Lightning Talks and Buckets

Owen | Oct 2, 2018

PyCon UK 2016

At PyCon UK 2016, I became annoyed.

I was fully part of the organising team for the first time and we had spent part of our opening morning's session introducing lightning talks: explaining how they were an ideal way for new speakers to begin their speaking career.

At the time, the system we used for lightning talks was the same as everyone else. We had a flipchart at reception and, if you wanted to give a talk, you wrote your name and a title on the flipchart, starting at the top.

But, when I walked down to reception at the end of the introduction, the flipchart was already full with far more submissions than we could possibly hope to cover. Anyone who had heard about them for the first time two minutes earlier had no chance of getting on stage.

The same happened the following day and each day of the conference. The lightning talk sessions filled up with the same old faces who knew the system and arrived early each morning to get their name on the list.

The inner eight-year old within me cried out, "That's not fair!" and something had to be done.

PyCon UK 2017

For PyCon UK 2017, I decided to do something about it. I felt there were two issues to resolve:

New Speakers

If we were serious about encouraging new speakers, we had to bias the system in their favour somehow. It was unreasonable to expect newcomers to compete for speaking slots with those that had been coming to the conference for years.

Talk Selection

The flipchart system meant that talks were selected on a first-come, first-served basis so that, even if you were an experienced speaker, you had no chance of giving a talk unless you were prepared to get out of bed early and get your name at the top of the list.

What about anyone who had an idea during the day? What about anyone who couldn't get to the venue for 8 AM?

And so, I came up with the bucket system. We replaced the flipchart with two buckets and a set of index cards. If you wanted to submit a talk proposal, you took an index card, wrote your name and a title on it and dropped it in a bucket. One of the buckets was for new speakers and the other for experienced speakers.

The buckets appeared at reception each morning and stayed there until lunch. During lunch we drew cards, half from one bucket and half from the other, and posted them on the flipchart at reception.

PyCon UK 2018

No system is ever perfect and we tweaked things slightly for PyCon UK 2018.

Firstly, we'd had a lot of questions about the definition of an "experienced speaker" in 2017 and we'd changed those descriptions part way through the conference.

The two buckets were now for "New Speakers" and "Everyone Else." We opened with that description for 2018 and it worked much better with far less confusion about who should use which bucket.

We also realised that the index cards would be extremely useful for the lightning talks chair. In 2017, we'd simply left them at reception all day but, in 2018, we ensured that the chair, Mark Smith, had the cards in the correct order well before the session started. If there was anything he couldn't read, was unsure how to pronounce or anything else he needed to know, he had time to find the speaker, clarify things and make notes on the cards. It worked well and we'll definitely repeat that next year.

We do have one more issue to consider and improve: the lightining talk session is always at the end of the day and has a fixed end time because of our agreement with the venue. Given the possibility of previous sessions over-running and the general uncertainty of how long lightning talks (and handover between them) might take, it's tricky to estimate how many talks we'll need.

In 2017 and 2018, we deliberately drew more cards than we thought we'd need. There are always far more submissions than we can possibly fit and it would be a shame to finish the session early simply because we drew too few cards. In many ways, this is no different to the old flipchart system where, the further down the list you were, the less likely it became that you would get on stage but you didn't know for definite until the session itself.

However, this caused some issues in 2018. Some potential speakers had put effort into preparing their talks but the session ended before they were called. That's not ideal and we'll need to improve how we handle that aspect for 2019. I have a few ideas in mind, so watch out for further tweaks!


I've been delighted to see that the idea has spread. At the time of writing, I'm aware of five other conferences that have used similar systems for their lightning talk submission and selection.

I've made an attempt to capture where the system has been used and how the idea was introduced. If you're interested, it's available at github.

You might also want to read Alex Chan's article which was written shortly after the 2017 conference.