Reflecting on Ignite Phoenix

I had the pleasure of sharing the stage this past Tuesday with 16 incredible presenters.  Together, we all overcame our fear of the stage, of the spotlight and of failure to ascend one of the valley’s largest soap boxes for 300 seconds.  During the course of our 5 minute presentations we battled our nerves, time and the intense desire to ramble in order to share our passion with some 600+ attendees.

Truly, the Ignite Phoenix experience is a rare and incredible opportunity.  It is a synergy of random ideas and passions.  An assemblage that transcends genre in a way that has become rare and difficult to find. Ignite 5 saw presentations on Bats, Education, Gundam Action figures and Dance to name but a few – short of random links posted by particularly eclectic friends on Twitter, or social link aggregators like Digg/Reddit there are only a few events like Ignite Phoenix and TED/TEDxPhoenix which truly embrace random intellectualism and curiosity.

The thing about Ignite that really makes it that much more special is the pace. 20 slides, 5 minutes, 15 seconds a slide…what a rush! It’s a format that gives even the most experienced public speaker pause.  All the while it creates a platform which is incredibly audience friendly.  With the standard format typically consisting of 18 presentations, tuning out for 5 minutes if you don’t care for a topic or find it interesting is painless. It’s the exact opposite of the 90 minute lectures droning on about something that failed to catch our interest which many of us came to dread in College, Business courses and seminars.

A Presenter’s Reflections

Presenting at Ignite Phoenix pushed my comfort level and boundaries.  I’ve presented in the past to smaller groups, traveled the world for months on my own, delivered business pitches and successfully navigated social situations – but this was different. This was terrifying. It took me back to a time before I’d developed my current social competency.  It took me back to the first day of High School every year when the fear and anxiety of the High School social experience/social shark tank left me physically sick to my stomach. Heart racing, palms sweating, imagination running wild.

Applying to present was a challenge in and of itself.  I found 15 excuses every time I went to fill out the application. Was my idea good enough?  Was I truly passionate about it?  Would people care?  Why would I want to do it – after all, no one was forcing me to apply.  Eventually, I put aside my excuses, nervously re-read the my brief topic submission and hit submit. That action came with the same sensation I typically feel when making a big purchase online. Do I really want this? Did I order the right item?

So, in light of all that – why did I do it? Because it was worth every piece of energy I invested – both positive and negative.

Overcoming those challenges, those discomforts and those excuses was an incredible learning experience.  Sure, Ignite is about sharing your passion and knowledge with others but it’s also about something more.  For the presenters it’s about learning about yourself.  About building and internalizing your self confidence and belief in your self – and that alone is invaluable.  Making the decision to present was worth it long before I even took the stage and actually presented.  That was the icing on the cake – A lucky bonus and exciting opportunity to share.

What of the presentation itself?

There’s something special about the Ignite crowd. They’re happy.  That sounds silly, but in this day and age it’s significant.  They’re not there because they have to be, they’re not there because they should be, they’re there to learn and because they want to be! That’s over 600 open, supportive, eager eyes, ears and minds that want the presenters to succeed.  They want to learn, be inspired and captivated. That positive energy is a force to be reckoned with.  It is contagious and it makes presenting much, much easier. There is no competition, no back stabbing or anything of the sort. It’s just open, sincere cooperation, collaboration and sharing. That positive approach stretches beyond the crowd and was shared by the other presenters. There were words of advice, suggestions, encouragement, jokes, smiles, fist bumps, high fives and shoulder pats throughout the course of the evening.

Tips for future Presenters

I really hope this post helps encourage each and every one of you to submit a proposal to present at Ignite Phoenix 6. If you get selected, here’s my advice:

Go simple. Go big. – Your slides are the life of your presentation and an indication of how professional it looks and feels. Listen to the organizers and past presenters. Go with big, simple images and very simple statements or text. One lone word is best, 3 or 4 is good, more than that? Try and avoid it. There’s a temptation to feel like you need to read what’s on your slides. Even if it’s only a sentence to “remind” you. Don’t do it! Anything more than one word encourages you to awkwardly change from a conversational delivery to a quickly read interjection. This breaks your flow, changes topics abruptly and can be awkward. If you put more than two words on a slide IGNORE THEM – they’re for the viewers, not you as presenter.

