Pecha Kucha in Public Speaking

Using PowerPoint in speeches sucks. Always. Many speech teachers probably feel the same. PowerPoint becomes a teleprompter, which defeats the purpose of giving a speech.

Last semester, I taught Business Communication for the first time in my entire teaching career. In thinking through that class, I felt obligated to teach PowerPoint since it’s expected in the business world. Also, the POD listserv, discusses visual resources a lot. Those two things motivated me to teach PowerPoint and to do it well. As a result of these explorations, I experimented this semester.

One thing I incorporated is a Pecha Kucha format speech (you can use Prezi too, though). Pecha Kucha was designed by American architects in Japan who realized that any time designer grabs a microphone, they go on and on, and they never stop. The 20×20 method format of Pecha Kucha, which uses 20 slides shown on autoplay for 20 seconds each, limits the speech to exactly 6:40 minutes. Pecha Kucha is Japanese for chit chat. It’s like the Japanese onomatopoeia of the sound chatting.

To do the Pecha Kucha, something had to be sacrificed. The format seems to fit best for a lighter speech, so I abandoned the commemorative/tribute speech. Traditional approaches to public speaking classes suggest using manuscript delivery for the epidictic speech, and I’ve always done that speech first with the goal of weaning students from reading their speeches. Start easy, work your way to the harder stuff, right?

Since the commemorative speech is a manuscript speech, it reasonably focuses on eloquent language, which is one of my favorite topics. In shifting to the Pecha Kucha, it made more sense to emphasize visual eloquence over verbal eloquence. So, I sacrificed a heavy focus on tropes in order to spend a greater amount of time teaching how to make a good “deck” of PowerPoint slides.

Over my summer explorations, I learned there is definitely an art to making a good deck to prevent “death by PowerPoint.” The most influential book on the market right now is Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Reynolds’ clean, elegant approach to PowerPoint seems to fit right in with a Pecha Kucha format, and their shared emphasis on “beautiful ideas.” Consequently, I changed the commemorative speech to an inspiration speech. Pecha Kuchas are all about inspiring.

All this work caused me to analyze our course textbook material on PowerPoint. Before, I just told my students, “read it and follow it.” Our speech textbook is utterly disappointing. Then I examined every public speaking textbook piled on my bookcase, and I was shocked at how dry and unhelpful they were.

Although most books give some basic pointers (using the right font, contrast, minimize bells and whistles), the underlying pedagogy was wrong: since visual aids are aids, they are added on to the speech after the development process. Not only would that approach FAIL EPICALLY for a Pecha Kucha, but Reynolds convinced me that to use presentation aids well means starting with the inventional process. In addition, the standard approach in our textbooks lends itself to “chartjunk,” which is a primary cause of death by PowerPoint.

Now, to make sure I could actually teach the format, I went to a Pecha Kucha night in New Orleans, where I learned that the format doesn’t necessarily rescue everyone from making a bad speech. Pecha Kuchas can stultify, too, but thankfully they only last six and a half minutes.

I also made my own to present to the students. Not fair to teach it if I’ve never done it, right? I worked on mine for days and days, which made me worry that I assigned something too difficult. After the developing the speech, the second challenge came in practicing the delivery. I practiced so many times that I lost track. This is not something you can wing because of the 20×20 autoplay.

Finally came the day of my presentation. Guess what. I BOMBED. Not only that, but I did exactly what we tell students to avoid. DO NOT APOLOGIZE OR DRAW ATTENTION TO YOUR MISTAKES. Half way through the speech, I looked up at my slides (remember, don’t talk to your visual aids!) I saw that I was completely off time. After practicing so hard to make the time, I was stunned and discombobulated.  I gaped at the screen in dismay, and exclaimed very loudly to my students, “Oh f*ck!” Utterly unprofessional and humiliating. A good object lesson, too.

The biggest mistake: Building a twenty second statement for each slide. If you’re off time on one, you’re off on all of them. My mistake was to try to and build flexibility by borrowing time from one slide to cushion another. That made it even worse by turning everything into a script. It’s difficult to speak in an impromptu style when your timing is the crux of the presentation.  The only way to have a general clue whether you’re in synch with the slides is to watch them closely, which violates the “don’t talk to your visual aids” rule.

The better method is a thematic approach. Try to cluster ideas and images together. Have two or three main points and a series of slides that supports each point, let the slides play like ambient visuals, explaining the important images in synch with the timing.

Overall, the assignment itself was a success. There were some failures, but most of the students did exactly what the assignment required. Since the slides are up for only twenty seconds, the students can’t use them as a teleprompter. Also, no more stultifying tribute speeches that were actually biographies or histories. The format forces the speaker to hone the message so that it is focused and precise, which makes the speech much more memorable. Last, and most wonderfully, the students selected topics that inspired them, and so the speeches were more interesting, and the passion came through in design and delivery.

Since this was my first experience, I asked the students for written feedback.  Specifically, they wrote what they would tell next semester’s students for advice on how to make their speeches. The advice actually applies to all speeches, not just Pecha Kuchas. This indicates that the Pecha Kucha taught the students far more about writing speeches than I ever imagined.

Advice for writing Pecha Kuchas

Time and Preparation:

Make sure you don’t do it the night before.

20 slides may not seem like a lot but it’s really a lot of work so begin early.

Topic:

Be comfortable with the topic you choose.

Make sure you have a lot to say about the topic you choose.

Be passionate about your topic or have a little bit of background knowledge; it will help you be able to talk for 6:40.

Know what you want to talk about and be sure you WANT to talk about it.

It is easier to talk about something you really like or love than something you don’t care for.

Pick a topic that you can relate to and will be interesting to the audience. Make sure it’s not something that will be hard to discuss and/or find supporting material on. Use resources to support your opinion.

Pick a topic you’re personally interested in. This will cause the development of the speech to come naturally.

Preparation:

Follow the rules on the assignment sheet.

Make sure all your paperwork is done correctly ahead of time so you can make changes.

Development:

Make sure you’re able to get your main points clearly across to the audience.

Have a good attention getter.

Try to keep it interesting.

Be concrete and detailed.

Know what points you want to make and how long it takes to explain.

Make sure to include supporting materials such as examples or stories.

Open with a beginning and end with a closing.

Give a strong introduction and use it as a tone setter to give the audience a clear and stronger idea of what you’ll be discussing.

Make sure your speech and slides flow together and don’t look off topic.

Make a good outline. Have a topic for each slide that way you can talk about each thing for roughly 20 seconds. Sometimes it’ll go over 20 and sometimes under, but it should balance out. Make sure you don’t say the same thing over and over.

The Slides:

Don’t overdo the slides with information; keep it simple.

Don’t put a lot of words on your slides.

It’s complicated for every slide. Have something solid to say for each slide. Even though it’s 20 seconds a slide it is best to have a lot to say and condense it than too little and lose your groove transitioning through the speech.

Make sure your pictures actually match your main point and flow easily from one to the next.  Practice a few times and rearrange to make sure the slides make more sense.

Practice:

Time yourself over and over again.

Practice a lot to meet the time limit and so that you are familiar with your speech.

Use the assistance of your friends and family to be your audience.

Delivery:

Don’t be afraid. Delivery is easy with PowerPoint behind you.

Deliver it the first day so you can cruise the rest of the week without worrying about it.

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