The art of PechaKucha: From the classroom to the boardroom

By Michaele Morrow, CPA, Ph.D.

Editor: Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA

PechaKucha is a funny name for a presentation technique akin to an elevator pitch — except this elevator has timed slides; fun, descriptive, and eye-catching graphics; and a presentation time limit of 400 seconds. Developed in 2003 by two architects, Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham, it ensures that presentations move along in a timely fashion to keep the audience engaged. Since that time, PechaKucha, which means "chit-chat" in Japanese, has become a worldwide phenomenon resulting in PechaKucha Nights in 1,000 cities across the world.

What does this have to do with tax or accounting? Tax professors probably asked the same question when they attended the first PechaKucha session at the American Taxation Association midyear meeting in 2013. By the end of the session, though, the link was clear: PechaKucha is one solution to awkward, long, and sometimes boring presentations — something that accounting classes and workplaces across the country suffer through almost daily. Tax professors and professionals often struggle to convey complex information in a way that keeps the audience engaged, and this format can help presenters be more careful and deliberate with what they want to say, how they want to say it, and what visual aids they use to support their message.

The AICPA lists communication as a core professional competency, and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business requires that business schools and accounting departments evaluate oral communication skills. Students need to practice speaking in front of groups, but the results of student presentations are often cringeworthy. Students are unprepared, nervous, equipped with ineffective visual aids, and unable to keep the audience interested. Without honest, critical feedback from faculty, students have no opportunity to improve and, thus, often carry this bad presentation behavior into the accounting profession.

Of course, these challenges are not limited to the accounting classroom or profession. A 2017 online survey by Active Presence found that the top three issues respondents cited with ineffective presentations were:

  • Engagement: Keeping the audience engaged by drawing and keeping initial interest;
  • Preparation: A clear message that comes across as practiced and intentional; and
  • Slide design and nerves: Lack of confidence and issues with personal energy and with nonverbal communication. (The full survey report, "The Top Challenges in Delivering Presentations," is available at www.activepresence.com.)

Unsurprisingly, when presentation expert Nancy Duarte published a series of blog posts on presentation style and tips for Harvard Business Review in 2012, her final post pleads with presenters to avoid five common mistakes: (1) failing to engage emotionally; (2) asking too much of your slides; (3) trotting out tired visuals; (4) speaking in jargon; and (5) going over the allotted time (see Duarte, "Five Presentation Mistakes Everyone Makes," Harvard Business Review (Dec. 12, 2012), available at hbr.org.

Fortunately, the PechaKucha format addresses all of these common mistakes. First, the limited time forces a presenter to get to the point — or "hook" — quickly and keep the audience engaged. In fact, the short time frame ensures that everyone is paying attention and is just a little bit nervous about the pace of the continuously advancing slides. Second, PechaKucha does not allow the presenter to ask much of the slides other than visual support for the words spoken. Admittedly, presenters could still use tired and clichéd visuals — an adding machine to show accounting work or a production line to represent manufacturing — so avoiding this requires the most vigilance. PechaKucha was invented to solve the issue of presenters going over an allotted time. But what about the excessive use of jargon? Generally, since the short time to speak forces presenters to simplify, simplify, simplify, in a successful presentation the problem resolves itself in the form of plain language.

This column introduces the format of PechaKucha and offers concrete examples of its use in the classroom by both students and professors, workshops, internal training, and even client presentations. This column explains why PechaKucha is not the same as just limiting presenters to 400 seconds and 20 slides; it is different because it forces presenters to continue as the slides roll. While it is not the only technique for improving presentations — and is not appropriate for all presentations — using it to prepare helps presenters focus their thoughts and tell a coherent, interesting story. Just describing or demonstrating the technique creates a sense of urgency for presenters to write a script and practice in advance, which is a good solution for eliminating long, uninteresting presentations.

PechaKucha for students

Students in Suffolk University's Master of Science in Taxation (MST) Tax Policy course are required to use the PechaKucha format for a tax policy proposal pitch. Each student picks a topic and, over the course of the semester, submits written pieces of a policy proposal (e.g., implement a flat tax or a carbon tax, or reform Social Security taxation), which culminates in a PechaKucha presentation to pitch the new policy to classmates. Truthfully, PechaKucha presentations are not easy for students, and most of them dread them. It is helpful for the professor to demonstrate the technique to show that it can be done. A refresher on the policy readings for the week — such as international or state and local tax — or even political candidate tax proposals work well for a PechaKuchademonstration.