Rehearse – Yeah, yeah. I know it’s a pain, but look at it this way. Your presentation is only 5 minutes. Running through it two or three times a day before you present is no big deal. Your presentation should change EACH time you present it. Why? Because you need to focus on the main points you want to share and get comfortable with your time frame – NOT with a memorized statement you’re going to regurgitate. Think about what you like in each practice run, then work on incorporating it next time. That way, no matter what happens during your presentation you can adapt and respond without getting stumped!

Warm Up! – Don’t present cold! For Ignite Phoenix 5 we began at 6PM. I practiced the night before, which was great – but you also need to practice as close to your actual presentation as you can. For me, that meant going through my presentation twice at 4PM before heading to the event. A cold start makes it MUCH more difficult to remember what you want to cover and leaves you less comfortable with the timing, slides etc. – it means you have to think more…and that’s the last thing you want to be doing.

Don’t Narrate – It wastes time! Pausing your presentation to say, “woah, here we go”, “whoops, that went fast”, or “umm….where was I” will throw off your rhythm, undermine your confidence, and tells people there’s a problem. Silence is golden and less expensive! You’ve only got 15 seconds a slide and 300 seconds total – don’t waste them!

Have an Intro Slide! – The Ignite Phoenix team will introduce you with an intro slide, but have one of your own! It helps make the presentation your own AND it gives you valuable time to get out there, look at the audience, get comfortable with them, and let your brain catch up before you’re performing at full presentation speed!

Above all, get out there and try it. Ignite Phoenix 6 applications are already open. It truly, truly is an incredible experience. One that everyone is capable and qualified to participate in. Go SUBMIT your idea now!

Want to learn more about Ignite Phoenix? Check out

Lastly, thank you again to everyone involved in the Ignite Phoenix process. Those who made it possible, those who presented and the wonderful audience.

10 Tips For Ballroom Success

I’ll be the first one to admit that my approach to dancing is a bit different than a lot of people’s. When I started the program at ASU in the fall of my sophomore year I took the Level I Ballroom/Latin/Swing class and was hooked. However, unlike most of the others in the class I didn’t pursue one of the two chief choices: stopping there or moving on to Level II. Instead I re-took the Level I class. I continued to learn and laid down the foundation for what has become one of my favorite, educational and most rewarding pastimes. By my third semester in the dance program, I finally decided to move into the Level II B/L/S class. I learned a lot, improved my dancing exponentially and enjoyed the class, but still found myself attending the Level I classes. By the time my third semester in dance wound down to a close I did the unthinkable. Instead of repeating Level II or moving up to Level III, I returned exclusively to Level I and that’s where I stayed for the remainder of my 4 years at ASU.

To be clear, it wasn’t that I couldn’t go on. I could have quite easily and was pressured fairly heavily to do so. Which isn’t to say I started out as a good dancer. Quite the opposite. In fact, I take a certain level of pride in just how horrible I was when I started. Clumsy, petrified of the girls I was forced into close proximity with, unable to hear the beat, unable to count out the steps – I was a complete dance disaster. About the only thing I had going for me was an awkward sort of charm and perseverance.

Over the last 4 years my dancing has come a long way. In fact, as a person I have changed a lot – and in no small part due to dance. My confidence has skyrocketed. Girls are now relegated to only being marginally scary (downgraded from petrifying). I can hear the beat about 95% of the time. I still can’t count, but I’ve figured out the rhythms. I haven’t dropped a girl and, through it all – somehow – I’ve been accused of moving smoothly and gracefully. I still have a long way to go but the transition from ugly duckling to swan has been an interesting and enlightening one.

I’ve had the opportunity to dance with and to get to know a lot of the incredible dancers that have come out of ASU. In the 3 years I spent in the program, and the year I’ve spent on it’s fringes since I graduated, I’m constantly amazed at the talent and thrilled to see the program grow. It’s truly amazing how things have changed in the last 4 years. When I started Ballroom was still taboo – something for “girls and queers”. Somewhere between the 60s and 70s it had fallen out of favor. That dead period has finally come to an end. Our generation is once again embracing dance and that is a really fun and exciting thing.

For those of you just getting into it or considering picking it up, I’m offering these suggestions as food for thought based on my experiences, approach, and what I’ve seen.

