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GMing is Like Public Speaking

When you stand up in front of your co-workers or your class to do a presentation, it helps to speak more slowly than you would in conversation. This makes it easier for your audience to absorb and digest what you’re saying, and it’s especially important if you’re putting a lot of information out there.

The same is true for GMing. Go too quickly, and your players won’t pick up everything you’re saying.

Next time you’re giving out background info, reading a large block of flavor text or otherwise imparting a lot of information in your game, try speaking a bit more slowly and lengthening your pauses between sentences. You might be surprised at the results.

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17 Comments To "GMing is Like Public Speaking"

#1 Comment By Sam On July 10, 2006 @ 11:28 am

While I’d agree that it would be a great help to both public speaking and dming to be clear and have good enunciation, speaking slowly is one of the surest ways I know of to lose your audience.

It’s actually easier for the brain, which thinks at a much faster rate than the mouth can form words, to follow a fast speaker than a slower one, provided that the listener is able to understand what the speaker is saying.

If the speaker is running his words together or speaking at a constant pitch, he’ll quickly loose this audience either way.

So a quick, lively pace, punctuated with well placed pauses and variations in pitch, is one of the best ways I know of to keep your audience from nodding off.

#2 Comment By ScottM On July 10, 2006 @ 3:48 pm

Hmm, I’m unsure now. Your post was clear and seemed intuitively right… but I know that once box text looses me, it’s unusual for me to pick it back up. I’d hope your method would prevent me from loosing the thread in the first place– but if it did, you’d only be dragging out the game delay.

Perhaps dragging the information IC and providing in game pauses for clarification and discussion would work better?

#3 Comment By Troy Taylor aka Carolina On July 10, 2006 @ 4:15 pm

Absolutely! The rules for effective public speaking and for being understood as a GM are often the same. Speaking clearly and with emphasis on all the right parts is very important. GMs who mumble encourage players to bumble.

#4 Comment By Martin On July 10, 2006 @ 6:00 pm

Sam: I’m certainly not a public speaking guru — until my current job, I was deathly afraid of it, actually. 😉

I can see what you’re getting at, Sam — I’ve had my share of teachers who droned and spoke slowly. But done well, I’ve found that remembering to slow down (much like remembering that players only see a small slice of the big picture you see) can be very helpful during games. YMMV, of course.

Scott: When you say that boxed text loses you, do you mean as a player or as a GM?

Troy: Any other pointers? It sounds like you know your public speaking.

#5 Comment By Kestral On July 10, 2006 @ 7:59 pm

Honestly, I find that slowing down is still usually necessary. Same for speaking up. Slow down to about 75% normal, and speak up to about 1.5 times normal loudness and pitch. Adjust if necessary. I have a loud voice and speak VERY fast. Thus, I generally use a 50% reduction in speed and a 20% increase in volume.

If you’re feeling uncomfortable with the rhythm, (if you’re saying “umm..” “ahh…” or the like on a regular basis OOC, you qualify as being uncomfortable) can’t find your way around with the text, or simply want to find your best pacing/pitch changes, practice reading the selected text out loud a few times in front of a mirror. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll move to the sweet spot usually.

If you simply want to improve your intonation and dramatic pause ability, I suggest reading poetry, (epic poetry works great as source material for fantasy campaigns, so you can kill two birds with one stone) as it gives a great grasp of the rhythms of speech in a language. Sure, its somewhat stylized, but it’s a great way of learning to make words flow, instead of having choppy-sounding material.

Another forgotten tactic is to USE HAND GESTURES. Keep them restrained, but feel free to act somewhat dramatic, (a good rule of thumb is to keep hand guestures basically limited to the area in front of your torso, unless doing something very dramatic) or to point and give a textural component to your directions. If you’re telling your PCs north is straight in front of you, and then you point to your right to show that an object is to the east, it is far more clear than simply saying, “It’s to the east.” A Simple and Dramatic guesture scheme works better than None At All, and both work better than being Fidgety and Doing Stuff Unrelated to Setting the Scene.

