A Public Speaking Guide 🎙️
Tips on speaking for Frightened game developers from another Very Frightened Person.
By Victoria Tran, the Communications Director at Kitfox Games, an indie studio in Montreal. Currently working on Boyfriend Dungeon, Lucifer Within Us and publishing Mondo Museum and Dwarf Fortress. Her GDC 2019 talks are here.
In a strange turn of events, I’ve recently-ish ended up doing a lot more public speaking than I ever thought I would. That is, in the past, I was determined to do a grand total of: none.
Public speaking can be terrifying for me, and many others.
But for all the terror, it’s a fantastic way to share ideas, challenge yourself, connect with people and, dare I say, kinda fun.
I’ve spoken with quite a few people that would like to get into it, but:
- Are too afraid
- Can’t think of an idea
- Don’t think they have anything to contribute and everyone knows more than them
- Totally want to, but they “don’t have enough experience yet” and will “definitely” apply once they have “enough” (what is enough?)
I’ve felt all those feels. I still feel all those feels. I don’t think I’m an expert at public speaking, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but I thought it’d be worth discussing the feels and what I’ve learned about speaking so far.
I’ll be focusing on the SPEAKING portion of talks here, not necessarily how to build a good talk or slides. (Maybe a future post??)
Note: Doing talks — or not — is no indication of your worthiness/skill. Many talented, smart, and good people never do talks. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Live your best life!!!!
🎙️ Working Your Way to Public Speaking 🎙️
Palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, mom’s spaghetti.
Naturally one of the biggest deterrents to public speaking is uh, the public speaking part.
What if everyone suddenly sees I truly have no idea what I’m talking about? What if all my advice is wrong? What if I stumble over my words? What if I forget? What if my career is over? What if I accidentally say something I regret? What if no one cares what I have to say? What if I’m humiliated forever and live life as a sad meme?
These are normal fears, and I can basically guarantee none of it will happen. But it’s still spooky! The way I worked up to doing talks by myself was by starting with panels at places like PAX. Panels are the best because:
- You get to share the pressure of speaking amongst friends, and they also alleviate the feeling of all eyes being on you.
- If you do the panel with friends, it can feel like you’re just having a casual conversation.
- Depending on the convention, they’re lower pressure as they’re generally more consumer-based and “fun” topics instead of high expertise game dev topics.
- If they’re expertise based, often you can build on what someone else says and you’re not just on your own.
From panels, I worked my way up slowly to doing joint talks with coworkers, or at smaller, local events (of which I’m definitely priveleged to have!) And then got to GDC and others! Woo! That sounds clean and easy, but in reality there were a lot of mistakes made, nervous moments, some crying, bothering Tanya X. Short with worried thoughts and paragraphs of why I should/shouldn’t do a talk (THANK YOU), practicing in front of friends, and many rejected talk proposals.
I’m not going to lie, I still get incredibly nervous about doing talks and have all the same fears as I did before. But by doing more and more talks, I know how to handle them better, and can differentiate which worries are in my control, and which aren’t.
📣 Rehearse Your Talk 📣
One of my least favorite things in the world is showing people drafts or incomplete works. There’s something absolutely moritfying about it, but when it comes to talks, no matter who you are, it’s incredibly important to actually rehearse your talk.
- Do your talk from start to finish, and don’t stop even if you mess up. Not only will it help you memorize, time everything, and learn how to improvise during your talk (if you mess up), but it’ll ensure you don’t end up overpracticing the beginning and underpracticing the end.
- Practice in front of people! Preferably people who both understand your topic, and some that don’t really. They’ll usually have valuable feedback on what was confusing about your talk, where it could be improved, and the overall structure. Ask them to be as honest as possible!
- Ask people you rehearse in front of for feedback on what you were doing. Were you swaying side to side? Too quiet? Saying “um” too much? Look too much like you’re just reading straight from the slides? You want to connect with the audience and certain habits may impede that.
- If for some reason you don’t have someone to practice in front of, record yourself and watch the playback. I know. This sounds awkward and terrible. But it’ll help you out more than you think. We unconsciously do a lot of things when we talk and this helps you clearly see it.
- Rehearse a lot! Rehearse more than twice! Speak out loud! The more you practice, the more natural the talk will feel, and the more comfortable you’ll be on stage when it practically becomes muscle memory.
