Performance DevRel

March 2, 2021

Author Matthew Revell

Founder of Hoopy, the developer relations consultancy. Need help with your developer relations? Get in touch.

We teach and perform on camera, podcasts, webinars and in person as DevRel professionals. Each medium, format, and channel has its own challenges and techniques for success.

Here, Amelia Winger-Bearskin draws on her pre-DevRel life as opera singer, film and television actor, performance artist, and Vanderbilt New Media Art and Performance professor, to offer her advice on how to enhance your performance in front of an audience.

Whether it’s live on stage or in front of cameras and microphones, Amelia teaches how to connect with your audience, communicate clearly, and embrace your fear as a form of energy that will enhance your performance.

Transcript

I’m going to be talking a little bit about the thing that we do best, perform as DevRel. I’m going to be talking about tips and tricks on how to perform for various types of media. A little bit about myself, my name is Amelia Winger-Bearskin and I am a Developer Evangelist at Contentful.

I started out my career actually as an opera singer. And later, I ended up acting in films and television when I was much younger before becoming a performance artist who performed at museums and festivals all over the world. I also taught performance art at Vanderbilt University. And, I taught this class called viral performance where we performed with lots of different types of emerging media.

It was like way back in 2008. So, we were doing things that were like CCTV, real-life Sims, YouTube karaoke, Chatroulette in a theater with hundreds of people, lots of really fun things somewhere between TikTok and flash mobs maybe. I also help students become better performers so that they could perform their own work in theater groups, or in stand up, or in front of camera, and much more.

So, I have a few tips and tricks for each of you today that has helped me as a Developer Evangelist and working with Contentful. I also am the host of two podcasts. So I hope I can give you some of those tips today. So, first thing we’re going to talk about is live stage performance. So, this could be keynotes, conference talks, acting in a play, in opera, or performing with your band.

This is my band, Lullabies for AI. Yeah. So, some tips about live stage performance. So, sometimes you may need to memorize a script. Very frequently we perform using improvisation, bullet points, notes. But sometimes that’s not an option, there’s various reasons why that’s not an option. So, if you need to memorize a long script, some tips that I’ve said to my students is to take a tape recorder and say your entire script into the tape recorder, and then you can play that back almost like hypnotism to learn the script over time.

Then you could also take out chunks from that so that you almost have prompter words, and then the time and space it would take for you to say that so you could speak back to the tape recorder. So, you might say, “Hello, my name is Amelia Winger Bearskin, and I…” and then I kind of can chime in to myself as a prompt to say the rest. And, that helps you get a way of rehearsing your lines with yourself and a tape recorder. Another thing that I like to think about is warming up or cooling down before going on stage.

For some people they need to warm up, like getting really hyped, doing push-ups, jumping jacks, yelling with your teammates, screaming backstage in the green room. Other people need to cool down, they need to take a deep breath, they need to have a little bit of yoga or meditation. If you’re not sure which one works for you, try them all.

And then, you can see which one helps your performance when you’re on stage. Another thing to do is to connect with the audience. It really helps you calm your nerves and it also helps your audience feel more connected to you. Sometimes it’s making eye contact with an audience member, sometimes it’s asking a question seeing those hands raised in the back. Any time you get stuck or you get trapped or you start like, “I forgot what I was going to say,” look out into the audience, make eye contact, smile at someone.

And then usually, that’s the moment that you need to reset and if you do have your notes, you can look back at them. If you’re memorizing a script, you can always just start, and usually, that memorization kicks back in. Another thing that I like to say is you have your heart on fire and your head on ice. You’re not overanalyzing or thinking too much about what you should say or what you didn’t say.

You just trust yourself and then you make sure that your heart is just really full of passion and excitement and the audience will feel that and they’ll come along with you for the ride. The next thing is vocal performance, one of my favorite things. So, that’s like podcast, voiceovers for tutorials, calls, sale calls, pitching over a deck, kind of like what I’m doing right now.

If you didn’t see this video, then you would see just…you just hear my voice. And then, also, that could be studio recordings. And like for me, my home is my studio recording and for all of us now in Zoom, that’s what we’re doing now too. So, one thing that I do before I get onto my podcast is I’ll do tongue twisters like, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”

One of my favorite ones is saying, “Unique New York, unique New York, unique New York,” over and over and over again. And, this just helps you not stumble on your words as much. It really exercises those vocal muscles. Your cheek muscles and your chin hold a lot of tension and that can actually trip you up and make it difficult for you to say some of these long, complicated words that we need to express to our audiences. You can also use a stopwatch so that you can time yourself.

If you need to do a quick introduction, you can make sure that you know about how long that takes. Since a lot of times our vocal performances, and I’m talking right now primarily about pre-recorded vocal performances like podcasts, if you find yourself like messing up the words, or you’re going to try to say something, blah, blah, blah, okay, stop and then go back from what we say, “From the top!”

which is usually just the sentence right before. That makes it easier for you to edit in post or whoever’s working with you to edit it in post. And, it also helps not break the flow, especially if you have an audience member there or… so you’re interviewing someone like I do with the DreamStacks podcast with Contentful, it’s confusing if I’m like, mess up, and then just keep going.

