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  • Writer's pictureNikola Petrov

Thanks For Listening To My TED Talk. Literally!

Long time no see, eh? Well, there’s been a good reason for me being silent for the past two weeks. You see, I was busy with a TEDx Talk! Here’s a fun fact about TED Talks: they are a great source of fun and pride… after the fact. Their preparation… maybe not so much. Here’s how it all went down!

X marks the spot! Or is it the big red dot?

Last week I did a for realzies TEDx talk! I was one of the speakers of TEDxSofia 2021. In fact, I was asked to participate more than a year ago. The original event was going to happen somewhere in April 2020 but we all know what happened around that time and the event got pushed back a couple of times.

What Year Is It?

To be perfectly frank, I lost faith that the event will happen anytime soon and at some point, I stopped checking the dedicated Facebook group. Naturally, this way I had missed a few announcements. One afternoon my phone rang and when I saw who’s calling I felt the unpleasant chill of pure terror. It was the extremely nice and charismatic Dessislava Boshnakova, the TEDxSofia organizer! It was late May and I immediately remembered that early June was the preliminary date for the talk. I took the phone with every intention to politely decline. To make things worse, I already had other plans for said early June weekend - I really wanted to participate in the Game Maker's Toolkit Game Jam with my colleagues from Team Elfo. I picked up the phone.

I must say, Dessi is one of those people who absolutely radiate positive energy and enthusiasm while keeping it professional and to the point. The perfect qualities for an organizer of an event as fancy and important as a proper TED! The moment we began to talk, there was no thought, let alone mention of me not participating. She said the right things and we immediately started discussing the dates and times for the pre-show meetings.

The event's cover image

What Exactly Is TEDx?

Now is probably a good time to explain the format. First off, the big TED happens once a year in a specific North American location and it is the only official event of the year. However, many organizations can get a license for a TEDx event and independently organize their own version following the big TED formula. There are about 3,000 of these every year and they vary wildly in content, organization, and frankly, quality.

TEDxSofia is a very high-profile event that’s been running for many years now. Every time the main organizer, Dessi, hand-picks a bunch of fascinating people she’s come to know from all sorts of forums and places, and a large team of volunteers works tirelessly to set up a classy stage at a fancy location. The thing is very professionally arranged, lit, filmed, and marketed.

Every TEDxSofia event has a dedicated theme that connects all of the speakers. This time it wasмалко на въпреки”, Bulgarian for “against the grain” or “outside the box”. Dessi figured that all of the lecturers are doing (or being!) something that, in at least a slight way, goes against the norm, and they probably have much to say about it.

We were given no direction. Of course, that was on purpose. We didn’t have to talk about how we go against the grain or how much we think outside the box. The very fact that we’re invited was supposed to imply that. Instead, every speaker was given the freedom to talk about anything they feel passionate about, and provided the tools and best practices to craft a proper TED talk out of their thoughts!

I even got a big red X and assigned a squad of Adeptus Astartes to guard it!

How Do I Fit In?

Needless to say, I had to talk about game design. I mean, that’s kind of my thing.

My initial idea, all the way back in spring 2020, was talking about what games teach us that schools don’t. There are, of course, plenty of examples, and I am a bit bitter about our school system and all the information and great (proven to work!) practices that are simply ignored and never implemented. However, early pitches of my talk met somewhat negative reactions and I was quick to agree that plenty of TED Talks have already discussed the problems in the education system and I won’t be bringing anything new to the table, let alone solve a real issue.

That got me thinking. What if I keep the spirit of my talk and all my enthusiasm, but spin it in an interesting and hopefully more original direction? I will talk about these themes, but from a perspective that only somebody like myself can provide. You guessed it, that would be game design!

I quickly redrafted my concept and struck exactly what I’ve been looking for. My second draft went through only the slightest of changes and was ultimately kept all the way to the stage!

Let's hope English subtitles are uploaded by the time you watch this!

Just Get To The Talk Already!

Yeah, yeah. Let’s do that. I won’t be summarizing the entire thing here, as you can simply watch the video. However, I will share a few points and experiences.

It’s just storytelling. Doing a public talk is not all that different from writing an article or presenting your work to a business partner. The formats and end goals might be completely different, but everything boils down to good old storytelling. I approached my talk from a personal standpoint and tied it up with anecdotes and observations from my own career. This (hopefully!) made my thoughts easy to follow and relatable to a large audience.

It’s about a specific subject. My overall message was simple: winners lose the most, and that’s what makes them good. There is no shame in failure, and plenty can be learned from a crushing defeat. However, I can’t stand up on a stage and simply tell people to follow their dreams or try harder until they succeed. There’s already a specialist in this field - your aunt’s Facebook. I tried to deliver a practical and somewhat broad message by focusing on a very specific subject (games) and how it affects our day-to-day lives.

It’s meant for a large audience. Even though I reference games as big as StarCraft, Magic: The Gathering, and Dark Souls in my talk, I had to keep in mind that some audience members have never even heard of them. That’s why I explained what I’m talking about with a few words and immediately contextualized my example with an even broader explanation. Spoiler, that seemed to work great!

It’s meant to be presented verbally. Lastly, this whole thing was a talk - something quite different from doing what I’m used to, writing articles such as this one! I have never had any issues performing and even improvising in front of large audiences, but public speaking, for whatever reason, feels completely different! In my battle against stage fright, I opted to do two things: practice the talk a couple of times in front of family and friends, and not memorize my speech. I wanted to deliver the talk in my normal conversational tone, and the last thing I wanted was to forget one sentence and completely freeze on stage. That’s why I boiled the talk down to a bullet list of ten items: 1. My attention-grabbing intro question 2. SoO and Luis Scott-Vargas 3. What is game design 4. The four types of players

5. Bernard Suits

6. Dark Souls

7. Don’t Get Angry, Man!

8. 2020

9. My professor

10. The closing statement

Once I had just this list in my head, I could deliver the talk any time and it would be slightly different with every retelling! Good!

"Here's what I liked about your talk..." (Credit: Iva Rusinova)

So How Did It Go?

I can say that my talk was objectively successful. I can tell because of two reasons.

One, the audience was laughing, applauding, and taking notes. This means they were engaged - a most reassuring feeling while I was struggling on the stage!

Two, after my talk, multiple people approached me and shook my hand. A few were gamers, more or less my age, who thanked me for speaking about their favorite games and assured me my examples were spot on. Another few were older gentlemen who let me know they know nothing about gaming, but my talk was insightful. One went as far as saying he will implement what I said in his business! Nice!

Was It Worth It?

I’m glad I did this thing. Another one off the bucket list, I guess!

I would be lying if I said it was easy or it didn’t stress me out. Did I mention I had to go first, which added a whole new layer of responsibility and anxiety? But am I glad I did it? Hell yes, I am! Simply put, a TEDx invitation is something you simply can’t refuse. It’s one of those things.

So, if you have the honor to be approached for such an occasion, please go for it! It ain’t easy, but it sure is rewarding. Just like any good competitive game.

See you next week for our regularly scheduled game design content!

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