Ignite is an event in response to this question:
If you had five minutes on stage, what would you say? What if you only got 20 slides and they rotated automatically after 15 seconds? At every Ignite Baltimore 16 artists, technologists, thinkers and personalities will answer this challenge.
I applied to speak in the beginning of August and my proposal, along with 15 others, was officially accepted on September 16. This left me almost exactly one month to get ready.
Even though I’ve given over 500 speeches in my life (mostly through debate), the constraints of this format were totally new to me. Not only did my speech have to be exactly 5 minutes in length, it also had to coincide with slides changing every 15 seconds. If I forgot a phrase or fell too far behind, I’d be sunk. Word choice was critical.
I struggled mightily with trying to explain what professional wrestling is, what’s good and bad about it, the major players, their motivations, the conflict in question and its resolution in 300 seconds. I wrote/transcribed almost 10 full pages of material, nearly all of which I ultimately threw away. There were times where I thought there was no possible way I could tell the story in under 7 minutes. I reworked the entire format no fewer than 4 times. All the while I had a Blaise Pascal quote in my head, “I apologize for the length of this letter but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”
But after days of hard work and countless rehearsals in the shower, I showed up at the Brown Center of the campus of Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) on October 18 ready to go.
An interesting feature of Ignite is that the steering committee doesn’t actually see any of the talks until they are performed for a live audience. Beyond the application, there is no vetting process! (Somehow this system has worked so far.)
The only exception is the optional rehearsal held a couple hours before the show. I arrived early to scope out the room and figure out where I was going to position my cameras. I knew that Ignite always recorded a feed from the back of the auditorium but it never picked up crowd noise, was stationary and had too low a resolution. I set up my sister with a telephoto lens connected to a Nikon camera on the left and my friend with a Flip camcorder on the right. You’ll notice these feeds in the video.
Once that was set, I hopped on stage for my rehearsal. In front of me was the Brown Center auditorium – sold out tonight – with a seating capacity of 525. On the edge of the stage a few feet in front of me was a computer monitor that would cycle through my slides. As I began speaking, I focused so much of my attention on moving my eyes around the auditorium that when I tried to sync my speech with the monitor, I forgot my lines. It took what felt like an eternity (it was actually about 3 seconds) to glance at the screen, remember where I was and recover.
It wasn’t the worst screw-up ever, but it made me a nervous wreck. Instead of focusing on the other talks, I obsessively ran my lines over and over and over again in my head. Because I was third to last, I stewed in my own nervous juices for almost two hours. 15 minutes before my speech, my tripod literally fell to pieces and we had to jerry-rig the thing back together. In a moment of panic, I debated whether I should bring the script on stage with me, like 10 other speakers had.
But one thing I’ve learned is while I’m an emotional jitterbug before presentations, once I start speaking everything’s usually totally cool. I noticed that three-quarters of the talks before mine focused on some aspect of Baltimore, e.g. turning its neighborhoods into “playborhoods”, why the city is pathologically modest or how there’s a lot of beauty to be found off Rt. 95.
This is what inspired my opening line and it put me more at ease. That almost no one in the audience admitted to being a fan of pro wrestling was a welcome challenge. The best feature of speaking on stage is that there are bright lights in your eyes the entire time, turning the audience into an anonymous cloud of silhouettes. Beyond saying the word “now” too much and “disagree” twice, I didn’t have any major screw-ups.
After, a number of people approached me to comment on how they enjoyed the talk and how they had never thought about wrestling in that way before. That night I received a Facebook friend invite from someone at the event. I politely declined, but he sent a very flattering note regardless,
Hey Mike! Didn’t get a chance to meet you in person last night to say “great fucking job.” You spoke with passion and professionalism, never missing a beat with the slides. It seemed like you truly entertained an audience of people who likely believe wrestling is a lowest common denominator form of entertainment. That’s quite a feat! I look forward to seeing your speech go viral within the internet wrestling community. Great fucking job!