For many people, the words ‘give a presentation’ are enough to send them running or into cardiac arrest. We’re faced with the embarrassing memories of awkwardly facing our class at school, mumbling about some topic we were forced to talk about by the teacher. If you told me 10 years ago that I would happily be getting up in front of hundreds of people and giving speeches and presentations I would have laughed in your face and, not very eloquently, told you where to go.
But things change. For one, I’m no longer being forced to make a presentation, I normally get to choose whether or not I say yes, and the audience is no longer required to spectate, they can choose to come or go so only attend if they are actually interested. And for another, I’m talking about what I love – games. With these thoughts combined, suddenly speaking to a group of people doesn’t seem so scary.
When someone mentions the term ‘public speaking’ our minds often jump to a certain scenario; a conference, a stage, a mic, and slides. But public speaking isn’t just limited to this setup.
Every day you are using public speaking skills, whether you are discussing your latest work with your team in a meeting, networking at an event, or presenting options of your project's direction to clients. It’s something we all do in one way or another so becoming comfortable with speaking is beneficial to everybody.
The Benefits of Public Speaking
The most obvious benefit of speaking is improved confidence. I won’t lie, public speaking is down-right nerve-wracking and those nerves never fully go away. No-one wants to embarrass themselves publicly by saying the wrong thing, falling off the stage, passing out from nerves, or knocking somebody out in the front row by pitching over the microphone.
But here’s the thing, no matter how many times you do public speaking and how good you get at it, things still go wrong. What changes is how you deal with the situation.
One of my favourite memories of a GDC talk is from three years ago when Mike Bithell was closing the Animation Bootcamp. All day there had been ongoing technical issues and when it came to Mike’s presentation, none of his videos worked; which was a rather big problem given he was showing off animation cheats and optimisations from his different games. Instead of getting flustered or angry, he simply moved on with his presentation and got some tech help at the end to show them off! People hold a lot of respect for those who can keep it together and make the best of a bad situation, and this case was no different. He made something that could’ve been awkward both fun and entertaining.
When things go a bit awry, in most scenarios, you just need to keep calm and carry on; and that ability to stay calm comes from having a little bit of inner confidence. To know the audience won’t mind a couple of minutes hiccup if something breaks, or you mis-click on a slide, or recite the wrong number and then correct it. We are all human.
To have that confidence to get up in front of people and put yourself out there has other benefits. You give yourself more chance of discoverability, for people to take notice of you and take an interest in what you are saying or working on.
It’s a great networking tool as most people don’t like asking questions in front of a group, so they will often come up and chat one-to-one when you finish, which starts a personable relationship.
You also become better at listening (yes, you did read that right!). The more you speak in front of people, the better you become at listening to your audience (and not just in the audible sense). You become aware of the energy in the room and how to guide it, you pick up on feedback on whether your points resonate with them or if you need to change your tone, and (most importantly) you can take note of everything that didn’t work as planned and use it to adjust future presentations until you hit the sweet spot.
It’s really worth reflecting for a few minutes after a presentation on what you could improve, but also to compare how it went with how you thought it would go – nearly always it’s going to be better than you thought!
Different Types of Speakers
As with most things though, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for how to be a perfect public speaker. Everyone has different methods of preparing, with each way having pros and cons, but what is vital is about finding a method(s) that feels comfortable to you.
Below are four common presenter types that I often see.
The Panicer: leaves it until the last minute
Can be both the result of bad time management or an unfortunate turn of events. Often the presentation is being worked on until the day/night/hour/minutes before the allotted time. Not only does this cause headaches for the speaker, but also for the organiser as they chase to get hold of the slides to pre-upload them onto the machine. This situation often creates extra pressure on the speaker making the whole experience more stressful. As it is so last minute, due to lack of review or practice there can be issues with flow, content relevancy and nerves. I’m yet to find a pro for this method, so I would suggest avoiding it at all costs.
The Ad-Libber: makes it up the spot
Not to be confused with the Panicer, the Ad-Libber often has a general slide deck and skips through the points based on the relevancy to the audience. This provides a flexible presentation that can be suited to the specific listeners interests and needs. It often flows and is interesting to listen to. However, this format requires the speaker to thoroughly know the topic so they can adapt on the fly and can be difficult to keep on time. They may end up running over before all points are covered and it can also easily become ‘waffly’ if there’s a lack of focus on which points to hit.
