Sometimes I Fail at Public Speaking

by Darius Kazemi on July 16, 2008

in Uncategorized

Jason Scott just posted a story of a time when he royally squandered a speaking opportunity, essentially by being cocky and underpreparing.

I have a story like that, too.

Most people consider me a pretty good public speaker. I consider myself a pretty good public speaker, too. I got a lot of practice in college: running two large student organizations, I gave presentations or informal talks to small audiences (five to ten people) two or three times a week, and I usually gave one “big” presentation (30 to 80 people) once a month. That’s not counting presentations for classes.

So by the time I hit the real world and was working for Turbine, it wasn’t a big deal for me to confidently present my work to a bunch of executives, or to present the case before a bunch of producers for why we needed a particular piece of middleware. (The one-day course I took with Edward Tufte helped a lot with that. My big takeaway: screw PowerPoint, show people working prototypes and real data.)

I starting doing the conference circuit in 2005, and I got a big break in 2006 when I spoke at the Game Developers Conference. I was 22 years old and nervous as hell, but the talk went pretty well. I even did a practice run at the Boston Post Mortem.

So when I found out I’d be giving two talks at GDC 2007, I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal. And one of them was just fine, it was a talk on how to network, and I’m good at that sort of thing. Aced it. But the other talk was at the Experimental Gameplay Session. EGS is one of the coolest things at GDC. A bunch of awesome developers get up on stage and talk about experimental gameplay concepts that they or others have made. I’ve been going every year since 2003, it’s my only can’t-miss session each year.

In 2007, my job was to spend 10 minutes presenting the results of the Boston Game Jam. I did not prepare well. I ran it over in my head a few times, but that was it. I was cocky and I thought I could just ad-lib things. As a result, I was disorganized. And did I mention I was absolutely terrified, more terrified than I had ever been in my life (and have ever been since)? This room was packed with about 400 people, and about 200 of those people were my heroes. Seriously. Some of these folks I’m fortunate enough to count among my friends, but most of them are just amazing game designers who I’ve maybe met in passing a few times but whose work I deeply admire. And because I know everyone, I was able to recognize about 60% of the faces in the audience, which compounded my terror even more.

So I freaked and gave the worst presentation of my life. It was interesting, people who I spoke to afterwards had two distinct comments when I mentioned how badly I screwed up.

  • People who have never seen me talk: “Really? You looked just fine to me.”
  • People who have seen me talk: “Oh yeah, dude, you looked like hell up there. What happened?”

Apparently I was fine by regular conference standards–even talks where I’m pretty sure I’ve screwed up I usually rate higher than the average for that conference. But I screwed up. I don’t feel particularly bad about it, it’s not like it keeps me up at night, but like Jason mentioned in his article, it sort of set a standard for me: don’t ever, ever screw up like that again.

I always prepare and always practice for my talks. I now use presenter mode when I’m giving a PowerPoint presentation, and I always have close to the full text of my talk in the slide notes. When I’m giving a presentation without PowerPoint, I have my whole talk in note format on paper. It helps, at least for me.


Trixter July 16, 2008 at 5:09 pm

“I always have close to the full text of my talk in the slide notes.” Doesn’t that mean you spend more time reading than looking at the audience?

Darius Kazemi July 16, 2008 at 5:12 pm

That’s definitely a danger but two things mitigate this.

1) I practice a lot beforehand, so I have most of the talk memorized. Therefore I only read when I’m forgetting something.

2) I have the ability to glance at a paragraph of text and recall all of its contents. It comes with practice.

Daniel Benmergui July 16, 2008 at 11:19 pm

Yeah, you looked a little scared :).

Ian Schreiber July 17, 2008 at 1:46 am

It’s strange, as long as I’ve known you I think this was the only time I’ve actually seen you present, so I was in the “looked fine to me” camp.

I do remember seeing you minutes before your first GDC speaking gig, and you were as nervous as I’d ever seen you :)

It’s funny, when I gave my first presentations I totally overprepared, having all my materials and going through multiple dry runs. When I started teaching, I found out quickly that there was simply not enough time to do this for all my classes so I’d have to just write up my materials, read from my notes most of the time, and hope for the best. Then it became a habit and I started doing that at the occasional conference. On the bright side, teaching definitely helps me with my presentation skills. On the down side, it also makes me lazy because I’m realizing that I can usually do well enough without obsessive prep work.

So thanks for this post. It’s a reminder that I should not let myself get too complacent. Especially not at GDC.

Brian Shurtleff July 17, 2008 at 2:46 am

Heh, both teaching at this camp and helping run two different student organizations (SCAD’s game development group as well as their Improvisational theater club) have helped me with my public speaking. In both cases I can ad-lib fairly effectively because of my familiarity and training in each area.

But there was a time I tried to learn stand-up comedy as well, and foolishly thought my quick wit from my improv training would allow me to ad-lib something funny. I had a few previous shows (where I HAD prepared) that went okay, so my cockiness got the best of me and my third or fourth show I just hopped up on the stage with only a couple ideas in mind, thinking I could run with them as I went along.

That was the most awful and painful performance of anything I’ve ever given. It continues to haunt my mind.

Which is a good thing, because now I’m a lot more careful to prepare for any presentations I’m to give… ;)

DMZilla July 18, 2008 at 1:04 pm

Over the last few months I’ve been required to give presentations to groups ranging from 3 to 20+ people. My career path will eventually require me to talk to even larger groups, so hopefully I can get into some public speaking classes. I don’t want to be that guy remembered for his painful conference speech.

Trixter July 18, 2008 at 6:00 pm

One thing that helped me prepare for my first presentation (in front of 50 people at age 35) was this course:

It’s not a powerpoint tutorial but really a course on how to give a presentation.

I have no affiliation with, just a satisfied customer.

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