The only subjects that are off limits, according to Schaffer, are sales presentations and porn. “One company sent us what was literally their sales pitch. We said, ‘We’re sorry, that’s not what PechaKucha is about.’ We don’t want to have advertisements.”
“The presentations that are sales pitches never work,” says McCullough. “People see right through them, even when [presenters] are trying to be creative. A while back, we had a guy from a reprographics company present on the use of color in graphic presentations so they print well. I found it fascinating and helpful, but the bottom line was that he was trying to sell his print services — people saw it as sales-pitchy. That kind of stuff flops.”
When pressed to pick her least favorite presentation, Schaffer recalls one that came across as “condescending.” The talk, given by Felena Hanson, was about social media, her slides mostly composed of snapshots taken from various personal profiles on social-media outlets like LinkedIn and Facebook.
Dave Brown, who emceed that night, remembers Hanson’s presentation. “Why make it about yourself?” he said. “It should be about giving to others, not scoring new leads for your business. When people use Facebook, or any medium just to promote, that’s not someone I would want to work with. I applaud her for having the balls to get up there. But I do remember that presentation and feeling, like, ugh. It wasn’t interesting, and the intentions were weak.”
I contacted Hanson, who happens to be among my Facebook friends. “I had never been to an architectural-foundation meeting or any PechaKucha event,” she said. “It’s not a community I typically run with.” It was McCullough’s wife who asked Hanson to present. “The architectural-development community is weighted toward the male population.” McCullough’s wife told Hanson that she had been charged with finding a “smart woman” to present. “I don’t want to say I was the token woman, but I kind of felt like that.”
Hanson found presenting on anything to be a challenge. “I went online and watched YouTube clips to try to get a better idea [for topics]. One guy [a previous presenter] got in a car accident and shared pictures — they were very off-topic presentations, which I thought was kind of odd. If someone’s going to go to that type of event, you want to get some value out of it.”
Hanson profiled her prospective audience based on what she knew of her friend’s colleagues. “In general, in the development and architectural community, it’s an older segment — you need a considerable amount of education to get into that field.” Hanson assumed the majority of her audience would be ignorant of the importance of online branding, a relatively new concept, so she decided to present some of the tips she might give at one of her local networking groups. “In my business, I meet men and women in their 40s and 50s, and the classic comment is, ‘I don’t get all that [social-networking stuff], what is that.’”
When teaching at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, or presenting for the SCORE Women’s Breakfast, Hanson can expound for up to an hour; she prefers to make presentations interactive. “In PechaKucha, you’re unable to do that. I struggled with what value I could provide these 100–150 people in six minutes — something they can learn from and take from, as opposed to ‘my car accident.’”
The automatic timing of the slides proved difficult for Hanson, who had wrongly assumed she’d have control over the mouse. “I thought I was going to be able to advance faster on one, maybe spend 25 seconds on another,” she said. “It’s easier when you’re presenting to control that timing, to be able to tell a quick story before you have to advance to the next slide. That was the biggest challenge — it was 20 seconds and you’re on to the next slide. When I was done, I was, like, that was terrible, I totally hated it. It wasn’t comfortable for me, but I had people approach me after and say they enjoyed it.”
Hanson does not expect to return to a PechaKucha night. “For me, and I hope it doesn’t sound selfish, but I’m always making sure that where I’m spending my time is going to be valuable for making any kind of connection.”
Back at the Whistle Stop, I spotted Stacy Keck, who was in line to present that evening, and waved. A budget analyst, Keck hopes one day to be supported by her budding side gig as a photographer. “I can’t stand my job,” she admits. “I stare at spreadsheets all day, it’s kind of torture. That’s why I search out things like PechaKucha, to supplement and inspire my creativity.”
Keck learned about the event from Dave Brown, who is both a friend and her “creative mentor.” She’s attended nearly all the presentations since Brown’s first night emceeing in April 2009.
“Sometimes it’s a great collection [of presenters], sometimes not,” Keck said. “One that stands out was an engineer, a woman who spoke about ten seconds per slide — you’re supposed to speak for 20 seconds — and she just kind of stood there, and there was all this dead air. It was a little uncomfortable for everybody, secondhand embarrassment to the max. My goal is to not do that.”
When we first spoke, Keck had yet to choose her topic. “It will definitely have something to do with photography and things that inspire me,” she said. “I’m not big on tooting my own horn, especially since I’ve only been doing this for about a year. But I’d like to show other people’s work that inspires me to go out and make some awesome.” Keck’s biggest concern? “Filling that 20 seconds.”
Though Brown had tried to get Keck to present before, it wasn’t until his going-away party at the Starlite lounge (a few days before he moved to New York to head up the social-media department for the internet craft market Etsy) that Keck, prodded by Schaffer, finally agreed. Now, with a drink in her hand and a few friends beside her, Keck didn’t seem nervous as she awaited her turn onstage.