I've spent the past year and a bit travelling full-time from conference to conference, but I have no natural talent for public speaking whatsoever. The first time my boss asked me to speak on camera, I forgot my own name. Fifteen minutes before the second talk I ever gave, a man asked me if the seat next to me was taken and I was so nervous I couldn't understand the question and couldn't answer. I just stared at him until he walked away.
But speaking at conferences is good. It's good for so many reasons. If you are working on something that you love, you can channel that energy to the audience. If you are working on something you don't care about at all, you can slow the destruction of your soul by talking about something you would love to work on. If you are part of an oppressed group in your day-to-day workplace, conferences are a chance not to be interrupted, not to be ignored, not to be the only one. They are a chance to be heard. When you share your ideas, you find kindred spirits and you open up opportunities for future collaborations. You also receive generous critiques and your ideas improve. It's community and it's good.
Do you have something you want to say to the world, but are horrified by public speaking like I was? Slowly over time, adjusting with each terrifying misstep, I've developed a rigorous process for writing and giving talks. Maybe something in my process will help you find your voice too.
Step 1: A good topic is any topic you desperately care about
A week before the first good talk I ever gave, I met with a friend to get feedback. He patiently listened as I described at length how great my slides were, and how great I was for finishing them a week early. When I was finally done, he told me that out of my 60 slides, only one was interesting. He told me I had to rewrite the whole talk. And he was right. That slide was the only one in the presentation that was honest and heartfelt.
"If someone doesn't have a basic understanding of systemic discrimination and bias and equity by now, they are not my audience"
My friend taught me to start everything I do by thinking about what I care about and to work from there. Every talk I've given that made me feel like I would vomit in the middle of it was one where I tried to say what I thought people wanted or needed to hear, or where I tried to stick to what I was allowed to say within corporate restrictions. Now I just make everything personal and vulnerable and saturated with my militant intersectional feminist agenda, and interestingly, it goes much better.
I also decide who my audience is. I discovered that my talks are less clear and less effective when I try to speak to everyone. Now I speak to inspire and give tools to under-represented game developers and their allies only. If someone doesn't have a basic understanding of systemic discrimination and bias and equity by now, they are not my audience. Even more interestingly, since I narrowed down my target audience, people outside my target audience receive my talks better too.
And you don't need to wait until you have more experience to try speaking. If you are new in the industry your ideas are probably fresher and more interesting than mine. No matter your experience level, if you speak about what you are truly passionate about, it will help people.
If you are having trouble naming what you care about, you can ask yourself these questions: Why did I get out of bed this morning? Why do I go to work? Why am I in this industry? What makes my blood boil? What gives me deep satisfaction? What game would I like to play that doesn't exist and why would I like to play it and why does it not exist?
This approach will make your talk better, and it might make your projects better too.
Step 2: Start with why
Once I've chosen my topic and my audience, I make an outline. The outline is simple but it follows a very specific order. This order in derived from the work of Simon Sinek, the author and motivational speaker who has cringe-worthy opinions about millennials but has better opinions about how to structure a talk: Start with why. This might be the reverse order from what feels natural. But it makes a more compelling talk.
My outline looks something like this:
- 1) Why I care
- a) Why do I care about this topic?
- b) Why should my audience care? Where do our values overlap? What is our common ground or our common goal?
- 2)What I care about
- a)What is my argument? What are the details of this topic? What related research supports my point? How do I plan to reach my goals? What are my expectations?
- 3)What it means
- a)What are my results so far? What are the implications of this information? What are the practical applications of this information? What are the next steps?
Step 3: Charisma can be taught
My outlines are always extremely boring. They are just lists of dry facts and details. I'm a detail-oriented, obsessive person with no natural social skills. My first few talks reflected this.
Fortunately for people who see me talk now, at some point I came across a management study that changed my talks and my writing: Can Charisma Be Taught? Tests of Two Interventions by Antonakis et. al.
I drily, methodically go over each idea in my outline and apply the techniques in this paper as appropriate. The techniques are as follows:
- Use lists. This gives the impression of completeness
- Use rhetorical questions. This creates anticipation
- Use stories, anecdotes. These are much easier to remember and much easier to understand and also helps the audience identify with you
- Use metaphors. These are also easier to remember and easier to understand
- Use contrasts. This frames and focuses your message
- Have a moral conviction. This happens naturally when you start your talk with why you care
- Share the sentiments of the collective. This happens naturally when you know your audience
- Set high expectations. Be clear about your goals
- Communicate confidence. Believe that your goals can be met
When I use these techniques to turn my ideas into stories, or lists, or questions, or metaphors, or contrasting points, people like them better.