These are not skills only useful while GMing, these are basic practices to use while public speaking. Eventually, you can learn to feel comfortable while ad-libbing (I prefer adlibbing, if I know what I’m going for, actually.. which is how I GM too, frankly) and I guarantee that using these strategies can improve the ‘feel’ of a speech, be it professional or GM, within an hour. These are skills and techniques I’ve picked up doing volunteer work teaching, doing a number of public speeches, and through watching much better public speakers.

#6 Comment By Crazy Jerome On July 10, 2006 @ 8:24 pm

Some of the techniques from singing also overlap, particularly projecting your voice. You do *not* need to speak louder to be heard by the people on the other end of the table. You do need to project your voice. All you need to practice this is have a friend go to the other side of the room and talk to them from there. Visualize your voice carrying across the distance, but speak normally. Practice a bit more, and you can even project whispers in this fashion.

Clarity, direction of your voice, and acoustics all matter for this sort of thing. Increased volume can actually reduce effectiveness, if you try to use it to compensate for other issues. Picture talking with your back to your group, with your voice bouncing off the wall. Increased volume will probably increase the confusion. Even talking into a cardboard GM screen can turn a clear voice into a bit of a mumble.

#7 Comment By Kestral On July 10, 2006 @ 10:22 pm

Jerome: You are absolutely right. However, I still stand by my argument. The reason I find speaking up in volume is USUALLY a good idea, is that when speaking large volumes of text, people tend to… start getting quieter and quieter, and eventually end up mumbling. However, for many, when they speak up a tad bit, it tends to prevent vocal drop-off at the end of sentences somewhat.

If you know your voice carries, fine, but many people’s do not, naturally, and often, everyone around them is so used to dealing with it that it makes it difficult to ask them to speak up without feeling guilty. I personally know mine is on the louder side, so I tone down any increases in volume, knowing that I will sound as if I’m yelling, even if I’m not, when at close range.

Regardless, I personally find that it’s still a good idea to raise my volume and pitch a tiny bit when conveying important material, even when others can hear me properly with a normal voice, at least so that they can know to shut up when I’ve got something important to say.

I’m used to projecting, and honestly, I can still say, for a lot of people, speaking up a bit seems to help clarity more often than it hurts, which is why I recommended it as a general aid to be adjusted to suit the situation. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people ‘a table away’ ask someone who DIDN’T raise their volume a touch to do so, with a request something like this: “Please raise your volume; I can’t hear you.” or “What were you saying?”

Perhaps you’re playing at smaller tables, or places with poorer sound insulation and smaller walls (small gaming areas do affect needed volume heavily, so it’s kind of a fudge factor there) than I’m used to, but I have noted these problems at tables before with other people, and projection didn’t help because they were speaking so silently that it didn’t carry over the background noise, or they spoke in a reasonable voice, but without a proper focus.

Either way, public speaking is an art form, and has different routes to improvement.

#8 Comment By ScottM On July 11, 2006 @ 8:10 am

Martin, I was speaking about when box text looses me as a player. It’s on my mind, because I played in my first RPGA game over the weekend and was amused at the sometimes huge chunks of box-text. (In fact, the denouement was something like a page of pure box text without a chance to intervene afterwards- gah!)

I haven’t run anything with box text in… well, forever or a decade, whichever comes first. Mostly because it’s so different from the normal interaction at the table.

#9 Comment By Crazy Jerome On July 11, 2006 @ 8:41 am

Kestral, sure. I’d agree with that, because you need *enough* volume to handle the background noise. I guess my only disagreement then is that I think projecting a skill that anyone can learn reasonably well with a bit of practice.

I’ve GM’d in a wide variety of room sizes and ambient noise conditions. Among other things, I’m used to communicating around toddlers. 🙂 But one of my more effective GM techniques is varying pitch, volume, speech pacing etc to create different personalities and sense or urgency. (When you are otherwise lousy with dramatic voices, you go with your strengths.) A concentration on increased volume simply to cover the communication side effectively throws all that out the window.

In short, volume is all relative. Once you get sufficient volume, *then* you will always be better off projecting to get that volume where you need it. I said it the way I did in the first post, because a lot of people seem to think that volume is the only tool in the arsenal when people can’t hear you. Carried too far, you can end up with the GM equivalent of a tourist shouting in English to try to communicate with someone that doesn’t speak English. 😀

#10 Comment By Roger On July 11, 2006 @ 8:56 am

> You can end up with the GM equivalent of a tourist shouting in English to try to communicate with someone that doesn’t speak English.


