There’s a moment in the beginning of a PechaKucha Night when you wonder if you mistakenly end up at the wrong show. It happens quite often actually, because for a first-timer, it looks a lot like a TED Talk.
But comparing the two would be like explaining the differences between a red velvet cupcake and a cake pop. While equally delicious, they're nothing alike. On many levels though, PechaKucha (the Japanese word for “chatter”) steals the show.
First of all, there’s almost always booze and snacks involved, and a ticket costs only a few bucks. Second, the mic is handed to regular folks like you and me who want to share a particular story or idea. There’s only one genius rule designed to persuade the wondering human mind: 20 slides worth of presentations, each of them running on the screen for no more than 20 seconds.
Above all, this no-fuss policy about speakers spurred this format’s popularity. At PechaKucha, an event originally launched in 2003 by Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein, two Tokyo-based architects, nobody gets turned down.
There’s no obligation to prove yourself before coming here by owning a CEO position or being a best-seller author; the status of human being is enough to qualify you as “chatterer”. As the organizers put it “TED is top down, PechaKucha is bottom up!”
From local artists, to stay-at-home moms and even kindergartners in over 800 cities around the world, they all have proudly stepped onto the PechaKucha stages. According to the official website, presentations have been held in any space that can fit in more than a dozen of people. A few examples include homes, bars, churches or universities.
But not even the most welcoming audience can diminish the challenge every speaker faces — cramming his or her ideas in a six minutes and 40 seconds time frame. So they can get really creative. Especially when their imagination is aroused by the prospect of an early Midwest spring.
That was the case of a recent PechaKucha event, which took place on a warmer-than-usual night of March, in a tiny Chicago bar. An assortment of snacks featuring pizza bites and beer sips helped build up enthusiasm among the crowd – a hodgepodge of middle-aged intellectuals and rambunctious millennials.
It was quite a struggle to spot a familiar face in the dimly-lighted room. Small candles placed onto the servers’ trays made them half-invisible, so that at a first glance they seemed like fireflies handing out beverages.
Close to 8 p.m., a raspy voice filled out the bar announcing the first orator of the evening. Paula Douglas, a Chicago professional singer, made a strong impression the second she grabbed the microphone and pointed towards the first photo of her slide show: a broken arm X-ray of her five-year old self.
The 19 pictures that followed revealed a bubbly personality: two stuffed animals (reining to this day in her grown-up bed); a travel in Argentina to learn about wine; playing at washboard, on a whim, while out to have some drinks with friends. Her speech was just as expansive as her long, brown curls. The message, straightforward.
“You're not just one thing, so don't let your name or job define you”, she concluded as the last image, of a sunflower, was being displayed on a huge screen in the middle of the room.
With every orator, the night got more intriguing. PechaKucha’s “sky's the limit” approach to topics made for some random, surprising choices. Something that one would say only around close friends, and even then soften up by a couple of vodka shots.
Melissa Thornley, “a creative alchemist” in her own words, created a jaw-dropping presentation about her belly button. Watching her blow the lid off some personal stuff like an umbilical hernia and a miscarriage, while simultaneously laughing and crying was like drinking a sweet and sour Margarita on an empty stomach. Somehow, she managed to lead the public back to a happy spot, concluding that “we are all here to belly dance our way through life”. Besides raising their glasses, people rewarded her with unison “Hell-yeah”.
But if a PechaKucher’s success measures in standing ovations, than Jyl Bonaguro, a Chicago multi-media artist, should have received the biggest prize.
Her speech could have been boring for a lot of reasons, yet she delivered a modern fairy tale. Her soft voice carried the public through an unexpected adventure. Despite crushing photo evidence, it was hard to believe any of it. How this petite, milky white-skinned woman with wavy hair could have possibly hitchhiked across France, in a quest to find the chateau where her theatre play’s heroine once lived? Her mission abounded in challenges. “When I finally got there, the castle was closed. Eventually, a door opened”, she told the public, bursting into laugh.
Turns out, she was onto something big. That voyage inspired the writing of Urania, a brilliant play revolving around Emilie du Chatelet, a French mathematician, physicist and author who lived in 17th century.
Shortly after, the script benefited from a stage reading at Loyola University in Chicago, which only made Jyl more relentless in spreading the word about Emilie du Chatelet. A person of many hats herself, she used her presentation time to dust off the memory of a timeless role model for women everywhere.
And that’s the whole point of PechaKucha– to hook us up with ordinary people whose lives couldn't be more different than ours; people we may otherwise never had the willingness or guts to start a conversation. The magic happens somewhere between the fourth and the seventh speech, when participants become antsy to take over the stage. Because they suddenly get that each and one of us is a natural born storyteller.