The Noter: uses bullet points as reminders
Creates the presentation using a series of bullets as reminders, which can range from a couple of words to key phrases to sentences. These can be easily adjusted to improve the flow beforehand and helps keep the speaker on topic without being rigid.
These presentations often feel natural as the speaker holds the point in their head and let the words flow. The only potential downside is if the speaker is very nervous, they may need more heavy prompts than a couple of shorts notes when starting off.
The Scripter: pre-writes everything before hand
The entire presentation is written out before hand into a script. This can be useful for making sure the flow works, key phrases are used, and tight timings are abided too. However, this format can easily become flat, monotonous and cumbersome if the speaker reads directly from the monitor and loses their inflection or place in the script. It’s also not flexible in anyway, so research must be done to make sure the presentation relevant to the upcoming audience.
Personal note: I’m a scripter. When I build a presentation I start with bullet points to get the overall gist before writing a full script. I find it helps me get a good flow to the presentation, stops me from repeating myself (both in words and ideas) and makes sure I can nail my timings (around 2,000 words is 10 minutes of talking). All of this being said, I don’t fully read from the script when presenting. I have a background in amateur dramatics, so have had practice memorising and reciting scripts whilst keeping interest in vocal tone. I still keep the script there when presenting in-case I forget my next topic, as a prompt to get me back into the rhythm, but don’t rigidly adhere to it. I also find it useful as it’s an easy way to get precise feedback on wording and to convert my talks into blogs for reference after the event.
As mentioned before, you need to experiment with different methods of presenting to find what works for you. It may be a combination of the above types or it may be none of them. However, no matter which method you use there are still key areas which all speakers need to be aware of.
Dana Cowley & Mike Gamble Speaking at the Develop Awards 2017
You have to put in some effort. This is a bit of a bugbear to me. If an audience has made the effort to attend your talk, to arrive on time and listen quietly, then as a speaker you need to respect that effort and put in some of your own so the exchange is mutual.
I’m sure we’ve all been to a poorly prepared presentation, one we were really excited to hear but were utterly disappointed in after it was finished. This isn’t always the speakers fault, due to circumstance they may have had very little time to prepare (such as filling in for someone else who has had to pull out) but, in some cases, there is no denying the speaker simply hasn’t made time to work on it.
And part of the problem is the lack of awareness of how much time you need to put into a presentation to make it great. It can take weeks of work, from research to creation to practice to refinement to final presentation.
Which is why, if you have the option, you need to choose something you are passionate about. It’s a common complaint that we never have enough time, but it’s amazing what you can make time for if you truly enjoy it.
Who are your Audience?
But I’m afraid, it’s not enough for you to then just brain dump on the audience all the things you find exciting; you need to work out who you audience is. Factors like their age, skill level, standing, discipline and exposure to game development all need to be considered. If you were to give a talk to first years at university compared to a presentation at GDC, there would be big differences in the content and how it was delivered, which would differ again if you were doing a pitch to a potential publisher. Identifying who will be attending your presentation is key.
Andreas Suika (Daedalic Entertainment Studio West) presenting at Respawn 2016
Once you know who you audience is, you can work on what they want to hear. A lot of this comes from personal experience. When I was a student, a lot of industry talks we were given were presented well but the takeaways were often vague and lacked clarity. So now if I go talk to students, I make sure I give clear ‘here’s what you should do and why’, which is appreciated. If you are talking at a consumer show, I’ve found they are more likely interested in how the ideas for how the project came about, rather than how you implemented it, which is the opposite to a developer conference.
If you’re not sure who will be attending, social media is wonderful for reaching out to an audience and getting their ideas. Do a short poll to see which topics you are considering are of most interest, or ask a few people directly what they would hear about in their ideal presentation.
Keep it Simple
Whoever you are talking too though, it’s always best practice to make your presentation as easy to understand as possible. Even simple hooks, like the first time you use a piece of jargon or abbreviation, briefly explain it so everyone is on the same page.
Take a Texel for an extreme example. In computer graphics terms it’s the array of elements which contain colour and alpha values that make up a texture. If you’re Dutch, it’s an island in the north where the specific sheep breed comes from. Given the context of the presentation it’s unlikely they will be confused, but you don’t know what other acronyms or names have different meanings in different cultures to yours.