#11 Comment By Martin On July 11, 2006 @ 3:26 pm

This is a bigger topic than I thought — this was a very quick post.

Based on your responses so far, there’s definitely a post/PDF in here somewhere. Something like Public Speaking for GMs, only with pizzazz. 😉

Would anyone be interested in writing a guest post on this topic? (Drop me a line if you are.)

#12 Comment By Troy Taylor aka Carolina On July 11, 2006 @ 4:21 pm

Kestral offers some solid pointers, as does Jerome.

My thoughts. Ideally, rpgs are games where players overcome obstacles — primarily through picking up clues (or cues) from the GM. That’s why having a GM deliver his “lines” effectively is so crucial. Of course, being understood is just the beginning. This is the mechanism by which clues are delivered to players. When clear speaking is blended with the ability to put proper emphasis on key points (without being so obvious as to tell the players: “Hey,listen carefully, now … This is Important.”). Inflection and gestures — the same cues that are important to persuasive public speaking — come in handy.

What really brought this home for me was being an audience member/participant in one of those live-action murder mystery productions. You know, where you live-action roleplay with characters and hope to learn whodunit. If the actors had just read their lines, or said them without emphasis, there would be no way for us to pickup the information needed to solve the puzzle. It also would have been a boring evening.

(You’d be surprised how effective good actors are at this. Next time you watch a movie, think about how lines are delivered so that you, as the audience, pick up just the right information to follow the story).

**That said, these rules are different from the very strict public speaking-debate form called forensics, which is how some high-school debating competitions are scored. Sometimes in these debates, a high-rate of deliver is actually encouraged, regardless of the ability to be understood. (The judges are evaluating the amount of information delivered). Forensics is a subject too broad for this post. Suffice to say, this form of public debate is what is often taught in schools, and so it’s what most people think of when they think about “public speaking,” and can be (but not necessarily so) contrary to the kind of public speaking needed to GM effectively.**

Politicians, actors and ministers have been my best teachers in this area. People who can hold your attention and provide information verbally have the same technique needed to be a good GM.

#13 Comment By brcarl On July 12, 2006 @ 6:28 am

One thing that sometimes gets overlooked in public speaking is motion. Kestral aptly points out hand motions, but another great way to get attention is to stand up and move around. Pantomime can be very effective if used sparingly.

According to one study, 70% of the “message” delivered in verbal communication is actually non-verbal — body-language, tone, facial expression, etc. If you think that percentage is too high, try saying “Have a nice day!” two ways: the first with wave, a smile and a bright tone, the second flipping the bird with eyes rolling and a sarcastic tone. 😉

#14 Comment By Martin On July 12, 2006 @ 7:35 pm

Heck, there’s a guest post just in the comments!

This is awesome stuff, guys. 🙂

#15 Comment By Kestral On July 12, 2006 @ 10:05 pm

Martin: Are you sure it’s just ONE guest post? We’ve got a lot of LONG comments here.

Troy: As a confirmed forensics-ite, I will say it had useful lessons to learn, but as many that were things to learn to not do in the other cases of public speaking. It’s great for learning to become comfortable with the sort of double-speak occasionally required when playing in an RPG though! I also hung around drama and music departments a lot too, and I believe they have more useful lessions for GMing in general, while forensics is better for learning to take command of the room at will and shaping the appearance of things for PCs.

Another thing I think everyone’s forgot to mention is FACES. I have a challenge. Draw a few eyes, (open, half open, and closed) some eyebrows, and a few mouths. put ’em on separate cards. shuffle around the appropriate cards, and you’ll end up with a wide variety of expressions/emotions. You will probably be able to identify each one pretty quickly. It’s a trait most humans have.

As brcarl noted: 70% of communication is non-verbal. I’d say 70% of the non-verbal is expression. 20% is tone of voice, and the other 10% is guestural.

#16 Comment By Martin On July 12, 2006 @ 10:48 pm

Okay, several guest posts. 😉

#17 Comment By Troy Taylor aka Carolina On July 13, 2006 @ 2:52 pm

Kestal: Point well taken about fornesics teaching “commanding presense.” The face cards idea is an interesting one.