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Brady Forrest introducing Ignite at an event in 2009. Photo by Kris Krüg via Flickr.
Ignite co-founder Brady Forrest introducing Ignite at an event in 2009. Photo by Kris Krüg via Flickr.

Ten years ago, Brady Forrest and Bre Pettis set out to host a community event in Seattle. They had grandiose plans and a handful of fun ideas about what to do for the evening, but as the date approached, Forrest realized they hadn’t quite planned things through.

“Literally two weeks before we said, ‘Oh my God, we have this space, we haven’t told anybody, we don’t have anything,'” Forrest recalled. “What are we going to do?'”

One idea was to have five-minute talks from members of the community, a kind of public forum where TED talks meet speed dating. Forrest decided to fill the event with these speed talks, and save the big plans for later. And just like that — almost on accident — Ignite was born.

In the past decade, the Ignite series has grown into a global phenomenon, with events around the world. The format is simple: speakers have five minutes and twenty slides, which auto-play every 15 seconds, to get their message across. No pitches allowed.

igniteglobal
Ignite events around the world. (Click for Ignite Map)

The idea is to share a diverse set of authentic and impactful stories, without a self-serving agenda. The format also gives novice speakers a chance to share the stage with experts, serving Ignite’s mission to build community and provide a forum for public discussion.

Ten years and hundreds of events after that first night, Ignite is celebrating its 10th anniversary with the 31st Ignite Seattle event on Thursday, Nov. 17 at Town Hall Seattle, smack dab in the middle of Seattle Startup Week. The event is already sold out, but there will be a standby line at the door for those who want to try and squeeze in.

Given Ignite’s humble beginnings, Forrest is more than a little surprised that the series has become so popular.

“I never expected it to spread beyond Seattle. I never expected it to then spread off North America, let alone to every inhabited continent,” Forrest said. In addition to these public events, the Ignite format has been used internally by the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, the World Bank, Amazon, and many others, and is also used at conferences and other private events.

Erica McGillivray speaks at Ignite Seattle 30.
Erica McGillivray speaks at Ignite Seattle 30. Photo by Randy Stewart, via Flickr.

Scott Berkun, a professional author and speaker and longtime Ignite Seattle organizer, said the unique format makes Ignite unlike any other event. “Public speaking can be really pretentious, even when it’s done well like TED. There’s a certain formality to it,” Berkun said.

But Ignite is different. “This is a public forum,” he said. “It’s an evening event that is intellectual, but it’s still fun and silly.”

Anyone interested can submit a pitch to speak at Ignite, on any topic they want to cover — from design, to race, to calculus, and everything in between. For example, here’s Sara Schacht giving her talk, “I Got E. Coli So You Don’t Have To,” in November 2013.

Everyone has a story, a lesson, an insight, or an inspiration to share, Berkun said, and you don’t need to be a professional public speaker to share it.

Berkun and other organizers help speakers cultivate their message, giving them tips on what makes a successful talk and coaching them as they prepare. The point of the event, Berkun said, is to learn from each other and embrace the community, not to put speakers through the wringer.

“It’s really one of the most favorable crowds that anyone will speak in front of,” he said. The audience will even shout encouragement if a speaker stumbles.

Ignite’s brand was owned by O’Reilly Media until Forrest acquired the series last year and formed a public benefit corporation, Ignite Talks, to keep developing the series independently.

Forrest told GeekWire he will take on a larger role in running the organization and making it easier for independent organizers to use Ignite’s platform following his departure from the Highway1 incubator in January. An important priority for Ignite is keeping the series accessible and staying true to its value of creating community over profit, Forrest said.

“We try to make it as super accessible as possible, and use the funds that we’ve gained from all these partners and from conferences to make Ignite rise up and be sustainable for the next 10 years,” Forrest said. “I view Ignite in a lot of ways as my life’s work now.”

Forrest will be focusing on a few new initiatives to help support Ignite and those who run events, including creating an organizer’s manual, adding video support, and organizing Global Ignite Week. Until then, other public Ignite events take place regularly around the globe. And if you decide you want to give an Ignite talk, here’s a great primer by Scott Berkun — yes, in the form of an Ignite talk.

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