storytelling and pecha kucha

I haven’t been to a live Pecha Kucha event. Not yet. Which is surprising, considering how popular it is. Thousands of people all over the world gather in darkened theaters to hear presenters talk about an experience, a practice, or a phenomena that is important to them. The format, to show 20 slides, each for 20 seconds, guarantees that no one talks for too long. This format keeps it digestible. Apparently, San Francisco is the top Pecha Kucka city next to Tokyo, where it was founded. I am going to keep my eyes open for the next event so I can experience it first hand.

Browsing through the presentation archives, it seemed easiest to search by popularity rating. I was drawn to the simple title “Failure”, and this is indeed a moving and provocative presentation. Bob Berkebile is a principle at the award-winning architecture firm BNIM, and their core mission is to “… deliver beautiful, integrated, living environments that inspire change and enhance the human condition.” Berkebile crafts an engaging, intimately personal story about a fatal accident in a building that his firm built, and how it pushed him to recreate his approach to architecture. But Berkebile isn’t just relating this event in his life to tell his own personal history and the trajectory of his career; he tells this story to compel the audience to think about our own cycle of consumption, and how we may transform this consumptive relationship with the planet into something that is regenerative and renewing.

Berkebile starts his talk with several provocative questions about the presence and effect of failure in human life. He instantly brings an interactive spirit to the presentation, because as a viewer, I am suddenly engaged to answer these questions, to bring my own meaning to his inquiries. Berkebile is not just talking to the audience, he is engaging with us. As Peter Gruber describes in The Four Truths of a Storyteller, “you want to tell your story in an interactive fashion, so people will feel they’ve participated in shaping the story experience. This requires a willingness to surrender ownership of the story. The storyteller must recognize that the story is bigger than she is and must enlist her audience’s help.” Berkebile has no idea how we will answer these questions, or if we will even agree with the underlying sentiment. But in the asking, he gives the audience the opportunity to form our own opinions. He continues to ask questions throughout the presentation, questions that he has asked himself over the years.

What story is Bob Berkebile telling us? It is the story of his influences, important people that we recognize, either as archetypical figures in our own lives (The Mother and The Father), or famous teachers, such as Buckminster Fuller and Leon Shenandoah, people that helped him find meaning and direction, especially in that time of his greatest failure. It is the story of events — Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the fatal Hyatt Hotel accident — and how these events effected his choices and motivations. You have to admire Berkebile for being vulnerable, it would be incredibly difficult to share these deeply personal feelings of guilt and failure. However, as Gruber says “by willingly exposing anxieties, fears and shortcomings, the storyteller allows the audience to identify with her and therefore brings listeners to a place of understanding and catharsis, and ultimately spurs action.” Berkebile could have easily talked about the building failure without discussing his feelings, but by doing so, he give the audience the opportunity to empathize, to draw on times when we too may have felt the same. Fortunately, he also provides some levity by weaving in moments of humor. He is tackling a heavy subject, and such intensity could also distance the audience. He wants us to pay attention, because he is telling a much larger, more important story that we first think.

Bob Berkebile has asked himself some very hard questions through the course of his career, questions about why and where the culture of consumption appeared, what its result will be, and how as a creator he can change that paradigm. He wants us to ask ourselves these same questions, because he is really telling the story of the possible demise of the planet, and he knows that we will have to radically change our behavior to stop this from happening. So he lays himself on the line, exposes his failings and vulnerabilities, hoping to create a compassionate connection that will compel action. His mission is to enlighten us, and as Gruber says, “everything he does must serve that mission.” He ends his talk with a challenge to the audience, ending as he began, acknowledging us as thinking beings with our own answers to this very complex problem.