Courtesy Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein
At a pecha-kucha, an event conceived by Tokyo architects Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein, presenters have 6 minutes and 40 seconds — or 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide — each to show off a talent, unveil an invention or just share an idea. The idea is to put limits on speeches and force the viewer to focus and think.
It's the bane of students, business people and even the military: If you've ever yawned through a slideshow, you're probably familiar with that dreaded malady of modern times, known as "Death by PowerPoint."
Now, for the long-suffering audience, there's some good news. Tokyo architects Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein hit on the antidote to presentation overload — a style they dubbed pecha-kucha, Japanese for "chitchat" — and their elegant solution is taking the world by storm.
Dytham and Klein are easygoing by nature, but if there's one thing they can't stand it's slideshows full of hot air. So when the pair staged a forum featuring the work of their architect friends, they laid down one rule as simple as it was extreme.
"The problem with architects is they talk too much. So how could we find a way to stop them? You get passionate about whatever you're talking about and you go on forever and ever — so we came up with 20 slides, 20 seconds a slide," he says. He says 10 slides, 10 seconds per slide was too short and 30 slides, 30 seconds per slide was too long.
"We were trying to find a catchy 5 minutes or so for the architect to present," he says.
With speakers allotted a draconian 6 minutes and 40 seconds each, Dytham and Klein were able to pack 20 speeches — or rather, speechlets — into a single evening. Klein named these curious events after a quaint old Japanese onomatopoeia.
"We were looking for a name, and somebody says, 'It's just chitchat, it's pecha-kucha, pecha-kucha, pecha-kucha — people talking too much. So that's where we came up with pecha-kucha," she says.
Pecha-Kucha Goes Viral
At first, pecha-kucha (pronounced: peh-CHAKH-cha) was purely local. But then, something strange happened. Without any prompting or publicity, and to the astonishment of its founders, the format went viral.
In just the past three years, the speech events have taken root in hundreds of cities in the U.S. and worldwide, from Amersfoort, Netherlands, to Saragossa, Spain. New cities are added, on average, every 72 hours. Nearly a quarter of a million people every year gather in warehouses, old prisons and forest clearings for pecha-kucha nights — a spectacle that seems to belie the pretenses of the online age.
"People really like to get together physically," Dytham says. "We forget that on Facebook. They say they're 'social networks,' but they're not really; they're anti-social networks. People in a city want to get together and have a chat and a beer. And this was a way to pull people together."
Since it began, in 2003, pecha-kucha has spawned imitators, like Ignite, and corporate consultants have appropriated the speed technique. Unwittingly, Klein and Dytham seemed to have stumbled across an apparently universal longing of audience members listening to those who pontificate: just get to the point.
It all began in a grungy basement club in downtown Tokyo, called Super-Deluxe. Pecha-kucha nights nowadays give the floor to just about anyone who's been struck by the muse. It's amateur hour meets college lecture meets vaudeville and performance art.
On any particular evening, the audience will have heard from a Finnish scholar wryly explaining the science of "partying," an aid worker trying to sell her book about human-rights abuses in the Congo, and a man doing card tricks on his iPad.
"It's just supposed to be a small glimpse," says Will French, an Australian artist who unveiled his invention at a pecha-kucha — a motorcycle-powered sewing machine. "And if it whets their appetite, then they can find out more. It's more like a performance itself rather than a lecture or a forum."
The Power Of Catching Only A Glimpse
But here's the irony of pecha-kucha: As TV news shifts ever closer to entertainment, and images flash by in a second or two, pecha-kucha's 20-second slides actually force the viewer to focus and think, Dytham says.
"We did the whole fundraising activity for Haiti; some of the images were quite moving — images of the first two to three days in Haiti," he says. "And when you have to look at those for 20 seconds — and you've got time to think about the images — that's very different from when you see images on TV, which are there for three seconds. ... You kind of miss the point."
Dytham and Klein knew they were on to something, when a request to start pecha-kucha nights came from Silicon Valley. The writer was a Microsoft employee and, a member of the team responsible for PowerPoint.