Jargon aside, if you can, try to keep your language as simple as possible. Think back to Friends (The One with the Letter) when Joey is writing a letter of adoption referral for Monica and Chandler and discovers the thesaurus. Yes you could be ‘humid prepossessing Homo Sapiens with full sized aortic pumps’ but ‘warm, nice, people with big hearts’ definitely gets the point across more clearly. In fact, the term ‘short and sweet’ is most definitely applicable!
Which brings me nicely to timings. If you have a half hour slot, but your presentation only takes 20 minutes, don’t pad the talk out unless you are adding meaningful information. Stick with 20 minutes and use the remaining time for an open floor Q&A. If there are no questions, then everyone has 10 minutes to grab a coffee or nip to the bathroom. 20 minutes is, approximately, the optimum time a person can listen to a speaker (hence why TED talks are kept to 20 minutes).
With timings you also need to be respectful of other speakers. If you’ve taken an extra 10 minutes, that’s 10 minutes the next speaker has lost. I sat in on an event once where one speaker was given a 45 minute slot and went on for nearly an hour and fifteen, which sadly meant the last speaker had only 15 minutes to cram in their talk.
Part of the responsibility does lie with the organiser to give you a heads up when you are approaching time, but they should not need to be your mothers, yelling at you to stop playing football because your tea is getting cold. We are adults and, more notably, professionals, we should be able to do our own timekeeping and stay within the agreed limits.
One way to make sure you can stick your timings is to fully prepare, including doing fully timed run-throughs. These can be on your own, but if it’s a big presentation that you really want to excel at, I’d encourage you to practice in front of others. If the content is under NDA, grab a couple of your authorized colleagues and practice on your lunch break. If not take it to a smaller event and present it. However you do it, get some outside eyes on both your presentation skills and your slides (if appropriate).
Before I gave my talk at Develop this year, I gave it at some local Meetups with a similar profile and asked a couple of audience members I knew well to give me feedback afterwards. This meant I could polish my presentation by adding in some content for clarity (based on questions from the audience), fix a couple of hard to read slides, and adjust my pacing.
The more you prepare and practice, the more comfortable you become with the content and flow, which in turn lessens the nerves you feel when presenting.
Structuring your Presentation
I’ve talked a lot about presentation flow, but what does this entail? There are many different ways to build a presentation, and they all hinge on what message you are trying to impart to the audience, what story you are trying to tell.
Storytelling may not be the first word that comes to mind when you sit down to plan out your tech presentation for the new animation system you implemented in engine, but it’s something you should consider. Oral storytelling was the main method of communicating wisdom and advice before we developed written language, and there’s a reason why it still successfully persists today.
Good stories grab our attention, and once our attention has been sustained long enough we are transported into the story, and become chemically, physically and emotionally involved. Adding in these ‘hooks’ to get our attention and then taking us on a journey with the characters is something that films, tv, and games all do.
But why should you use stories in your presentations?
Stories are easier to recall because they can activate up to seven different parts of the brain. Audiences are also more likely to act on emotions than logic; and as stories are emotionally engaging, it’s a strong tool to help you connect with the audience and to persuade them to your motion.
Stories tend to be innately personal. Our perspective influences how we retell something we’ve heard or experienced, giving the audience a chance to humanise us and avoid the ‘corporate’ label.
There are many different ways to tell a story (if you want to know this in depth I’d recommend reading Christopher Bookers ‘The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories’) but I want to highlight four common methods that can be used in presentations.
Three Act Structure
The most common storytelling method is the three act structure, or hero’s journey. It revolves around three main acts; a setup, a confrontation, and a resolution. Many books, films, tv shows, and games (like Journey) are based around this structure, where the hero starts off on a path, is interrupted by a conflict that drags them down, before rising up to settle the conflict and finish their path.
Bringing this back into presentations, you can use this structure to tell the story of most topics in games – what you were trying to achieve, the problems that you ran into and the solutions you implemented.
Tell Them Once, Tell Them Again
Another method is to tell the audience what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Contrary to what you might believe, repetition is a big part of effective presentations. Some of the most successful speeches of all time, contain repeated phrases and ideas to drive their points home. When speaking you are always battling audience retention, so the more ways you can explain and illustrate your point, the more likely they are to remember your point.
