Ignite your audience with lightning or Pecha Kucha form talks

Long before Powerpoint existed I once was a teaching assistant for an introductory biology class in the intensive summer session at the University of Texas at Austin. One of my main tasks was to sit in the back of the room in a little projection booth and load in large glass slides, then shove them into view, remove the old slide and place the next one. The lecture took the form of the professor looking at the slide, slightly surprised, studying it, then explaining it.


Jonathan Pruitt, who organized some innovative short talks for the University of Pittsburgh’s biology retreat.

My problem was that I could not stay awake between slides. The hot booth was sound insulated, so this ended up being a real issue since I could only grab a two-slide nap without disrupting the flow of things. With Powerpoint we have control of our slides, but can we keep the audience engaged?

I suppose I’ve discussed my feelings about lecturing before, but sometimes there is a place for it, just as there is a place for the performance I’m going to see tonight at the Gaslight Theater. If lectures are supposed to be fun, what better way to practice than to adopt one of the very short talk formats?


Rick Grosberg, always a dynamic speaker.

I hope to incorporate some talks in this format in the Fest to celebrate Alan Templeton on the occasion of his retirement (!) Monday 3 June 2013.

Five minute talks can be based on slides, or they can be without them. The key is that five minutes is the maximum, or six minutes 40 seconds and 20 auto-advanced slides if it is the patented Pecha Kucha (pronounced pechakcha as I hear it with an accent on the second syllable and a pause between the k and the ch at the end).  Make it fun. There is a lot of helpful advice on how to do it here and here, or you could look at this Wired article on Pecha Kucha. Get your main point out there early. People won’t know what the background is for until you engage them with the main point. Make the main point simple, clear, and new.

Right now I’m feeling a little ashamed I took 10 whole minutes at a faculty sherry to discuss teaching with Wikipedia. Surely I could have done it in 5!


jeff smith, preparing for his BioForum talk.

If you have your students give presentations in class, wouldn’t it be more engaging to have them give short talks more often rather than fewer, longer talks?

How about 5 short talks in 25 minutes followed by 25 minutes of discussion? If you set it all up perfectly, it would just fit in a 50 minute class.

OK, I do believe it is time to do, not tell, and post some 5 minute talks. But in a quick YouTube search, I didn’t find any that were very exciting. Help me out!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Presentations and seminars, The joy of teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ignite your audience with lightning or Pecha Kucha form talks

  1. Jeremy Fox says:

    At the Ecological Society of America meeting this Aug. there are going to be sessions solely comprised of these sorts of talks. All the talks in a session will be on some shared subject, so they’ll be like rapidfire symposia. I’m looking forward to attending these sessions, I’m very curious to see what people come up with.

    Having talked to an evolutionary biologist colleague who’s given one of these talks, one piece of wisdom I can share is that thinking of them as just short versions of regular talks is absolutely the wrong way to think of them. They’re a different beast entirely. I doubt you could construct a good one just by writing your usual 15 minute ESA talk and then trying to cut it down. This is for all sorts of reasons, but one key one is that your visuals have to be self-explanatory and digestible at a glance, because they’ll only be there for 20 seconds at a time. No walking people through even slightly complicated data slides–not even just one!

    The other thing to note is that, at least at the ESA, the intent is for these talks to lead to discussion afterwards. All the speakers in a session will be available for conversation immediately after the session ends. So one way to think of these talks is as icebreakers of a sort. They’re starting points for conversation, they’re not supposed to tell self-contained stories.

  2. Pingback: Call for Pecha Kucha @ PLE Conference Berlin 2013 |

  3. Nadia Aubin-Horth says:

    Graduate students will try lightning talks at the “Student research day” in August at the Institute for Integrative and Systems Biology at Université Laval. The institute is home to labs from diverse departments including biology, microbiology, biochemistry and bioinformatics, medical school, plant science, forestry… so the talks will have to be very well prepared to reach the audience.

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