Vivian Acquah on how she found confidence and carved her own path with speaking

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Vivian Acquah about why she started speaking, what motivated her to create her own events and what her experience as an organizer has taught her about being a better event participant.

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.

In the past, Vivian Acquah focused on inspirational talks and workshops for organizations who want to support their people to bring their A-game every day. She is a driven woman who likes to talk about workplace wellness and challenges her audience to make workplaces more sustainable so that employees can work with pleasure and in good health. Recently Vivian has been speaking out about diversity, equity and inclusion both in and out of the workplace.

“Before COVID, I was talking about general employee wellbeing. But now, I’m speaking about diversity, equity and inclusion mainly because I felt [it was] my cup of tea when it comes to racism and discrimination in the workplace. When I try to explain to my son what happened to George Floyd – my son, he is now seven, but at the time he was six, and he is biracial…he asked me ‘Is somebody going to hurt you, Mama?’ So that question in itself, it’s still touching because it’s not a question that I expect from him. And it took me a while to take some time but…I wanted to do something in my own way. I have connections, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m doing this podcasting.”

In addition to speaking, Vivian is a podcast host and is organizing a virtual DEI summit this September. 

On finding the confidence to start as a speaker (or starting as a speaker to find confidence)

Vivian talked about her unique motivation for speaking and how she started her podcast as a way to challenge herself as a non-native speaker of English.

“I was raised in a family where we spoke English, but it was more pidgin English, more African English, so it’s different. I felt insecure about what I could say…so I challenged myself to put up this podcast three years ago and started talking in English. [And] if I say something wrong, then so be it and I’ll learn. And that’s when I gained my confidence.”

“Also know that I’m six foot one. And even though I’m very tall, I was making myself very small by not speaking up and not being there. I was also dealing with imposter syndrome, which is real when you don’t have your tribe, or you don’t have the people that you can be honest with.”

Vivian highlighted passion as a main driver for finding her voice and her speaking topics but said that knowing how to focus is also key.

“[As a mentor} I would say ‘What are you most passionate about?’ I am amplifying your voice so you have to know what you’re passionate about. If there is a lot that you’re passionate about, then you have to downsize it to a top three.”

“Find something that makes you happy. And if you think that a certain topic is making you happy but, eventually it isn’t, just [know] you have to fall 100 times to learn what your craft is.” 

One great way Vivian recommended finding your passion: talk to friends.

“Sometimes, we act like horses with these [blinders] on our eyes, and we don’t see our hidden talent. So when friends talk to us or when colleagues talk to us, there are a few things that we are passionate about. Ask them. They know you better than sometimes you know yourself, and they can give you constructive feedback.’”

On finding events and creating her own

In regards to speaking, Vivian also discussed creating opportunities for herself, whether that meant just going for it or actually creating her own events.

“I visited the international CFP day where I got to learn about networks where you are being connected with a mentor, or you can learn from other people. [And I realized] that you can go after your own speaking engagements, so not waiting until somebody else, eventually after 5 or 10 years finds out about you. You can actively go for certain speaking engagements, so I did.”

“Be on the lookout. Go to events and ask the speaker if you’re curious about how to end up as a speaker. Just ask them. Some of them will share; some of them won’t. But still ask people and connect with the company that is organizing that event. Let them know that you’re doing something awesome that could be amazing for their events as well.”

Vivian talked about the virtual summit she’s pulled together, Amplify DEI, as well as how she ended up an organizer and what advice she has for others looking to do the same.

“Especially because of this whole lockdown, I had to pivot. I had to make myself visible in another way, but I also had to be creative and…when I noticed that there weren’t a lot of events, I decided to create my own. For about one year, I’ve done weekly live shows – 80 episodes -, and now on top of that, I am doing this virtual summit because I think that I can do it all.”

“It first started out as an idea because I have a lot of goodwill with the speakers that I’ve spoken to on my podcast. So let’s say that 80% of the guests…I already knew them or they have spoken on my podcasts or they were commenting on my podcast, and that makes it easy to reach out. The speaker management or event organizing, it’s a different kind of talent. It’s a game that you have to play [and] you have to be patient. Before you go venturing out on a virtual summit, you have to invest in the relationship that you want to have for your speakers. Only then will they run, only then will they participate, and only then will they promote the summit.”