Begin at the End
One way to grab your audience’s attention quickly, is to start with the conclusion/punchline/big reveal and then go back to the beginning and build up to it again. This allows natural repetition to form throughout the presentation as you can constantly link back to the main point. It also allows the listener to frame everything you say with context so they can understand why your point is relevant.
If you have something to show off, show it off. Give an introduction into why your project is useful/amazing/inspiring/helpful and then give a demonstration. Grab your audience’s attention by showing them something cool and teasing at other features before dropping a big reveal.
At GDC in 2015 we showed off our advancements in character animations with a new clip from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. At the end of the clip, we dropped a cloth to reveal that Senua’s performance had be captured and rendered in real-time live from an actor who had been on stage the whole time – it went down a treat!
Alongside these main structures, there are some other sub-methods to bear in mind.
Limit your Messages
If you’re lucky, your audience will walk away remembering three key points from your presentation. Realistically, it's more like one. In a pitching scenario, you’ll want that one point to be the unique selling point of your game. In an internal meeting, you’ll want it to be that piece of work you’ve done well.
But depending on the type of presentation you are making, you can throw this out of the window. If you have pre-warned attendees that it’ll be a heavy learning session, hopefully, they’ll come prepared for note-taking so they can easily follow up on points after the session. If not, help them out by popping your slide deck up somewhere for them to download afterwards.
During your presentation have a ‘something they’ll always remember’ (STAR) moment. An iconic example of this is when Bill Gates gave a TED talk on Mosquito’s, malaria and education and opened a jar of mosquitos during his talk stating, ‘There’s no reason only poor people should have the experience’. (Note the mosquitos were not infected!)
End with a call to action
Whatever your main message is, make sure to end your presentation with a call to action. Direct people to go and do something, like play your game, or research an area, or solve a problem. Keep it short so it can be framed into a soundbite or a Tweet so attendees can share that call to action with others.
Building your Slide Deck
Not every presentation you make will use a slide deck, but for those that do, slides still play a big role in emphasising what you are talking about. Note that I said emphasising, your slides should provide the visual impact for what you are saying, instead of detracting from you. If someone can gain everything by just reading off your slides, then there’s not much point in you giving a presentation.
I’d always recommend you build your slides last; if you can build the content and flow of your presentation first, it becomes a lot easier to build your slides around your key messages. It also helps you save time by not building more slides than you will use.
You Can Never Have Enough Slides
I’m a big believer in that there is no ‘right’ amount of slides. If your presentation makes 80 points, then there’s nothing wrong with having 8 or 80 slides. As long as each slide is relevant and reinforces what you are talking about then you can work with as few or as many as you want.
Slides can often help emphasise points of pacing; in one presentation where I was talking about things snowballing with a game project, I had eight slides with pictures showing the different events that happened and tapped through them in a few seconds whilst naming them. This stressed how quickly it all happened in a visual way far better than if I’d had all the pictures on one slide.
As with most things ‘variety is the spice of life’. If you spend your whole presentation racing through slides you are probably going to exhaust your audience. Have a mixture of slow moments to let the audience ‘sit’ on a vital point before moving on.
Contrast also extends to your slide deck content, highlight important information/points/headings with contrasting fonts or colours to make them stand out, or change up backgrounds across different topics.
Having said you need contrast, you also need to maintain a consistent style across your slide deck. This can be difficult if you are pulling random images/charts off of Google, so if you have the time to build your own slides (be that pictures, infographics or layouts) I’d recommend doing so. This means you can be consistent with highlight colours/fonts/backgrounds across the deck which in turn acts as a visual cues to the audience that this is important or the topic is changing.
This is always a hot topic when it comes to slides. I used to be vehemently opposed to any text on slides, but I’ve eased off slightly to a position of ‘less is more’. Having a key point or phrase on screen can be really useful to the audience; they can take a picture to remember later or share it with others in the moment.
I’d steer clear of anything more than a few words. You’re then asking the audience to split their attention between what you are saying and what you are showing, and they are more likely to ignore you and read the slide. Also, the more text you have the higher chance of a typo.
If you are displaying text, make sure it is clear and legible. Use a font that’s easy to read (please not Times New Roman or Comic Sans) and suits the style of the presentation. Also be aware, not every computer has the same fonts installed. So, if you are not running the presentation on your own laptop make sure to either embed your font in PowerPoint or to bake it into the slide’s image (I normally use Photoshop for this).
