Spreading ideas and insights with “Pecha Kucha” events

Do you like hearing unusual new ideas? Do you enjoy getting different perspectives and listening to people share their knowledge about things you’ve never heard before? If you’re the curious sort, you would probably enjoy the gatherings known as “Pecha Kucha” events, which have been hosted quarterly in downtown Dayton since August 2009 by a small team of passionate volunteer organizers.

The unusual name means “chit-chat” in Japanese; the sessions involve speakers presenting random subjects in a tight format of 20 slides, about which they can speak for only 20 seconds each. You never quite know what you’ll get at the increasingly popular events, which happen in cities all over the world. To learn more about them, visit pechakucha.org — there’s a page on Dayton’s events, including some past talks. The next talk, Volume 20, will be Thursday, Oct. 9, at 7:30 p.m. at the K12 Gallery, 341 S. Jefferson St. They’re free and open to the public. Recently, we met with two of the main organizers, freelance writer Jill Davis and architect Matt Sauer, to talk about the events. — Ron Rollins

Q: So, for those folks who don’t know, what exactly is this thing called Pecha Kucha?

Matt Sauer: We call it an “idea-sharing party.” Two Canadian architects who were working in Japan devised it. They wanted to start an ideas forum but didn’t want people to talk forever. The 20/20 format they came up with, where you get to show 20 Powerpoint slides and talk for 20 seconds about each one, works perfectly.

Jill Davis: Plus, it gave young designers a chance to show their portfolios to a big crowd that’s drinking beer.

Sauer: I tell people it’s like show and tell for adults, but with beer.

Davis: It’s also a networking event. The word “party” is important — because I think back to Volume 3, where I gave a presentation that likened PK Night to the old salons. I was very envious of Madame Recamier …

Q: Um, remind us who she was?

Davis: She was a French society lady, an aristocrat in the early 19th century who was rich and smart and attractive and would open her house and have intellectuals, poets, artists, writers come in and talk about cool things, in famous salons. And I thought, how do you do that, in this day and age?

Q: Oh, that Madame Recamier.

Sauer: PK also has a party feeling because the 20/20 format encourages informal presentations, and a lot of give-and-take with the audience.

Davis: Also, the freedom to roam around during the event. And it also magically fits with today’s modern behavior of always being online. So you can tweet, take pictures and talk to your smart devices while you’re enjoying the event.

Q: And nobody’s offended.

Davis: Exactly. Plus, there’s beer.

Q: One of the interesting things about the Dayton PK’s is that they’ve all been in different locations. What’s that about?

Davis: We’re not the only city that does that. Indianapolis has moved to a few places, and Cincinnati’s has. Columbus has an outdoor one, a big summer event. We’ve repeated at the Neon twice, but otherwise always being in a different place is part budgetary, part by design.

Sauer: We like to highlight different underutilized spaces in the city — introduce people to places they’ve perhaps never been in, like the American Czech-Slovak Club.

Davis: Or the old C-Space, when it was still open. Or the Cannery, before it was open and finished. We were in Hamilton Dixon’s art studio on East Third Street once. We were also down at Sunwatch Indian village, which was a bit risky because people have a hard time finding it, and it was the furthest we’ve been from downtown. But people still showed up.

Sauer: We try to keep it very generally in downtown’s orbit. We get a better-sized audience that way.

Q: What is the size of the audience, more or less?

Davis: We started out with about 60 at the first one, with an interesting mix of ages.

Sauer: The last one we did, at the Gentile warehouse building downtown near the main branch of the library, was the biggest one. We had at least a couple hundred people there.

Davis: Standing room only. We had to find more chairs. One of the reasons we think the events work is because we start them at 7:30 in the evening, so you can go to dinner, meet your friends at PK, then leave and go get drinks at a reasonable hour and go talk about all the crazy, buzzy stuff you heard from the latest thinkers, makers, artists and urban activists.

Q: Just like those salons you were talking about.

Sauer: You know, we tried at one point to organize an after-party, but it just didn’t work — people wanted to go off on their own to talk about stuff. Probably better that way, actually.

Davis: But we knew we were doing something right when it turned out to be hard to get rid of people afterward, because they want to stay after, talking.

Q: There are PK events all over the world, and a number in our region. Cincinnati, Columbus and Springfield have them pretty regularly. Do you have a sense for how Dayton’s event stands out?

Sauer: I think Dayton differs from other events in the range of presenters and the topics we’ve covered. Some cities have a lot more designers and architects who give presentations, because the PK format came from that community. We’ve had our share of architects and designers, but we’ve also had a lot of people trying to build local, community and grassroots organizations, too — a lot of those kinds of people starting out entrepreneurial endeavors.

Davis: And we’ve also had a lot of really interesting, offbeat talks, too — sometimes ones that I was worried going in might not work, but which ended turning out really great. We had one from Joey London, for instance, about “your brain on dance.”

Sauer: That was a good one. It was about the chemical changes in your brain when you listen to dance music, and how beneficial it is when you do it.

Davis: It was a super-scientific topic, but the way he presented it, he was the hit of the night. Then another night, we had a talk from Tracy McElfresh, who owns the Sew Dayton boutique in the Oregon District — and we expected to talk about sewing, right? But she gave a talk instead about cooking and what you could make from what she got in her CSA garden produce box. It was cool. Carli Dixon, who’s an entrepreneur and businesswoman and could talk about a lot of things talked about her attempts at urban gardening with her kids. Very charming. You always get pleasant surprises like that.

Q: You always have eight speakers, right?