I’ll say, “Hey, I’m going to stop and do that over from the top and keep going.” I also instruct my attendants or my guests to do the same thing. I’m like, “Hey, if you mess anything up, or you say the wrong thing, or you think about it later, just stop.” Tell me, “Hey, I’m cutting right now and I’m going to say this again.” That way, when I edit, I already know from the horse’s mouth what you would like me to do so that I make sure I represent the best you that I can in post-production.

So, that’s a little tip that I have for my guests and for myself. Drink water. I’m drinking seltz right now. So that’s not as good as water, but you know, something to kind of keep that voice beautiful. And, another thing to do is to try out different registers. I took a lot of broadcast classes when I was in college, and we would really experiment with what voice we wanted to give to our audience with pre-recording.

You could try something really high energy, or you could go down to something that is very calming and a question that is very slow. So, you can try out different registers of your own voice. You can also try out different speeds. My natural way of speaking is really fast because I’m a New Yorker but when I’m on my podcast, I try to take it a little bit slower because I know people don’t have the visual context of my voice, tons of my hand movements, I, like, can’t stop moving my hands.

Another thing that I suggest that my guests and I do on podcast is I turn off my camera and I ask them to do the same so that we’re making sure that we’re expressing everything we can to each other through our voices rather than like… I do a lot of this stuff with my hands. So I say, “Okay, I am not able to communicate with my hands.” So, I really have to put all that excitement into my voice.

All right, so performance for camera, like sort of what I’m doing right now. That could be TV, a tutorial , a pre-recorded talk. So, performance for the camera, it could be live camera with a teleprompter. There is interesting LED screens that can actually sit over a camera, whether you’re using a… usually this would be like for like a DSLR or a broadcast camera, you could put an LED screen over it and it’s clear so that you can actually see the words and not break contact with the direct lens.

So, that might be something you want to invest in. You can rent them also through places like KitSplit or other types of broadcast equipment rentals. This could be something that can be useful for you if you really need to get either yourself or someone else from your team to say something that maybe there isn’t time for them to memorize and you need it to be really precise.

So that can be something that’s really helpful. This is also helpful for things with live data. When we took broadcast class or when I presented for broadcast and on television on news, it’s important to learn how to use a teleprompter so that you can and know that sometimes, as you’re reading, things will change. You’ll say, “I’m here to talk to you today about this great tomato festival and also, there’s breaking news that there’s a fire in…”

and you just kind of have to switch exactly as the teleprompter comes. You might even have to change your tone. Something that might be a fun tomato festival has to switch to something more serious and that is about a fire. So, that’s kind of a fun thing that we learn how to do in broadcast television. Another fun tip is to get help from a friend. Some people feel a lot more comfortable, it can be read as more realistic, can feel more connected to the audience if there’s a person on the other side of the camera.

So, you can just have a friend there that says, “So, tell me a little bit about yourself, Amelia.” And then, you can start talking and give eye contact as much as you can to them. There’s also even things that are kind of like a Pepper’s ghost, a mirror, that can be put in front of the camera where I’m looking right at my friend, but actually, my friend is sitting off to the side so that I can maintain eye contact with my friend but really, I’m maintaining eye contact with the camera.

So, those are some tips and tricks. Again, these are things that are fairly inexpensive to rent. If you’re having difficulty with yourself and sometimes a team member as well, they’re having a difficulty time staring at the camera, making eye contact, this can be something that you can do to help them engage with the lens. Also, when you’re doing a performance for a camera that’s live, I suggest having water that’s in a coffee mug so that you can’t accidentally spill it because oftentimes you don’t want to break that contact with the camera.

You still might have a raspy voice and you just need to pick something up and then drink it, right? So, I suggest a coffee mug or like a can of soda, something that’s very like kind of bottom-heavy and not easy to tip over. Performance for a camera with a live audience. So, that’s kind of like what I’m doing today. It’s a webinar, a TED Talk, it’s sometimes where your primary audience may or may not be the audience that’s sitting physically in the room with you today.

Like that would be my cat. She’s, you know, sitting… she’s trying to get into the room. But you know, she would be my live audience. But, my main audience is my DevRel friends at DevrelCon. So there’s a couple of different things you can do here. The most important thing I would say is to know your cameras. Like, when you’re giving a TED Talk, they have generally two cameras.

You’ll have your mid or closeup that’s about, you know, this much of my body is really the main focus, my face, maybe my shoulders, and then they have a full-body camera. So, it’s important to know your cameras. Sometimes they’ll rehearse and mark each of these things. So you’ll say, when I’m saying this, and this and this, I’m really looking directly at camera one. When camera two’s time on, then I can start using the rest of my body.

