Hi! My name is Devon Wiersma. I’m a game designer, indie dev, writer and self-proclaimed “okay guy”. I enjoy volunteering my time as a volunteer speaker at various events, from game dev meetups to fan conventions, mostly on medium to high-level topics like how to get into game development and philosophical approaches to game design. Recently I’ve had lots of questions from people on the subject of giving talks for the first time, so I figured it was about time to write some Hot Tips on how you can start giving talks yourself!
As usual, this is all based off of personal experience and to be taken with a grain of salt.
Why Should I Give Talks?
First off I’ll just plug a good article on GameCareerGuide by Zhiming Chen who covers a few points on what you have to gain from giving talks.
Talks not only help you practice and prepare your presentation and communication skills, but they also look great on a resume - plus it’s hard not to look important when you’re pictured in front of a big screen with words on it, right?
Fig 1. - Me, looking important when I'm pictured in front of a big screen with words on it.
But in my eyes these are all side benefits - the biggest reason I give talks is to teach and give back to the community. Since we live in a time where almost anyone can make games, I always want to help people learn new things and generate new experiences in their lives and talks are an amazing way to help foster that. All it takes is a little bit of my free time which goes a long way in that regard and is the most effective means I have to give back to the community given my scarce resources I have at hand.
1) Find Something To Talk About
This does seem like a no brainer, but it’s easily one of the most important and difficult parts of giving a talk and I could easily write a blog on the subject alone!
Ideally, you want to pick a topic you’re comfortable with and passionate about talking about. It should be something you could talk about from experience or hold a conversation with someone on and, most importantly, you should care about it enough to be willing to have an open dialogue about it with others. Often talks will come with questions from the audience, whether that’s while you’re up on stage or afterwards, and the last thing you want to do is make it apparent you actually don’t know anything about the subject at hand.
This is something that turns a lot of aspiring speakers off, but also remember that by no means do you need to be an expert on a subject in order to talk about it, at least not if you’re speaking to a broader audience. If your talk is about making a shader that does a cool fire effect at GDC or something you should probably know what you’re talking about - but in most normal cases, such as fan conventions or smaller venues, not having a complete knowledge of the topic is perfectly okay since you’re still likely to be the most experience person in the room on the matter.
As an example, I’ve given a talk before about the philosophy and analysis of “Bad” video games. While I don’t think I’m an expert on the subject of critical game analysis I had put enough time into thinking about it and exploring the material behind it to where I could hold a dialogue with the audience when they had questions to ask about it.
2) Find Somewhere To Talk
This can often be the toughest part of giving talks - finding a platform. If you don’t live in an urban area or anywhere where meetups or conventions are frequent, giving talks may be difficult. Heck, even if you do live in areas such as these giving talks can be difficult as not every show or meetup has opportunities to give talks.
Personally, I’ve had the most success talking about games at fan conventions (such as Enthusiast Gaming Expo Live and ConBravo) and local game dev meetups (Such as Bonus Stage in Toronto), but it depends where you are. If you’re first starting to give talks, try targeting smaller places few people have heard of and work your way up from there. One of my first talks was at a startup fan convention which doesn’t even exist anymore!
Generally I’ve found conventions are more open to speakers once they find out they have previous experience with giving talks, so the pitching process becomes easier the more practice you have doing it.
3) Know Your Audience
This is an important early step as it helps not only when writing talk pitches but also when constructing your talk itself.
There’s a few directions you can take with this, but one thing I’ve found particularly successful when it comes to pitching talks is finding an audience who only partially overlaps with the subject you’re interested in speaking about.
One panel I hosted was “Game Development 101”, centered on teaching people who hadn’t made games steps they could take in order to make their own. In a show full of game developers this would be a bit too high-level and simplistic considering most people would know plenty of development practices already, but the talk found a fairly strong success in a general audience at fan conventions which had an audience of people where few people came from a developer background but many were eager to learn.
4) Break The Content Mold
One thing which helps in deciding on a topic is to find one which doesn’t overlap exactly with your audience in order to catch more people’s attention and generate interest in what new ideas you might be bringing to the table.
I can’t speak for event organizers, but I can easily imagine they might get plenty talk submissions along the lines of “10 Game Design Tips” which could be a really dry and uninteresting subject to talk to a show full of game designer about...but I’m willing to bet plenty of people would listen to a talk about “How Surfing Can Make You A Better Programmer”.
For an actual, real-life example: at MIGS 2017 Maia Levinshtein delivered an awesome talk about how architecture can relate to game design. The talk consisted primarily about discussing principles of architecture and theory and touched far less on the subject of game design. A talk on architecture wasn’t exactly what developers expected to see in a game developer conference, but it was still interesting enough to fill the whole room since it offered a chance for attendees to learn new principles outside of the usual game developer-focused content they might have found at the show.
As everything else however, there’s a limit and chances are you should stop pitching your “How To Roll Your Tongue” talk while you’re ahead.
5) Think Of Something Interesting
This is a step which sounds incredibly difficult but in practice is much simpler than advertised.
A common complaint I hear from people who want to give a talk is something similar to: “What could I possibly say that’s interesting enough to give a talk about?”. The answer is actually very simple: Almost anything.
One thing that comforts me about giving talks is that no matter the content of the talk, chances are very good there is always a few people in the audience who have never even considered or heard of whatever it is you’re talking about. After virtually every talk I’ve given I’ve had people approach me to ask for more information about the content or thank me for introducing a subject to them for the first time. Just because you know about the subject absolutely does not mean that anyone in the audience has too, and oftentimes what you consider to be an entry-level overview of something can be an eye opening experience for someone else, especially if they’re not in your field.
I hope some of these Hot Tips can help you better navigate the mindset of giving your first talk. I may write a follow-up in the future covering some more detailed tips on how to write a talk submission and organize your thoughts for presenting your ideas.
Thanks for reading, folks!