Friday, June 26, 2020

Stream for the Moment

What is it we love about Twitch streaming? What gets us to sit down, prep a show and press the Go Live button day in and day out? Often we aren't being paid to do it, and the vast majority of those who do monetize don't make anywhere near a living wage from our broadcasts. The preparation, post-show and streaming processes take an incredible amount of time and energy, requiring us to devote ourselves on the level of another work or school commitment- often dozens of hours a week. We face several of our fears every time we go in front of an audience- performance anxiety, stage fright, sometimes outright harassment. All in all, this whole pastime is incredibly taxing in several aspects of our lives. So I ask again, what is it we love about Twitch streaming? 

The answer will vary for each of us, but to me it's clear: We're creating something out of nothing.

As streamers, we have the audacity to enter a very crowded space and plant something of our own. We say, "Here I am, this is what I've made," and we invite others to be a part of it. And you know what? Despite the field being packed with thousands of others creating their own projects, people do join our budding little channels. Starting from the smallest seedling, each of our creations invariably ends up being unique and valuable not only to ourselves but to others as well. Every one of us who takes this leap, who has the courage to stake their claim and stick through the hardships, has created something with its own look, feel, style and personality. We can gaze upon our content in a month, or a year, or ten years and say, "This is what I created. Look how it has grown." To me, there's no idea more rewarding.

Have you stopped to smell the roses lately? Have you considered why you personally love streaming? 


We're all trying to create something great, and in that long grind we can often lose the forest for the trees. Each show has to be better, and each week we're trying to add, refine, or customize something or other. We can get so caught up in the details that we never slow down enough to truly enjoy the here and now. Think about the most recent stream you made. Pick something about it that you truly loved. Maybe it was the way you conducted yourself, a funny joke you told, or an excellent play you made. It could be that you simply take pride in your most recent show going off without a hitch, no errors in sight. Possibly you're happy about the way you handled a tough situation in chat, or brightened someone else's day. Forget, for the time being, all the things about that stream you didn't like and focus just on that one aspect of your most recent show that you're proud of. Give yourself a moment to appreciate the things that you get to do, the people you get to meet, and the zen state of creating something all your own. 

Rock on!
I think about this concept often. When you're out there doing your thing, there's nothing else but the stream. It's almost like streaming itself is a form of meditation. Sole focus. For all the chaos, excitement and unpredictability of actually making a show happen, all my energies are always directed toward a single fixed point. Making content. As Ryan Gosling says in La La Land, "It's conflict and it's compromise, and it's brand new every night. It's very, very exciting." Make sure you aren't too caught up in the grind of improving your channel to appreciate the simple pleasure of creating your content for its own sake. 


Consider Jiro Ono, who you're probably familiar with from the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This 94-year old culinary artisan has been making sushi day in and day out since he was nine years old. He simply fell in love with his trade and aspired each day only to be a tiny bit better at his craft than the day before. After opening a modest ten-seat sushi restaurant in the corner of a subway station, Jiro quietly did exactly as he set out to do. He got a little bit better every day. For 60 years straight. If you've seen the film, you know what comes next. Jiro's shop attained a perfect 3 Michelin star rating, the man himself has been recognized by the Japanese government as a national treasure, and the 10-minute dining experience at his restaurant (which still only has 10 seats) would cost you $400 USD if it weren't impossible to get a reservation. 

And then of course there's that other master artisan who we all know and love: Spongebob Squarepants. Like Jiro, Spongebob never aspired to be the owner of a hamburger conglomerate, or use his first job at the Krusty Krab as a stepping stone to claw his way to the top. From the outset, Spongebob aspired to be a fry cook. It's the thing he loved doing, and every day he was excited to get to do it again. He lived for the simple act of working on his craft, and became acclaimed at what he did (even beating the ocean god Neptune himself in a cook-off) by simply living in the moment. 


