Gamasutra: Chris Zukowski’s Blog – How to give a really great GDC talk

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The Game Developer’s Conference starts in less than 2 months. It is so close that I am already planning out when I am going to my barber so I look sharp but don’t have that first-day-of-school-I-just-got-a-haircut look.

I am excited to be giving two talks in GDC 2020. Here they are:

How people shop for your game

What to write so people buy

Back in March 2019 I gave the biggest talk of my career at the Game Developers Conference. It was all about email marketing. You can watch it here.  

I thought it went well just judging by crowd reactions. I had no idea…

When I received the feedback report I was shocked to discover it was the highest-rated talk among the entire GDC 2019 summit! 


Several people suggested I do a GDC talk about how to do a GDC talk. I am not ready to do that. Instead, here is a brain dump of some rules I use when writing and giving my talk. If any of this doesn’t make sense just ask me.

If you have a talk in GDC 2020 congrats! I can’t wait to watch it and meet you. If you didn’t get accepted to GDC this year but want to give a talk, this will hopefully help too (see the section at the bottom for tips on getting in)

Here are my tips.

My talk was ranked #1 by the attendees. But that is in no way an indication that it was the best talk. Here are some disclaimers to put this in context.

First a disclaimer. Privilege alert big time.

I am a white cis man. We have been the voice of authority for so long that people are just used to, and are comfortable with, us talking. I am absolutely sure that women and POC speakers got fewer positive votes and more nasty comments just because of who they are. I am sure systemic sexism and racism wrongly affects the ratings of non-white male speakers because of the sound of their voice, because they “seem” to be unsure of themselves, or a million other tiny shitty reasons. Before we begin I want to signal boost some awesome talks that I saw at GDC 2019 that deserve to be ranked just as high as mine: 

Bonus: Victoria also wrote up a great article about how to beat your fears and give a talk 

Second disclaimer: These are just the rules I live by when I give my talks.

I am not saying that if you don’t follow these you can’t give a good talk. There are many great speakers who have a completely different style from me. All I am trying to say is that these are the rules I follow when I write and give my talks. Also my topic was an informative talk (meaning I was trying to teach something.) Advocacy talks have a totally different tone and goal. Not all of these tips will apply for other types of talks. But at least some could. 

Third disclaimer: I had the last slot of the day with a boring title like “Email Marketing.”

The only people who would attend a talk like that had to be business-minded and anyone who would have hated my talk probably decided to go to dinner instead. Several other GDC talks earlier in the day were more general interest and better attended. That means my audience was more tuned in and more likely to give me a high rating.


Fun fact: Grace Bruxner’s great talk was at the exact same time as mine and both our talks were about “building.” The GDC schedulers were like eh… this is building hour. 

How I write my talk 

  • My talks are a story instead of just a long list of facts. I always build the talk around a natural story arc which will show up between the boring facts. I also build in payoffs and callbacks to the beginning of the talk.
  • I give tiny actionable facts that someone could implement. I try to take advice so specific, so step-by-step that viewers have everything they need to actually try it.
  • I deconstruct the bullet point pages. If I have a page with a list of bullet points it makes it so easy to just sit and read them to the audience. That means I will be stuck on a single slide for a long time. That is very hard to make interesting! Instead, I make each bullet point its own slide with its own awesome picture. Then I explain what that picture is. It makes my talk feel so much more kinetic and interesting.
  • Instead of trying to generalize my tips to apply to more people, I do the reverse. I make my tips more specific for a smaller audience. Viewers are smart. If the tip doesn’t directly apply to them, they will adapt it in a way that will. I am more worried that if my content is too generalized, it is just boring because then I would just be saying “well it depends on the situation.” People don’t travel thousands of miles and pay thousands of dollars to hear “it depends.”
  • I take advice that is well known and research who originally said it the backstory and the original context. I appear to know 1000% more than what I do because I gave a very specific fact about Elias St. Elmo Lewis. 
  • My audience is actually Youtube. About 150 people saw my talk live at GDC. On the other hand, when my talk was posted on youtube, it earned almost 16,000 views. So I make sure I make the first minute super exciting so the youtube audience doesn’t click on the other video that is in the “up next” column. Also, they will have access to the web so give them links to go to. Also, I have a call to action so they can follow me.
  • I keep revisiting my main points throughout the presentation. If you rewatch my talk you will see I referenced the sales funnel on 18 separate slides. I kept calling back to it from every possible angle I could. I know I have to hammer and repeat and repeat my point for people to get it. 
  • I add pathos and nostalgia. I talked about my kid and who I was when I was 9 years old. I can’t just be a fact spewing automaton. I have to be vulnerable up there and talk about who I am even if I were to give a talk about pre-baked-lighting UV Maps. 
  • I always give examples to prove my points. When I see a talk with a piece of advice without showing “why” it makes me wonder where it came from. Was that something they tried and it failed? Are there charts or numbers to prove that? I always back up every bit of advice with real-world proof.
  • I never put fully animated GIFs in my slides that loop. On the big screen it is very distracting, it can hurt people’s eyes, and be very hard on people who are prone to sensory overload. Keep gifs to less than 25% of the screen size and make sure they never contain strobing effects. I also don’t spend very long on slides that do have those animations.

