At software giant Autodesk, employees know what CEO Carl Bass likes to see in a presentation. Twenty slides. Six minutes and 40 seconds’ worth of material.
Such are the requirements of PechaKucha, a presentation format that applies discipline and design to the baggy and the bombastic. With its emphasis on speed and graphics, PechaKucha plays angel to Power-Point’s devil. The rules are beyond simple. Speakers display 20 slides and spend 20 seconds on each. If you have more than 20 points to make: too bad. Cut some. If an idea or graphic is too complex to explain in 20 seconds: too bad. Simplify it.
“For a while, I required my staff to present this way,” says Bass, who complains that most speakers think more about how much they have to say than about how much the audience wants to hear. “It makes people crisp,” he says. “It forces them to organize their thinking.”
Like many elegant, minimalist inventions (haiku, sushi), PechaKucha originated in Japan. In 2003, Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham, principals at a namesake architecture firm in Tokyo, sought ways to create excitement around their new arts space, SuperDeluxe.
“We thought we’d get some architects round and have a show and tell,” recalls Dytham. “But architects talk too much, and we wanted to showcase lots of people in one evening.” The pair fiddled with timing, calculating that, at six minutes 40 seconds, they could squeeze in 20 presenters. “People said, ‘It’s impossible for me to talk about my building in 20 slides,’ ” says Dytham. “We said, ‘Of course it’s not.’ ”
PechaKucha Nights are now staged in more than 600 cities around the world, with subject matter ranging from the significance of red hair (Brighton, England) to an aid mission to Haiti (Istanbul). Business has paid attention as well. On YouTube, you can catch Brian Chesky, founder and CEO of Airbnb, giving his company’s history the 20-by-20 treatment. Josh Golden, founder of Chicago-based digital marketing company Table XI, first encountered PechaKucha when he became its vendor.
Dytham hired Table XI to develop a website for PechaKucha, the not-for-profit he and Klein founded that works with people and organizations holding PechaKucha events. Golden soon became an evangelist. “Every new employee who joins the firm does a PechaKucha presentation about themselves,” Golden says. “We have a series of events called Table Talks where our staff and community members get together and do PechaKuchas around a theme. Our last one was about the education of software developers. We’ve just embraced the structure wholeheartedly.”
Dytham says presenters appreciate the format’s tough-love approach. “It forces you to edit,” he says. PechaKucha has a democratizing effect, he adds: “Whether you’re the boss or the intern, you’ve got the same 20 slides and 20 seconds.” Autodesk’s Bass suggests another advantage. “I won’t tell you that PechaKucha prevents people from giving bad presentations,” he says. “The good news is they can give them for only six minutes and 40 seconds.”