Ariba Jahan on how she uses her own story and experiences to develop her talks

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Ariba Jahan about how she has evolved as a speaker over the past two years, cutting through imposter syndrome and getting comfortable using her own story as a foundation for more powerful, meaningful talks.

In 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.

Ariba Jahan headshot with WTD logo next to her and text "Women Talk Design Speaker Stories featuring Ariba Jahan"

As an immigrant Bengali woman who discovered her profound hearing loss at age eight, Ariba Jahan advocates for diverse, marginalized voices to bring equity into tech. She designs inclusive, human-centered products and experiences by developing teams built on curiosity, resiliency, and experimentation. Currently, as the Director of Innovation at the Ad Council, her projects include scaling equitable design practices across the organization, creating digital products for social impact, exploring future-forward technology, and nurturing a culture that fosters equity and innovation. Ariba is an international speaker and has spoken at events across the U.S., U.K., Japan, and Chile.

On how she started speaking

Ariba decided to explore speaking relatively recently and, before diving in in 2019, took some time to really explore her motivations.

“At some point, many of us start thinking about speaking or blogging or some sort of thought leadership as something we should do to get ourselves out there. And I think, originally, I didn’t have more of a reason than that so I would join webinars or seminars to learn about how people started speaking, but without that first initial purpose, I never really acted on it…I wanted to put myself out there more and see [if] I even enjoy speaking versus setting a goal of speaking and realizing I don’t like it.”

“I wanted to make sure that when I do this, I’m doing it for a reason that makes sense. So I kept reading about other people’s speaker journeys – Woman Talk Design became a really great resource to learn about other speakers as well as keeping up with the dialogues and the Facebook group to see what people were doing.”

“In 2019, there was a moment where I had my ‘Why’…So I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to find a way to speak at a thing, regardless of what it is – whether it’s a podcast or meetup or on stage’…I did this a lot of learning through reading blog articles, being on slack channels where people were talking about speaking, Women Talk Design, Global CFP Day and Shine Bootcamp….And then I applied and I went from the first time I got into a conference [to] in 2019, since I started applying, I spoke at 13 events.”

On knowing why she wants to speak and feeling confident on stage

Ariba expressed how important it was to identify her “why” for speaking and how it grew from her own experience and background.

“In terms of my own career growth, I wanted to invest back [in] myself and think about [if] the things I’m learning are valuable enough to share with others…So I did a brain dump of all the topics that I’m passionate about or energized by and then projects that I’ve worked on that I felt like it stayed with me, whether it was lessons that stayed with me or the project impact that stayed with me.”

“And I started realizing that being someone who is in an innovation and product and digital space, I don’t see a lot of women or non-binary individuals or individuals of color on stage. I wanted to start thinking about how I can be an added voice in that dialogue versus just noticing that it’s missing.”

Ariba also talked about how she has continued to move forward and get more comfortable as a speaker, learning to deal with imposter syndrome.

“One [piece of] advice I’ve received is to not be so caught up on being the expert, or having a certain type of expertise in order to take up space on stage. You already have expertise – your lived experience and your work experience is your own expertise. It took me a while to really understand what that meant.”

“I realized along the way that imposter syndrome and [the] inner-critic don’t actually go away, they just morph over time. So, whatever was the voice of my inner critic a year ago, that voice and the phrases that the inner critic is saying have evolved but it’s not gone. I’ve given up on trying to fight…versus thinking about, ‘How do I know my mental and physical signals that the inner critic is showing up right now?’ So it’s not about trying to get rid of those things [but] more or less knowing how to be aware of them and pick up on signals when they’re showing up so that I can coexist and still do the thing that I need to do.”

On developing her story as part of her talks

As a speaker, Ariba discussed how she didn’t bring her own story to the stage at first but how her personal experiences have become more and more woven into the fabric of her talks.

“My first talk was around the fact that empathy is not enough. I think in design we talk a lot about empathy and my perspective was that you can’t empathize your way to understanding a lived experience of someone else [and] could we challenge our own biases and make sure that we’re designing with the people instead of for the people…That really hit on my own ‘Why’ because I am someone who identifies as hard of hearing and as a woman of color and an immigrant but it also took me a long time to own that identity. My first version of the talk, I never even mentioned it, versus my most recent version of that talk, I’m much more open about why equitable design matters so much to me. And I think that’s a journey we’ll all have.”

She told a story of chatting with someone at an event about her background and getting the feedback that she should integrate that into her talks.

