Upping my Game by… Running Games

My job includes a lot of tasks.  Listing them here would probably put most of my readers to sleep.  Updating documentation, triaging bugs, writing example code – I find these things fun and engaging, but I’ve recently started doing more of the “Evangelist” part of the Developer Advocate role, and it turns out that this is a whole new type of fun to have, requiring an entirely different skill set.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve given talks to groups focused on iOS development, the Semantic Web, data visualization – and a couple of startup accelerators.  I’ve gotten gradually better each time and have come to really enjoy this part of my job.  I know the topic and I’m good at doing presentations.  But what does “good at presentations” mean, really?

Presenting to an audience of tech-interested folks (whatever their focus) requires that I know my technical topic well enough to explain it to anyone.  That’s just the beginning, though.  Telling stories helps them understand why I am there to talk to them, why I find the topic interesting.  Giving examples of things they can do helps them to stay focused and head away with something gained – they understand the technical topic I’m presenting, and they can go off and give it a try themselves.  I need to entertain and amuse them to keep their interest, create context they can relate to, and send them off with a sense that they’ve accomplished something themselves (learned how to do something with our platform).

Recently, I started running role playing games for my family and friends.  I specifically chose the Pathfinder Society modules because I like them and they’re, to me, understandable and engaging.  And after running 5 games (the same number of talks I’ve given) I find that there’s a really amazing amount of overlap in the skills I’m using.  I’m trying to provide a fun and entertaining experience for the table of players.  I’m helping them to get through a set of challenges so they leave with a sense of accomplishment.  I’m enabling an experience which they will take away with them as something they contributed to.

Running these games has actually helped with my talks. Sometimes a role player will do something completely unexpected, and you have to engage your verbal aikido to let it pass by without distracting from the story.  Similarly, sometimes an audience member will want to engage you in a discussion of how your platform doesn’t meet a very specific use case, and you want to keep the attention of everyone else.  The skills you need here are the same.  Warmly addressing the person’s concern while deflecting it from the central topic looks very similar in any context.

Both role-playing games and technical talks will have audience members who want to make themselves look good (without concern for, or even with intent for, distraction from the main topic).  Your goal is to make sure that as many audience members as possible leave the experience having gained something.  When 10% of your audience comes up to engage you in discussion afterwards, or when your players spend 2 hours discussing a particular encounter in your 4 hour game, you’ve done a good job.  Sometimes you’ll get someone who’s not happy with being thwarted from their attempts to hijack the experience, but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the attention seeker, and your job in either case is to make sure that the majority of the attendees get what they came for.

Anticipating the unexpected is very hard.  Reacting to it gracefully, and redirecting the energy back to the main path, is also hard – but it’s a critical skill for any Developer Advocate.  Or Gamemaster.

Tagged here as Games and Geek Stuff.

In G+ this is tough.  Most of my gaming friends aren’t on G+ yet.  So I’ll post to my straggly Gamers circle as well as the APIs circle (and Friends.  My friends never get away from anything).

Dialogue & Discussion