A good rule of thumb is to show not tell. If you can capture the sense of what you are talking about in a picture, do so. Use visuals that supplement your story rather than repeat what has already been said. Illustrate your points either figuratively or literally, just do so in a clear manner.
If a static image is not enough to show this, then use .gifs or videos to illustrate your point. Especially as we are in games, if you are talking about a new mechanic you’ve implemented show a clip of that mechanic in action! That being said, using videos comes with a warning: they are the most common thing to break during a presentation (especially if they require audio) and if they are long clips, you can lose the audience’s attention.
I find it can sometimes work quite well to start a presentation with a one or two minute video, whilst you wait for stragglers to arrive and for people to become comfortably seated with full sound effects. After this though, unless audio is essential to your point, it’s better to remove the audio and talk over the video so you can explain your point whilst the action is in motion. If you’re using PowerPoint, I’d recommend converting your videos into .wmv for smooth playback.
Make sure to also double check with where you are speaking what the aspect ratio of their projector is. I’ve been caught out a couple of times by 4:3 ratios instead of the standard 16:9.
Side note: It’s also good practice that if you use an image that’s not your own to credit the original source.
Contrary to advice, I’m a fan of putting your contact details on every slide. This means if anyone takes a photo at any point, they have your details and can reach out to you. Or if they want to share a point you are making, they don’t need to wait until the end to find out your handles to include you.
Make it Modular
If you have to give a recurring presentation, like at a stand-up, then build a format which you can easily update each week. On one project I worked on, we were creating an animated short over a two month period. Each week we played the short and included the progress we made, with shots moving from storyboarding to blockouts to playblasts to renders. We built our file structure in Premiere in such a way that the updated files were pushed into a single folder during the week so it would auto-update in Premiere and we could quickly grab a new export before the meeting.
Presenting your Presentation
You’ve done all the prep work, you’ve practiced your slides and now it’s the day of your presentation. There are a few last things to bear in mind.
Don’t Forget to Eat
As you get closer to your presentation, your nerves get worse so make sure to eat something sensible a couple of hours before you are on. I’ve seen speakers near-on collapse after a presentation because they haven’t eaten and had very little sleep in the last day, so help your body cope and try to nibble when you can.
Also remember to bring a bottle of water with you. It’s amazing how quickly your throat dries out with continuous talking so a quick sip here and there is helpful. You can also use it as a sneaky break tool part way through your talk if you can’t remember what’s next and you need a moment to think.
Dress the Part
Personally I prefer to dress a little bit smarter when presenting than I would normally. If I feel good in what I’m wearing, that gives me a bit more confidence when I know people will be watching me.
Whatever you wear, make sure you are comfortable. Supportive shoes are a must, and I’d recommend wearing layers. You might start off feeling cold but I can guarantee you will warm up as you present.
If you are using your own laptop, make sure to bring connectors and adapters. If you only have a HDMI port bring a VGA to HDMI converter – it’s amazing how many places still use VGA. If you are using a Mac, definitely make sure to bring converters and spares. I’ve seen many a pre-presentation panic because the right converter isn’t to hand or it’s suddenly stopped working.
In most cases (but not all) the conference will provide you with all the leads and converters you need, but if you need anything specialist (like HDMI to mini HDMI adapter) I’d always recommend you bring your own and to check with the conference what their setup is. It’s unlikely that you will have internet so make sure you have an offline version of your presentation and it’s worth bringing a backup on a USB stick in case you need to change machine.
The Audience doesn’t want you to Fail
And the most important point to remember is the audience doesn’t want you to fail. They have come to see you because they are interested in the work you are doing and are keen to know more. They are there to learn from you and encourage you, not to laugh at you or find holes in your topic. So keep that in mind, take a deep breath, smile and talk!
Once again, a big thank you to Chris Wilson (Cardboard Sword) for his contributions to this article! If you enjoyed reading this article, check out the other blogs in this series ‘Marketing for Indies’ and ‘Expos for Indies’.
Resonate by Nancy Duarte
slide:ology by Nancy Duarte
10 Tips for Better Slide Decks by Aaron Weyenberg
8 Tips for an Awesome Powerpoint Presentation by Damon Nofar
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Bookers