Natalie Dunbar on being authentic and sharing your story

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Natalie Dunbar about her journey as speaker, the interplay between speaking and writing, and how she develops talk topics by weaving in her own, authentic story.

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.

Natalie Dunbar is a UX-focused Senior Content Strategist at Agile Six, a digital services company that works shoulder-to-shoulder with federal agencies to find innovative, human-centered solutions to improve healthcare access and quality, increase access to benefits for Veterans, and enhance digital services across the government. Prior to joining Agile Six, Natalie built engaging content experiences for enterprises that include Anthem, Inc., Kaiser Permanente (KP), YP.com, and Farmers Insurance. Natalie has spoken at events including the UX Writer Conference, World IA Day, and the Content Strategy Southern California Meetup. When she’s not herding content, speaking or writing, Natalie teaches private yoga and is a self-described “recovering marathoner” and retired marathon coach. She also enjoys dancing Brazilian Samba and Forró into the wee hours.

On why she speaks and how she started

The way Natalie tells it, she happened into speaking as a natural extension of her storytelling after being encouraged to do so by those familiar with her written work.

“I’m a storyteller by nature. I’m pretty passionate about the work that I do as a content strategist. Up until very recently, I was a lot more comfortable sharing in the written form but I got to the point where people started asking me, ‘Hey why don’t you consider talking to our Meetup group?’ or, ‘Why don’t you think about talking about that topic that you wrote about because I think a lot of people would like to hear what you have to say?’ And so I – reluctantly at first – started just getting out there.”

Natalie talked about how one of her first speaking engagements came about after she attended a conference and provided feedback. 

“I still laugh to this day. I went to a conference in Boston – I’m in California [so I] flew across [the] country, went to a conference, and it was supposed to be community managers when online communities were really big. At that time, I was in product management with a focus on user experience and user research. So I went to this conference thinking, ‘Oh, I’m gonna learn about how to build online communities…But when I got to the conference, it was a little bit light on all things community. Long story short, they asked [for] feedback so I sent my online feedback and they called me. And they were like, ‘We’re really interested in what you had to say, tell us more.’ And by the time we got done with the conversation they were like, ‘Can you come back and speak next year?’”

Despite her hesitation to begin speaking and her nerves going into her first big talk, Natalie talked about “catching the bug” once she got started.

“There were all these big people that I had read their work, and I’m going, ‘I don’t think I belong here.’ And making it worse yet, I was the second to last speaker on the first day before happy hour. But I just leaned in with a little bit of humor, knowing that it was going to be towards the end of the day [and] some people would have been traveling that day…And it went really well. My knees were knocking the entire time but it went really well and I would say I caught the bug.”

After that first experience, Natalie described how she dove deeper into speaking by sharing one of her talks on YouTube.

“A colleague of mine started Content Strategy Southern California. And I agreed to assist with developing programming and that kind of thing – to show up at events and just help people. But then, all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Hey, let’s go speak at Innovate Pasadena!’ which is local to where I live. And I [though], ‘Oh, I don’t know how comfortable I am with this but I guess I’m speaking again.’ But it was really fun. People were engaged and I [realized] I have something to share and something to say. I got real brave and I posted a link on my LinkedIn profile. And ever since then – and ever since being involved with Women Talk Design – I’ve had people reach out.”

On how she balances writing and speaking

Natalie discussed how her speaking and writing interplay together and the ways in which she lets the topics dictate their medium.

“As a content strategist, I actually do very little writing because UX writers and other content designers take care of that. But I do write a lot. So sometimes I’ll have an idea that I want to go deep on.I’ll just get the idea down, whether it’s in the Notes app on my phone or [on paper]. I’m still a paper and pen kind of person – I like to write stuff down.”

“Some topics yield themselves to a long form blog post and some are better suited for exploration for a talk topic, and sometimes it’s both. I never saw myself as a public speaker. But I do see myself as a storyteller. So, when one medium doesn’t fit, I go to the other one. I have found recently that with some of the things I’ve written about in more detail, I can pull a talk out of it. Sometimes it’s just a content strategist’s dream – write once, use often.”

On how she develops talks and finds inspiration

Natalie pointed out that the most important factor in creating an engaging talk is to infuse it with your own experiences.

“People really like Brene Brown – she’s a scientist, she’s a researcher, she’s all these things. But the way I feel she really hooks people is with those personal anecdotes. And it’s a little bit scary to be vulnerable, but if you flip it on its head, it’s also the easiest place to talk from because you’re speaking from your truth. This is the truth of my life and if I can speak from that place and apply that to a talk topic, it makes it fun. I’m just telling you my story.”

“One of the things that I think resonates a lot with me when I am engaged by a talk is to hear case studies. So let’s say there’s a theme for an event you’re interested in speaking at and maybe you’ve got a case study or an experience that you can share that’s related to that theme. People love to hear war stories. People also like to hear about [the] things you encountered that went sideways and how you fixed them.”