I can be moving around, maybe I’m going to make a really emphatic like jump or, you know, depends on how much of a bouncing beam you are on stage. I’m a pretty bouncing bean on stage so I’ll usually ask them. I’ll say, “Okay, when I’m hitting Camera 2 full body, then I’m going to start being a lot more energetic. When it’s back to Camera 1, if I’m doing that, and it’s the close-up, you won’t see my face, it’ll totally be lost.”

So, it’s really important to know your cameras and if you can rehearse it with the studio ahead of time, so you know exactly which one to switch to. Oftentimes, in the tech rehearsals, they’ll call it out. They’ll say, “Camera 1, Camera 2,” so that you know which way to look. It’s also really good to know if any of them are motion shots, if they’re tracking you. Some of the TED cameras do track you on stage so you kind of don’t have to worry when it’s Camera 2.

You can just be doing your thing. And you can, at certain times, make eye contact with the audience and look at them but you really got to keep an eye on your cameras. Since that’s the, you know… if that’s the more primary audience, you want to make sure that you’re engaging, but you’re not just looking off at audience members in the eye because it’ll look odd on the close-up camera.

It’ll look kind of like you’re avoiding the audience’s gaze. Okay, so there’s lots of other types of performance that I haven’t covered here, right? There’s performing for an insider crowd like at DevRelCon, you can be a lot more informal. You can maybe say acronyms rather than saying them all out because you understand this community understands where you’re coming from, has a similar background.

But sometimes you may be performing for an audience that’s non-technical, isn’t familiar with what you’re talking about. And in that case, I would say try to avoid a lot of buzzwords. If you do have acronyms, contextualize them rather than just say what this means. You don’t need to say…you can talk about why an API is important rather than just like the definition because you need to get people to be excited about why they should be listening to you rather than just, you know, sort of textbook definitions.

There’s performing through a translator. This is an experience that all of us have probably had where you’re speaking in your own native language and then you kind of have to wait for the translator to speak for the audience and then it’s your turn to speak again. So again, rehearsing with that translator can be really important. Or just, you know, trying it out with a friend so you can get used to that wait because you don’t want to kind of lose energy every time you’re pausing while the translation is happening.

It’s good to kind of keep up that energy in some way or respectfully look at that translator and nod even if sometimes… I’ve had a translator, I don’t understand the language that they’re translating my talk into but I just try to be present and connected to them. There’s also performing with an interpreter for the deaf community. And again, that’s something really fun to rehearse and practice with and I think you can get a really great synergy with yourself and the interpreter on stage as well.

There’s performing on camera live, like for TV for interviews. There’s also performing on the radio live which is really fun and it has a lot of those same kind of cues and tips and tricks that would be applicable for…that I said for the recorded vocal performance but has just a little bit of twists and turns it can take. So, if you have an opportunity to do that, you can always practice that with a friend.

There’s interviews that could be either on camera or just radio, that’s you talking about yourself rather than maybe talking about the awesome company that you work for. So, it might be worth trying that out. Performance through an avatar. This is something that I got to do at VR Toronto this year is I got to perform as Amelia, the avatar on Google Hubs.

And you can also do it in game environments and I’ve done that as well. So it’s something to try out. You know, pick your favorite game environment and see if you can give a little talk, a lightning talk and try it out, see what that’s like. You could also perform in VR with room-scale so that you could really, like, put your own body movement into your avatar.

I would definitely recommend trying that out. It’s a lot of fun and see if you like it. And if you do, that might be a fun place that you can start speaking as a DevRel and having some more experience in that way. So, does anyone ever get stage fright? This is actually pretty normal. Everyone should get a little bit of stage fright.

If you don’t, that’s also awesome and okay. I’ve heard a lot of great tips and tricks from others in my live coding episode of DreamStacks where I think all of us have a similar strategy, at least on that episode, which was to really embrace that fear as a type of excitement and energy because at the end of the day, that is what keeps us connected.

If we’re not nervous, then we probably don’t care anymore. And so, that nerves can really be a fire that drives us. So I like this quote from James Dean, “You can do Hamlet while performing cartwheels… As long as the audience sees your eyes, you can make the performance real.” And I think that reminds us to really connect with our audience so that even if you are nervous, or even if you’re doing something that is very complicated, as long as you can connect with the audience, you can keep it real.

So, why do we do it? Well, you know, it’s a buzz, it’s a lot of fun. I like this quote from Tom Holland, “Performing on stage is such a buzz. I’ve done stupid things such as jumping off a building,” as spider-man, “but I’ve never experienced adrenaline like I did on stage.” And, I think, you know, that’s why we do it. We really love it.

We love the adrenaline, we love the rush. But also, you know, living your life on stage and performing a lot of the time during your week, if not your whole week takes a lot of love and care. And, I recommend having a few honest to goodness best friends to keep you sane. And thank you so much for having me here at DevRelCon. I would love to hear all of your amazing stories about your own performance journeys and I’m really happy to be here.

Thank you so much.