Pecha Kucha in the Classroom: Tips and Strategies for Better Presentations

I have been using Pecha Kucha (click here to hear it pronounced in Japanese: http://www.forvo.com/word/pecha_kucha/) in my courses for a couple of years now, and I have found the basic constraints of this presentational format to be very useful for my student presentations. If you are not familiar with Pecha Kucha, basic information about the history of this presentational style can be found here:

http://www.pecha-kucha.org/what

The essence of Pecha Kucha is to intentionally set limits on speakers using slideware (i.e. PowerPoint or Keynote). Pecha Kucha is the Japanese term for “the sound of conversation” or “chit chat.” I like this metaphor because it does suggest that the purpose of certain kinds of presentations is to encourage dialogue and response, and not merely the delivery of new bullet-point information in pre-designed slideware templates. I feel Edward Tufte’s critique of the cognitive style of Powerpoint is still valuable reading for educators who frequently use slideware in their teaching and/or student work. (http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_pp)

But another layer of meaning around Pecha Kucha’s relationship to “the sound of conversation” should also appeal to teachers. It begs the question: what does your classroom “sound” like during a PowerPoint presentation? If you are in most classrooms, the dominant sound is the ceiling mounted digital video project, blaring its white noise over the students’ heads. Next, a student is typically reading (not speaking) bullet points from text-heavy slides projected on a video screen. Finally, I have noticed the sound of restless students, typically sitting around in a semi-darkened room: the sound of bodies shifting in seats and the clacking of computer keys on laptops. What should enliven the classroom—a thoughtful slide presentation—ends up being a rather perfunctory and increasingly disengaging classroom experience. There is a bit of PowerPoint fatigue as it becomes a ubiquitous classroom assignment. A Pecha Kucha is an attempt to break through this “fatigue” and make the entire speaking experience more engaging. So, how does it do that?

I have found that the basic constraint of 20 slides each lasting 20 seconds adds “zip” to any student presentation. 20 seconds is a marvelous amount of time, 1/3 of a minute. Enough time to make a solid point, but not enough time to drone on and on about any point. It forces concision in speaking, and that need to be concise has a corollary effect on the audience: it forces the listener to be more active. I also think that 20 slides is just about the right amount (not too few and not too many) to get a solid grasp (or at least a meaningful gleaning) of a topic.

I think of traditional PowerPoint presentations as “lean back” performances in academic settings–they encourage a kind of “vegging out” by the other students in the room. Traditional PowerPoint slides are text-heavy, frequently with quotes and citations, and in a semi-darkened room, encourages a kind of “mental scanning” that allows the listener to drift in and out of what the speaker is actually saying. I think of Pecha Kucha presentations as “lean forward,” more interactive performances. 20 seconds is not enough time to have text-heavy slides. You can’t speak more than a few choice sentences in 20 seconds. Therefore, the value of this mode of presentation becomes getting the audience interested in what you have to say; in other words, when the speaker is “chit-chatting,” the ideas can be both more informally presented and more engaging. Think about how you engage with chit-chat or informal communication in every day life. You know when some is spouting their ideas at you, and you also know when someone is riffing on good ideas and seeking a real dialogue and sharing of ideas–informal conversation can yield strong benefits as  one MIT study has suggested. For me, Pecha Kucha is about “riffing” on ideas, sharing one’s thoughts on a topic, and trying to get certain ideas to “spark” for the listener. We will come back to the importance of that “spark” at the end of this blog.

So how to get students to buy into the Pecha Kucha format? First, it is important to recognize that a student is not coming into this process as tabula rasa. I have found my students are conditioned to a certain style of PowerPoint (see Tufte note above) since this is the experience they have had in the majority of their classes. This is not to say that most PowerPoint presentations are bad, merely that they have become disconcertingly familiar in discernable ways. Student slides evince a rote learner’s mentality: a consistent template (usually selected from the template menu in PowerPoint or Keynote); they are text-heavy; they tend to be bullet-point structures (though not necessarily following logical outlines or building in a consistent rhetorical direction). In terms of their use of images, things get worse in my experience. Students tend to use images or graphs as supporting elements only, frequently selecting images and clip arts from the first page of Google image search on any given topic. The images are mostly visual dressing for drab text, and seemingly interchangeable with any number of other good images. Students rarely (ever?) are asked to defend why they chose one image over another. If you ask most students, you will get the response, “I chose this image because I liked it.” And regardless of discipline, there tends to be limited critique or evaluation of the formal properties of slide presentations (use of color, font choices, image selections, template choice, etc.)

