Why Presenting In “Pecha Kucha” Style Makes You A Better Public Speaker

I was recently given the opportunity to share my journey through a Pecha Kucha talk to a crowd of 200+ UBC alumni, and it completely changed the way I think about public speaking. Pecha Kucha, loosely translated from Japanese as "chit-chat", is the name of a fast-paced and visually-focused presentation style in which presenters use exactly 20 slides timed for 20 seconds each. The name of the game is timing, composure, and adaptability.

I am going to highlight the preparation process, the presentation, and the permanent effects it had on my public speaking.

The Process

The theme for this talk was around how University helped me in “Finding True North” which forced me to reflect on my journey throughout university until the present day. This meant looking through old emails and Facebook albums to find 20 images between 2007 until 2017 that best illustrated my journey. I soon realized that my story was a series of challenges and a few rejections that I had to overcome in order to level up to the next milestone. When you can’t get away with throwing words on a slideshow and need to find meaningful content, it forces you to reflect. The next step was nailing down a cohesive 20-slide story that encompasses only the essentials.

Coming from the tech and marketing world, I am a firm believer in fast iterations and constantly having people “break” your product. I was fortunate enough to literally beta test my speech at something called “Beta Talks”, a super handy program run by SoapBox Speakers which has you present to a live audience of objective strangers who give you candid feedback on what resonated and what you could do better. Below is the “first draft” which was double the amount of time I was going to be allotted – yikes!

Leading up to the big night, the founder of Beta Talks, Janine Graham, cautioned me not to practice too much or it was going to seem rehearsed and people wouldn’t resonate with that. She also cautioned me that if the timing was off or if I forgot a word (which 100% did happen), it would be difficult to recover since I would be relying on a script rather than conveying an emotion in line with the main theme of the talk. This was golden feedback and as an exercise, I would rehearse each slide in my head and associate a feeling with it. This way, the words would come out more naturally and authentically, and I could be more relaxed and even spontaneous.

The Presentation

In retrospect, the way the presentation was delivered embodied the key message from my personal story: resilience and adaptability. Under a minute in, I was already a little behind with the timing of the slides and I fumbled my words – I started to feel that tight feeling in your stomach when you know you’ve lost control of your speech and the utter silence of the crowd gives you the feeling that they have taken note.

Luckily, I was able to get back on track fairly seamlessly and in order to catch up with the slides, I had to cut small sentences on the fly and I even dared to be a little spontaneous and tailor some of my key points to themes that the emcee and the speakers before me told – it was an amazing feeling of empowerment to go from danger to ownership.

And then in a flash, it was over. My journey in six minutes and forty seconds was out in the world.

The Permanent Effects

The process and presentation of my life narrative had permanent effects on my conciseness and on-the-spot storytelling abilities that can only be seen in hindsight.

Conciseness has always been a challenge for me and with this experience, for every main point I try to make in future presentations, I now go through the process of visualizing it, feeling it, and articulating it into one sentence. After that, I can elaborate, or simply gauge the audience and move on if they give me an approving nod – the way you can control the room is a one-of-a-kind feeling. According to John Medina's bestselling book "Brain Rules," eight to twelve minutes is a good rule of thumb for human attention so this style of presentation is perfect for the increasingly distracted society we live in today.

In business, the practical thing about putting my personal narrative into a Pecha Kucha presentation is that whenever I am asked about who I am and what I stand for, I instantly flip through those 20 slides embedded in my memory. This way I know exactly which slide and key point relate to the context I am in and I am able to say it in a way that has flow and encompasses the story from the preceding slides – it’s exactly like flipping ahead to a part of the movie, which people want to know about.

The last time I had put in comparable amounts of rehearsing was three years ago when we pitched on CBC’s Dragons’ Den. Much like Dragons’ Den, it became obvious shortly afterward that the true value in preparing for the speech was the process of articulating something profound, into a succinct pitch with specific visual cues and a performance that transferred the feeling of your story to your audience, in a way that you both will never forget.

Whether you speak to 200+ people or simply to your reflection in the mirror, there is no doubt in my mind that the ingredients of Pecha Kucha make you a better public speaker -- it sure did for me.