Hey this is the line in front of my talk. It is really cool to see.

Preparing for my talk

  • I don’t memorize a script but I also don’t wing it – I speak from a place between those two poles. Reading a word-for-word script sounds rehearsed and can be boring. Instead, for every slide, I memorize the one point I want to make. Then when the slide comes up I just explain what that point is. I am not quite improvising but I try to visualize that I am teaching the new person at work what I do. There are certain tricky phrases in the talk that I actually memorize word-for-word but they are the minority case. The problem with memorizing every word in the talk is if I forget my lines I will start stammering and get nervous and enter some death spiral. Also if I just read my script verbatim it also sounds like I don’t know what I am talking about because anyone could have been up there and just started reading my script.
  • I also don’t write my talk out word-for-word. Everyone has two different vocabularies: a speaking one and a larger written vocabulary. If I write out my entire talk word for word I will be using my written vocabulary and will use words and sentence structures that nobody would ever say out loud. It comes off overly rehearsed. 

This is what it looks like 23 seconds before your talk starts. From the speaker’s point of view it seems like we are giving a talk to glowing hair.

Giving my talk

  • Make it worth it for people who came – People paid thousands of dollars and flew halfway around the world to see these GDC talks. They are probably stressed, hungover, and tired. As they wait for my talk they are probably worried about the unanswered emails that are piling up and expense reports they still have to file. They hope that my talk will be worth their time. It is my job to make it worth their effort. I make a talk that is so entertaining, so fun that they feel like they just witnessed something so totally amazing. Like it was a magical one time ever event.
  • I try to be the most excited person in the room about my subject matter and express that excitement. Loudly. If I don’t care about it, who else in that room is going to?
  • I play for the last row in the room. I was very loud and very animated. More than if I were talking to just one or two people. To the person who got stuck with the crappy seat in the back of the room, I look like a tiny peach-colored dot. I have to be overly animated to make the room see me. 
  • Turn nervous energy into excitement energy – The bonus of being overly animated is that I can mask my shaking hands with wild gesticulations. It works.
  • I don’t stand behind the podium. When I am nervous, it is tempting to clutch that podium like it is a life raft in the ocean. I get out from behind it so I can be more expressive. Look at Ted talks. They don’t even have podiums. Also see my point above about appearing as a tiny dot for most of the room. Hiding behind a podium makes me an even smaller dot.
  • I use a Bluetooth clicker to advance my slides. It makes me seem like a wizard who can summon new slides anytime I want. It also keeps me away from the podium. This is the one I was clutching during my GDC talk. It is inexpensive and lets you get away from your laptop.

Additional insider tip: they let you hug the signs when you are a speaker.

Secret tip section – How to get a GDC talk

  • My entire lived experience matters more than my games experience – Before my talk I never worked in the game’s industry. I have released a half-dozen games but none of them are hits. However, I did have decades of outside experience with digital marketing and figured out how to apply it to games. This is a small industry and always needs a transfusion of new ideas from new people. Don’t think you have to be a veteran of the industry to be here. 
  • Expect to fail, play the numbers – Please apply for talks! Don’t let imposter syndrome stop you. We need more diverse and energetic voices out there. Don’t be afraid to apply as long as you have at least some experience in games. I submitted 6 separate talk proposals to GDC 2019 and I only got 1 approved. Think about that! 5 different people passed on my talk which would eventually be the highest rated one. Joke is on them right? The approval board has no idea that you will give a good or a bad talk. So don’t feel like if you get rejected you suck. They have no idea who you are and are just making wild ass guesses. So don’t fear rejection because it is a numbers game where you must take lots of chances. 
  • Give back to get here – Tweeting your gaming opinions does not count as giving back. Everyone does that and so that is minimum table stakes. Instead, take that barn-burner of a tweetstorm and spend the time to write out a well-researched blog post. Then do it several more times. Both of my GDC 2020 talks were originally blog posts. See it here. And before I gave my GDC 2019 talk I blogged for at least a year before someone approached me to give a talk at a smaller gaming conference. Which brings me to my next point…
  • GDC wasn’t my first talk – I gave talks at my local IGDA, then at the Montreal Discoverability Summit. Those talks got out there and showed that I can be relied upon and give good talks. The people who decide who gets into GDC read a lot of blogs and watch a lot of talks. You have to work your way up the ladder

That is all I got. Speaking is really fun. It doesn’t sell games but it opens doors with people who have a lot of influence in the game’s industry. Those folks can help you sell your game.

Again, let me know if you have any questions.

This blog originally appeared in my secret newsletter that I publish every week. If you like this and want to get stuff like this before anyone else, subscribe here

Original article by Chris Zukowski

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