Danielle Barnes on How to Find Your Voice and Speak at Conferences

Illustration: Justin Cheong.
Danielle Barnes on How to Find Your Voice and Speak at Conferences
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Men dominate when it comes to the number of speakers at tech and design conferences, but it doesn’t have to stay this way. Danielle Barnes, CEO of Women Talk Design, provides tips for women and non-binary folks to help you find your voice and taking the stage for the first time.

Danielle Barnes is the CEO of Women Talk Design, an organization that seeks to elevate the number of diverse speakers on stage, specifically women and non-binary people in design and tech. Part of her job involves maintaining and growing a database of speakers that organizers can turn to when searching for talent and talks to feature at their conferences. Currently, there are more than 400 speakers featured in the directory, and yes, please forward it immediately to everyone you know in the tech and design conference space. This world needs more talks from diverse speakers.

“We want there to be a place for organizers to go and find these speakers and never have an excuse of [not being able to] find someone to call that could speak on this topic,” Danielle said.

Headshot of Danielle Barnes, CEO of Women Talk Design.
Headshot of Danielle Barnes.

Danielle is passionate about inspiring others. She facilitates workshops to help empower women and non-binary folks to find their voice and get on stage, often travelling to different parts of the country to deliver programming. She understands many of the struggles women and underrepresented populations face, and she wants to help break down barriers so conference itineraries aren’t always filled with the same names.

It might be 2019, but men still make up the majority of speakers and keynotes at today’s conferences. One study found that globally, 60 percent of conference speakers are male. Another study found a greater disparity when these numbers are broken down by time spent on stage. Not only are women less likely to deliver individual talks and more likely to be included in panel discussions (often as the only woman represented), but they get just 22 percent of the stage time altogether on average.

Side profile of Danielle Barnes speaking at the Tech Jobs Tour at SXSW in 2017.
Danielle Barnes speaking at the Tech Jobs Tour at SXSW in 2017.

Are women more hesitant to speak at conferences?

This data is disheartening and conference organizers need to do better. As part of their mission, Women Talk Design actively works with conference organizers to help them diversify their conferences. The onus for improvement is on conference organizer’s shoulders, but there is also something we can do in the meantime.

Collectively, we as women, non-binary, and underrepresented individuals can start to find our voice and pitch more talks, ultimately helping degrade some of the gender disparity that occurs at these conferences. Easier said than done, of course. In their research, Women Talk Design found that one of the reasons women opt not to speak at conferences is due to a fear of harassment. Conference organizers can try to prevent this by establishing a code of conduct that forbids any kind of harassment at their conferences.

On top of systematic issues, another barrier that women face is that, unfortunately, we sometimes stand in our own way. One thing Danielle said she sees time and time again when working with women and non-binary folk is a lot of self-doubt when it comes to having the courage to go on stage.

There are studies out there that suggest that when a man is applying for a job, he only needs to be 40 to 60 percent qualified and he’ll apply. A woman on the other hand might be 80 percent qualified, but she’ll still hesitate to apply.

“I think that’s similar with speaking. When you look at the speakers that are out there, women might be more hesitant to say, Oh, I’m not the expert on that,” Danielle said.

“There are [also] a lot of different responsibilities and things that women are dealing with in their lives. They might also have a family that they’re taking care of or other responsibilities in addition to just working. Speaking takes a lot of time; finding opportunities, preparing for your talk, and traveling to conferences; whether or not the conference is paying for travel, has childcare, or is paying women and men equally.”

These barriers can not only prevent women from saying yes to opportunities when they do come their way, but may also prevent them from applying for speaking opportunities in the first place. Imposter syndrome, in which women typically doubt their own accomplishments more often than men, is yet another obstacle many women must overcome.

“Feeling confident in your expertise and having the time to carve out to actually figure out what you might want to talk about, this is what we’ve tried to start addressing in some of our programming,” Danielle said.

Danielle Barnes moderates the design leadership panel at the 2018 Talk UX conference in Boston.
Danielle moderating a panel on design leadership at the 2018 Talk UX conference in Boston.

Tips for speaking at conferences

In addition to Women Talk Design, Danielle is also a cofounder of Austin Design Week. Not only has she been to a lot of conferences, she has organized many and has plenty of tips for women and non-binary folk looking to take the stage.

Danielle shares some of her pointers, developed in collaboration with Women Talk Design founder Christina Wodtke and with insight from their broad network of speakers, to help motivate you to start thinking about what it is you want to say, and why you deserve to be the one up there saying it.