Focus on your craft.
So don't always worry about furiously adding, removing, boosting and measuring things on your channel. If you want to relax on certain days, being content in what you do is enough. Time spent doing something you love is never wasted. As long as you keep moving forward and don't skip days, you will continue growing no matter how many tricks you employ behind the scenes. Don't forget that Twitch streaming is about the journey. Whatever finish line you think is out there will only change to another, less attainable finish line once you reach it. The only way out of this deadly loop is to stop playing for a prize. Stream for the moment and you'll find out just how happy you can be. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Making Your Streams More Flexible

At the end of the day, there's only one important thing when you're a Twitch streamer, and that's streaming. If you aren't streaming, and doing it consistently, then it doesn't matter how many graphics you've made, giveaways you've done, or social channels you've created. If you can't get yourself to stream, then you're just procrastinating. For most of us, this is a no-brainer concept. Of course you have to stream to be a streamer. And yet in practice, getting ourselves to actually go live regularly without ever missing a day is one of the hardest things for any Twitch streamer to do. 

Lack of time is the most common excuse. A lack of time prevents most from ever starting their channels in the first place. Or if someone has been streaming 100 days in a row, a dinner reservation taking up their night might make them feel they need to break their streak. Twitch streamers tend to get overly rigid ideas into their heads about what it means to be a streamer, and if a potential show doesn't meet their arbitrary criteria, they oftentimes won't bother going live that day at all. This is a bad way to look at streaming. It'll erode your habits and lead you down a dark path. In this entry, I'll help you to make your streams more flexible. 


Small differences can change an entire outcome.
There's a classic scholarly article by Herbert Simon called 'The Architecture of Complexity.' In this work is a parable about two watchmakers, which I'm going to paraphrase here. The two men, who we'll call John and David, made excellent watches and the phones rang often in their workshops with new orders coming in. But over time John prospered, while David continually got poorer until he eventually went out of business. What went wrong? 

The watches they both made were comprised of 1,000 individual parts each. It's incredibly intricate work to create a watch, and whenever David needed to put his watch down in the middle of assembly, all the pieces would fall apart and he'd have to start over. This means that the more that customers liked his watches, the more they would call him on the phone to place orders. The more customers would call to place orders, the more he'd be interrupted and have to start from scratch in creating a watch. The phone would only keep ringing more and more often, and he'd find it harder and harder to carve out an uninterrupted chunk of time to build a complete watch. Eventually, no such chunk of time existed, and David was ruined.

The watches John made were of exactly the same quality and complexity as those of David. But he designed them in a different way from the ground up. John would create subassemblies, each of which only had ten little pieces inside. Then he'd combine ten of those subassemblies to create a larger piece, and he'd combine ten of those larger pieces to make a complete 1,000-piece watch. This sounds like a trivial difference until you consider the practical realities. When John would receive phone calls, he would only lose the progress from putting together his most recent ten pieces. He wouldn't lose his progress on the entire 1,000-piece project like David. Therefore, despite both of them creating watches that were identical on the outside, one prospered as he grew in popularity, while that same popularity ironically drove the other out of business. 

I know what you're thinking: why didn't David just get a secretary? Well it's a parable, okay? But it hits closer to home than you might think. Most Twitch streamers build their careers like David. Their brand becomes solidified around completely rigid ideas of what it means to stream on a given day, but as their responsibilities increase with size they find it harder to carve out the time for their actual streams. The usual all-or-nothing streamer mindset goes something like this: "My show is always three hours long, and if it weren't three hours long then it just wouldn't feel like a complete show. Whoops, today I have a plan to do something that won't leave me enough time to do a three hour show. I guess I'll have to cancel." If you think this way, you're at risk of getting hooked on the most addictive substance in the world: the excuse. 


There is no rule about how long you need to stream, which pieces need to be set up, how you have to look, what you need to play, where your stream needs to take place, or any other aspect of the craft. As long as you're not breaking the terms of service, there really are a lot more possibilities than you probably expect. Feeling sick or don't like how you look? Stream with no camera. Don't feel like playing the game you usually play? Play something else. Away from home? Make an IRL stream, or some other kind of show entirely. Don't have three hours to do your normal amount of streaming today? Stream for 2 hours. Or for 1. Or for 30 minutes. Or 1 minute. Honestly, there are very few legitimate excuses not to stream. Most of the roadblocks are simply detritus built up in your mind from how you think a stream has to be.

