LaDonna Witmer Willems on giving herself permission to speak and finding her own voice

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with LaDonna Witmer Willems about her journey to overcome imposter syndrome and her own baked-in patterns of behavior to develop as a speaker and how that has evolved beyond talks to workshops and writing aimed at helping others find permission to speak.

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.

Along her personal journey to find her own voice, LaDonna Witmer Willems has been a newspaper journalist, advertising copywriter, copy director, and poet. She’s currently one of the editorial gurus on the Dropbox Brand Studio team in San Francisco, creating and facilitating the most powerful expressions of the Dropbox voice. In minutes between meetings and her daughter’s riding lessons, she’s also writing a book.

On giving herself permission to speak

LaDonna talked about how she started her speaker journey by examining the effects her upbringing had on her and how she started to break free of those patterns.

“I was raised in a really conservative environment both politically, and, more importantly for this story, religiously. I was raised in this world where women were submissive and silent – that was the ideal way to be. All of those early lessons were taught to me by literally everyone in my life – my parents, my school teachers, my church, my friends parents, my grandparents.” 

“And I felt constrained by that and felt that there was something wrong with it [but] it was a long time before I was able to really break out of it. I grew away from that thinking when I was in my 20s but now I’m in my 40s and I realize how much those lessons have become a part of my subconscious – they’re just there without me even realizing it and still hold me back in a lot of ways.”

“Once I saw the pattern in my life, which was only about a year and a half ago, I was like, ‘Wait a second, I have been a writer my whole life, I’ve been really outspoken about a lot of things, I’m comfortable on the stage, and I’m doing well in my career, and yet I’m still waiting for people in positions of power – usually men – to give me permission.’ It’s kind of like this – like in the Wizard of Oz, once you’ve seen behind the curtain you can’t unsee it and you start to know all the ways that it’s permeated your life. But until you have that moment that you pull aside the curtain, you’re really unaware.” 

“When I was in my 20s, I was doing all these poetry slams [and] wanted to write a little poetry book but I kept thinking, ‘I’m not good enough, my stuffs not good enough.’ It wasn’t until a guy I had a crush on said, ‘You know what you should write one of those poetry books.’ So years later, I look back at that [and think], ‘Why did it have to be his idea? Why did I have to wait for a guy to say I should do it?’”

“So many of us are just waiting for someone to tell us that it’s okay for us to share our story. And once I really latched on to that as a topic, I felt like, ‘Okay, I’m ready. I have something that I want to say that really matters to me and I think will matter to a lot of other people.’ Again, once you’ve seen the wizard behind the curtain you want everyone to see the wizard so if you can pull back that curtain even a little bit to help people start their own journeys, then you have to.”

On using developing a speaking topic around her personal story and finding those first engagements

When discussing how she developed talks around permission, LaDonna highlighted how she wanted to interweave her personal vulnerability with research.

“I wanted to start with a personal story because if we’re talking about personal voices, I need to go there as well; I need to give my audience something vulnerable because I’m asking them to be vulnerable back. I’m pointing that out as the core of finding your voices – being real about who you are [and] knobby, hairy parts, not just the perfect social media parts. And if I’m going to ask people to do that, I also have to do that.” 

“But I didn’t just want it to be about me. I felt like for some people, I have to prove the case. And so I included a lot of research about voices being silenced. It’s easy to find that, especially when you look at women in particular, statistics and anecdotes and all sorts of things. From there, it started to come together.”

LaDonna said that once she was ready to speak, she relied on others in her community to help her find a stage.

“I went to a woman who’s kind of in charge of community events and said, ‘I’ve been writing this and I have this idea. What do you think?’ And she said, ‘I’m absolutely going to hook you up.’ She basically was my agent at that point and came back a week later and said, ‘How do you feel about Tel Aviv in the fall?’ So that was my first event. My first audience was about 500 people.

“In the beginning, particularly, we were going for a more creative audience. But as time has gone on and this has become more of a full program, we’ve broadened it. It’s become really clear that this is a universal topic. It’s not really just related to women. It’s not just creative people. Every single culture in every country gets it. Everybody feels it.”

On evolving her platform beyond traditional talks

LaDonna explored how her speaking has moved beyond the realm of talks on stage to include workshops and, most recently, a book in the works. Through it all, she has found strength in her community.

“It’s all about bringing other people along on your journey. So I have Michelle Morrison and she is one of those people who just plugs others into the right sockets and introduces you to the right people and also pushes you. She was one of my early listeners and very soon she said, ‘I think that this should be a workshop as well as the talk.’ 

“When you just give a talk, people are taking notes. But when you’re talking about, ‘Who are you really and what do you really care about and how does your identity relate to your voice?’ you can’t unpack all that in 30 minutes in an auditorium full of people; You need some time and you need some guidance. And so that was where the workshop started.” 

