Skip to content

Pecha-Kucha: the Solution to a Conference Problem

I am involved in a number of small (100 attendees or so) conference series: CPAI-OR, PATAT, MISTA, and a number of others. One problem all of these smaller conferences have is getting enough people to attend. Typically, they are competitive, so only accept a limited (30 or so) number of papers. This means we get 30 or so attendees naturally, and then have to struggle to attract more “non-speakers”. Many universities will not fund travel when no talk is given, so getting an audience can be a struggle.

Large conferences like INFORMS have a related problem: there are just not enough rooms for everyone. At the last INFORMS conference in Pittsburgh, we ran 55 parallel sessions and packed 4 talks into practically every 90 minute session. It looked like we might not have enough space. How could we let everyone in who wants to talk (INFORMS conferences are decidedly not competitive: the organization believes that everyone who wants a chance to talk should be able to talk)?

One common way of handling these constraints is poster sessions, where speakers print out a precis of their work, stick it on posterboards, and then stand around hoping someone will come talk to them. For some fields, this works well, but it rarely works in OR. Often the poster sessions are poorly attended or are of somewhat less status.

Wired magazine has an article on a solution to all this: Pecha Kucha. Pecha Kucha was “invented” in Tokyo for architects to show their stuff off. It has now taken off as a form of performance art.

Let us now bullet-point our praise for Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein, two Tokyo-based architects who have turned PowerPoint, that fixture of cubicle life, into both art form and competitive sport. Their innovation, dubbed pecha-kucha (Japanese for “chatter”), applies a simple set of rules to presentations: exactly 20 slides displayed for 20 seconds each. That’s it. Say what you need to say in six minutes and 40 seconds of exquisitely matched words and images and then sit the hell down. The result, in the hands of masters of the form, combines business meeting and poetry slam to transform corporate clich into surprisingly compelling beat-the-clock performance art.

Perfect! Let’s run a conference where every presentation abides by these rules. No more half-hour detailed run-through of proofs (which no-one in the audience is following), but 6 minutes 40 seconds of operations research performance art. Put six of them in an hour-long session, have 20 minutes afterwards for mingling and one-on-one informal questions, ring a bell and move on to the next session. Seven such sessions a day allows time for lunch and a big-shot giving a plenary. Small conferences have room for 120 presentations over 3 days. INFORMS could run with only 20 parallel sessions.

I think it would be a bit exhausting, but I have no doubt attendees would get more out of the conference. And the presentations would then be perfect for YouTube and other uses.

I see from the site that there is a Pecha Kucha event in Auckland: I will have to get over to it (and think about how my research best fits into twenty 20-second slides).