Step 4: One idea per slide. No text
When my outline is done and is more interesting, I take each point and copy-paste it onto a slide. It generally works out to about 1-2 slides per minute.
Then I go back through each slide and replace each idea with an image. I get rid of as much text as possible. No text is best. I learned to do this after I accidentally spent one talk reading my slides to the audience instead of saying what I had planned to say. I finished extremely early and then had to fill the rest of the time, awkwardly, with a long question period.
It's also good to avoid text because the audience will be reading it instead of listening to you. If you do need to display a wall of text, it's best to introduce it, then put it on screen and pause so people can photograph it, then continue.
I also make sure that the image is enough not only to support my point for the audience but also to remind myself what I'm talking about. Last fall, I lost access to my notes on the screen halfway through a talk and couldn't remember all my points. There are always technical difficulties at conferences.
"Last fall, I lost access to my notes on the screen halfway through a talk and couldn't remember all my points. There are always technical difficulties at conferences"
Also, embed your fonts. It's not always possible to install fonts onto the conference computer or to use your own laptop. I use PowerPoint for Mac, which doesn't allow embedding fonts. So I've found it's good to have a backup PDF. Another option would be a version of my presentation that uses only standard fonts.
Step 5: Practice your little heart out
When my slides are drafted, I practice. A lot. And get feedback.
Practice does a few things. It helps me refine my material. It helps me master my material. It helps me get the right length and pacing. Sometimes I invite different colleagues to each practice, which can create buzz for my topic. And, practice helps me refine my technique and know myself more.
The first time I wrote a one-hour talk, whenever I practised I kept panicking partway through. By practising enough times, I noticed I was panicking always at the 20-minute mark. By practising a few more times, I figured out that I wasn't ever pausing to breathe in, and after 20 minutes I was running out of oxygen. I mistook this feeling for panic and that made me panic. So now I remember to pause and breathe or take a sip of water every so often. Wonderful. Which brings me to my next point.
Step 6: Anxiety always
I will always be nervous before my talks. For the fifteen to thirty minutes before every talk, I seriously question my life choices and have to work hard not to casually get up and walk right out of the building and into the next town and maybe into another industry.
Emotions exist for a reason, and anxiety is an especially useful emotion. It can be channelled into all kinds of creativity and performance. I get nerves before public speaking because that energy helps me deliver at least a slightly more energetic talk. I learned this in the book iConquer Speech Anxiety by Karen Dwyer.
Now when I feel nervous, instead of thinking oh god I'm so nervous I'm going to pee myself and die, I think, oh god I'm so nervous, because I'm doing a talk and I need the energy. And I'll feel better when it's done. This helps me to deal with the overwhelming anxiety that made me forget my own name that first time I was on camera.
Even with all that anxiety I'm never going to be a fabulously entertaining performer. It's fine. My content is strong enough to make up for my awkwardness. I'm so very uncomfortable on stage. I forget to stand up straight. Sometimes I forget to talk into the microphone, hilariously. It's a process. A colleague told me recently that he sees speaking as a conversation more than as a performance, and I think that's really going to help me. I'll find out in a couple of weeks at my next talk.
"Although the minutes leading up to a talk are among the most uncomfortable minutes of my life, the days after a talk are among the most satisfying days of my life"
And my progress hasn't always been steady. Sometimes I improve and then I get worse for a few talks and think I'll never improve, and then I improve, and then I do worse again. By now, I can see a general trend toward improvement. I was unsure for a while.
When I asked on Twitter about public speaking, people's responses most frequently referenced anxiety or confidence issues. There is no one ideal process to writing and giving a talk. Mine works for me. Mine is probably a little intense. What having a detailed process gives me, really, is just enough confidence to be able to do this. What would give you confidence?
Although the minutes leading up to a talk are among the most uncomfortable minutes of my life, the days after a talk are among the most satisfying days of my life. To give voice to your deepest convictions and cares, or to the work you are proudest of, and to be heard, and to see faces in the audience who relate and therefore now also feel heard, is something everyone should experience at least once.
Especially if you are part of an under-represented group in our industry, I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities to find and to develop and to amplify your voice. Most conference organizers are looking to diversify their conferences. Diversity and equity organizations at local universities are probably also looking for speakers from industry. If you need encouragement, just ask me for some on Twitter. I want to hear what you have to say.