Storytelling in less than seven minutes

PechaKucha is a unique form of storytelling developed by two architects in Japan in 2003, which sees people share their stories in less than seven minutes. We caught up with creator Mark Dytham to find out more…

So where did PechaKucha start?

My business partner Astrid and I ran an architectural practice. We set up office in a big warehouse and we used to run events in the warehouse. The events got bigger and bigger so we decided to move the events side of our office - which was only about two or three events a month at this stage - to another space because they were just getting in the way. That old office was called Deluxe - it was a luxury to have the space in Tokyo - and we bumped into another space and we decided to move our events into that space and call it Super Deluxe. And we kept the office and the events separate.

The problem was that we had the chance to have 31 events in our event space - and we didn't really have enough events. So we had to invent some events.

This is about 13 or 14 years ago and in our architectural office it was the dawn of digital photography - we didn't have to have prints or carousels anymore. Every Monday morning - still we do this in our weekly meeting - we used to go through photographs. Shots of our projects, someone's been onsite, someone's been to the factory, someone's seen something interesting at the weekend or on holiday. First we go through our project images and then we'll go through anything else interesting. And we go through them pretty quickly on the screen in the office.

So we had this show and tell in the office and it was really interesting. So we thought if we have to invent some events then why don't we do a show and tell in Super Deluxe each month and get people to show their stuff - it's dead easy now that we have digital photography.

We realised that architects talk and talk and talk - and how do we stop people like me getting too excited and talking about a handrail detail or something really boring that they're getting excited about? How do we move this forward? The solution we came up with was a timer - the slides are on an auto-timer and the presenter has to follow along with the slides. So we thought 10 slides, 10 seconds but that was way too short. So then it was 20 slides, 20 seconds and that was really interesting. We also noted 20:20 vision, and we start the events at 20 past eight (20:20) and we started on Febuary 20th (20/2) in 2003. And off this thing ran...

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What happened at the first event? And how has it changed since then?

We invited 20 people to speak (which was too many) and the idea was that everyone would bring a couple of friends to watch them speak so we have 70 people at the first event in 2003. And then it has run monthly (except a holiday in August) since then. We've just had our 145th event. We always get 300 people coming to the events now. It ran just in Tokyo from 2003 to 2006 as a single event. We dreamt up this name, PechaKucha, which means chit chat in Japanese. We had no idea this was going to go global - we probably would have called it something simpler if we had but it's become part of the charm of it now, it's part of our branding - the presentation format you can't pronounce.

We ran an event during Design Week in Tokyo and different people around the world saw it and said, 'Why don't you run this in my city?' So all of a sudden, in 2006 we were in 20 cities around the world with a very simple handshake agreement. The basic idea is you don't make any money from it, you run it as a part time project, and it's free and you just have to follow these very simple rules.

Read more: Why your story shouldn't define you

We've never promoted the event at all, we've spent no advertising budget. But, because it's a good idea, it's now spread to 986 cities as of today. We grow by 10 cities a month. We say it's the world's biggest physical social network.

It's really amazing. It's really become like a world stage where anyone can get on the stage and talk. It's a very simple format. And it is a format, unlike TED. TED is fantastic but it isn't a format, it's an open mic. Our focus is on the images, not on the talking head. We want people to look, listen and focus on the still images - not video, on purpose. This thing is a zen form of presentation, where the most important thing is the image and the work that you're showing. It's not the person's personality or face, we even push the speakers to one side because we want the images to be the main thing.

Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

What kind of stories do people share?

I think everyone has a story. It could be about your skateboard collection, about the shoes you've got, it could be about your dog, it could be anything. My mum presented when she was in her 70s. She's made wedding cakes all her life and she's got all these still photographs of amazing wedding cakes so I got her photographs, which were prints, and shot them on my iPhone. Then when she was in Tokyo she gave a fantastic presentation about her cakes and the flower arrangements that she makes in the local church. Little did I know that at 10 o'clock on a Saturday night when Match of the Day is on the TV, she would go out and steal the flowers from everybody's garden so actually everybody's sitting looking at stolen flowers in church the next morning.

Astrid's daughter presented when she was five. She presented about her trip to London where she had her own camera. What was interesting is that when you see it from a kid's point of view, the thing that you see in the middle of the image, everywhere you go, is a handrail. Everywhere she went there was a handrail in her eyeline. Here's a handrail at the Natural History Museum, at the Science Museum, looking over the Thames.

Anyone can get on the stage. That's the interesting thing with the project.

I think everyone has a story. It could be about your skateboard collection, about the shoes you've got, it could be about your dog, it could be anything.

What’s the best story you’ve heard at a PechaKucha Night?

There's so many. I think my classic is, 'What is Big Bird?' There's a guy in Christchurch in New Zealand who studies flightless birds, like emus and things. He says he's going to study this very strange bird that lives in New York and there's only one of its kind and it's very tall and yellow. And it's Big Bird from Sesame Street. So he does this whole scientific analysis of him. It's brilliant.

But there are serious ones too. There was this architect in America who had designed this big hotel and in the opening week there was a collapse in the hotel. The bridge going across an atrium collapsed and 114 people died. He was in the hotel at the time trying to pull people from the rubble. He said it was the longest night of his life, he was left wondering if he killed these people. He went on to do a lot of heart searching and he established this thing called LEAD, which is an environmental standard that all buildings around the world have to adhere to because of this. I was in San Francisco when he gave this presentation and it was so moving. It's still one of my favourites, it's this incredible presentation about failure and about how failure can actually lead to success in a way. There were a number of things that happened in the lead up to the tragedy but out of this he felt that he had to do something for humanity.

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How do you find speakers for these events?

What we try to do is put out the hidden heroes. The hidden heroes that nobody knows, whether it's the baker, the milkman or a builder. We found a guy who puts up construction hoardings around the biggest buildings in Japan. He'd never spoken before but we got him to speak at a PechaKucha night. So we go out and try and find people who might be interesting. And it's dead easy, they only have to stand there and talk in front of 20 images for 20 seconds at a time. They don't have to stand there for 90 minutes, it's only 400 seconds. And the focus isn't the speaker - it's the images on the screen. And then you can go and have a drink and chat to other interesting people.

The tagline we go with now is 'The world's stage'. The fact that it's in so many cities means it is really all around the world. We have them in Kampala, in Uganda, we've had them in Kabul twice - outside in a courtyard, and in Yemen, where there's a war going on. We just get really positive emails and stories from the project all around the world. And then you turn on the news and it's not the world that we know. There's a disconnect. But this event is crossing borders.

What’s next for PechaKucha?

We've just recently seen a really strong uptick at all the events. I don't know what it is. I think maybe it could be because of this fake news, fake stories phenomenon. These are real stories by real people with real passion. There's something amazing about it, since Christmas we've seen this real positive uptick.

And you can take the stories with you now too. We've got a new app that's just come out. You just search PechaKucha in the app store. It's called PechaKucha of the Day and we curate one presentation a day. It only stores seven on your phone so we says it's 400 seconds of inspiration delivered to your phone daily, a week of creativity in your pocket.

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