Natalie also talked about practices she uses to draw inspiration for new talk topics – from attending other talks to digging into the questions she gets asked the most.

“I try to attend workshops [and] virtual talks to hear what other people are saying about their journey and to be that virtual fly on the wall and see what kind of things people really perk up about, especially in the chat. [Then] I try to relate it back to things in my life. Not that I’m copying what they’ve talked about but what in my life has paralleled that path that might be interesting for people?”

“That personal story is sometimes hard to pull out of yourself. Think about what other people ask you about – What have other people approached you for? Sometimes I’ll sketch out or just look at what my career trajectory has been. And I’ll think about some of the low points and figure out how I got over those low points. Those stories are sometimes the most compelling. I know it’s the trope of overcoming but it really is important to share that because we all have a story to tell.”

When forming a talk, Natalie said it’s most important to understand your audience and the world in which you are speaking.

“No matter what the topic is – whether it’s healthcare or content management systems or whatever – do your research, do your social listening, get out there on whatever you are on, whether it be Twitter or whatever, and figure out what people are talking about. You can see trends [in] what people are interested in. And that’s how you understand how to frame a talk. And, of course, asking the event organizers about the folks that are going to be in attendance always helps because that gives you an [of] idea where they’re coming from [and] what they might want to hear. And you can weave in personal anecdotes in terms of [relevant] experiences that you’ve had.”

On how she prepares for a talk and quiets her nerves

Natalie talked about how she brings some of her yoga background into her preparations and how starting with the story helps her feel more confident on stage.

“Nowadays [there] is always yoga and breathing involved because sometimes I [still] hold my breath still. I [also] rehearse like crazy but not memorizing slides. I’ll have an outline and then I’ll start to fill in slides but in the notes part – I’m kind of writing the story. By the time I get done writing whatever story it is that I want to tell, it starts to feel more natural so then I just start practicing telling the story. And when I get comfortable with that, I make sure the visual stuff [is there].”

Another way Natalie said she calms her nerves before a talk is to remind herself that she is speaking for a purpose and not to focus on the emotional aspects.

“A mentor and teacher of mine in the yoga space always tells me when she speaks, [she thinks], ‘Whatever the people think about me is none of my business. I’m here to deliver a message [and] If they want to make it my business we can have a conversation about it.’ When you’re focused on getting out the information – yeah, you’re gonna have your jitters – but taking the emotion out of it and just telling your story, whatever that story, I think that’s the greatest thing – just tapping into that authentic place.”

On how she finds and approaches speaking opportunities

Natalie talked about her process for pitching talks and how she uses research into the event to inform her strategy.

“In the pitches that I do, I try to tell a story. I already have an idea in my mind [and] I do my research to make sure that what I’m pitching is appropriate for the conference or whatever it is that I’m pitching for. And sometimes there’s a theme.”

“I always look [for] other talks online from the same event in years past [and] I watch a few of them to get a feel for [whether] this is really a place that Iwant to pitch to. Do that research.”

Natalie also emphasized the importance of asking about budget and compensation but just as an added perk of the event but also to bolster your legitimacy.

“I’ll have my bullet points of questions that I want to ask then at the end I always ask, ‘Can you tell me what the budget is for speakers for these events?’ It’s a game changer. I don’t get paid at every event, and that’s fine because sometimes it’s just about sharing. But if public speaking is something that you really want to add to your professional toolbox, at some point it adds to your own personal legitimacy to actually put that value on what you have to say.”

On the impact speaking has had on her career

Natalie went into detail on how public speaking has impacted her career as a whole and the ways it has helped her find her voice.

“The literal act of public speaking has helped me to find my voice but that plays out in a lot of different ways. It’s not just about speaking like I’m speaking now or speaking at a conference. It’s also when I’m in meetings and needing to be heard and wanting to share my ideas and have validation. The concept is leaning in or leaning out – I lean in more. And that’s helped me to be more assertive in my career. I feel more comfortable sharing my ideas.”

“[For example,]I had somebody refer to me in a meeting [as], ‘You’re just a brilliant writer.’ And that’s a great compliment but that’s not what my role is. I’m doing content models and content architecture and so on and so forth, so it’s being pigeonholed. Rather than react[ing] to that in a way that I was offended, I took the opportunity to share a little bit more about content strategy.”

“[Also], if you’re comfortable sharing via various platforms – LinkedIn, of course, is one, but  Instagram and other places too – people start to notice you. If you want to get noticed [public speaking] is not a bad thing to do.”

“There’s this concept that I started thinking about when I was starting to do a lot of freelance writing again and speaking: I’m building this body of work that hopefully establishes me as a trusted source of information about content strategy and UX and yoga too. And I think that adds legitimacy to my work experience. I don’t [speak] for that reason but I think it does help.”

For more of Natalie’s advice for talking on complex topics, her public speaking goals, and what speakers inspire her most, check out the full event video below.