From my perspective, I approach Pecha Kucha as a meditation (in fact, as an example of meta-teaching) on the technique and art of presentation. There’s a good post by Jason Jones on his use of Pecha Kucha in his classes that we wrote about as part of the Chronicle’s Prof. Hacker Series. You can read that here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/challenging-the-presentation-paradigm-in-6-minutes-40-seconds-pecha-kucha/22807 I agree with what Jason says in his article, but I do want to add a few things about Pecha Kucha that I picked up in my courses.

First, students need to be aware that this isn’t a “typical” PowerPoint presentation. I stress to my students that the 20 slides X 2o seconds format is particular to this style of presentation and that it will impose unique constraints on what they construct. But I really use this as a teachable moment: constraints are good. In fact, constraints frequently help liberate content and stimulate creativity. It forces the student to make thoughtful choices, not random choices.

Then I start by stressing what students should not do in a Pecha Kucha:

  1. Don’t use too much text
  2. Avoid bullet points
  3. Avoid reading directly from the slides
  4. Avoid images that don’t advance your topic or contribute meaningful visual information
  5. Avoid text-images relations that would take more than 20 seconds to digest (i.e. overly crowded slides will be a blur in a Pecha Kucha, unless you want to intentionally create a sense of “blur”)
  6. While a consistent slide design is good, avoid most PowerPoint templates. Neutral backgrounds and easy to read sans serif fonts are best.

Then I follow up with what students should consider in a good Pecha Kucha:

  1. Consider your 20 slides as 20 panels in a graphic storyline. How do your 20 “panels” flow together to create a cohesive statement or a consistent through-line.
  2. Consider the impact of text on your audience – Is there a single word or a short phrase that captures the essence of what you are saying in that 20 second time span? Frequently, a single word can be used metonymically — t0 “stand in” for your entire 20 seconds of information.
  3. Consider your images very carefully. In a Pecha Kucha, images are frequently the only information on the entire slide. Yes, visual data is just as valuable as textual data. A well-chosen picture is likely worth a thousand words. Why did you select that image? Did you manipulate an image you found to make it even more compelling and precise? Would it be better if you cropped the image? Is this image easy to substitute for another image? If so, have you truly considered why you selected this image and not the other one? How does this image connect to other images in your slide set?
  4. Don’t use slide transitions. Use direct cuts from slide to slide. Avoid all dissolves, and clever transitions like “curtains” or “barn doors.”
  5. Avoid sounds or video clips. There just isn’t time, and these features are just distracting in a Pecha Kucha. Your voice is your sound instrument in this presentation.
  6. What is your design style? What is connecting these 20 panels? Is there a similar textual strategy? A consistent visual design? Are you playing with or against audience expectations? Have you completely considered the arrangement of these 20 slides? Would your presentation change dramatically if the slide order was reversed, or changed in any way? If so, why did you select the order that you did?
  7. Rehearse your spoken remarks. 20 seconds is an amazing short period of time. Most students who do not practice end up speed-talking as the slides change over. A good Pecha Kucha is not about talking faster or talking over the wrong slide. Timing is of the essence of a good Pecha Kucha. Practice really helps. You will set the slideshow on automatic advance, so the slide will change in 20 seconds even if you don’t finish your remarks. Think about how your slides and your spoken remarks match up. They are two parts of a whole, and a successful Pecha Kucha is both well designed and well spoken. In many ways, you should consider yourself a performer, and you are attempting to deliver a compelling performance.