  1. Dance is fundamentally about having fun. I’ve seen a lot of people get into it, push through the classes, and memorize routines with an all consuming focus on competing. For a lot of these people the drive to be the best comes at the cost of actually enjoying what they’re doing. Fundamentally, dance is about enjoying yourself and making sure your partner does the same. If you lose sight of this none of the medals or fancy moves mean squat.
  2. Men – beyond fancy turns or quick spins focus on your ability to lead. If the girl can’t follow you, you aren’t doing your job. On the flip side Girls – work on your ability to follow. Don’t cling to him, listen to his suggestions, and let his body lead you.
  3. Find the music. This one is more difficult for some of us than others. As someone who to this day fights with the beat in some dances, I can’t over emphasize the importance of listening to the music in your spare time and figuring out a system that works for you. Mix it up. The way they told you to count it may not be the best for you. I had major issues with salsa until I started matching up “Quick, Quick, Slow” to the music in my head. No numbers, no this on that beat. Just a simple rhythm I could match and follow. To this day it’s what I use and it’s allowed me to break away from the standard salsa formats and embrace a more South American/natural style.
  4. Be humble – it’s easy to get cocky. It’s also really easy to get frustrated when dancing with someone at a totally different skill level. The reality is, you sucked once. Not only did you suck once, but you’re probably a lot less skilled right now, at this moment, than you think you are. You just won’t realize it until you reach the next skill level. Always make time to dance with a beginner, take the time to be patient, teach them the basics, offer a tip, and be supportive. Guys – in the long run, I promise a smile and a little support will leave the girl feeling like you were a much better dancer than a horribly executed Level III move designed to show her how good you are.
  5. Be careful who you turn down. To this day there are girls I won’t dance with because they were rude. There are others that I won’t dance with because of the way they treated my friends. Also, girls – quite often the guys who have the roughest time at the start end up being some of the best and most prolific dancers. Likewise – guys, it takes a lot of courage for a girl to ask you to dance. If you have the energy, go for it. Even if they intimidate you or you really don’t have any desire to dance with the person. One of my biggest goofs was turning down a phenomenal dancer who approached me about partnering with her on ASU’s competition team. In my shyness, I was intimidated by her and felt severely outclassed skillwise. That combined with my policy at the time not to compete (and frankly my lack of interest in competing) led to a hasty no. That no wasn’t delivered with nearly enough grace or consideration and is something I’d take back in a heartbeat given the opportunity.
  6. Guys – just go for it. There’s a whole story behind it, but there was a line a few girls told me summer of my freshman year during a drunken night out on the town in Edinburgh, Scotland. To this day it’s stuck with me. I’d just finished flailing around at a club in a disastrous drunken version of dance-meets Big-Bird on rollerblades when the girls stopped me mid sentence, “Alex, it’s such a nice change to finally find a guy who dances. Anything is better than the stalker dance.” What is the stalker dance one might wonder? It’s when you stand on the side of the dance floor, bobbing your head to the beat, and stare at the girls like a basset hound eying dinner. So remember – just don’t do the stalker dance and you’ll be a hit.
  7. Try not to smell – I know this one should be common sense but a lot of people are not aware of the scent associated with them. For some it’s just bad breath, for others it might be tied to medicine, breath mints, your toothpaste or gum. Regardless, always be conscientious and pay attention to how you smell. If you smell, not only will it drastically harm the level of enjoyment your partner gets out of the dance, it will cost you future dances.
  8. Girls – don’t tolerate gropers. Accidents happen. Lord knows I’ve accidentally grabbed a boob or two, and on more than one occasion blown a move and ended up with my face nose deep in cleavage. It happens and it can’t be helped. Unfortunately, there are more than a few guys out there who intentionally grope, squeeze, pinch, and generally disrespect the women they’re dancing with. If a guy starts pulling this sort of crap don’t feel like you have to finish the dance with him. Just stop and walk away. Never dance with him again and feel free to intentionally stomp on his toes if you do decide to finish the dance with him. Warn your girlfriends, and let the guys you dance with regularly, know. My only word of caution would be to make sure it’s not legitimately part of the dance (eg: Bachata’s close grinding).
  9. If you’re just starting don’t let the skill of the dancers you see keep you off the dance floor. Anyone who’s going to judge you isn’t worth your time to begin with. Also, it took me about a year to figure it out – but the better dancers typically don’t tend to dance in the more visible locations. So, it’s probable that the dancers dancing along the edge of the dance floor right at the entrance etc. are probably some of the best dancers at the club. Just push on in to the middle or find a quiet corner where you’re comfortable and have fun.
  10. Don’t stop. Even if you totally blow it and get lost – just push through and have fun with it. Crack a joke, make a funny face, and keep going. Remember, you’re out there to dance. Not to be a robot carrying out pre-programmed moves. Besides, how do you think some of the best moves were created?

Tips, ideas, suggestions or questions of your own? Post a comment!