PechaKucha is a speaking format with a simple set of rules: each presenter has 20 slides, and each slide is on screen for 20 seconds. With the timing set on the computer and no control over advancement, the speaker is forced to power through the talk in exactly six minutes and 40 seconds, no more no less. The subject of the talk is almost irrelevant: the format is the real star.
As the organizer of the Orlando, Florida version of PechaKucha Night for the past six years, I’ve coached hundreds of speakers in creating and delivering talks in this format. These speakers have ranged from local celebrities and experienced presenters to people who have literally never spoken in front of a group before in their lives. And what’s interesting is to watch how the process of mastering the format gives each speaker, even the most inexperienced, the authority of leadership.
The root of it, like all success, lies in some hard work. Figuring out how to put your talk into 20 slides, for example. You may lay everything out and find you only have 17 slides worth of content. And then there’s the problem of condensing your message into 20 seconds. A common difficulty people have, particularly experienced and expert speakers, is with brevity. In 20 seconds, the average speaker can comfortably say just about 50 words, but I’ve seen many people try to speedread100wordsasfastastheycaninstead. While they’re still talking, their slide advances anyway. It only takes a few of these to cause a 20-slide pileup, and the blood on the highway is not a pretty sight.
To create a successful PechaKucha, the presenter needs to first focus on a clear point, or goal. I ask my speakers “what do you want the audience to think, to feel, or to do as a result of your talk?” The next step is to organize. It’s sometimes helpful to pour out a rough idea of the content onto 20 Post-It notes, and then to begin arranging and rearranging them to find the flow for the presentation. Finding the right images and words comes next, followed by the most important step, which is as much rehearsal as possible, until the timing and transitions feel totally natural. That’s how you avoid the pileup I mentioned earlier.
Often, people have the misconception that what spurs creativity is a blank slate, or to have complete freedom to create what you want. In my experience, the reverse is true. Creativity is stimulated by having limits and obstacles to work with, and work around. When speakers do everything I just mentioned—focus on their point, organize their content, create within the format’s limitations, and then rehearse thoroughly—they look like masters. The concision and brevity of their talks and the power of the imagery behind them brings out a kind of compressed poetry, with the audience filling in the gaps. The spectators sit spellbound, reveling in the connection, aware of the nature of the feat but not quite sure how it’s done, as if watching a magic trick. And also quite relieved to realize that, whether they love the talk or hate it, it’ll be over in six minutes.
Here’s the thing: in today’s world, authority isn’t what it used to be. It used to come from positions, titles, a one-way flow of information (think: TED talks). Now, it comes from clearly demonstrating that you’ve done your homework—that you’re prepared and focused, that you know how to be efficient and succinct. That you’re conveying a sense of momentum. We don’t want to hear from remote, godlike figures intoning at us from a distance and blathering on. We’re all looking at our watches, anticipating the next thing that’s coming to compete for our attention. PechaKucha syncs up with how we live now, and the speakers who master it win our trust by being in command of their subject and making a strong connection with us. And most of all by being quick about it.
Related blog post: Acceleration Addict – There are some things in life where it’s good to take things slowly. Seduction and casseroles spring to mind. However, most other things benefit from being done faster, from finding shortcuts, from being energised so they are completed quicker and more easily. Nowhere is that more true than business.