Pecha Kucha and Ignite: the sonnets of presentation

Sometimes we get our students to give talks – with slides – instead of writing yet another essay. I like this – it challenges them in new ways.  Some students clearly find the experience very uncomfortable (maybe I would have, too, at that age) but it’s always interesting, and sometimes they surprise and delight us.

Mostly, we are fairly strict about the timing: talks are usually in the range of 10 – 15 minutes, plus a little time for questions.  This partly reflects class size: any longer and we would have to find several afternoons in the timetable, instead of two or three; this would be hard, since time (particularly for staff) is at a premium. But even within that small space, students are able to demonstrate the extent of their knowledge and excitement about a particular topic.  In fact, I’d say we’re probably giving them more than enough rope with which to hang themselves.

One of the problems I think students have with giving presentations is that they readily conflate slides, and slide content, with the presentation itself; this is often expressed as reams of text on slide after slide, which students then read aloud.  They’re not thinking about added value – the value they themselves add.  Perhaps this is partly the fault of lecturers and presenters everywhere who do this too, and perhaps institutions – mine included – are to blame for placing the emphasis on making slides available after lectures/presentations/workshops, as though the slides were a ready substitute for the talk.  (They’re not; if they are, we’re in slideument territory.)

So if we’re going to assess students on the basis of their presentations, perhaps we should focus more on actual presentation skills.  I get very excited about Pecha Kucha (20 slides at 20 seconds each: a 6-minute presentation) and Ignite (same format but 15 and 15, giving a 5-minute presentation).  These represent the presentation equivalent of a sonnet: a strict form, but total freedom therein.  Constraints are often a spur to creativity, which is why trying to write haiku is so much fun (graphic designers, pregnant women and those of a nervous disposition may want to steel themselves before clicking; I have never seen such frightening wallpaper).

Of course, there are potential downsides to using this approach: how do we grade a student who just loses it in the moment? Will the presentation content be too simplistic because of the time constraints? Is it even possible to stuff serious academic material inside one of these talks?

But I think there’s a counter-argument to be made there too: five or six minutes is enough to get a message across, but in a really focused way. Both formats force the presenter to think hard about what goes on the slide, and what they’re going to say in the allotted time; they encourage development of real, actual presentation skills.  Ignite and Pecha Kucha also kill Death By Bullet-Point, kill it dead, since you can’t reasonably expect people to read more than a few words in 15 or 20 seconds.

If we shift the focus of making a presentation towards actual presentation skills, that’s surely good for students’ employability.  Presentation skills are increasingly important in our blah blah knowledge economy, and employers want graduates with a bit of polish (yeah yeah, add your Modern Languages jokes to the pile by the door).  And we need polish: I would do almost anything to avoid a repeat of the mortifying shared experience I once had, watching a presenter stumble over one of the fundamental technical terms in her presentation: after the first bungled attempt to pronounce it, she just skipped blithely over it – “yeah, I can’t say that word”. Ouch.

We can do better.

(Sometimes I think about starting an Ignite/Pecha Kucha club here, and then I remember how much free time I don’t have.)

Edit: My husband just pointed out that it’s not unusual at academic conferences to be asked to give a talk lasting less than ten minutes, so maybe it’s possible to squeeze enough science into five or six.


Filed under Uncategorized

5 responses to “Pecha Kucha and Ignite: the sonnets of presentation

  1. Pingback: Let’s diss incentives: why potential rewards are killing your creativity « Finite Attention Span

  2. Pingback: The only rule about giving presentations that matters is the rule of attention « Finite Attention Span

  3. Pingback: Ask, Don’t Tell: the power of questions « Finite Attention Span

  4. As a retired academic I find this frightening. How can a presentation of 15 or 20 mins adequtely cover an academic arguement of any quality – with pictures? If this is a teaching method the students are being short-changed.

    • Hello,

      sorry for the delay in my reply to this — this was in part because it deserves proper consideration, and I haven’t had a great deal of free time in which to think about it.

      You are right to question whether this produced a good learning outcome — all teaching should be interrogated on that basis. However, what we were trying to do was teach students good presentation skills; they demonstrated every year that they could not master good presentation skills when also covering slides in lots of tiny text and bullet points, basically just producing essays in PowerPoint form which they then read aloud (excruciatingly). I outlined some of the typical problems with student presentations in this post.

      To assess students’ depth of understanding, we separately asked them to produce long and detailed pieces of written work. To teach them the highly useful transferrable skill of presenting clearly and simply in a short time, we asked them to do something else. After they had given their (simple, but not devoid of detail or nuance) presentations, we then spent a few minutes asking them questions and chatting with them to ascertain the extent of their knowledge and understanding. So yes, they did have to know their stuff in order to get a good grade; but no, they did not have to overwhelm us with detail in the way that (sadly) lectures taught by academics are supposed to do.

      In my decade-long period as a lecturer, I felt that limitations on face-time with small groups of students was the thing truly getting in the way of our helping students become the best they could be — for example, my preferred way of grading every student would be to ask them to produce a piece of written work, then sit down for a chat about it and gauge their understanding. Unfortunately, that doesn’t scale well when your year-group typically contains 250 students. This exercise was a way of trying to make the best of a relatively small class with limited teaching contact time and attracted very good feedback from students and other staff. Nobody was getting off lightly; everyone learned something. I’m genuinely proud that we made it work.

      Happy to keep the conversation running if you’re still interested!

      Kind regards,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s