Ovetta Sampson on her lifetime in front of an audience and how she brings authentic storytelling to her speaking

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Ovetta Sampson about how she’s grown from the stage to journalism to speaking and how each experience has built on the last.

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.

Ovetta Sampson’s sweet spot is the intersection of humanity, business and technology. She uses a variety of research, design and engineering methods to inspire innovation in various industries including, mobility, retail, service, insurance and health care. She also specializes in envisioning human-centered experiences for future technologies. Combining her M.S. in Computer Science (HCI) with her BA in Communications, Ovetta spends most of her time helping people visualize humanity’s future and how to ethically and with compassion serve people through digital and intelligent products. When not working or teaching, Ovetta is swimming, biking and running, in exotic locales, and occasionally, doing these races called Ironmans.

“What I’m obsessed with right now is a new era of product making that we are going to enter. I used to spend a lot of my time talking about ethics and bias and AI but I’ve moved on from that and I’m talking about mindful creation now and trying to redesign how we design products. We’re breaking down silos between engineering and research and design and even sales and marketing. We have to get beyond the task-oriented AI that we have now and more into ecosystems and designing whole environmental systems that have to do with a lot of human and machine relationships, rather than humans directing machines. And so that’s what my brain is putting at the forefront for me.”

On getting started as a speaker

Ovetta talked about how she has lived her entire life on one stage or another, whether through theater in school or a career in journalism.

“I cannot remember a year in my life where I wasn’t on stage and there was an audience in front of me. My first gig [was when] I was three years old and I only had two lines to say and it was ‘We are little mice, if you please. We are here to eat your cheese.’ So I feel like I’ve been on stage for all of my life.”

“Quite frankly, I’m a ringer, I don’t really remember the first time [I spoke]…I started in theater and did theater in college. [In] theater, you do two things: you’re in front of the audience and you’re memorizing everything. So that really helps with speaking. But then, I was a reporter too. And [with that] you’re asking questions, you’re engaging with people.”

Even though Ovetta has spent most of her life in front of an audience, she also spoke about her transition in professional speaking.

“I started speaking when I was a journalist. I was doing a couple fellowships so I had to speak about the work that I was doing…It wasn’t until like four or five years ago that I got really serious about making money as a speaker and doing it professionally. There was an arc from me standing on stage and just taking up 10 minutes to me crafting a speech that people want to pay to listen to.”

Ovetta talked about her journey from beginning to formally speak at conferences to finding her foothold as a professional, paid speaker.

“My speaker’s arc is a lot like other speakers’ arcs where you speak at conferences who are just desperate to put people on the stage. You’re new and so it’s flattering, it’s great that somebody wants to listen to you for 45 minutes. I went through that for maybe about two years.”

“The requests went from one a month to one every three weeks to one a week and now it’s one a day. And so I started thinking about the time that I was putting into speeches, the time that I had to work and how much that was costing me to be away from work. And then I started evaluating the conferences themselves.”

Ovetta discussed how the growing time commitment of speaking came with tradeoffs for work and other self-care and how that influenced her decision process for asking for compensation.

“The first one, you speak anywhere because they ask you to. The second one, you [think] I don’t really want to take off work to go speak. I was a design researcher so it was really hard for me to go off work. So [I thought] if I’m gonna get off of work and speak at your conference in London, then I’m going to need something for that.”

“I go through discovery and I go through synthesis and I go through building the speech. It takes a lot of time so if I was going to charge, I had to figure out how much time I put into speeches. I figured out I put about 10 hours into an hour long speech and then I said what is 10 hours of my time worth? And so $100 an hour [equates to] 1000 bucks. That’s what I started with.”

“I’m at the point of my career where building my personal brand is really important to me…because I want as many people to hear what I have to say. And writing a book helps that. So if I speak at this place for 45 minutes, then that means I’m not working on my book.”

With the commitment and compensation needs in mind, Ovetta said her criteria for evaluating opportunities has also evolved.

“There are three things that I care a lot about and that’s AI – mindful AI and creating ethical AI products – being an African American and being a woman. So if [an event] is from those three groups, then they go to the top of the list…I vet based upon the topics, and the organization, and then the audience. Do I feel like, what I’m saying is very important [to them]?”

On developing talks

Ovetta talked about how she’s learned to develop talks more tactically, starting out as a natural storyteller.

“I had a friend, a mentor, and he said ‘You should go to Toastmasters.’ And that really helped because one of the things that Toastmasters does is it prepares you to do very short speeches [and] long speeches, but really it prepares you to put together a story from beginning to end.”

“That was my first exposure to the tactical part of speaking. You have to have an introduction and you have to have a middle and you have to have an end. And you have to have a through line that connects that. I had already done that in storytelling but when you’re speaking, you don’t have as much time as you do with a story. You have to do it in a kind of truncated way, in a very deliberate way.”

“The UX Research speech was one of my first speeches where I had a speech mentor. I’m a pretty good speech writer but it’s really great to have someone to work through the speech with you before you give it…I’m a real tactical speaker so having a speech mentor elevated me from being a good speaker to being a speaker that people would actually pay for. And then once you get that one amazing professional speech on video somewhere. You won’t have a problem with people calling you.”

Ovetta said the best piece of advice she ever received was to make sure her talks get right to the essence and she discussed how that’s affected her process for developing a story.

I think in very, very complex circles. And [advice] I got it – it seems really trite – simplicity is the author of a beautiful speech. A lot of the advice that I get about my speeches is to strip it down and get to the essence…I remember an editor would say to me, ‘Clear throat on your own time.’ And that meant cut out the first three paragraphs and get to the one paragraph that you really want people to know. I cried the first time I heard that but then afterwards I [though], ‘Yeah, I don’t want to waste people’s time.’ You don’t want to waste someone’s time, so don’t. It’s not, it’s not a mystery – don’t try to wait to the end to get to the point. Stripping it down to the essence of what you’re trying to communicate will make your speeches resonate so much better.”

“In my professional speeches, I tend to repeat my points along the way so that by the time you get to the last chapter you’ve heard them all. Then I put them together like a little Lego puzzle.”

“When you’re transitioning things from the page to the stage, you have to remember it’s kind of like a screenplay. You really have to have your beginning, middle and end packed tightly like a screenplay. I do a three sentence outline for anything that I write, speak or whatever. It’s only three sentences – the first is the conflict and then in the middle is a bridge to how it was solved and then the last is the resolution. [And then] I take whatever the thousand words are and I put them into that outline and if I can’t put them into the outline then I know I’m not ready to speak…I write my speeches in transitions, rather than in blocks.”

Ovetta also discussed how to get personal and achieve authenticity in talks without crossing too far over the line between personal and professional.

“If you want to be a speaker, you have to bring authenticity because there are tons of speakers speaking about all kinds of things that you probably want to speak about, but none of them are you. And so, I love speakers who bring themselves into the professional topic, who speak about their highs and their lows and how they got out of them…I talk about failure a lot because people only see my successes. And so I talk about failure. And that’s what I mean about being personal –  connection is what you’re going after, not absolution.”

“The first rule is know your audience, right? I’ve spoken in front of four- or five-star generals as well as kindergarteners. There are certain things I just don’t say to kindergarteners. So I think you can be personal with all of your audiences [but] this is why you need to practice. And this is why you need a speech mentor because it’s nice to have somebody go, ‘Whoa, are you sure you want to share that?’”

For more on how her speaking style developed from her background in journalism, the effect speaking has had on her career, and the need to get comfortable making mistakes, check out the full talk below:

Thank you to AdobeXD for sponsoring this event series!

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