Be more flexible. 
The important thing about sticking with streaming is to do it every time, not to do it the same way every time. If your stream is completely inflexible, then it will eventually break. But if you can bend to life's outside forces while still showing up and doing the stream every day, then you will form a strong habit. In the entry Just Keep Streaming, I spoke about how you need to understand where to make compromises: "You should be flexible about WHEN and HOW you stream, but never about WHETHER you stream. There's nothing more destructive to a growing streamer than finding excuses to miss their scheduled days." 


When everything else is stripped away, Twitch streaming is about forming a habit and then fighting like hell to keep that habit alive. It doesn't matter how or when you do your show. You could be in a great mood or a terrible mood. Your video feed might look beautiful or atrocious. But you get out there and you do it every time. Even when my internet is out, the classic problem to stop all Twitch streamers, I still don't let that stop me from doing my streams. In such a scenario, I record my show locally and upload it to my Twitch channel upon the signal returning. Yes, there may be no opportunity for chat interaction during that one episode, but I still made my content. The habit is intact, and someone who wants to watch my playthrough is still able to be entertained. The next time you feel you need to cancel your show, consider whether you really have a worthwhile reason. In most cases I can tell you now: you don't. Try making your streams more flexible: your shows will do the bending to prevent your channel from breaking. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Growth Check-In: Getting Back on Track

As a Twitch streamer, it's easy to get off track. What we do is exciting, and we love to do it, and oftentimes we spin out of control, collecting new features and practices for our streams like Pok√©mon cards. And as soon as a few more features are in place, the old ones might fall out of practice. Even if they were good ideas. Even if these older practices helped our channels, they're not new or exciting anymore and we forget to keep maintaining them. The previous Growth Check-in entry, called Simplifying Your Streams, focused on helping you take an important pause to assess which things really matter on your channel and which need to be scaled back. But because we streamers can get so excited about things, jumping from one new big idea to another, we often collect half-formed habits in the same way we collect useless channel add-ons. 

Maybe you started using a calendar to organize your streams, but recently your days have been getting out of hand again. Or it's possible that you have been implementing a new style of chat engagement, but aren't getting the results you'd hoped. It even could be that you've lapsed out of streaming altogether recently. All of these things are normal, they're nothing to worry about. But if you want to improve, you have to be willing to admit that something needs to change. Just as important as dumping the baggage of our old stream ideas, it's vital that we check in every once in a while to make sure we're keeping up with the good habits we've tried to form. In this entry, we'll focus on the stream habits that you have the most difficulty with, and we'll bring them back on track. 


Have you been keeping track of the problems you've encountered on stream? If so, are you solving them in regimented fashion? Try not to only solve problems as soon as you think of them- this relies on inspiration, which is inconsistent. Write things down and return to them at pre-ordained times. For more info about how to maximize your problem solving, see the entry Fix One Thing About Your Stream Every Day.

Frank West has gotten very good at time management. 
How about a calendar? Have you created one in the first place? If so, do you still check and update it every day? Or maybe despite using a calendar you feel like your days are still getting away from you, and time is slipping away? I find a calendar only really works if so much of your day is on it that you need to regularly check it to see your plans. For me, the phrase, "Let me check my calendar," has changed over the past years from an ironic joke to an actual necessity when making plans. There's no plan I have that isn't in the calendar, and the fact that I can rely on it to be a complete picture of my day is how I know nothing will slip through the cracks. For more info about keeping a calendar and why it's necessary, see the entry How to Get in the Habit of Streaming.  

The easiest habits to lose track of, at least in my experience, are the administrative ones like these. Logging down channel problems, keeping a calendar, watching old episodes to to check for quality, anything that involves regimented actions behind the scenes. For me starting out, these were the things that felt the most like work, and therefore they were also the ones that I was least interested in associating with streaming. But as you could probably imagine by following The Twitch Playbook up to this point, keeping up with these kinds of structured tasks have been the most useful in making me not only never miss a show, but constantly improve and refine my channel. Rather than thinking of them as time you could have spent streaming, think of them as boosts to help you do more of what you love. 