“I remember us sitting around on the couch and I think I told him what my origin story is and [about] my life and. And they were like, ‘Why isn’t that part of your talk?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m not so comfortable saying that on stage.’ And look at me now – that’s part of my bio. So there are a lot of parallel journeys you go through as your talk evolves in terms of our own comfort with who we are as well as how we want to vocalize who we are and what we want to represent and how that ends up getting embedded into the work that we do. As Peter and many other individuals pushed me to explore how to integrate my own story, I became more and more comfortable with where that story fits.”

“I went from never wanting to talk about my story to lumping it into one section as a mic drop and then moving on to the content of the talk, to then really infusing it in a way that made sense at a moment that made sense.” 

Ariba talked about talk development as an iterative process, highlighting experience as an integral part of it.

“So you always have to look at your story, as well as your talk, as an iterative process – from every event, it’ll change. What’s happening in parallel to you speaking is that you’re living and you’re working and you’re experiencing so a lot of your work experiences or your project experiences may also evolve your talk.”

“Even as I’m talking, even as I’m presenting, I’ll notice where I’m gravitating more. Or when people come to talk to me at the end of the talk, what questions they’re asking and what resonated with them. Not all conferences gather feedback so you’ll have to do that on your own, whether you pre-generate a survey and add the link at the end of your talk or tweet it out afterwards. It’s great when people come and chat after the talk, you can notice what, why and how different parts or stories made them feel.”

On using the power of community

With more experience as a speaker, Ariba said she has reached a comfort level in her talks that is pushing her to explore different topics or talk structures to continue growing.

“This April, when I did 13 to 14 events…what ended up happening was [around] the eighth time I was doing the same talk, I was bored. I [thought], ‘I need a different topic or a different talk.’ And that was really great for me to feel because that means I’m at a level of comfort with that one talk that I need something else…So I felt like those two in combination – the boredom plus being more comfortable speaking – were great signals to me that I was ready to leave the comfort of my first two talks and try new ideas.”

Throughout her journey, Ariba has relied on different communities and forums for everything from finding engagements to gathering feedback to naming her talks. She talked about how she’s continuing to use help from others to evolve her speaking topics.

“Places like Tech Daily, CFP Land, Woman Talk Design…they have their own slack channels and they’ll share. Pretty much any community these days that’s at the intersection of design or technology, there is a channel somewhere around speaking.”

“By now, I already know the power of the community. It’s the community that has always evolved my abstract and gave me really honest feedback on what felt clear or not clear. Or someone would read an abstract and be able to tell me [I] should apply to [a specific] conference and it would be an event that I would never even know about.”

“So the same communities I mentioned earlier, I may reach out and say ‘Hi, I am putting together some talk abstracts and would love it if someone would be open to looking and providing feedback.’ Then some people might raise their hand and in that case I would share the Google link with them. So they already understand your ‘Why’ and they have a lens of who this human is…and by having that section around what feedback I’m looking for, I’m helping them help me.”

On how speaking has helped her grow in her personal and professional life

Ariba also discussed how becoming a speaker has affected her life personally and professionally and the return she feels on the investment in herself.

“Think about all the work that goes into an entire speaking experience –  you are putting yourself out there by creating an abstract, creating an application, and getting feedback. All of those are actions you’re taking to invest in yourself. And when you show up on stage and see that there are people who care about what you have to say, there are people who are taking notes – that ended up helping me find a voice and have the capacity to articulate myself clearer at work.”

“I’ve noticed that I am advocating more for my BIPOC colleagues in a way that translates to actions within the organization. I went from being someone who was more nervous about speaking in front of specific individuals that have more hierarchical power at the organization to now I’m actually synthesizing in those rooms and thinking about what am I hearing and repeating it back and making sure we have a dynamic conversation.”

“There were moments where I had an idea and I went and pitched it – I presented to the CEO. I don’t think I would have made those types of bets on myself had it not been that I was already making bets on myself by going through the speaker journey. That’s a different muscle that ends up building. It’s been a great gift for me.

“None of us really have the right answers for everything – we’re just doing our best and we’re making informed guesses here and there…What speaking did for me was it gave me confidence that I’ll keep learning. And so now, if I’m pitching a strategic project, I know that when I first pitch, I don’t know if it’s right, but I don’t care as much. I know that by putting it out there, other people will get to respond to it and we’ll get to co-design what the next evolution of that looks like.”

For more on how she prepares for talks, the ways her speaking topics are evolving, and her strategy for battling nerves before going on stage, check out the full talk below:

Thank you to AdobeXD for sponsoring this event series!

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