PechaKucha can also be used in a graduate tax research class. In this MST course, each week students work in pairs to prepare tax research memos using the facts, issues, rules, analysis, and conclusion (FIRAC) method. While they prepare these memos several times over the course of the semester, one memo requires students to prepare aPecha-Kucha to present research findings. Professors could also require students to make a tax planning pitch to a client based on the results of the tax research memo. Depending on time and the course's objectives, this could be formal, with tax professionals observing and providing real-time feedback, or informal, with the professor and fellow classmates providing feedback and suggestions for improvement.

A PechaKucha faceoff is a fun and effective way to let undergraduate tax students practice communication and presentation skills. Split the class into groups and have each argue the merits of one side of a tax treatment based on a set of facts — using PechaKucha. A few good examples of topics are employee versus independent contractor, hobby versus business, and passive versus nonpassive income. This is much more engaging than the professor's writing a list on the board as students take notes. And, since recent discussion in accounting education has revolved around the idea of gamification of the classroom to help students learn, and gamification of the workplace to help Millennials stay engaged (see Huffman, "How Gamification Can Help Engage Millennial Employees," CPA Insider (July 11, 2016), available at www.journalofaccountancy.com, this type of assignment is right on target for implementing that technique.

PechaKucha is not just for students in tax courses. At Suffolk, executive MBA students use the format for financial analysis project presentations. Each group of four is allowed 10 slides at 40 seconds each (10 × 40) to pitch a preferred investment to a "client" of their choosing. Rather than employing it in the presentation, students are asked to provide a ratio analysis handout to the class to complement the pitch. The presentation itself is entirely focused on the interpretation of the analysis and the recommendations from it, rather than the nuts and bolts of the financial analysis calculations. While these working professionals initially complain about being constrained to a format, in the end they comment that this format is more interesting and effective for both the presenter and the audience.

PechaKucha for professors

Admittedly, sometimes the worst offenders for awkward, long, unengaging presentations are professors. While an entire class cannot be taught in PechaKucha style, it is an effective tool for introducing or reviewing certain topics. Which topics in tax might benefit from less of the typical open-ended, untimed presentation and more PechaKucha? How about a rundown of filing requirements or penalties? Or even a PechaKucha presentation on how to complete an individual tax return, complete with screenshots?

Corporate tax is another great place to incorporate PechaKucha for a review of concepts. Recent tax law changes mean that professors are pulling double-duty — old rules and new rules — on several topics. Corporate alternative minimum tax, net operating losses, and cost recovery are all topics with recent changes that could be less than stimulating when presented in a traditional lecture format. However, distilling each of these topics into a 400-second explanation is surprisingly doable. The key is to follow up the PechaKucha with numerical examples and student group work to solidify the concepts.

A partnership taxation course has endless possibilities for PechaKucha. A six-minute review is the perfect amount of time to introduce Sec. 704(c) allocations to students, but also to ensure they are still awake when the class moves on to numerical examples. Accounting for income taxes is another example where a quick format is a great place to give an overview of the valuation allowance, deferred taxes, or even just examples of footnote disclosures from SEC Forms 10-K to give students familiarity with the tax footnote.

A state and local taxation course presents a great opportunity to use PechaKucha for compare-and-contrast purposes. Again, the fast format is an engaging way for professors — or students — to show tax treatments of items in different states. It can also be used for discussion of nexus or apportionment rules in different states, since these are easy to represent pictorially. Similarly, most concepts in international tax are better illustrated with pictures or organizational charts. In addition, international tax is the area with the most complex recent tax changes, yet students need to know both the old and the new rules. Thus, PechaKucha could be used here to illustrate the treatment of income when a U.S. multinational entity chooses to license its name versus setting up a branch or establishing a controlled foreign corporation in another country. This could also work well to review transfer pricing or new international tax rules, or to compare and contrast old and new international tax rules before getting into a detailed class discussion.

Finally, for those tax professors who teach more than tax, PechaKucha can be used in any accounting class. For example, in an introductory financial accounting class, the format can facilitate a professor's review of debits and credits or items on different financial statements, with the bonus that pictures will help students better retain and recall the concepts. Students can also be assigned a PechaKucha presentation for a review of key course topics with the presentations delivered live in the classroom or recorded and posted to the class management system website. Alternatively, a scaled-down version of the MBA project discussed above could be given to students in any financial accounting course ranging from introductory to intermediate to advanced accounting.

PechaKucha for research

Researchers — and research workshops — could also benefit from Pecha-Kucha. In fact, Libby boxes — a research method taught to Ph.D. students to help structure research ideas — are a type of written PechaKucha for research ideas and could be easily transformed into a 20 × 20 presentation.

