Friday, February 1, 2019

Host Your Streams Like Nobody's Watching

Let's say you're planning your next stream and you've noticed that the show is most fun when people are talking in chat. This is a great observation- it definitely spices things up when people are lively and talking not only to you, but having conversations with each other as well. It gives you as the host something to bounce off of and respond to, rather than always think up talking points off the top of your head. So you start dreaming up all sorts of ideas for community involvement and viewer engagement. Maybe you want to ask for votes on where you'll drop in Fortnite before you start a match, play the Jackbox Party Pack with viewers, or play a Telltale adventure game by allowing people in chat to choose the dialogue option. While these sound like fun ideas, and they can certainly produce hilarious and entertaining results, you are playing with fire. You need to learn to host like nobody's watching.

Artist's representation of someone relying on their chat at all times. 
Let's pose a scenario: you decide one night to do an IRL stream where people in the chat pick the nouns, adjectives and verbs in Mad Libs, then you fill them in and read them out on stream. It's a fun idea- you're building engagement with your chat, and at the end there's a funny dramatic reading comprised of everyone's suggested words! Yes it's simplistic, but in between selecting words you can have an "Ask Me Anything" session with your viewers, where you select one question from the chat between each Mad Libs word and answer it. Sounds like fun, and it definitely gets people chatting. What could go wrong?

What happens when no one is chatting?

Your whole show relies on people actively chatting in order to function, and without that the show grinds to a halt. This is a huge problem. Partly because it makes for a less entertaining stream, but more importantly because it messes with your head. I’ve seen a lot of smaller streamers fall into this trap in one way or another, and it's heartbreaking. That goes double if they have a facecam, because you can actually see the flicker of disappointment and hurt in their eyes when they notice that nobody has responded to the question they thought was so engaging.

Be able to host your stream on your own merits. Then it's a
nice bonus if your chat says, "Hey, listen!"
The need to account for a no-viewer or no-chat scenario obviously starts going away as your channel balloons in size, but you'd be surprised how often you're left high and dry in the chat department, even at larger scales. Short of organizing an event with a tight-knit community, you shouldn't rely on having people constantly chatting in your shows until your follower count is in the thousands. Even if you are a larger channel and aren't regularly plagued with this issue, it's important for your hosting abilities not to be blown around by your chat like a leaf in the wind. You build a better personal brand by having your own cadence and rhythm to hosting, cultivating catchphrases or signature gameplay styles and letting people get to know you as a person. I think you can apply the teachings here to any size channel, but of course they're absolutely critical if you're starting out.


The hypothetical Mad Libs / AMA show detailed above is an extreme example, a show that to its very core will not progress without active chatters or a course correction mid-stream. But its teachings should extend to all aspects of your hosting technique. Try to stay away from things that stop the entire show if a message from chat doesn’t come in. Try reframing your requests for chat responses in another way, taking the pressure off your chat to answer quickly. Here’s an example:

You’re playing a Pokemon game and you want to let your chat name each monster you catch. Great idea! You throw the Pokeball and it locks down. You see the info sheet for that Pokemon, and you go to change its name. Now you ask your chat for name suggestions and wait on the menu screen for a response. Think about the entertainment value for your viewers while this happens. In one outcome, you sit for 60 seconds waiting to hear a response and none comes. Then you move on with the game in shame. Even in the best outcome, there’s a delay between when your chat sees your question (sometimes a full 30 seconds), then comes up with an answer, types it out and sends it, before you even start getting responses. It’s what radio broadcasters call "dead air," and should be avoided even if people are actively chatting.

Try this instead: You see a Pokemon in the wild and already start asking the chat what they want to name it. This gives people a minute or two to submit answers, and you can address all the suggested names while you’re going through the battle or catching process, before you even get to the naming screen. Aside from giving more time to answer, why is this method superior? If nobody responds, your show doesn’t skip a beat. You get to the naming screen, notice there are no answers, then come up with a name of your own and move on. Having people chat in your stream should be a privilege, not an expectation.

Try engaging with your chat in a way that doesn't put so much pressure on them.
People are often doing other things while watching.


You shouldn’t need to have people active in chat in order to be the host on your own stream. In fact, you should expect to have nobody in your chat. Until you get used to this concept, you are vulnerable to crippling self-doubt and lack of motivation, because it means you measure your stream's worth by the number of viewers watching it, not how satisfied YOU are with it. Be able to talk without outside prompting. There are a million things you could mention out loud to yourself while streaming: responding to an event on screen, doing dramatic readings of text prompts, talking about how your day went, or giving your thoughts on a movie you saw for example. It’s very easy to run your mouth when you get used to doing it.

Throw softballs at the audience. Ask for engagement that enhances the existing show, but isn't required to make it progress. Ask how everyone’s day went, what they thought of some TV show or event, what their weekend plans are. These can be answered at someone’s leisure, and help you get to know your audience in the process. The reason the Mad Libs idea doesn't work at a small scale is because the whole show is riding on whether anyone decides to answer, not to mention whether they'll submit multiple answers for you to select from. Even if you can fill time after asking for the noun in Mad Libs by chatting about your day, the anxiety will be building inside you. It's the equivalent of putting your hand up for a high-five and slowly realizing you aren’t going to get a response. It's humiliating.

Any idea can work if you frame it in the right way though. I don't want you to think that doing viewer requests while playing a Telltale game is a terrible idea, only to understand the risks you're taking. So let’s think about how we’d turn this Mad Libs idea into a better stream.

Bonus points if you can fill in your hypothetical Mad Libs
sheet while hanging upside down.
You could play Overwatch and fill in one blank noun, verb or adjective on your Mad Libs sheet between every match. Let it be the sideshow, not the main attraction. Then people have time to think up answers, and you're covered if nobody answers the questions- you can even continue that same Mad Libs page on your next stream! Now you're not forcing the chat engagement, you're allowing it to improve your already entertaining show with an extra feature. And of course, when you finish the Mad Libs sheet, you can celebrate! Thank your viewers for contributing to the final product, and be humble. Don't act like you expected people to take the time to engage with your show.

Of course, this is more of a general rule- you can obviously have a complete fluke of a stream where the perfect storm hits and everyone is chatting like crazy. The point is, you shouldn't plan for that. It should be a nice surprise. I’ve done streams with two viewers where the chat was flowing like a river, and I’ve helmed shows with hundreds of concurrent viewers where the chat would trickle and dry up like a stream. You really never know. Make sure you’re planning for nobody to show up- it will not only force you to become a more entertaining host, but it will protect you from spiraling into self-doubt and dejection.

Streaming in itself is fun- you’re playing a video game after all, or you're doing something you love- so don't measure your success by how many people are chatting. Just have fun and host your show like nobody’s watching!

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