ABOVE: Dr. Jeff Peterson, ophthalmology researcher at the University of Miami, teased soon-to-be-released findings on diseased eyeballs by showing a provocative image of a monkey riding a pig. PechaKucha Night Miami, January 31, 2020.
Respondents to one of my recent polls on LinkedIn told me that “How to organize my content” is their number one roadblock to great presentations. That didn’t surprise me.
Outstanding presentations require thoughtful planning. Most people start loading up PowerPoint slides with text, charts, and images without considering who will be in the audience and what they want that audience to do or believe afterwards. Great presentations must be written before they are designed and before they are delivered. Think preparation, not presentation.
How to create a great presentation—coherent, concise, impactful, and memorable—is seldom taught in school. In the business world, we most often are thrown into it because we are called on to sell, inform, educate or simply to justify our existence.
It helps to have a presentation template or format when it’s time to organize content. One of my favorite presentation teaching tools is PechaKucha, the Japanese art of concise presentations. You may not have heard the name before. It loosely means “chit-chat” in Japanese. PechaKucha is a fast-paced presentation format consisting of 20 slides that auto-advance every 20 seconds with the presenter speaking a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds before a live audience. The presenter has no control over the slides and needs to continue speaking as each of the 20 appears on the screen them. PechaKuchas use more images, such as photos, pictures or graphics than spoken words, as compared to a conventional 20-minute PowerPoint presentation which may rely more on the presenter’s narrative.
PechaKucha was devised in 2003 by a duo of European architects working in Tokyo as a reaction to rambling architecture lectures. Astrid Klein and Michael Dytham saw the 20 x 20 format as symbolic of their firm’s approach to design: to the point, self-explanatory and fun. Since then, PechaKucha and local events called PechaKucha Night have expanded to more than 1,3000 cities with presentation topics that span the breadth of human experience.
Similarly, TED Talks took off around the same time after originating a decade earlier as an invitation-only annual conference in Monterey, California, conceived by Richard Saul Wurman, an American architect and graphic designer. Wurman observed a powerful convergence among three fields: technology, entertainment and design and sought to gather an influential audience from many disciplines. TED became the intellectual highlight of the year in small circles but did not become a global sensation until media entrepreneur Chris Anderson became its curator and launched TED Talks to the public in 2001.
The TED format takes a lot of discipline and creativity. A single presenter speaks on a live stage from memory without notes with or without audio visuals. Carefully prepared talks may be accompanied by slides, video, props, demonstrations, or performances on a wide range of subjects. TED Talks are limited to 18 minutes, which neuroscience shows is the ideal length for a new business pitch.
By comparison, PechaKucha is more tightly structured. The slides are automated, so the presenter must be well organized to capture the message of each slide in the time permitted. No reading from slides is permitted, so the presenter must be more engaged in their message and with their audience because the time per frame is limited to 20 seconds. The common misguided strategy in business presentations is to refer to detailed notes or read from the slides while presenting. This is not only distracting to the audience but makes the presenter appear unprepared, unsure, and disconnected.
PechaKucha’s fast-paced method is used in corporate settings around the world to improve presentation skills for experienced and novice speakers alike. The format forces you to have a clear understanding of what you want to communicate. This requires practicing your talk many times and paring down your talking points until you are left with exactly what you need. The visuals must work with your talk– you can’t go back to them–and you don’t have much time to explain each one of them in detail. That means designing visuals or choosing images that hold your audience’s attention.
PechaKucha has also become popular in academic settings to teach international students who speak English as a second language, among other applications. The reasoning here is that PechaKucha allows the expression of visual and non-verbal creativity to overcome linguistic limitations successfully.
Both TED and PechaKucha continue to multiply to every corner of the globe and gift us rich opportunities to watch and listen to remarkable thinkers via their online archives of recorded presentations. You can tap into these treasure chests to inspire new ways to organize your content and begin improving your next presentation.
I have the privilege to serve as co-curator on the Organizing Committee for PechaKucha Night Miami. You can watch videos of our recent stage presentations and get inspired.