And what about the lengthy literature review? PechaKucha to the rescue — the format is short enough to get the point across and review a topic but not put the audience to sleep. PechaKucha could also shake up a research workshop or brown bag; presenters can use it for a quick literature review before a presentation of a paper, or to pitch proposals and research papers in progress. The great thing about condensing the discussion of a new research idea into six minutes is that researchers can figure out immediately if they have something worth exploring.

For academics, the possibilities for PechaKucha's use are endless. It works in the classroom and for research purposes, but it could also be the perfect solution to propose a new class or a new curriculum, or even to get students to apply to an MBA or MST program. List what is great about the program, and then put it into pictures on the slides. Limit the formal "info" part of the information session to 400 seconds, and use the rest of the allotted time for questions and face-to-face networking with prospective students.

PechaKucha for CPAs

The AICPA's CPA Vision Project lists "Communications and Leadership Skills" as one of the profession's top five core competencies (www.aicpa.org. The AICPA thus expects CPAs will be "[a]ble to give and exchange information with meaningful context and with appropriate delivery and interpersonal skills . . . [and be] [a]ble to influence, inspire and motivate others to achieve results." Another statement on the AICPA's "Professional Competencies" page describes communication as the ability to "[a]ctively listen and effectively deliver information in multiple formats tailored to the intended audience" (see www.aicpa.org).

For a CPA, a typical audience comprises either clients or co-workers. The benefits of PechaKucha for a client presentation are clear: The format allows CPAs to give an engaging and visually appealing, as well as entirely relevant, presentation to a current or prospective client. Detailed information about numbers or rules that would ordinarily bog down a presentation can be provided in an accompanying handout and addressed in a Q&A following the presentation and later in informal face-to-face discussions. This is a win-win situation — CPAs can showcase their expertise in the topic and their communication and presentation skills while keeping the audience interested and engaged, all while saving time for more meaningful interactions after the presentation is complete.

An audience of CPAs deserves good presentations, too. Internal training sessions at CPA firms could undoubtedly benefit from an attention boost in the form of PechaKucha — whether it is used to gamify the training for participants or to make presentation of the material more palatable and interesting. For both audience types, the presentation should be considered the start of a longer discussion rather than the be-all, end-all that must include every detail about the topic. Presentations that attempt to do this will never keep the audience's attention, much less serve to influence, inspire, or motivate.

Keys to a successful PechaKucha presentation

While the first response to a request for a PechaKucha proposal might be one of disbelief and negativity, the second is usually a request for more information — specifically, what are the keys to a successful PechaKucha presentation? The first key is to write a script to distill the message to the absolute key points. Read it out loud and use a timer; PechaKucha requires less material than a normal presentation. And, while this column focuses on PechaKucha, other techniques such as Ignite (see, e.g., Scott Berkun's blog post, "How to Give a Great Ignite Talk," (June 1, 2009), available at scottberkun.com or lightning talks have also generated a voluminous amount of online content and tips to help guide the creation of fast, effective presentations.

The second key is to use slides with interesting, eye-catching, explanatory graphics. Several resources can help with choice, size, and placement of graphics. Presentation Zen (presentationzen.com) is excellent for all presentations, not just Pecha-Kucha. The PechaKucha site itself has thousands of presentations to watch, including one presentation about how to create slides (www.pechakucha.org. The most important point is to be creative and to not limit yourself to traditional ways of doing things.

The third key is not to be afraid to customize based on the topic, presenter, and audience. Use a 10 × 20 or a 10 × 40 rather than a 20 × 20. You can go longer or shorter with the number of slides and time per slide. As for the time limits, whatever they are, keep it interesting and keep it moving! For those who use the method in class, demonstrate for students and tie it in to real-life pitches. For those introducing it in training sessions, use the concepts of gamification to make it a fun exercise rather than a punishment.

Finally, and most importantly, practice, practice, practice to hit the transitions and have confidence in the topic and presentation. The time needed to practice is minimal; presenters often find they have memorized the entire presentation and will not need to use notes. A win-win for both presenter and audience, PechaKucha is a way to eliminate rambling, unorganized, or dull presentations and, more importantly, to prepare students to give thought to the format and be confident and effective communicators no matter what presentation format they use.

 

Contributors

Michaele Morrow, CPA, Ph.D., is an associate professor of accounting and director of the Center for Executive Education at Suffolk University in Boston. Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA, is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif., and is the chair of the AICPA Tax Executive Committee. For more information about this column, please contact thetaxadviser@aicpa.org.

 

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