Theory is all very well gentle reader, but the saying goes that the best theory is no match for observed data. Beware, then, of those in the peanut gallery who tell you what you should be doing onstage without troubling themselves to stand in the spotlight themselves.

Mea culpa: I have just done exactly this. Almost. 

Here is the background: a couple of years ago, I was intrigued to learn from my friend James Bellini that there was a fashion in presentations called ‘PechaKucha’ – a style in which you have twenty slides, timed to twenty seconds each. You have to give your full presentation in 6min 20sec and then clear off. It sounded wonderful – no worrying about advancing the next slide by poking at a laptop, no slide outstaying its welcome and nobody hogging the stage for too long.

With that in mind, I proposed a series of PechaKucha presentations at a public speaking club in London’s glittering West End. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, I thought, and it was only by good luck that I was offered the chance to speak myself at an earlier event. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘I’ll do it PechaKucha style, and show how it should be done.’ I am now breathless with relief that I took the opportunity, making all the mistakes myself before tripping others into them.

Public speaking really is the proof that all the theory in the world won’t count for zip when you’re the one clearing your throat into the microphone. Tutorials for all kinds of presentations are way to find online. Here are my findings based on what I experienced delivering my first ever PechaKucha presentation forearmed with nothing more than a misplaced confidence that it would all go just peachy.

  1. 20 seconds is not very long at all. I found myself jabbering away like a coke fiend. The best presentations use the visuals to compliment the speaker. It should never be the other way round (otherwise you can simply email the slides and save yourself the bother of ironing a shirt and checking your flies). If the slide is too complicated, you will not have the time to do it justice in 20 seconds. All the things that are good in public speaking – the pause, the eye contact, the rapport with the audience – are as important with a powerpoint presentation as they are without. In short, I found it all too easy to let the tail of the visuals wag this dog of a speaker.
  1. Don’t attempt to say too much. Simplicity, simplicity and …you get the idea. Are you going to cover lots of ideas superficially or one idea in depth? I’d suggest the one idea might be the better option: audiences are going to struggle to take away more than one thing from any presentation – if you are lucky – so focus on one thing and explore that to the nth degree. Leave them wanting more, not feeling you’ve skimmed the surface of things. Yes, the audience won’t know just how massive your brain is, but guess what? Public speaking isn’t about your ego, it’s about your audience. I had all sorts of concepts and ideas and animated slides and I bludgeoned the audience into the feeling that this was a vast area of shifting sand that they either couldn’t understand, or didn’t want to try to understand – or option three, they already knew what I was on about, and found it a glib and superficial approach to the subject.
  1. Time is relative. I found myself rushing through stuff and then felt the agonising seconds tick by as I waited for the slideshow to progress. As one audience member pointed out, I should’ve been relaxed about the pauses because from my perspective they were taking forever. From the audience’s point of view, it was a much needed breathing space. I also had a shocked moment when I ran over time. How was this possible? I’d timed the slides perfectly. Clearly my computer didn’t know how long a second was. Afterwards, another audience member told me he’d timed the slides (which tells you just how riveting my performance must have been) and found on the slides with a build (i.e. several elements appearing in sequence) that the 20 seconds started not from the beginning of the slide, but from the end of the last build. Hence, mea culpa 2: I didn’t properly check the timings. Classical PechaKucha is 20 pictures. By putting in the animations, I was trying to be too clever, which given what I have to work with, isn’t a difficult mistake to make.

In conclusion, PechaKucha presenters must try to create the illusion of being relaxed and in control and the only way to do this is to practice faking it. The practice should include being ruthless with slides that say too much, saying fewer words more slowly, and giving the audience room to feel a part of the presentation. A picture will provoke ideas, and so should your words. Getting relaxed with the pauses, and putting these in at the beginning or middle of the slide rather than somewhat desperately at the end will make a presentation look more professional, and the speaker more confident.

I walked off stage feeling that I’d done a lot of hard work, and hadn’t delivered quite what I’d intended. I’d approached my speech confident in the theory… but real world data stepped in and reminded me that there’s no getting away from the practical.

Fortunately my book, Insider Secrets of Public Speaking is crammed with practical tips on public speaking and is still available on Amazon.