Sarah Fathallah on speaking as a means of critical reflection

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Sarah Fathallah about how she began as a speaker and the ways she uses her experiences to reflect on and evolve her practices personally and professionally.

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.

graphic with photo of Sarah next to title of the event "Women Talk Design Speaker Stories"

Sarah Fathallah is an independent designer and researcher, who specializes in applying design to the social sector. She has worked on projects of all sizes with non-profits, governments, and social enterprises, on topics ranging from civil and human rights, to healthcare, education, and financial inclusion. Her clients have included the World Bank, the International Rescue Committee, and Open Society Foundations, to name a few. Sarah also co-founded Design Gigs for Good, a free community-driven resource to help more people use the tools of design to create positive social change. Sarah is a graduate of Sciences Po Paris, where she studied International Business and Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Affairs. She also studied design innovation at the Paris Est d.school, User Experience design at General Assembly, and participatory design at MIT.

On why she speaks

As a freelancer, Sarah talked about why she views speaking as an opportunity to create connections while also engaging in self-reflection.

“I always used to think of public speaking as purely an opportunity for business development – to meet potential new clients or partners, to put myself out there, to talk about my methods and my approaches.”

“I’m starting to realize that public speaking [also] presents me with the opportunity to pause and take stock of my practice and exercise some self-reflectivity on how I’ve been doing the things that I want to do. Sometimes you get so deep into executing project after project that it helps to have a reason and a contained space to take the time and think about, ‘Why is it that I’m using this approach?”…And hopefully share in a way that can [elevate] our collective practices as a whole.”

“It’s not just a personal endeavor. When you speak publicly about something, you often get some form of feedback, whether that’s from the q&a [or] folks tweeting about it, whether that’s from folks coming to talk to you afterwards. And it’s always fascinating to see what resonates with people, what they latch onto, what they took away from what you said. A lot of the times I reflect that back into my practice again, basically closing that feedback loop.”

“The benefits of public speaking for me are mostly about sitting down, coming up with the topic framework, presenting, and hearing feedback.”

Sarah also highlighted some of the ways speaking has impacted her career.

“There’s definitely an aspect of being [recognized]. Even if people don’t know me personally, they’ve come across my name in relation to certain topics that I feel strongly about. And I think that that’s been an important piece of my career because I am a freelancer so a lot of my work is built on reputation and what people heuristically associate with me. If they think about a certain context or about a certain type of problem and then they think about my name, then I’ve succeeded in being able to sustain myself in my freelance practice.”

“Aside from that [and] on a more selfish note, I’ve met some people at conferences that were more important keynotes – the stars of the show. People that I was literally fan-girling over them and it’s been really nice to meet some folks that I hold in very high regards.”

On her process for preparing talks

When describing how she ideates topics and builds talks, Sarah talked about her love of research.

“It used to be a lot more opportunistic where I would find a conference that I think is like a prestigious opportunity for me and then look at their call for proposals and try to find a topic that I think would fit better with what I’m imagining they’re hoping to receive. That’s changed in a sense because I now have a note on my Google Keep app where I just keep a list of random ideas for either talks or written pieces that I could prepare. And those are just random – sometimes I’m reading a book and that sparks an idea or I’m in a Twitter debate about something or having conversation with a peer or whatever it is.”

“I really love to make [my talks] chock full of tangible examples and case studies from my work. I’m not a very theoretical type of speaker. I only start developing a talk or a written piece once I have that idea for the topic in my list and I start to see that I have enough work examples from what I’m doing to illustrate those ideas.”

“I’m such a researcher at heart. I love frameworks and outlines and short bullet points. I’ll start with a shortlist of five points that I want to hit on or a three-part framework that’s chronological. And then, once that clicks for me, the rest flows and I start to develop the content and add the photography or video to illustrate it.”

“[And] I’m not counting all the time that my brain is thinking about it but I’m not doing anything about it. Like when I’m in my shower and I’m thinking about what the ideas could be or the structure of it. Or [when] I’m literally dreaming about it at night. Then at some point I will get on the screen and start typing something but all of that labor has been happening in my brain.”

