Alana Washington shares her advice for crafting talks

We held our first #WTDSpeakerStories with Alana Washington and she shared some great stories and advice from her journey as a speaker. Here’s a recap on what Alana said about getting started as a speaker, how her experience curating talks has informed her speaking, and what keeps her motivated.

As part of our Women Talk Design Speaker Stories series, we’re interviewing a Women Talk Design speaker every week about their journeys and experiences. We talk to speakers who are just getting started, speakers who have had their fair share of speaking mishaps, speakers writing books, and speakers curating events. At the end, we offer an opportunity for folks from the WTD community to ask their own questions and connect with each other. Visit our events page for more information about the series and RSVP for our next event.

Alana Washington is a design leader, strategist, and researcher with over a decade of experience in the field. She has delivered upwards of 25 talks on topics including data, business design, diversity & inclusion, and storytelling, including most recently the opening keynote for SF Design Week. In addition to her role leading design operations at Uber Freight, she’s currently a conference curator for the Design Operations Summit that’s coming up later this year.

Here is what Alana had to say:

“…the magic really happens when I start actually involving people in my process.”

Just as becoming a better speaker comes from practice, Alana talked about how crafting a better talk comes from iteration and collaboration. She highlighted the way her friends and family help her prepare for a talk and how she views each future event as an exciting opportunity to improve.

“My walls probably, much to my husband’s chagrin, start to look like a beautiful mind with post-it notes everywhere. And that’s one thing that I have done since the very beginning of designing.”

Alana highlights the importance of getting away from your computer when working through an idea as well as putting some boundaries around your process.

“I might do a little bit of research but then I set a deadline for myself and say, ‘This is the cutoff point at the end of the day.’ I could follow threads forever but that will drive me mad. And so I set a cutoff point, I close my computer and I really go analog with it and I give myself an opportunity to just go wild and crazy and just jot down post-it notes and proliferate. And then at a certain point, I do set actual timers for myself and then start to add some order to it.”

Alana also suggests getting other people involved in the process of forming your talk, referring to putting together a talk as “a collaborative activity.”

“And honestly, the magic really happens when I start actually involving people in my process. And that first or second time is so embarrassing to run through but then that’s where the magic happens. If I’m being honest with you, no talk is 100% mine. It benefits from the tapestry of people giving feedback and editing and sharing.”

“When you see Brene Brown on Netflix and this beautiful scripted show, know that she has spent hours rehearsing that, and she has spent hours iterating on it and she has a board of advisors. She talks openly about how much she runs things by her husband and friends and like, crafts that talk over time.”

For Alana, each talk builds iteratively. She talked about accepting speaking opportunities and new chances to continue the growth of your talk and the importance of recognizing perfection as a false horizon.

“And the only way to get better at it is to just practice. And you can work through with your friends head-on like, worst case scenarios and realize that the chance of those things actually happening is relatively low.”

“Now instead of feeling like, ‘Oh, you know, that was not so great and I wish that I could do something differently in the future.’ I’m actually excited about the iteration process and excited about the ability to rev on that talk and realize that it was a moment in time but it can continue to grow into something different.”

Alana shared a ton of great advice, not just about crafting a talk, but also about finding the courage to start speaking, asking for compensation, and highlighting more diverse voices. 

On advice for getting started as a speaker:

Alana’s top advice for getting started is to get started. She talked about how everyone comes with a unique story to tell and the best way to get better at telling it is practice.

“It’s a muscle, it’s a learned skill, it is a thing that you practice and get better at. And so, lean into whatever the first opportunity is to just get started….nobody has your unique worldview, nobody has exactly your way of thinking about the world and thus, nobody has heard the talk that you have yet to give. And so, just get started. Just, you know, show up to lightning talk events, show up to opportunities, reach out to folks who are interested in helping craft stories and ideas with you.”

On gaining momentum and using success:

“Between getting to curate for UX week…all the way through Women Talk Design events, I feel like there’s this tipping point that happened where then people started to reach out to me to ask for me to come and speak. And now it’s kind of exciting because people are able to reach out and I’m able to assess like does that make sense does it not.”

As a speaker and curator focused on how to improve the world around her, Alana also mentioned how achieving more success herself has allowed her to move forward in that goal.

“Even more exciting is being able to raise other people’s hands and attach them to opportunities if they don’t make sense for me.”

On asking for compensation as a speaker:

Alana talked about the balance of finding your footing as a speaker while also understanding when you have the experience and you need to start advocating for yourself.

“You may do a couple of events and think of them as training for yourself where you might not actually collect a fee. And then there’s this tipping point that happens where you have done your first stage talk or your first conference talk. And I think that what’s awesome about belonging to [the Women Talk Design] community is you are connected with a group of speakers where you can start to talk about ‘How much should I be asking?’ And I will say on the curation side there is a delicate balance between needing to pay for facilities and lighting and all of these different things and that math of getting people to pay for speakers and then paying folks who come and speak. But I do think that once you do those first couple of talks, start asking for payment or start asking what they offer.”

“I’ve witnessed how sometimes people get invited to speak and never even ask if compensation is provided. The curator is fully prepared to pay and the speaker just doesn’t know that that’s even offered.”

Advice for curators on highlighting a diverse group of voices

“I have noticed, in the spheres that I’ve been in, I’ve been a bit of a newcomer. And I do get the sense that, before my joining, there was very much this, you know, comfy cozy network of designers and they would just tap the shoulders of their friends who they know do good content. And that’s why you would see kind of the same people showing up at conferences year over year. And so it’s very much been my M.O. to reach out to folks who I know are thinking on something tough or interesting or gritty and might just need to bounce an idea off of somebody to form it into a talk or form it into a workshop. So I take my job as a curator incredibly seriously.”

“One thing that I really appreciate about the Rosenfeld summit is…you’re given coaching support and subject matter experts support as you are advancing towards the date of your talk. And I think that that’s how all curation boards should work and it was certainly how I worked on UX Week.”

Later, in response to a question, Alana dove deeper into the issue of diversity in curation.

“I feel like until conferences start to also center the challenges of the world and not just pretend as though nothing is wrong, they won’t attract [marginalized communities, including mine]. I don’t have the time. Like when we look at something like the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and we think about safety and security as being that very bottom rung, until I have that for my community, I really can’t navel-gaze with you at a conference. And so my recommendation has been, again, to diversify the curation boards, but also take stances as conferences themselves and give us opportunities to work on the problems of the world and the problems of our work simultaneously.”

We’re grateful to Alana for sharing her experiences and advice. For everything Alana had to say on getting started, fighting imposter syndrome, and some tactics for speakers adjusting their talks to the virtual world, check out the full talk below.

Thank you to AdobeXD for sponsoring this event series!