When 20 and 20 add up to 6:40

A few weeks ago, I read an article in my Toastmasters Magazine about a new presentation style that has been described as 'an antidote to bad PowerPoint'. Called Pecha Kucha (Japanese for ‘chit chat’) it’s a way of putting together and delivering a more dynamic presentation. It works because of two simple rules: you make exactly 20 slides, and deliver them in exactly 20 seconds each.

I’ve been making reasonably good slides for years, but good looking slides don't guarantee a good speech – and this was the first time I'd come across an idea designed to change a presenter's style. I decided to give it a go... With a Pecha Kucha presentation, I would have to keep to the point. And since 20 x 20 = 400 = 6 minutes 40 seconds, I would also be guaranteed to finish my speech within the maximum 7 minutes allotted for most speeches at Toastmasters. (You can view my presentation at the end of this post.)

The particular appeal of Pecha Kucha for me is the fact that it's based on two simple rules. I love the idea that just by following simple rules we can make something different – and sometimes very creative - happen.

The first time I became aware of the effect that simple rules can have was when we devised the POINTS diet at Weight Watchers. We created a simple formula to combine the number of calories and the amount of saturated fat in a food, to give a one (or at a push, two) digit POINTS value to every food. You get a certain number of POINTS per day, depending your current weight, gender etc. and off you go. In a way it's more complex than counting calories - you need a calculator, a slide-rule gizmo or a book to look up POINTS values - but the resultant low numbers means it’s easy to add up the POINTS values of the foods you consume in a day. The fact that it’s easier to add up to 20 than to 2000 means people are more likely to stick to the diet and lose weight. But not only that… Foods high in saturated fat are 'automatically' avoided because they bump the POINTS value of that food up, so by following the POINTS diet, people automatically change their eating habits for the better.

A third example of rule-based behaviour comes from the world of improvisation. A few years ago, I went on a clowning course with Penny Tompkins. Not the squirty-flower, custard pie and giant boots brand of clowning, but a personal-development-meets-dressing-up kind of clowning. The course was called The Courage to Be and during a week of fun and laughter, we learned some valuable life lessons. One of these was the idea of 'receiving'. Our clown teacher, Vivian Gladwell, told us that we should receive and accept every idea and examine it, before deciding what to do with it. We could still reject it if we wanted to, but at least we will have given it a fair hearing. That sounds all very well, but how? Vivian gave us a 2-word answer: "Yes, and..." These two words, when applied to any offer that comes your way - on stage in clown school or in life - can make a real difference to a conversation, a project, your life.

In his book, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Keith Johnson shows how a sketch can fizzle out when an actor 'blocks' an offer:

  1. A: Augh!
  2. B: What's the matter?
  3. A: I've got my trousers on back to front.
  4. B: I'll take them off.
  5. A: No!

And then he shows how a scene can build when they accept one another's offers:

A:   Augh!
B:   Whatever is it, man?
A:   It's my leg, Doctor.
B:   That looks nasty. I shall have to amputate.
A:   It's the one you amputated last time, Doctor.
      (This is not a block because he's accepted the amputation.)
B:   You mean you've got a pain in your wooden leg?
A:   Yes, Doctor.
B:   You know what this means?
A:   Not woodworm, Doctor?
B:   Yes. We'll have to remove it before it spreads to the rest of you.
      (A's chair collapses)
B:   My God! It's spreading to the furniture! (And so on.)

What a difference when possibilities are opened up instead of closed down!

If you know anything about Clean Language, then you probably know where all this is leading... because of course, Clean Language, along with its successors, Clean Space and Emergent Knowledge, is also based on simple rules: use only the other person's words, and only ask questions that are clean. In one way, that is all there is to it. And if you've ever had an opportunity to ask - or answer - Clean Language questions, then you will know that it creates a different and unusual kind of experience, and how new ideas and insights start to occur, generally followed swiftly by new behaviours. We are so not used to hearing our own words and reflecting on what we really mean that these two simple rules can have a profound effect on our thinking, and our behaviour.

All the behaviours I've been describing - dynamic presentations, new eating habits, being open to new ideas, changing behaviours...  are examples of emergence. Emergence is what happens when parts of a system interact in such a way that 'the whole is greater than the sum of the parts'; it's what happens when you get new book recommendations on Amazon, based on masses of data entered by individuals, or when a the parts of a car are assembled and together they have an ability to move which isn't present in any of the parts, or when you look at a page of hundreds of dots and see a 'magic eye' picture. Emergence occurs in nature: sand dunes, rainbows, ant colonies and new babies are good examples.

The emergent properties of any system are not predictable. Yes, it's possible to say that the 20/20 rule is likely to result in a more dynamic presentation, that the POINTS system will help some people cut down on saturated fat, or that "Yes, and..." will lead to more creative improvisations, but the exact nature of a particular presentation, diet or impro sketch cannot be  foretold. "There is vastly more to the behaviour of a system than one can ever foresee just by looking at its underlying rules." (Stephen Wolfram). Similarly, within a Clean Language session it is not possible to know in advance what will happen. But when various parts of someone's metaphorical landscape begin to interact with one another, it's highly likely that something new and unexpected will emerge.

Here's the presentation I gave at Toastmasters (I've tweaked it a tiny bit so it makes sense on the web):

Tags: video, procrastination, motivation, toastmasters, pecha kucha, presentation, clowning, weight watchers, change, keith johnson, vivian gladwell, clean language, clean questions, rules, stephen wolfram

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About the author

Marian Way

Company Director & Trainer, Portchester, Fareham
A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be... #DramaFree. Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She's trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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