A Study in Awkwardness
It’s Friday night and I’m on my second glass of wine. I shift in my seat expectantly as a man approaches the stage. The din of conversation dims and gradually fades as he grips the microphone and faces the audience. Suddenly, an image fills the large screen behind him and he begins to speak. It’s Pecha Kucha night in Saigon, and his presentation has begun.
Pecha Kucha is a presentation style developed in Japan in which speakers must follow a simple set of rules: each presenter is allowed to show 20 slides for 20 seconds each- no more, no less- for a total speaking time of 6 minutes and 40 seconds. After being treated to talks about yoga chanting techniques, how to make beer, and the altruistic activities of a local non-profit, the audience is eager to the man’s story. We’ve been told by the MC that we’re in for a riveting description of the burgeoning open mic scene in Saigon.
Only, it doesn’t quite turn out that way. The first slide appears, and the man launches into his speech, speaking steadily through the first three or four slides before faltering. It’s right around slide five that he lapses into the first of several uncomfortable silences. Having made his point, his voice trails off and he glances at the slide behind him, and then at the MC. After several beats the next slide appears and he looks relieved- he confidently makes his point…in all of about five seconds. With 15 seconds to go, slide five lingers stubbornly onscreen. A sense of collective awkwardness fills the room until mercifully, five whole minutes later, the man’s slideshow comes to an end. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the presenter, who has clearly not been made aware of the rules of the game (at one point, he questions the MC about why the slides are progressing so slowly).
Unfortunately, the presentation for which this post is named is not this man’s; it’s my own. So why, then, do I begin by recounting his excruciating experience? It’s because of the impact seeing his performance had on my prepping my own- and how it inspired me to go overboard in the complete opposite direction.
After witnessing the Most Awkward Presentation Ever, I was determined not to repeat the same mistakes. Instead, I proceeded to make several different mistakes, all entirely my own.
Mistake #1: Choosing a broad topic
Despite all the presentations that went exceedingly well, my take-away from the evening was that 20 seconds is long, and that 6 minutes and 40 seconds is a yawning chasm of time to fill. This impression was so strong (and, stupidly, remained uncorrected for so long) that it affected almost every aspect of my planning process, beginning with my choice of topic.
For my topic, I decided to discuss the sauna culture in Finland. I’m a Finnish citizen, but I was born and raised in America. Over the summer I visited Finland for the first time in 22 years, and spent much of that time in saunas with my relatives. I was struck by how central the sauna is to the Finnish identity, and intrigued by the ritual involved. I realize now, of course, that I could have given 5 Pecha Kucha presentations about sauna alone, but at the time, it didn’t feel like enough to fill an entire, daunting almost-seven minutes.
So, I zoomed out a little bit and figured I’d begin by talking about Finland in general, since it’s a country most people know very little about. Of course, I’d have to start off by introducing myself, and explaining why I’d chosen this topic. So, after lots of mulling over possibilities, I came away with a flow of ideas that was certain to fill the time: self-introduction- family background- Finland’s geography- Finnish economy- things Finland is famous for- little known facts about Finland – general observations about Finnish culture- sauna culture in Finland. I looked at the list and was satisfied; there was no way I’d run out of things to talk about.
Mistake #2: Creating the slideshow before the outline
It’s worth pointing out that I was putting my presentation together in a bit of a time crunch. Giving a Pecha Kucha presentation was an assigned to me as part of a course I’m taking on visual literacy, and my classmates and I were given a week to put one together. However, in order to give our professor enough lead-time to turn our slideshows into 20-scene movies, they were actually due two days before the speech. Ever the procrastinator (and time underestimator), this meant I found myself in the position of not having enough time to hammer out the details of my speech before the slides were due. Thus, my planning process looked something like this:
- Select topic
- Create general flow of ideas
- Create and submit slide show
- Solidify storyboard- list all specific points that will be made during each slide
- Practice with timer
Most people who have advice to give about Pecha Kucha will tell you that when preparing a presentation, it’s best to plan the speech first, figure out the timing, and then select slides to match. Further, they acknowledge that the presentation form itself can hinder speakers from “going deep,” and suggest that speakers spend two or three slides developing a point to avoid this pitfall, and instead create stories that unfold naturally and unhurriedly.
So, of course I did exactly the opposite. (Granted, it wasn’t until I sat down to write this post-performance reflection that I actually read any advice about Pecha Kucha. Mistake #3?) I created twenty wildly different slides that specifically illustrated twenty perfectly separate and distinct points I had planned to make in my speech. I emailed these to my professor and began planning what to say.
Mistake #3: Packing in too many points per slide
Next, I created a storyboard template and began filling it with talking points. These included facts, observations, jokes and anecdotes from my trip, and averaged about 4-5 points per slide. This took hours. (I don’t know why, but it did.)
Finally, I was ready to practice. I pulled up online-stopwatch on the desktop, picked up my paper, and began. What became immediately clear is that twenty seconds is actually quite short, and that I had way too many points planned for each slide. Panic set in immdiately. (I should mention that I didn’t actually sit down with a timer until the morning of my presentation, which brings me to Mistake #4: Waiting until the last minute to do everything.)
Since I couldn’t change my slideshow, I had no choice but to tailor the presentation to match what I came quickly to view as an onslaught- a tirade- of images. All anecdotes were immediately excised (they take too long). Jokes were done away with (they mostly appeared in the anecdotes). All nonessential points were jettisoned; I had to forge a path for my audience from a picture of a church to Angry Birds to Newsweek Magazine, and I only had a minute to do it in.
Soon, my tidy outline looked like this:
I’m sitting in class sweating and trying not to bounce nervously. There are two presenters before me, and as I watch them I’m jealous of their relaxed, conversational tones, and their implacable timing. I listen to their stories, but I’m also mentally preparing to stand up against the Tyranny of the Slides. I’ve got about 40-50 separate points I need to make just to maintain continuity between my images. The way I’ve got it planned, my speech basically entails my standing in front of the audience, firing off rounds of points while the slides flow fast and furious behind me. I think about the fact that while practicing, I never made once made it through the entire thing without stumbling.
So, in the end I give the presentation and it’s alright. I manage the timing ok, and only once do I draw a complete mental blank that requires me to look at the notes I’ve brought up with me. It’s not the touching, personal tale I had intended, but it’s not terrible either. All in all, it was a good learning experience, which I suppose is the point, right?
Here are some things I would change were I to do it all again:
- Select a narrow topic. Six minutes is short, folks!
- Plan the speech before the slides.
- Spend more than 20 seconds on important points. Allot 2-3 slides for those.
- Don’t procrastinate. These things take time!
- Practice, practice, practice. Preferably in front of an audience, and before the day of the presentation.
Here’s my presentation: Suomi Finland