Don't rely on external excuses not to stream.
There are some aspects of streaming that mess with your mind. These factors can cause you to associate negative feelings with streaming, and against your better judgment, might even make you want to do less of what you love. Is the setup time for your show causing you strife? It could be that there are too many steps involved, and it's hindering your ability to create content. In the entry Perfecting Your Stream Prep, I laid out ways in which you could consolidate, shorten or even remove pre-stream steps in order to make the whole process smoother overall. Have you had a hard time finding motivation or energy because your surroundings have changed? The world may be different, but the difficulty of streaming will always be the same. It won't get any easier, but it also hasn't gotten any harder. You can find more on this topic in the entry Streaming Under Quarantine

It can be very difficult to cultivate the kind of community you want for your channel. Many times, in the pursuit of more views and followers, we let things slide which go against our core beliefs. Has your chat upheld the standards you'd like for your channel? There are several different entries dealing with this subject. In Who Is Watching Your Streams, And Why? we tried to understand the different motivations for people joining your shows in the first place. There's also Your Twitch Chat is a Reflection of Yourself, where I went deeper into setting up rules and enforcing them on your streams. Then The Power of Positive Streaming is all about making sure you put your best foot forward. And if you run into true troublemakers, entries like Dealing With Disruptors in Twitch Chat and Combat Negativity in Twitch Chat go into different strategies for removing those you don't want to deal with. If your community is putting out the wrong vibes, it's still within your power to shape and mold it into something to be proud of. But you have to take active steps toward doing this, and stand behind your decisions to make everyone know you mean business. 


Now that The Twitch Playbook has been going for one and a half years, your channel has likely changed a lot since you began following the podcast or blog. Some ideas I've laid out may have helped you, others may not. As I always say, not everything that works for my channel is going to work for yours. It's important to keep this in perspective. In other cases, it may not have been the advice that didn't work, but your habits- maybe you stopped doing something too early before it could take root and become a true part of your stream. If you went back from the first entry all the way up to now, much of my advice would likely take on all new meaning in your more experienced eyes. As Twitch streamers we're always evolving. It's important at various intervals to look back at our progress and judge for ourselves where we've strayed from the path. We're not perfect, but we don't need to be. We just need to get back on track. 

Friday, June 5, 2020

Creating a Pre-Stream Checklist

It's a very common problem on Twitch: you appear on your show but the microphone is muted, or your game is in the wrong spot, or your lights aren't adjusted. These kinds of problems are embarrassing and frustrating. As a streamer, there are so many things that get set up before every broadcast, but it only takes one slip to make the whole thing feel unprofessional. These mistakes can strike at any experience level too. Even when I had over a thousand streams under my belt, small issues like the ones I mentioned would still happen to me on occasion, and I've watched many other experienced streamers go through the same thing. Isn't there some way to prevent these annoying mistakes from happening? 

A while back, I began honing a strategy that has brought me an incredible amount of success in preventing problems on my streams. I stream three times every day, seven days a week- that's over 80 individual broadcasts in a month- a lot of chances to mess up while setting up my shows! And yet it's been over a year since I've forgotten to turn on my microphone or use the right layout. I'm not particularly smart and I don't have a perfect memory. I simply cultivated a well-tuned pre-stream checklist. Upon implementing my checklist and the techniques associated with it, my stream's professionalism went up by an order of magnitude practically overnight. In this entry, I'll help you to do the same. 

As I always say in entries like this however, experience is more valuable than fine-tuning. If you haven't done at least ten official broadcasts on your channel yet, get out there and start streaming. Mistakes are the least of your worries if you haven't even been live often enough to make those mistakes in the first place. Don't get bogged down preparing to stream and allow your dream slip away in the process. For more info on breaking into the craft, see the entry Surviving Your First Ten Streams


What is a pre-stream checklist? It's a mental list (or even a physical one on paper if you need) that includes every single action you need to take before going live, down to the smallest detail. And once created, the power in this document lies in your ability to follow it, in its exact order, without the smallest question or deviation. When done right, you'll have a pre-configured script for your stream's setup process, making sure that your show will run smoothly once it starts. 

