I gave a talk last week at CodeMash. The conference was fantastic! I hope to make some time to do a write up on my first experience at CodeMash. However, this blog post isn’t about CodeMash or the talk I gave. No, it’s about a talk I’m about to give.
At CodeMash, like many conferences, people pay money to go to the conference. People then pick from very good sessions to allot an hour (or so) of their time to a particular talk. I have given talks at user groups, where people come and learn for free. Typically, sponsors pick up the food tab and might have some swag to give away. Some location offers their shelter for free and people come and learn and don’t pay a dime. This is also the case with code camps. Typically, code camps are held on a Saturday and are basically a mini-conference that have many sponsors to keep the cost at $0.
Public speaking in general, can be a challenging task. Will you mess up? Will you say the wrong thing? The thing you are talking about … is there a better way to do it? Will you be found out that you have no idea what you are doing? What if someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to? What if there is a “Well, actually…” person in the audience? What if you get stuck or look dumb?
Once we get past all of that, then the next level is: Wait, someone is going to pay to just hear me talk? Even if they pay someone else directly? So people paid to hear me talk back in 2010 when I gave a talk at CodeStock. I had given several talks at user groups and code camps before then and had worked up a little bit of comfort with speaking publicly. Still, I remember feeling a little overwhelmed that people paid money to come to the conference – to come to sessions – to listen to ‘experts’ about some subject. Then, they paid with a currency even more valuable than money, they paid with their time. They selected to be in my session instead of the other 3 or 4 that were going on at the same time.
This could paralyze someone. Or it could motivate someone to really do the best job they can do. I’d like to think that these types of circumstances motivate me. When I put myself in the uncomfortable situation of being accountable to someone that I’m going to deliver value, it always works out for my benefit. Even when I don’t see any benefit in it for me, it always works out to be good for me.
I actually enjoy speaking. I still get nervous. I still think I can do things better. I still think of things I would have done differently when I get off stage. Yet, I enjoy speaking. I mess up. I talk too fast. I try to cram too much information into a small period of time. But, I still have people who come up and thank me for the talk and tell me that they learned a lot. I have people ask me more detailed questions which proves they were listening and did actually get something. This is confirmation that while a talk may not have been perfect, it did hit the mark for some people.
You said something about confidence…
So what does any of this have to do with building confidence? Well, you have to start somewhere. If it is public speaking or playing a sport or learning an instrument or learning a new skill, you have to start somewhere. The more you do, the more confidence you will build. They say practice makes perfect. But I also heard that perfect practice makes perfect. I think that is better, but it makes it much harder to attain. How can I ever get perfect, when I have to practice perfectly? The answer is that I will never be perfect. But that is ok. The goal is to always be getting better. I’m better at writing software now than I was 20 years ago, but I’m still not perfect. I still write code that has bugs in it. But, the software I write now has less bugs in spite of the fact that the systems I write are more complex than they were 20 years ago. Am I perfect? Absolutely not. Does it matter? Not a single bit.
I’ll be speaking soon where people will be paying just to hear me talk. I’ll be speaking on game design. As I was going over my notes and re-reading some material, I came across the following paragraphs from the book, The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell:
… it is terribly important that you get good at building your confidence, for doubts about your abilities will forever plague you. As a novice designer, you will think, “I’ve never done this—I don’t know what I’m doing.” Once you have a little experience, you will think, “My skills are so narrow—this new title is different. Maybe I just got lucky last time.” And when you are a seasoned designer, you will think, “The world is different now. Maybe I’ve lost my touch.”
Blow away these useless thoughts. They can’t help you. When a thing must be attempted, one must never think about possibility or impossibility. If you look at the great creative minds, all so different, you will find they have one thing in common: they lack a fear of ridicule. Some of the greatest innovations have come from people who only succeeded because they were too dumb to know that what they were doing was impossible. Game design is decision making, and decisions must be made with confidence.
Will you fail sometimes? Yes you will. You will fail again, and again, and again. You will fail many, many more times than you will succeed. but these failures are your only path to success. You will come to love your failures, because each failure brings you a step closer to a truly phenomenal game. There is a saying among jugglers: “If you aren’t dropping, you aren’t learning. and if you aren’t learning, you aren’t a juggler.” The same is true for game design: If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough, and you aren’t really a game designer.
Reading this again prompted me to write this blog post. I was thinking about the fact that I’m not a professional game designer. While I know a great deal about it, there is so much to know. There is another quote I like and it goes “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” I feel like a one-eyed man sometimes, but the key is that I know more about the subject than the people I’m teaching. Am I an expert? No. Does it matter? Not when I’m teaching beginners. In the world of technology, everything moves very fast. By the time a particular topic is mastered, the information changes. If we waited until mastery no one would ever teach.
Do you think the medical field has it all figured out? They don’t, but they continue to practice medicine. Yes, practice. I can’t think of a more critical profession to have experts in, and yet there are many things that the experts don’t understand. Keep learning, keep stretching, and keep practicing.
It is ok if you fail. Fail early and fail often. The main thing is that you learn. Now, failing in front of a room full of people, who have paid good money (and time) to hear you talk can be hard and humbling, so the key there is to practice. Practice a lot. Record yourself. Listen to yourself. It is painful, but it is required in order to become better. If you have never given a talk before, I’d suggest you give it a shot. Pick a topic you are passionate about and see if you can give the talk to your local user group.
The only way to get better at something is to actually do it. Design and create that game, play that instrument, give that talk, learn that new skill. It is within your reach and you can make it happen! Don’t delay, get started on it right now!