🤮 Let Yourself Be Nervous 🤮
I know I already had a section about being afraid, but this is a bit different. In the moments right before the talk, it’s extremely normal to feel like you want to collapse and melt into the floor. Did I crawl under my desk and tear up before I had to practice in front of some friends? Did I go outside before my talks and literally jump up and down, shake, and flail to get the nervous energy out? PERHAPS.
But the point is if you’re nervous, BE nervous. It won’t help you to pretend like nothing is wrong and everything is fine. Get the feelings out however you need to, whether that’s calling a friend you trust, BREATHING, doing goofy dance moves, etc. Remember that excitement and nervousness can feel extremely similar. You’re always going to have a bit of energy!
Luckily, something some might not know is that on stage, they darken the audience lights and brighten the speaker lights. This means it’s actually quite difficult to see faces in the audience, and it feels like you’re speaking to just one dark amorphous blob.
And while you may think everyone else seems to have it together, I’ve walked into the GDC Speaker Preparation room before and seen several others who looked like they were about to faint. You’re not alone.
🗣️ Talking Style 🗣️
Everyone has a different talking style.
When I was originally preparing for my talks, I had wild dreams and ambitions about “what kind of speaker” I would be. I imagined I would say great, profound things that would make my audience’s eyes widen with surprise and knowledge. Or maybe, I’d have a calm demeanour that just exuded cool, confident style, with quotable moments that would be referenced all the time.
Then I realized all this would do is succeed in making me seem like a butt.
I don’t think there’s some magic formula to figure out what your speaking style necessarily is. Don’t fall into a trap of how your talk is “supposed” to be. There’s no real correct format for a talk.
I mean, I could say “be yourself” but I’ve always hated that advice. So to expand on that idea: the people accepted your talk or are asking you to speak because they are interested in what you have to say and share about the topic. Trust how you do things.
Are you naturally kind of awkward? Sure! Fine! Lean into it and be the adorable, awkward speaker that you are. It feels real and authentic, and I think that’s what people will latch onto the most. Are you more comfortable doing a grand, speaking style? Cool! Work it into your talk. You are now one of the voices for that topic, and it should feel like a natural extension of you. There’s a certain kind of magic when I see someone speaking about something they’re truly passionate about, and if you can convey that to the audience, do it.
And you don’t need to know exactly what your speaking style is right off the bat. Overtime, as I’ve gotten slightly more comfortable with speaking, I realized my “stage presence” morphing into what it is today. This was through rehearsing a lot, seeing what jokes landed, watching recordings of myself talk (and cringing about it), etc. And it’ll probably change as I do more talks!
It’s OK to be a work in progress. It’s OK if your first talk is sort of just an awkward mess. We’ve all been there!
Did you make a mistake? Like I did below?
Sometimes there’s a SMALL chance you’ll mess something up (hopefully not recorded lol), and you’re just going to need to roll with the punches. You don’t need to dwell on your mistakes — the audience has already experienced it, they don’t need to hear you fixate on it. This is easier said than done of course, but if if you mess up and need to take a second or to to pause, take a deep breath, smile, and start over, it’s OK!
The more flustered, embarassed, or scared you act, the more awkward the audience will feel. It’s okay if you fumble, are honest, and tell them you’re nervous, as long as you don’t dwell on it. And I know making a mistake will feel like you’re the WORST person in the world, but you’re not. I promise. They’ll forget about it completely soon enough.
And honestly? You’re HELLA badass for going up there and doing your thing.
I don’t know if this is any solace to anyone and it’s sort of self-deprecating, but sometimes I combat the spotlight effect by telling myself that I’m not SO important to everyone’s life that they’ll remember everything I do, and that I shouldn’t be so egotistical. It sounds mean, but in times like these, I need it!
I highly recommend watching your talks if they’re recorded, even if it’s going to feel horrific and mortifying. It’ll help you see the places where you need to improve the most.
Additionally, watching talks from people that you admire (whether it’s a TED talk, GDC talk, etc.) works well too. See what you connect with and why. And as a last small resource, the book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking may be useful to some, if you want a deeper dive into different speaking techniques and actually creating your talk.
You’ll do amazing. Go get ‘em.