Beki Grinter

Pecha Kucha: Are Fast-Paced and Concise the Only Metrics for a Talk?

In research on September 1, 2011 at 9:18 am

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading papers about persuasive technologies alongside thinking about a Pecha Kucha talk, that I find myself mildly disturbed by this format. The upsides are claimed that its fast paced and concise (which are offered presumably as the metrics for a good talk, and that means that they are worthy of attention). And at 6 minutes and 40 seconds it is certainly fast. It maybe concise even. But is it interesting, comprehensible, and does it have substance? And should talks be valued for their fast pace and conciseness if they don’t have interest, comprehensibility and substance? And perhaps more.

Pecha Kucha achieves this fast format by having the author of the talk relinquish control over the ability to make transitions as necessary through the talk. Instead the presentation software handles this, changing the slides at every 20 seconds automatically. But, what if there is a concept I want to explain that goes over 20 seconds? I could just continue to talk about it, but the slides behind me change pictures and I am sure that that suggests to the audience that something has changed. If nothing else, the cues are wrong. I could just abandon the idea that I was going to talk about anything that was more complex to explain than in 20 seconds, but that may be the route to omitting important concepts, dumbing others down, and presenting a lot of claims with little of substance to back them up.

There’s an issue of control. By quantifying every 20 seconds of the talk, the author loses some of their ability to tell their story. So, that creativity to make a story arc that is engaging at our own pace has gone. Perhaps we need that guidance, but perhaps if we are left alone to speak as we think befits the topic we can do better. What about expertise? I think I’ve earnt the right to be considered the expert in narrating my research. I certainly prefer that to being told by presentation software that my time is up, yet again.

And presentation software makes a difference. Social cues designed to do the same thing, to flag people to move on, can be ignored because the presenter has control. And in most cases while it’s not precise it’s not wildly off either, so the social cues work but with a nice property of the fuzzy boundary.

I can’t help feeling that the auto-slide transition feature here has allowed us to create a genre of talk that takes some control away from the author, while simulateneously demanding a lot from that same author to hammer their material into the format. And it remains, at least to me, an open question of whether fast-paced and concise are the only metrics for a good talk. Trite and poorly executed also seem to be metrics one could add to the Pecha Kucha talk format. And what of authorship, have we moved from a voice of authority to a voice beholden to presentation software. Now that’s an interesting criteria for a talk.

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  1. Pecha Kucha is an interesting format and I think it’s ideal for certain situations. It is most often used as a framing for an evening of art and design talks, where an audience can sit for a few hours and get a flavor of a variety of projects. As an audience member, the constraints often work to your advantage. The short duration leaves you wanting more from the best talks, and many speakers offer web links at the end for more detailed information. The boring talks are over fairly quickly, and at least you got to look at a series of pretty pictures every 20 seconds.

    For the presenter, it is certainly a challenging format. Sentences cannot be at once naturalistic and carefully timed, unless you put in way too much work and are a good actor. But when done well, Pecha Kucha actually allows a speaker to connect more directly with the audience. Canny speakers know to include a series of slides that illustrate their general theme but are mainly disconnected from specific rhetorical points. In other words, the best Pecha Kucha presenters talk through the slides rather than to the slides. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy skill to learn, and my experience is that many Pecha Kucha presenters fumble at least once.

    In this century it seems impossible for people to give a lecture without visual aids (and indeed the audience would demand them even if the speaker would rather not). Too often I see a presenter use a slide transition as the replacement for making a rhetorical transition. A rigorous format like Pecha Kucha (unless extremely well rehearsed) can guard against this. The experienced Pecha Kucha speaker has to make the argument primarily through speech.

    As for metrics, I think Pecha Kucha encourages visual wit, enthusiasm and–yes–concision. But for an evening of talks, is that so bad?

  2. I like Andrew’s observations. I would add that as a form, pecha kucha may, to be effective, demand more sophistication from _both_ the speaker _and_ the listener than a conventional long-form talk does. By way of (imperfect) analogy, do we say that a poem or a song cannot possibly be as substantive as an essay or a novel, simply because it might have a shorter or more constrained form?

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