“And so we brought in another person named Jennifer Brooke, who at the time was on the design research team, and she had done a ton of workshops and we just brainstormed together – [if] I’m telling people what to do to find your voice, how could we turn those into activities? And how could we create a workshop that will be engaging but [people] will also leave feeling like they accomplished something?…The talk is kind of like an intro and evidence and how you do it and then the workshop is asking really tough questions to get people thinking. Your voice isn’t just words, it’s all the ways that you express yourself. So it’s helping people figure that out as well – What is my channel? What is my audience?”

LaDonna illustrated how the idea to write a book came as a natural next step to her talks and workshops. Again, she credited others in her network for helping her get started.

“As a part of Permission to Speak, I started reading a lot of memoirs. Yin to the Yang of finding your voice is also hearing other voices that aren’t like your own. And so my rule was [they] can’t be written by a white, straight, cis woman – [they] had to be written by someone who’s different from me. I’ve been devouring all these books and I thought I could do some sort of a memoir that unpacks, a lot of the early reasons for why I silenced my voice.”

“Michelle and I were sitting at a table the day after I had given my talk, and I told her several people had come up to me and said that I should write a book. I was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to write a book. What do you think?’ And [then] I went on for 15 minutes just telling her all the reasons why I shouldn’t write a book [until] she finally just shut her computer and was like, ‘LaDonna, you stood on the stage yesterday and told 500 people to stop silencing themselves. And what are you doing to yourself right now?’ I was like, ‘Oh, shit. I have to write a book.’”

“I had no idea how to start writing a book, mostly because I was really intimidated by it. I can write a poem no problem but a book feels monstrous. At the time, I sat next to a lovely human named Chris Baty, who is the founder of National Novel Writing Month. And he got wind of this idea I had and said, ‘Well you should just do National Novel Writing Month to get your book started.’ The premise is that you write every day in November to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month…[so] that you have a first draft by the end of the month and it can be a really shitty first draft but at least you’ve gotten started.”

“It was like riding blind. I had no idea where it was going [and] I just had my flashlight pointed at my toes and slowly started to figure it out and it was brilliant. Having a 50,000 word count, even if you know you’re gonna throw most of those words away, you still feel like you got started and you have a place to go now.”

On overcoming imposter syndrome and writers block

LaDonna talked about her experiences with the universality of imposter syndrome and how it ties into giving herself permission.

“When I first started at Dropbox, I was coming from the world of retail. And I just remember for months thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here? I am not one of these people.’ I felt really old because everyone was fresh out of college and I [thought], ‘If they knew how old I am, they wouldn’t let me be here.’”

“[Then] I was at a conference for women in tech, called The Within Retreat last year and I was having massive imposter syndrome while I was there because everyone else was leading these teams of 50 people or were really creative designers or whatever. At one point, in a small group that I was put in, I just [said], ‘I don’t feel like I’m supposed to be here right now. I feel like I’m just a writer.’ And it was amazing [because] every other woman in the circle said, ‘I also feel like I’m not supposed to be here’ or something like, ‘This hotel is too fancy for me’ or ‘You all have really cool jobs and I’m just a freelancer.’ Every single woman had a story about how she felt like an imposter.”

“We all think that everyone else feels really secure and feels like they know what they’re doing when in reality, most of us are just making it through and doing the best we can, day by day, and hoping that it’s good enough.”

For giving yourself permission to speak, LaDonna said it’s different for everyone but described what it looks like for her as an ongoing practice.

“At the end of my first workshop, I ended it by just saying, ‘So give yourself permission to speak. Okay, great. Have a good day!’ This woman came up to me and [asked], ‘But how do I give myself permission?’ I don’t really have an answer for that because it’s different for everyone but what I can say is that [for me] with the imposter syndrome and with permission to speak, it is constantly reminding myself [that] I am the only one who can give myself permission to speak and I do give myself permission to speak and I do have a right to be in this room and I do have something to say.”

LaDonna shared one of her favorite pieces of advice from the current Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris.

“The gist of it was that when she speaks, she’s so passionate about what she’s saying that she thinks of herself as just a vehicle or a vessel to get the message across. She doesn’t matter as much as she needs people to hear this thing. When you are really connected to a topic that you’re really passionate about, that passion will override any insecurities that you might have.”

“Especially with this topic, Permission to Speak, I definitely feel that way as well. I have the added benefit of enjoying a large audience but I don’t know that I ever in my life have felt so much like I’m where I’m supposed to be doing what I’m supposed to be doing as when I’ve been talking about this because it feels so important.” 

For more on her favorite advice, how to deal with writer’s block, and what she’s looking forward to, check out the full video below. You can also check out LaDonna’s Personal Voice Workbook by ordering a printed copy here or downloading the PDF.

Thank you to AdobeXD for sponsoring this event series!