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Engaging students through Pecha-Kucha presentations.

HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU WITNESSED A PRESENTATION in which the speaker lulled the audience to sleep with slide after slide of nothing but boring bullet points, or slides so crammed with information you go away suffering from eye strain and fatigue? What is most ironic is that most people can spot a boring presentation from a mile off, but then turn around and do some of the very things in their own presentations that people find so irritating. After more than 25 years of teaching, as well as giving and seeing hundreds of presentations, I am convinced that most people do not understand the concept of' helping their audience "get the message."


I must admit that I, too, once fell into the trap of' using some of the mythical rules for presenting, such as the Rule of Six: No more than six lines per slide and no more than six words per line. When I first started teaching, which was long before PowerPoint ever existed--let alone personal computers we: used transparencies. While these were handy, they were also expensive, costing as much as 50 cents per page. Being on tight budgets, many teachers decided to put as much as they possibly could on one of those slides. Along the way, people figured out that if you are going to torture your students by cramming so much information on a slide, you should put no more than six words per line or six lines per page. Thus, it was a plea to get us to limit how much we put on a single slide.

Over the years we went from transparencies to such programs as HyperCard on the Mac and then on to Microsoft PowerPoint. We were all amazed at how much easier it was to create visuals using PowerPoint. As we typed, the computer automatically placed those bullet points one after another on the page. It automatically set the type size for us and even gave us dozens of design templates to use. We could now even include pictures, videos and sound. And just like that, we were able to transform those boring transparency slides into boring electronic slides of colorfully displayed bullet points.

Reimagining PowerPoint

The point to see is that people have lost sight of the fact that the message does not come from the screen, it comes from the heart of the speaker. People do not show up to read a person's bullet points from the slides. They come to hear a story. Could you possibly imagine hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. say, "Next slide, please"? He moved us, and he inspired us with his words, with his emotions, with his story. The real power of PowerPoint lies in the ability to capture the audience's attention with a picture as the speaker unfolds the story within, not by how the speaker lies up the bullet points.

As marketing guru and Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Talks presenter Seth Godin notes, "PowerPoint could be the most powerful tool on your computer, but it's riot. It's actually a dismal failure. Almost every PowerPoint presentation sucks rotten eggs." Yet the use of PowerPoint is the standard for the presenter at any conference anywhere. So, what can we do to more effectively use this tool?

Telling a Story

One way might be to actually use the slides to help tell a story. During his 2008 ACTE Annual Convention keynote presentation, Daniel Pink referenced the book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery by Garr Reynolds. In that book, Reynolds described a phenomenon that is overtaking the planet. The book describes how two Dutch architects by the names of Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham created a concept called Pecha-Kucha, which means chit-chat in Japanese. The concept was quite simple: Fell a story with 20 slides at 20 seconds per slide. The slides do not have bullet points, but rather a picture. As the pictures transition across the screen, the speaker simply tells a story. The stories can be about anything, from grandma's doilies to your last vacation.

There are now more than 500 cities across the world that host at least four of these events each year. Each event is held in a public forum, generally free of charge and open to everyone. There is usually food and beverage available, with 15-20 presenters. Half of them present, then there is a break for food, beverage and conversation. Then the second half presents. Using the 20x20 format, each presentation lasts exactly 6 minutes and 4 seconds. There are 80 night clubs in Tokyo, Japan, that host the events. One event in Tel Aviv had more than 4,000 watching as people told their story. All you have to do to hold such an event is to register free online at the official site: Once you are approved, world headquarters will send you artwork for promoting the event as well as rules and expectations For using the idea.

We started hosting the events at Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, Kansas, last year. We hosted four events with an average turnout of approximately 50-100 people at each performance, listening to 12-15 speakers, including students, faculty, staff and community members.

The idea has caught on so well that we now have a growing list of people who want to present at future Pecha-Kucha Night events at PSU. In addition and more to the point, we now have faculty who are starting to incorporate Pecha-Kucha-style presentations as student assignments. An English teacher who had students do presentations on medieval literature commented, "The presentations are so dynamic and fascinating. I found student interest and participation greatly increased, as well as the students' ability to share what they had learned in the presentation." One of the university's marketing instructors had students present their portfolios using this same format. She too remarked on how much more engaging the presentations were. As she put it, "It changes the whole dynamic of the presentation, both for the presenter and for the audience."

Implementing Pecha-Kucha

Beginning last year, I incorporated this format as part of the midterm exam in my "Professional Presentations" class for senior and graduate level students. From my perspective, I have noted several improvements in student performance: (1) the students are forced to get to the point because of the 20-second rule for each slide; (2) the audience stays more engaged with the presenter, more involved in the discussions; and (3) the students ultimately improve their performance on the final 20-minute presentation. Comments from my student evaluations included, "I loved the way he does PowerPoint," and "The best PowerPoints I have seen in all four years at college." What we are finding is that students love the presentations, both giving them and watching them.

The format works for nearly all ages. I have used the format in many of the community youth programs I am involved in and have found the same reaction from middle school and high school students. I presented at a faculty development conference for Kansas universities last year, where a faculty of post-graduate research classes was considering using the format for research presentations. After that presentation, I had a community college dean of instruction ask me to share the idea of Pecha-Kucha student presentations with her entire college faculty.

If you don't buy into the concept of presenting with pictures, think again. Millions tell stories every day on Facebook with pictures. People go to various sites like and can publish their own book of pictures, poems, stories and art. They share pictures on their phones and in emails. And if this isn't enough, consider the vast amount of brain research that has shown that more than 80 percent of what people have learned in their lives, they saw. What students see, they retain.

Perhaps it's time we all rethought the real power of PowerPoint and actually began engaging our students with the slides, rather than putting them to sleep.

Mark L. Johnson will be presenting his 1-hour Idea Lab, "Engaging Students Through Pecha-Kucha Presentations: The Art of Getting to the Point" at CareerTech VISION 2012. For more programming information, visit

Mark L. Johnson, Ph.D., has been an advocate for student achievement and success for more than 25 years. He currently serves as university professor, Technology and Workforce Learning, in the College of Technology and Workforce Learning, at Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, Kansas. He can be reached at
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Title Annotation:Classroom Connection
Author:Johnson, Mark L.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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