

Title Ideas:

  • Why I Dance
  • The Building Blocks of Learning
  • Applying the Building Blocks of Learning to Everything You Do
  • Social Dance: Build Community, Make New Friends and Change the World
  • Neuromovement and the Future of Learning
  • Obsessed with Learning
  • What Moves You (Getting Comfortable with Gravity)
  • How to learn handstands (or anything) well
  • Ask More Loving Questions – Overcoming Fear Through Simple Questions
  • Learning: How I went from performing in the circus, to curing autism, to being obsessed with learning anything well.
  • I’m obsessed with learning: circus to autism. What do you want to learn?

And even some pretty ego-centric ideas:

  • We are the future of education.
  • I am the future of education.
  • We are education reform: how a new wave of learnings is changing the world.

Finally, I went through and bolded the topics that most interested me. See bold above.

Interesting & Original Ideas

When I presented my ideas to the Ignite San Francisco organizers I submitted three different topics, all of which I am interested in. So often we are tempted to fein interest in areas outside of our interest or expertise because someone else is there, the idea is hip, etc.  I resisted this temptation and choose three domains that I know a lot about and haven’t seen other people teach. Even as I read through them now, I am delighted with each in turn. They are:

How to Learn Handstands (or Anything) Well

I recently made a study of the gymnastics giant and handstands and discovered that when broken into component parts seemingly complex concepts and movements are extremely easy to learn.



Ask More Loving Questions – Overcoming Fear Through Asking Simple Questions 

In college I came across a guy preparing to jump off a bridge. Instinctively, I asked him questions and over the course of several hours talked him down. I’ve since made a study of asking more loving questions.


Overcoming Autism – applying an “attitude that works” and the building blocks of learning to help children with autism improve.

In my work with kids with autism I have found that autism is generally regarded as impossible to overcome and a hardship. Instead, I help parents learn to love their children exactly where they are, without needing to change them, learn their child and then gradually invite their child to join our world. While I often taylor this talk to parents and professionals, what I love is that these same principles (love and small steps) are actually the same as in the above. Structure of the talk could be:

  • What is autism and what is often done
  • What works that’s different
  • My favorite part: we can all apply these same tools to ourselves, too


Social Proof

I have links to Move Autism or this blog that accompany each of my ideas. I don’t know if the Ignite organizers looked over those links, but they prove a long-term interest and knowledge in the areas represented. Where possible, cite your work.

How To Choose The Title

I had a lot of fun choosing the title for my Ignite Talk. I’ve done some casual CrowdSourcing of ideas on Facebook and Twitter and used both to develop my title for this talk. I created a Google Form and asked advice from a couple of specific friends and from among my 1000+ connections on Facebook for their opinions.

The Google Form is still live here.

I then looked over all the responses and decided on the title: What Works for Autism Can Work For You

Creating the Talk

After writing the topic and  the title, it was time to create the body of the talk. Fortunately, I know the content well and have plenty of photos for all of my ideas. I pulled from these posts on autism and this one on gymnastics.

Since I usually write a talk in full and only then add slides where needed, creating my speech and slides for Ignite (which requires 20 slides in 5 minutes) had to be reconsidered. Next time, I’ll draw very rough sketches of all 20 slides before trying to assemble them in Keynote. What I did was try to write the speech while simultaneously creating those slides. Note to self: don’t attempt to multitask. Eventually, I did my usual – wrote the talk, created the slides, and then edited both to fit.

Keep Track of Tips

I’ve written about how to give an effective speech before. Specifically for public speaking, I have also used Ryan Holiday’s commonplace book to keep track of speaking tips and tools. The most valuable thing I did in preparing for my Ignite talk was read through all of the notes on public speaking in my commonplace book.

Wrap Up

I really enjoyed the process of creating and delivery my talk at Ignite San Francisco and look forward to participating in Ignites in the future. I’ll also be speaking at Stanford University in May. See you there?

In the mean time, what are your favorite tools or tips for effective speech writing or preparation?



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