Giving a PechaKucha talk is different to a normal presentation. You follow a strict structure designed to restrain the over-talkers and help those who aren’t good at off-the-cuff speeches: every person is afforded 20 slides and has just 20 seconds to talk about each one. Even so, you really should rehearse. At least once. I haven’t. And I’m up next.
Tonight’s event is in full swing at PlusTokyo, a smart new club on the 12th floor of a tower in Ginza, Tokyo. There are about 150 people in the audience and the low-lit atmosphere is both painfully cool and extremely relaxed; why else would the organisers shove three drinks tickets into a speakers’ hand upon arrival, knowing that they’d be on stage in 30 minutes?
The booze might be partly to blame but when my allocated six minutes and 40 seconds begins, time distorts in strange ways. Some of the 20-second slots for slides are over in a heartbeat; others drag out like the yawn I worry the audience is stifling. And then, just like that, it’s done. If it felt quick, that’s because it was: PechaKucha keeps to its strict schedule and the results are all the better for it.
Founders Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein, both longtime Tokyo residents, know this well. Dytham’s ebullient gift of the gab might be great tonight – he and Klein are the evening’s energetic co-hosts – but, as a full-time architect, it often led to presentations that wildly overran. The pair’s idea for PechaKucha (Japanese for “chitchat”) was born from a desire to streamline the Monday-morning team meetings at their firm Klein Dytham.
Soon they opened up the format and started holding events at their own venue near Roppongi Hills. Fourteen presenters were invited to attend the first attempt in 2003 but the participants were enthusiastic. You can see why. The informality of proceedings encourages sympathy from the audience; at least that is my impression, judging by the number of people who flock to reassure me that my efforts are passable once I stumble off stage.
Today PechaKucha nights are held in 1,200 cities around the world – from Auckland to Zürich – and that number is growing by about 10 cities a month. “We didn’t ask anybody to set up a chapter,” says Dytham. “It takes a lot of effort and volunteers to co-ordinate them.” So far the pair have been running the Tokyo events with a team of four others; no licensing fee is required from new cities. But the side hustle has grown so much that the pair have decided to create software that offers PechaKucha to institutions and businesses in an attempt to monetise their activities.
Despite its global success, PechaKucha remains linked to its Japanese origins. “People still call it the zen format: the main thing is the image, not the talking heads,” says Dytham. “It’s simple, minimal and it doesn’t change, just like Japanese soba doesn’t change; people here appreciate the purity of things.” The modesty and eccentricity of topics chosen might have something to do with it too. Predictably, I talked about monocle but my fellow presenters tonight have tackled everything from clothing made from hair to manga-inspired knitwear.
There are 16,000 previous talks to listen to (as you view the slides) on PechaKucha’s website. They include a rundown of the best ramen spots in Tokyo, the design of manhole covers and the art of scaffolding. “Where else would you get to hear about that?” says Klein. “The format helps bring out the stories in a community. Creativity – and sharing it – is the most important thing.”