Preparing for PechaKucha

By Posted in - Presenting on November 8th, 2013 0 Comments

You have 6 minutes and 40 seconds. You have 20 slides. After 20 seconds each slide is going to automatically progress to the next, completely out of your control. Go. Welcome to presenting PechaKucha style…

Catherine Kasas' drawing of Tracy presenting at CEAC 2013At the CASE Europe Annual Conference this year I was asked to deliver a session just like this. With such a novel and dynamic presentation format to follow, I couldn’t resist sharing my experience of preparing and delivering this style of session with you now.

It’s a simple yet wholly terrifying – and more than just a little exciting – format. With several years of conference speaking under my belt, there’s not a great deal that fazes me when it comes to standing up and talking to an audience of any size. Truth be told, I love it. But being asked to deliver a PechaKucha session was something altogether different for me, so when the invite came to participate in a mass PechaKucha session for the Communications Track Plenary at the CASE Europe Annual Conference this year, of course I eagerly jumped right in and accepted (then Googled the words “PechaKucha” to find out what I’d just agreed to).

Finding my inspiration
The brief for the session was to talk about what inspires my work in communications, so my first challenge was to select those sources of inspiration. I started brainstorming about 4 months ahead of the conference, and I started with 20 ideas laid out on a Google doc. I couldn’t possibly do each one justice in just 20 seconds, and so that list then got distilled down into about 6 or 7 sources of inspiration, allowing myself 2-3 slides to cover each one. Mostly the inspiration came from people I have met over the years, so I was aiming to tell their story and how they had impacted on my career.

The images
With the honour and privilege of being asked to be part of the track plenary session (this was a big deal to me), I decided that stock images or my own photography just wouldn’t do. This had to be special. And so about two months before the conference I commissioned a talented illustrator – Catherine Kasas – to hand draw each slide for me. She completed the entire set within a couple of weeks. Opening them as they arrived at the office – this pile of 20 A3 sheets of hand drawn loveliness – filled me with the same feeling as opening that Christmas wrapping as a child to reveal the grey brick of my first Nintendo Game Boy. But now, I had to do justice to Catherine’s artwork by finding the right words.

What to say…
Delivering the presentation was never going to be an easy feat. I never rehearse conference presentations as I find it can easily lead to doubt and anxiety, which just isn’t me. I’m also very lucky to have the rare gift of feeling at ease on a stage and being relaxed enough to deliver a session off-the-cuff. But that style of presenting doesn’t lend itself well to PechaKucha, as it’s easy to lose track and time. And so after my first trial run through of the slides – I had by now scanned them all in and put the slidedeck together – I sat dumbfounded and shocked, like a baby seal who had just seen the shadow of a Great White pass her by for the first – and not the last – time. I couldn’t find the words, I couldn’t make it fit, I was umming and ahhing and tripping over myself. I was splashing around in panic. This was a disaster.

And so I took an approach that I have never taken before: I committed to scripting the session. This required two things:

  • knowledge of what I actually wanted to say;
  • an understanding of how many words I could speak in 20 seconds.

So, I started off by delivering, and recording, a full run through of the session without the 20 second slide turn, just doing it at my own pace. I then sent that audio file to a transcription company to get it typed up. In the meantime, I timed myself talking at an easy, relaxed pace for 20 seconds, which, I learned, gave me just 60 words per slide. Armed with the long script and the knowledge of my speaking pace, I was ready to edit. And so I edited… and I edited, and then I edited some more, finally crafting every point I wanted to make into a neatly fitting 60 words per slide.

Committing to memory
Taking the decision to script the presentation hadn’t been an easy one. It’s not my style, and left me with significant room for error – forgetting words or losing my pace – in the live presentation. But likewise I didn’t want to be stood on stage reading from a script. So, I set about trying to commit the whole thing to memory.

Now, I’m no actress. Well, I had a line once in a play, aged 5, dressed in white wearing silver tinsel round my head, standing next to another kid in their mum’s blue frock, white tea-towel on her head, holding a plastic baby. There was probably a donkey. And a star. But, that was the extent of my experience of memorising a script. This was tough and by now I was already in Manchester just a day away from the plenary!

I had no hope of remembering it all in one go, and so I set about going over each slide – over and over again until I nailed it, then moving on to the next. I paced for hours in my conference apartment memorising and practicing, eventually managing to complete the whole thing without my script.

Delivery day
Plenary track day arrived and – along with our panel of fellow speakers – we gathered in the room for a rehearsal while the other conference guests headed to the opening keynote. The words were slipping out of my mind and I suddenly didn’t feel able to do it without the paper script. Other speakers were losing pace, not knowing what to say, and finding themselves caught out by the slides transitioning forward when they least expected – or wanted – it to happen. It was – I’m sure they won’t mind me saying – a minor case of mayhem. And then the audience arrived.

With or without the script?
As the first speaker started, everything started to fall into place. Speakers who had floundered in rehearsal, suddenly sprung to life and found themselves at ease. This was working. But I still had to go, and I was still clutching hold of my paper script. But there’s something about having the beautiful and wonderfully reassuring Tricia King (one of my role models in HE) sat next to you that can fill anyone with confidence. And so, with Tricia’s encouragement that I could do it without the script, I took to the stage…

Lessons learned
I loved it. I was at ease, I knew my words. I knew my audience – full of friendly and familiar faces. It worked. Months of planning and I got through it (and they awarded my a stellar speaker score in their evaluations, so it must have been okay). And I learned so much about preparing for this alien form of presenting, that I wanted to share and summarise those lessons here – just in case you’re ever tempted to give PechaKucha a go:

  • Plan well in advance and be prepared to edit and change the focus of your talk;
  • Try to be creative in the images that you use. The “rules” of PechaKucha ban the use of words on the screen so make sure that you chose powerful and creative images that fill the screen;
  • Consider giving your talk a theme. Or maybe treat it as a story and put your own personality into it;
  • Practice well in advance;
  • Recognise that your first practice will probably be terrible. Get it done, brush yourself off and move on. The next will be better;
  • Know your speaking pace and be realistic about how many words you’ll be able to speak per slide. Self-edit;
  • Consider scripting, but try to deliver it without a script, in as natural a way as you can;
  • Enjoy it – PechaKucha is different, it’s creative and while there are rules, the fun is in doing something creative within those boundaries;
  • Remember that the audience is on your side – they want you to deliver a great presentation, they’re willing you to do well, and they’re there because they want to listen to what you have to say;
  • Wear something that makes you feel like you rock. I had found the most incredible dress from Kitten D’Amour while in Australia a month before the conference (actually, two dresses but – shhhh – don’t tell my partner). I knew that I had to plan my outfit in advance because the final drawing on the final slide was a picture of me, standing on the stage in front of them, so the outfit had to be predetermined to match the slide. The presentation felt like a performance, and so the dress just rounded that feeling off and added that little extra confidence.

When I returned to the office after delivering the session, I decided to record it over again so I could share it with you now. Here it is. It’s not perfect but I can’t wait to have a go at delivering another one another time and continuing to strive to perfect this incredible presentation format. How about you? Would you accept the challenge?

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