Don't let problems get out of hand.
If you've encountered recurring problems on your streams before, you'll know why a list of this sort and the accompanying discipline to follow it is necessary. The human brain is very versatile, but it has an incredible capacity for lapses in memory, judgment and focus. You may not think there's so much involved in setting up your streams now, but once you write everything down you'll realize that there are dozens and dozens of things you have to do, each time you want to go live. And over the course of tens, hundreds, thousands of streams, nobody's brain is able to keep it all straight every time without some kind of structure. If it can be quantified, why not quantify it? You'll save yourself time by not always having to think about what needs doing, there won't be as many headaches from coming up with creative solutions on the spot, and you'll cut down on the frustration of being live with the wrong OBS layout for 20 minutes without anyone telling you. When you're more rigid behind the scenes, you'll free up more mental energy to be creative and entertaining in front of your audience! 

Try going through the process of setting up a stream, and start to get a feel for every step involved. Consider what order the items typically fall into. Which aspects are creative, like writing a title or 'going live' Tweet (yes, things like this get included too) and which items are simple button presses like switching to the right layout, or turning on your microphone? Are there any creative steps that can be automated, like finding a permanent placement for your lights so you don't have to constantly rearrange them before every show? For more details of this sort, I went over specifics of how to really maximize your pre-show activities in the entry Perfecting Your Stream Prep. Essentially, write a comprehensive script for setting up a stream which lays out every step involved, as if you need to guide someone else through it. Make sure this list isn't just based on ideas in your head either- every aspect has to be from experience, from steps you've actually taken several times in streaming before. If you haven't streamed yet, or you don't do it often, don't let this process become another way for you to procrastinate.


If something goes wrong, don't panic.
Once you've made your list and you've been sticking to it while prepping your streams, you should already notice a huge boost in your consistency of professionalism. But there will likely still be slip-ups. Don't become discouraged by these, but do take notice of them. After your show is over, use the incident as a learning experience to figure out where your pre-stream regimen is lacking. Typically if something goes wrong on your streams while you're using a pre-stream checklist, it means one of three things: 

1. The list isn't complete enough. You may be glazing over steps, or not getting specific enough about the steps, leaving aspects up to chance. For example, "Set up OBS" isn't a good checklist item, because it isn't a single action. Break things down to their smallest increments.

2. You're not sticking to the list well enough. This is a question of discipline. Improve your ability to not deviate from the list. Don't simply skip a step because it doesn't seem necessary this time. An airline crew doesn't check the flight preservers only when they think their plane might crash, they check them before every single flight. And when you complete your checklist items every stream, whether they're needed in the moment or not, you solidify the habit that prevents you from forgetting 100 streams from now.

3. There might be a unique situation at play. Sometimes when software gets updated, wires get crossed, or computer parts go bad, you might experience glitches that are out of your control. The key here is to accept that first, they are not your fault, but second, they are still your responsibility. Take the error in stride as it's happening and do your best to solve it. But understand that even if there's a glitch that happens with your capture card randomly every month, it's up to you to figure out a prep strategy that prevents the problem from appearing in the future. Go back to your pre-stream checklist and see if there's a troubleshooting solution you can implement before your shows, or maybe just remove the inconsistent piece of hardware or software from your streams altogether.


For me, implementing and refining a pre-stream checklist vastly improved the quality and consistency of my streams. But you don't need to have a broadcast count in the quadruple digits like I do before you start regimenting your own process. Even a few months into streaming, if you have the basics down and you want to step up your professionalism, setting up a system that allows fewer mistakes is a great way to do that. Systems are always more important than actions in the end. An action can help you fix a problem once, but a system can prevent the problem from appearing ever again. By creating a pre-stream checklist and sticking to it, you'll be taking steps toward making this a reality.