On using tools, knowing when to ask for help, and finding an audience

Vivian is a self-proclaimed “tools lady,” and recommended speakers take advantage of all of the different resources at their disposal to get started and move forward.

“I am streaming from LinkedIn live but also streaming Facebook Live, YouTube Live Twitter Live at the same time because I’m geeky. One of the things that you don’t see on my profile is I’m a tools lady. I love my tools and I invest in my tools.”

“Don’t let tech hold you back. Follow a course or ask somebody to help you…And if you feel overwhelmed, just reach out to somebody. There are so many resources out there. And there are so many tools out there, so many platforms out there. You don’t have to panic about it.”

With all of the different platforms out there, Vivian said it’s important to find your medium and, just like with tools, don’t be shy about asking for help.

“You don’t have to be visible to become a speaker. You don’t always have to talk. You can also use your blog as a way of speaking up about the topic that you are very passionate about…It’s important for you to find your format. I’m not a person that talks alone because then I can feel a little like all the spotlight is on me, and I’m talking to myself the whole time…I would rather have an engaging conversation…There are different ways of showing visibility.”

“Find a mentor…Ask in the Facebook group for a for Woman Talk Design or ask on Twitter if there is somebody there to mentor you. You might feel ashamed, but there are a lot of people out there that are willing to voluntarily help you out. When you are in an event…sometimes there are breakout room moments where you have that connection and if there is a click there, connect with them [on LinkedIn] and have a conversation with them.”

Vivan also talked about building and maintaining an audience as a speaker, even if it’s not with formal events.

“I would encourage you to go for the free platforms where you don’t have to ask for permission. Go live on Twitter, go live on Facebook, go live on youtube. Warm-up your audience there so that they know that you’re already active, already speaking up.”

“Out of sight, out of mind. Especially now, with the fact that a lot of people are working from home, people have enough on their plates. And a lot of people are dealing with their day-to-day challenges. Being frequently active online makes sure [you’re] not out of sight. You have to be there.”

On being a better event speaker

Vivian brought her unique perspective as both a speaker and an organizer to discuss what speakers should do when participating in an event.  

“Be respectful. There is a deadline – respect the deadline. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask them [and] don’t wait until the last minute.”

When talking about having to say no to an event, Vivian said pay attention to the way you say no.

“What I don’t like is [when] people keep me waiting. I just want a definite answer – yes or no. And if you say no, say it like, ‘I’m not available at this time because I have a project that I’m working on, but the next time that you have something similar, I will do my best to join.’ In that case, the event organizer will remember you said no in a respectful way. Don’t say a hard ‘No’ and never drop out at the last minute because that’s not only bad PR for the event organizer, but it’s also bad PR for you, and it might damage your image as well.”

Vivian also talked about what to do if you absolutely have to drop out.

“I’m not Obama. I’m also not Oprah. But if you commit yourself and you have an appointment with Obama and Oprah, would you cancel that?”

“Be honest. Explain. I’m not saying that you have to explain what’s happening in your life but just be honest and share that there are life events or I just lost somebody or my partner is sick. When you are committing yourself for an event and there is a gap for four months, in those four months you should have had some time to [plan for] yourself, but still, life happens.”

On dealing with trolls and picking herself up

As someone who used speaking initially as a way to challenge herself to learn and grow, Vivian talked about her simple philosophy for overcoming obstacles.

“I fall, and I stand up. That’s it. Because being out there alone, especially when you’re talking about tough conversations that people sometimes are not ready to hear, [just] show up, be yourself. And if you have a bad experience, have a cry day or have a pity party for one day, and then show up again.”

“I’m not inviting trolls to troll me now, but it can happen. And I have a simple methodology for that: click and delete. That’s the only way that I know how to deal with trolls because I’m on a mission. I don’t have the time and energy to engage with people who make it their life’s mission to troll other people.”

For more of Vivian’s advice for organizers, information on launching her AmplifyDEI summit, and how she maintains and protects her energy, check out the full video below:

Thank you to AdobeXD for sponsoring this event series!

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