I always thought that Perl conferences had lightning talks to encourage new speakers. I had a look at the description that MJD wrote when he was organising them and he mentions how they are a good place to start speaking. Geoff, who now runs most of them, also states that they are a “great choice for your first speaking experience”. But I’m not convinced that is true anymore.
In Vienna and Houston last year the lightning talks were held in the main hall in front of the whole conference. The only other speakers who were put under this much pressure were the keynote speakers – who were all experienced. Can you imagine having to give your first ever talk in a large room in front of 300 or so people?
Of course many of the speakers who give lightning talks are very experienced. How would you feel if you were giving your first talk ever and had to speak after 8 other people who had obviously been speaking for years and on top of that were witty, original and funny? Lightning talks have become stand-up comedy. The ones people rave about tend to be the ones that were most entertaining. I imagine that for most people it would be easier to speak for 20 minutes on something technical rather than try to give a five minute talk that is entertaining enough to keep the audience laughing with them throughout it.
I asked Marty recently if he would give a lightning talk at a conference and he said, “I have nothing funny to say”. And I think the expectation is now that lightning talks are there not to teach you something but to entertain you. There was a really good non-funny lightning talk at YAPC::NA last year but it seemed to be out of place. When Paul started talking about his elderly parents I wanted to laugh because that’s all I had been doing for the rest of the talks. It is hard to change pace and recognise that the person on the stage isn’t telling a joke but sharing a technical solution to a serious personal problem.
The lightning talks are not scheduled against anything else at YAPC conferences because so many people want to go to them. We all want to be entertained and I think we should keep these but I would like to see an appropriate forum for inexperienced speakers to talk about technical things.