Lightning reviews for lightning talks: another easy way to make your conference better

Selena Deckelmann and Rebecca Refford at AdaCamp DC CC BY-SA Maírín Duffy

CC BY-SA Maírín Duffy

What’s your favorite part of a conference? For many, lightning talks are where it’s at – a series of short talks on a wide range of topics given one right after another. At AdaCamp unconferences, we have had talks on how playing the game Nethack helps learn command line interfaces, ancient natural uranium reactors, and a rap on women in technology. Lightning talks are fun, easy, and energizing. Every conference should think about having them (or having more).

The downside of lightning talks is that there often isn’t time to review them all before they go on stage. Sometimes a less than appropriate talk ends up in front of your audience. One bad lightning talk can overshadow an entire conference. Take the Titstare lightning talk at the 2013 TechCrunch Disrupt conference. This one talk ended up with more press than the entire conference, and left a bad impression on the conference’s target audience.

So what can conference organizers do to avoid bad lightning talks, while still keeping the fun and variety that makes lightning talks so popular? We have one solution: A short questionnaire for lightning talk presenters to fill out when they submit their talk. This questionnaire asks speakers if their talk features things like sexy pictures and jokes about specific sensitive topics, so organizers can take a closer look at the talk before including it in the line-up.

What if the presenter decides to lie in their answers? In that case, this step won’t help. But in our experience, most presenters simply don’t know that their slide or joke is offensive. In the Titstare case, the developers expressed their surprise at the reaction it got: “Sorry if we offended some of you, very unintentional. Just a fun Aussie hack.

We wrote up an example Google form that conference organizers can use to both collect lightning talk submissions and screen them for potentially unwelcome material. We suggest that organizers use this as a screening tool only that flags submissions for extra review. This encourages presenters to be honest in their replies and prevents good talks from getting rejected on technicalities – especially ones related to fighting sexism and other discrimination in tech.

The entire form is embedded below. To copy the form and use it for your conference, follow the instructions at the top of the form. Best wishes for your conference and any lightning talks you run!