Once I address the “do’s” and “don’ts,” I move onto the objective of a Pecha Kucha. A Pecha Kucha is not an in-depth analysis of an issue. It is a practice started by designers to help creative people get to the point when they were presenting new architectural designs, for instance. It forces speakers to get to the point, making these presentations much faster paced, and much more evocative than a standard PowerPoint. What do I mean by “evocative?” I mean that you get the gist of something from a Pecha Kucha. It introduces ideas better than it analyzes them in depth. And in fact, this is one of the pleasant surprises of this mode of “chit chat.” It is actually quite hard to “chit chat” about something that you don’t really understand. To be concise and evocative means you have really done your homework, that you understand what you are presenting. A novice has trouble distilling information. I find that students who give strong Pecha Kuchas have done their research, have really distilled or “groked” ideas into an essence or a worldview. These are all higher level of intellectual behaviors according to Bloom’s taxonomy. To make a good Pecha Kucha, a student has to be able to analyze, evaluate, and create. In this regard, it is fun to consider how a Pecha Kucha reflects your point of view about a subject—this style of presentation is good at formulating points of view.

A few more aspects to consider:

  1. Like any set of student presentations, less is more. Even though each PK is only 6 minutes, 40 seconds long, I try to stagger PKs over several course meetings rather than have 5 or 6 in a row. I tend to find students can “lean forward” through about 4 PKs, or even 5, but by the 6th fast paced presentation, they start to tune out. So figure that into your syllabi and course planning to get the maximum attention out of PKs.
  2. PKs work well in teams of 2 or more. In my courses, I frequently have PKs that involve 2 students using the same constraint of 20×20. This means functionally that the PK is split into two 10×20 segments. Student teams can alternate slide by slide (the hardest version in my opinion) or split the presentation into two ten panel segments (much more workable for most students). This keeps the PK spirit alive, but let’s larger classes of students perform PKs without taking up too many class sessions. In order to make this option work, I usually let students meet at the end of a few classes for planning, but they usually still have to meet outside of class time to make team-based PKs really work.
  3. I believe one of the real benefits of PKs is to take advantage of the “leaning forward” student is paying attention and engaged by the event. Therefore, I like to build into my courses time for discussion and questions after a PK. In fact, I like the final slide of a PK to be a bit of a provocation to get students talking. And since PKs are very structured, I find it useful to have a time limit for discussion. Depending on class size and course schedule, I try for 6 minutes and 40 seconds of discussion (i.e. the same time for discussion as there was for presentation). Longer discussions works as well if the PKs are spread out over several class meetings, and/or replace other kinds of discussion-based learning (such as using PKs as a replacement for reading reports or project proposals)
  4. PKs tend to get better as students see what other students are doing. Since it will be new to many students, I tend to see more creativity and more willingness to “think outside the box” after the first few PKs of a semester.
  5. In my experience, students really like PK as a presentation style. The faster pace is quite appealing, but I think it tends to bring out the best in speakers. Even students who are a bit less polished as public speakers can use the 20×20 method to come across as a more organized speaker. And when you are talking in shorter bursts, I think many students can even use the PK style to build in a better sense of pausing and reflecting since they can take a breath or a moment as each slide changes on screen.

Finally, like any class assignment, there is plenty of room for experimentation and modification. The only true constraint is 20×20, but much of what I have been speaking about fits my pedagogy and my learning objectives. I know that other teachers may emphasize other types of argumentation and have different expectations regarding stylistic or formal concerns.

In closing, Pecha Kucha should be a fun activity in the classroom, but one that shouldn’t be treated lightly. PK doesn’t mean that anything goes. I find it is best suited to courses that are trying to get students to speak and act like experts on their disciplinary knowledge. This becomes a moment when they share something they know about a topic with their peers. And here is where I return to the idea of “spark.” The moment when PK becomes more than a presentation, students feel that they have “sparked” a good discussion, or brought in knowledge to the class that wasn’t there previously. It makes them co-mentors in the educational process, and that feeling goes a long way towards building deep and complex appreciation not only for course content, but why that course content is relevant to them and their peers. That moment can happen in any presentation, of course, but it seems especially well suited to the sound of conversation that emerges from a Pecha Kucha.

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6 responses to “Pecha Kucha in the Classroom: Tips and Strategies for Better Presentations

  1. Pingback: PechaKucha and the Fonz? « Vox et praeterea nihil

  2. Phenomeally detialed post. I really appreciate it! I will be using this format in my class for the first time and like the DOs and DONTs you provide. Thanks !

  3. Pingback: Pecha Kucha Recap/Resources

  4. Pingback: Syllabus | Affinities

  5. Pingback: Pecha Kucha Links | LearningFully

  6. Pingback: Pecha Kucha, a Presentation Format with Many Possibilities | literacy beat

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