On anxiety and imposter syndrome

Sarah also discussed her experience with anxiety and imposter syndrome and the methods she uses to overcome them.

“I get pretty severe performance anxiety. I’m not the best at improvising so my process [is to] painstakingly write every single thing that I want to say and then rehearse it. Even for panels, I usually ask if I can see the questions in advance so I can prepare. My brain will sometimes freeze if I’m asked something I didn’t prepare for or I’m put on the spot. I’m working on that – it’s improving slowly but surely…I don’t think that those are like wrong things, I think they’re just colorful things about speakers.”

“I’ve built some self-soothing tricks with time to deal with [anxiety] on the spot, whether that’s just doing some intentional deep breathing [or]  digging my feet in on the ground if I’m sitting down or lying down beforehand or doing some self holds.”

“Imposter syndrome is real. I especially feel that way for conferences or publications or series that I’ve followed before where I’ve seen folks that I admire go through them and they’ve said something super smart or insightful that stayed with me. Then I [think], ‘Well I can’t live up to that. I’m never going to say something as smart.’”

“The reality is no one is comparing – no one’s reading a publication or going to a conference and [saying], ‘Well that was the best speaker and this was the worst speaker.’ They’re just going in and getting any learning or any engagement that they need from it and then that’s it.”

“One of those very famous people that I met at a conference saw me pacing nervously before I went on stage and  told me something along the lines of, ‘As long as you’re talking about things that you know and you are passionate about, you have nothing to worry about.’ [So] if you’re someone like me who struggles with anxiety, [it is] often exacerbated [by] unknowns. But if you know the topic you’re speaking about and you’re passionate about it, that reduces some of those unknowns.”

“Another thing that I’ve learned through my career is that there’s no shame in saying that you don’t know the answer to something that you know you’re not well-versed enough to voice an informed opinion about. Or even [if you] just need time to think about it first before you answer.”

She also talked about a time when her anxiety had her questioning why she was speaking.

“I remember being at a conference and I was so beyond nervous and I just had a moment with myself [to think], ‘Why do I do this to myself? Why am I subjecting myself to this much stress? No one’s forcing me to do this. I could very well live my life without and will be just fine.’ And so [I] did my list with the pros and cons and [weighing] whether or not it was still worth it. And it was.”

With the effects of the pandemic, Sarah said she has found virtual events to be less stressful but also highlighted what she misses about in-person talks.

“Events and conferences online relieve some of [the] pressure of knowing everything by heart because I can always have my notes in front of me rather than learning everything beforehand.”

“I would prefer virtual solely on the basis of how much it helps alleviate my anxiety. And when I say anxiety, [I mean] not just in public speaking. I don’t know if you all go to conferences and then you [feel] like, ‘What am I doing with my body? How do I go and talk to other people that I don’t know?’ When there’s these networking events, it’s very overwhelming.”

“That’s not to say [that I don’t] love connecting with real humans…[And] on the flip side of that I do miss just getting to be other places than my own home.”

On writing versus speaking

As both a writer and a speaker, Sarah talked about the difference between her talks and her written pieces and how she knows which one a topic is right for.

“I tend to think about a written piece as something that can be consumed [in] long form. If a topic will require more hand holding to explain what [it] is about [and] have a bunch of citations or refer to other things, that lends itself more to a written format. Whereas I think a talk tends to be more self-contained and [it] doesn’t really branch out.”

“A talk, to me, will have a very neat [structure]. Like, ‘Okay, I’m going to walk you through the first step, the second step, the third step.’ And I’m going to have a set of sub-points within it and that will be it. When I write, it’s more about topics [with] a lot of open questions so there’s a lot of other work that I’m trying to reference or things that I may have in multiple parts.”

“I decide beforehand whether I want it to be a written piece or a talk and then I develop it. But I’ve talked about things that I’ve written about and vice versa.”

For more about the current topics she’s speaking about, what red flags she looks for when selecting engagements and the impact speaking has had on her career, check out the full video below.