The Phenomenon That’s Making PowerPoint Presentations Bearable (Even Enjoyable?)

Dec 17, 2019

After death and taxes, the next unavoidable thing in life may be lousy Powerpoint presentations. And for anyone who’s ever struggled to simultaneously read and listen as a speaker breezes through slides, Sean Smyth has some comforting words: It’s not your fault. The human brain simply isn’t equipped to multitask on that level.

“Your mind can’t work that way,” says Smyth, the CEO of PechaKucha, a company that offers software and other services centered around a unique take on slide sharing. “It can’t both read and listen at the same time.” Scores of research studies back Smyth up, concluding that text plus speech simply equals too much new information to process.

Unlike a PowerPoint or Keynote that gives you all these options, we don’t. We actually embrace constraint.
Sean Smyth

PechaKucha’s solution: Cut the copy—and keep it snappy.

The company is something of an offshoot of an eponymous style of slideshare presentation that’s as fast-paced as its pronunciation (peh-CHA-keh-CHA, said quickly, with no break between the words).

A standard PechaKucha, known as 20x20, is simple enough. Each presenter gets 20 slides, which automatically advance every 20 seconds, like watching a YouTube slideshow. Thus every presentation lasts an even 400 seconds, or six minutes and 40 seconds on the dot.

“It’s the same for everyone, and that also makes things very safe,” especially for nervous presenters, says Sueli Brodin, a communications officer who teaches the format to students at the United Nations University-MERIT, a research institute in the Netherlands. “There’s an entertainment and competition element as well, because you have to finish on time.”

PechaKucha, the style, began about 15 years ago in Tokyo, invented by two European architects, Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham, who named it after the Japanese word for “chit-chat.” To hear them tell it, they came up with the format in about 20 minutes as a way to keep their work-related presentations understandable and running at a brisk clip. Before long, a monthly Tokyo event was arranged.

PechaKucha, the company, was founded in 2018 to help promote the format to cities, businesses and schools. Its website features thousands of searchable presentations on everything from urban art to video game culture and an abridged history of British accents.

“There’s a way to provide software and resources, which just weren’t there before, in a company form, versus just letting the format go organic,” says Smyth. But anyone can adopt the presentation style free of charge. While the name PechaKucha is trademarked, the 20x20 formula isn’t. (“You can’t really trademark that,” Smyth says.) So the company generates revenue by licensing its name to events and producing software designed to make it easier for organizers and educators to facilitate events with back-to-back presentations that must be timed with military precision.

“That's kind of like our special sauce,” says Smyth. “Unlike a PowerPoint or Keynote that gives you all these options, we don’t. We actually embrace constraint.”

More than a thousand cities around the world have hosted PechaKucha events, and over 100 take place each month, including just-completed gatherings in Kathmandu, Salzburg and Silver Spring, Md. Collectively, PechaKucha events have drawn about 3 million in-person attendees, including many enthusiasts. “You don’t have to necessarily be a well-renowned expert,” Smyth says. “If you just have a passion and want to tell a story, we welcome you to get on our stage.”

The company’s new focus is getting into schools and businesses, through a software subscription that runs $50 per month for about 200 users. That license lets users create presentations and also store them privately or share them online.

Short and Sweet

Unlike most startups, the mission of the company is much the same as it was 15 years ago: to keep slide shares from running too long. Smyth noticed the inclination toward ponderous presentations during his years at Groupon, where he was an early employee and watched the length of meetings swell alongside the company’s headcount.

Subjecting audiences to death by PowerPoint is a habit that tends to form early, says Ivy Nelson, a technology integration coordinator in Missouri who used the PechaKucha format a few years ago when she taught 10th grade English. For many students, reading from slides “was kind of a safety net,” she explains. “But for the rest of the class, it was like torture.”

Most of her students recoiled at the thought of speaking in front of the class and would sweat over the number of slides they had to create and the exact length of presentations.

“I wanted to know what the kids knew,” Nelson explains. “I wasn’t grading if they went a little long or short, or they had too many slides or not enough slides.” By and large, students gave terrible presentations, she says. Thus, she saw PechaKucha as a way to level the playing field a bit, and hopefully break students of bad habits before they took root.

Still, students hated it at first. While traditional PechaKucha slides feature only images, Nelson eased students in by granting a few concessions. She allowed a few words of text and let students bring note cards with them while they learned the format. And she shortened the length considerably, asking students to present only 10 slides for 20 seconds each.

“Once they got over that initial part of it and they got to see one presented, that's when I remember them getting really excited about it,” she says. “And that moment of: ‘Wow, this is so much better, because I’m not bored.’”

Nelson’s students particularly excelled when presenting on topics like literary symbolism, where they mined poems for examples of literary devices and figure of speech. “Kids would always pick love or first love or young love because they were 15-year-olds and they love that topic,” she recalls. Symbolism worked well because it provided students with a ready source for imagery, such as endless stretches of blue ocean to represent the depth of a lover’s attachment. “That one just lent itself to the format a little more.”

Learning Curve

Across the Atlantic, students can be just as verbose and protracted in their presentations, says Brodin at the UN university in Maastricht. While Dutch students are typically more comfortable presenting in groups—formal practice begins as early as primary school—they often need help formatting them.

To introduce them to PechaKucha, Brodin hosts workshops where students are given a topic along with five pre-prepared slides and only an hour or two to prepare an accompanying presentation. Before long, her students realize that despite being easy to pick up, the format comes with a sizable learning curve.

“It’s very simple to explain,” Brodin says, “but when they start preparing they realize that it can be hard, and that if you want to do it well, you will actually have to think about it.” Some students switch things up by injecting music, interacting with the audience or asking listeners to share thoughts with a neighbor for the duration of a slide or two.

Besides working with undergraduate students, Brodin also uses the format with those pursuing doctorate degrees. Much like Klein and Dytham, the PechaKucha founders, doctoral students often need help distilling complex ideas for those outside their field of study.

“They enter this academic world where they start speaking academic jargon and they use words like ‘linkages’ instead of ‘links’ and words like ‘agency’ and nobody knows what they’re talking about,” she says. What they need are “alternate to formats to talk to the public, to talk to society, and PechaKucha is such a wonderful way to do that.”


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