It was 8:20 p.m. on a Wednesday in mid-October. Over 100 San Diegans were wedged into the Whistle Stop bar in South Park, listening to marketing guru David Lecours, the emcee for San Diego’s ninth installment of the salon-style event known as PechaKucha Night.
“Anybody grow up here and used to go to Farrell’s?” asked Lecours. A few hoots came from the audience. “Yeah? So, at Farrell’s they have this particular dessert called the Trough.” There were murmurs of recognition. “The Trough had ten scoops of ice cream, and the goal was to eat this whole thing before it melted. That’s the kind of thing you’re in for tonight.”
PechaKucha is the onomatopoeic Japanese phrase for “chitchat.” As Lecours went on to say, architects and designers tend to be a pedantic bunch. This is why European-born architects Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham (whose firm, Klein Dytham architecture, is based in Tokyo), created a short, structured format that would force presenters to be succinct. As Dytham said in a recent interview aired on National Public Radio, “You get passionate about whatever you’re talking about, and you go on forever — so we came up with 20 slides, 20 seconds a slide.”
After requesting that people not forget to donate $5 at the door, Lecours introduced the first presenter: Howard Blackson, an urban designer. Fewer than ten seconds passed between the time Blackson was handed the mike and his first slide appeared on the big screen behind him.
This would be Blackson’s — a young-looking 40-something with a mop of dark hair — fourth time presenting at PechaKucha. He jokingly complained about having to go first after only “four sips of beer,” then transitioned into a well-rehearsed spiel about the detrimental consequences of urban sprawl. His first slide was a snapshot of a Chevron ad depicting a woman’s smiling face, over which was written, “I will leave the car at home more.” Blackson said, “You know there’s something wrong when folks are saying, there’s a problem here, don’t use our products.” The crowd chuckled as the next slide appeared: a mock Oscar Meyer ad in which Blackson could be seen smiling beneath the words, “I will stop eating hot dogs.”
The problem with the Chevron ad, Blackson explained, is that depending on where she lives, the woman pictured could be making too great a sacrifice (missing work, friends, school, etc.) in her bid to use less of Chevron’s moneymaker. Blackson, who walked to the Whistle Stop from his home in South Park, went on to discuss the importance of zoning and planning codes and which agencies would need to cooperate with each other to make change happen. As he spoke, images of town layouts, zoning spreadsheets, and photos of cars and obese children illustrated his words. At times (such as the shot of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream), an image was used to inject humor into what would otherwise be a serious topic.
Blackson’s last slide depicted his children alongside a list of local community plans currently underway. During his last 20 seconds, he spoke of how his kids are more eco-savvy than he is and that the plans in their present form would never inspire children like his to stay in San Diego.
The presentation was over before I’d had my second sip of beer. Six minutes and 40 seconds. Clearly Blackson had put effort into constructing his speech. He’d mixed information and humor to promote a specific viewpoint: urban sprawl is bad, and we need to work together to stop it. The audience (the majority of whom I guessed to be in their 20s and 30s) cheered and applauded.
The first PechaKucha Night ever was held in a Tokyo bar in 2003 — Dytham and Klein wanted creative types to share their ideas in a space conducive to “thinking and drinking.” Now the foundation has satellite salons in 373 cities worldwide, with new cities popping up on the map weekly. As NPR contributor Lucy Craft put it, “Unwittingly, Klein and Dytham seemed to have stumbled across an apparently universal longing of audience members listening to those who pontificate: just get to the point.”
The first PechaKucha in San Diego was held at the Corner Restaurant & Bar on January 20, 2009. According to David McCullough of McCullough Landscape Architecture, two local architects brought the idea to town — Maxine Ward (architect with Studio E Architects and board member of the San Diego Architectural Foundation) and Mike Stepner (former city architect and current professor at NewSchool of Architecture).
“I can’t remember who said it first, but one mentioned [PechaKucha] and the other said that it would be a great thing to start doing in San Diego,” McCullough recalls. “For whatever reason, they thought that I should take it on.” McCullough became responsible for organizing each event, which includes lining up presenters, then collecting and preparing their slides for the timed presentations.
“I do have a small subcommittee of people helping — David Lecours is one, and now he’s our emcee,” says McCullough. “Dave White helps us find presenters and with logistics, like do we want to have a theme, where is our next location, etc.”
Lecours originally heard about PechaKucha from a blog called Presentation Zen, written by a man who lives in Japan. As a member of the San Diego Architectural Foundation, Lecours was among the first to learn about PechaKucha’s San Diego debut. “I was all over it,” he says. “I had recently turned 40 and submitted a presentation called 20+20=40. It was about life lessons that I’d learned to date.” Lecours presented at the first PKSD in January 2009 and a second time in April 2010.
Lecours is no stranger to public speaking. His website’s tagline reads, “Creative Business Coach + Speaker.” His company, LecoursDesign, specializes in marketing and brand communications. In a blog entry written July 20, 2010, Lecours states that speaking is an ideal way to attract clients. “You can make a deeper connection because your audience can experience your thinking in real time.”