1. Start with a goal

Why do you want to speak at a conference? It sounds like a simple question, but it’s the foundation of the entire talk planning process.

“We do this in all of our workshops. It’s important for a couple of different reasons. One is it helps you focus. If you know why you want to speak, it can help you then figure out where you might want to speak, and what you want to speak on,” Danielle said.

Understanding why you want to speak can help eliminate some of the initial fears and anxieties many people experience when speaking for the first (or fortieth) time. Talks take a lot of work and a lot of time, so understanding your ‘why’ will help you in those inevitable moments when doubt creeps in and you want to quit.

2. Know your context

“This is actually based on a design process,” Danielle said. As much as the goal is important, so too is having an idea of where the goal applies. It’s about understanding specifically your audience and the best event for your message.

“When you’re designing, you think about who are the people that you’re designing for, but we don’t always apply that to a talk. Rather than just thinking about what you want to talk about in a vacuum, really understand your context and your audience to tell a story, no matter what type of talk you’re doing or what type of presentation.”

Danielle Barnes introducing a panel discussion at the 2018 Austin Design Week Conference.
Danielle Barnes kicking off a panel discussion at Austin Design Week in 2018.

3. Everyone has a story to tell, including you

“I really truly believe that everyone has a story to tell and that no two talks that are the same. Even if you’re interested in talking about a topic that has been talked about before, you have your own unique experience, perspective, and story that you can bring,” Danielle said.

“So often we get in our heads and think, well, who cares about this? Or, what would I have to say that people care about? A lot of the work that we do in our workshops is pair work and feedback. It’s a really incredible feeling when you hear someone say, that’s so interesting tell me more, or, I have that same problem too, how did you solve it? Being able to have other people in your process is really valuable because we need that validation and feedback.”

Practice your story by sharing it with people you’re comfortable with. If you can find organizations like Women Talk Design, great, but if not look for meetups and other opportunities to connect. Danielle is affiliated with Ladies That UX, a meetup that takes place in dozens of cities across the US. Look for your local chapter or something similar if peer feedback is something you feel would be advantageous for you.

4. Have a call to action

Once you understand why you want to talk, the type of audience you want to share your talk with, and the story you want to tell, it’s time to add a call to action. What do you want people to do as a result of seeing your talk?

Whether you want people to change their design process, think about something in a new way, learn a new tool, understand a unique perspective, or something else entirely, having a strong call to action gives the audience something to take away with them and amplifies the meaning of your message.

5. Start shaping the presentation

Once you’ve figured out what is is you’re going to say, now you can focus on how you’re going to present it.

“Those are two different things,” Danielle said. “First, really focus on what is the content, what is the story, what is the arc of this and the shape of it, and then separately begin to say, okay, how do I feel confident and comfortable on stage? What do I want my presentation to look like? Those are two separate things and I think they need to go in that order.”

An example of some of the talks available to watch at the Women Talk Design website.
An example of some of the talks available to watch at Women Talk Design.

6. Make yourself comfortable

Put away the high heels, unless they’re the good ones that are supremely comfy, and start thinking about what will actually make you feel comfortable and confident on stage. This, Danielle argues, is the most important part.

“Getting in front of people makes us really nervous. Your heart rate can go up; your mind can go blank. Rather than focusing on things like, ‘where should I walk around to?’, ‘What should I do with my hands?’, and all of these smaller things that can come later, I think first and foremost, it’s about ‘how can I feel comfortable up there?’, ‘What do I need to do to relax myself?’, ‘Do I need to take a deep breath so that when I’m up there I can feel comfortable and confident, and deliver this talk that I put together’.”

It’s a lot of work to write and deliver a talk, but the more underrepresented people get up there on stage, the more other underrepresented people will feel empowered to do the same.

“We’ve had a lot of people come out to our events and our trainings who range from ‘I want to start speaking’ and ‘I don’t know where to start’ to, ‘oh, I haven’t really started thinking about speaking before, but this person who has a similar background to me, who was also in my shoes has encouraged me and now I want to do this. I know that I can too’.”

When we see people who look like us and who have had experiences like us, it inspires us to achieve. If you’ve had any inclination to speak at a conference, now’s the time. Know that your voice deserves to be heard.

If you’re looking for some inspiration, Danielle’s got your back. Check out Women Talk Design’s list of incredible speakers and talks from women and non-binary individuals who are already up there telling their stories and making a difference, one talk at a time.

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