Davis: Yes. We ask 10, and two usually drop out — either they freak out at the last minute, or run out of time.

Q: Other favorites?

Davis: Tim Anderl, a local musician, did a great one on “Rock Stars Are People, Too.” Duante Beddingfield did a great one about comic books. Ken Raiteri did one about Evel Knievel, how he was a childhood hero of his, and the engineering behind his stunts. It was really good.

Sauer: The artist Ben Riddlebarger did one on the healing power of making things.

Davis: He had people in tears, about overcoming tragedy with creativity. Architect Mary Rogero did a great one on Dayton’s funk music history. There have been so many.

Sauer: We’ve had almost 150 speakers. It’s amazing, really.

Q: Anybody you want you haven’t been able to draft?

Sauer: I really want Neal Gittleman. And Dave Chappelle. He’d blow it up.

Q: How often are you surprised by a presenter?

Sauer: Well, we want to pick the people, not the topic. We have veto power, but we let them talk about whatever they want to talk about.

Davis: There are guidelines, of course. You can’t market yourself or your business, but you can share and discuss your influences, and what is meaningful to you. You can work the crowd, if you want. You can, say, talk about yoga and what it means to you, but you can’t advertise for your yoga studio and say, here are the hours and such.

Q: That makes sense.

Davis: Back to how we’re different from the events in different cities, I think Chicago has theirs in the same bar every time, and we always move ours to a different location. And like we said, some cities are heavy on designers, architects and artists, but we mix it up. Indianapolis’ event, when I’ve been to it, is very, very funny — a lot of very funny political and artistic groups. Cincinnati’s event is the worst I’ve been to. Not sure why.

Sauer: Well, the first one there that we went to was good. They had super-high production values, and they had it downtown at the Contemporary Art Center, and it was catered with a cash bar.

Davis: And they had a DJ spinning vinyl, and it was a very hip happening. But the speakers really fell flat. They were very self-serious. I found Columbus’ event to be less friendly. The crowd didn’t seem to mix at all. The speakers were a lot of people showing their art portfolios, but not much audience interaction or participation. By comparison, I think Dayton’s event is very quirky, very hard to categorize, I’d say.

Sauer: Right. If we have an artist talk, we’d rather have them talk about their process, rather than show a slide show of their portfolio. It’s more interesting to the audience that way.

Davis: The lesson is you’ve got to get good at spotting your speakers. We’ll just come out and ask perfect strangers to speak if they seem interesting.

Sauer: And our batting average is pretty good.

Davis: I think so, too.

Q: So what makes a good speaker, then? It’s not always humor, right?

Davis: Oh, right. We’ve had some speakers who’ve brought audiences to tears. Like Dr. Burt Saidel talked about his son’s death years ago, and how he’s kept his memory alive through his woodworking projects, where his son is an inspiration to him. It was a great talk.

Sauer: It has to be something near and dear to your heart, something that you’re passionate about. I know that’s an overused term, but it’s really true. You’ve got to be darn excited to talk about it. Really, a lot of people are shy, and scared to get up there. We’re still trying to convince some people who we think would be good speakers to do it, but they’re just too shy. That’s fine — if you have to throw up, we’ll give you a bucket.

Davis: What they don’t realize until they do it, though, is that the audience feels you can do no wrong. From the very first volume, the audience has always been very open, and willing to hear whatever. I’m not sure what they expected, but they’ve always been great.

Sauer: I think they still are. They’re very supportive of the speakers.

Davis: They’ll just show up and see what transpires.

Q: Have you been surprised that the events have turned out to be successful, and that you’re still doing them?

Davis: I’m surprised that it’s still nerve-wracking every time to put the event on. We just show up with slides, a projector and beer and see what happens.

Sauer: Even seeing the slides, we don’t really know what might happen. I’m surprised how many people it’s started to reach. Once we passed the 150 attendance mark and people consistently started showing up, we realized we were onto something good.

Davis: We even have a small contingent of Cincinnati people who come.

Q: Is there some sort of license you need to put it on, as a branded event?

Sauer: Yes, it’s trademarked to use the name and format, by . If it weren’t, you’d have tons of competing PK nights, and that would diminish the value. I have the handshake deal with Klein Dytham Architecture in Japan, the firm that created the format in 2003. The rules are, we aren’t allowed to make money off it — it’s a strictly break-even party kind of thing.

Q: So you basically support it with the beer and wine donations?

Sauer: Yes, and some long-standing sponsorships. Dragonfly Editorial, American Institute of Architects Dayton chapter. Each one costs about $300 to put on. The venue is usually donated, and we use social media to get the word out. It’s real grassroots.

Q: Which is part of its charm, right?

Davis: I think so. I tell people the whole operation is like three grad students having a party leaving notes to each other on the fridge, “Did you remember to bring the beer?” “Who’s coming?” “Who’d you invite?”

Q: What have you learned about the community from all this?

Davis: I love it more, but I know saying that sounds sappy. But I’m really very proud how easy-going, non-snobby, non-class conscious the town is. I spent my 20s in New York City, and I ran into a lot of “my scene is better than yours, I’m cooler than you.” That’s just annoying now, and I’m glad we don’t have it here.

Sauer: I like the range of age groups we have in the audience. It’s pretty amazing.

Q: Will you keep at it?

Davis: Absolutely, yes.

Sauer: Agreed. I love it. I like the spotlight it’s put on the diversity and depth of our community. It’s just incredible. I’d be in the audience all the time anyway even if I wasn’t producing it.

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