Erin Pinkley on using your story to find a personal connection in speaking

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Erin Pinkley about how her childhood experiences led her into public speaking, the importance she places on using your own story to create connection, and how she enjoys trying new formats in speaking as well as in her role on the Zendesk Creative team. 

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.

Erin Pinkley headshot with words "Women Talk Design Speaker Stories featuring Erin Pinkley"

Erin Pinkley runs the Brand Team at Zendesk, a company that makes software for better customer experiences. Erin keeps the brand relevant by ensuring that her team and the brand constantly evolve. Outside of work, she’s a taker of photographs, painter of paintings, runner of trails, drawer of shoes and maker of award-winning pies. Erin has spoken at events including Ueno SF Chatty Hour, Designer Fund, and Zendesk’s B2B is Beautiful.

This event was hosted in partnership with Zendesk Creative. Zendesk is a service-first CRM company that builds support, sales, and customer engagement software designed to foster better customer relationships. From large enterprises to startups, we believe that powerful, innovative customer experiences should be within reach for every company, no matter the size, industry or ambition. Zendesk serves more than 150,000 customers across hundreds of industries in over 30 languages. Zendesk is headquartered in San Francisco, and operates offices worldwide. Learn more at www.zendesk.com.

On why she speaks and what she’s most interested in speaking on

Erin spoke with us about how her religious upbringing put her on a unique path to speaking and how not only her experiences but also the fact that she didn’t take a traditional route, influence and motivate her.

“I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. If you don’t know what that means, we are the kind of people who would knock on your door on a Saturday morning and talk about the Bible. So from a very young age, I was knocking on doors and had to get comfortable talking to complete strangers about, you know, light topics like the meaning of life or eternal death, or that Christmas isn’t real – at 9am on a Saturday.”

“What you need to know for even more context is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral. So post-911, [my] school decided to reinstate the ritual of the flag. As a Jehovah’s Witness, I bravely refuse to recite the national anthem and put my hand on my heart. And this was a very sensitive time, of course, so I was sent immediately to the principal’s office, where I made a stand for my religion and had a chance to teach him a little bit about our beliefs. Back home, this made me just an absolute legend. And I was asked to tell this story to a massive stadium of 6000 people multiple times over the course of a summer.”

“While I was raised to get comfortable with speaking to people, this was my first [public speaking] moment. Just, even the physical aspects of that – hearing your voice and seeing people’s faces and seeing the reactions – it was terrifying. But also, it was an amazing feeling. Having so many people being able to connect was the best part – hearing the reaction afterwards like, ‘Oh that was so brave and it really inspired me.’ You know, and building that connection based on a moment of bravery.”

When discussing why she speaks and what topics she’s currently focused on, Erin talked about her different path has become a catalyst for her.

“You have to make the most of the space that you’re given. I hope to give back and speak up for those who don’t have a voice. Specifically in the industry of creative that we are in, it’s not very well defined. Nobody’s really written the book on how to be a creative person with a career. I hope [to] share experiences and show that it’s not all perfect MBAs and fancy degrees that get us all here. It’s very real.”

“I am most interested in both sharing but also hearing about real life stories, especially now [when] everybody’s on their own private roller coaster dealing with all kinds of stuff that is just not visible to the world. So I’m really interested in hearing about the real stuff we go through.”

On using stories to create a connection

Multiple times throughout our conversation, Erin touched on her belief that sharing your personal story and using stories throughout talks regardless of the topic, is the key to building connection and memorable experiences.

“It’s important to [find] that personal connection with whatever I’m talking about – that’s the thing that makes it real and makes it sound natural. Telling a good personal story, sharing the dirt, sharing any sort of juicy, vulnerable details. I think that’s where the magic is.”

“Be as real as humanly possible. That is the only way you’re ever going to be interesting or sound good or make people invite you back. That realness, you can’t fake it – your story is your story. And I think just people can really see themselves in your imperfection.”

“It’s sharing that vulnerability that actually connects people. I think that’s really, really powerful.”

Erin also related her philosophy around speaking to her experiences in her career and her current position at Zendesk, highlighting some of the ways they encourage sharing personal stories.

“At Zendesk, we have a monthly show and tell where people share their life stories and it has nothing to do with work but it’s all kind of centered around everybody sharing their path [and] how they landed at Zendesk – that’s kind of the thing that brings it all together. And it’s incredible.”

“Especially in the corporate world, a lot of the things that we talk about in our day to day can be numbers and just raw information. And that’s bad – that’s important information to communicate – but it’s just not memorable. As creative people, our work is telling stories [so] telling stories about the stories really helps your work be memorable to people. Often people make decisions based on the thing that they remember.”

“I personally love [a] ‘Where Am I?’ map when you’re trying to understand a lot of different information. As a whole team [at Zendesk], the work we do is to simplify a lot of complexity and make it understandable. We try to simplify so people are like, ‘Okay I got it, I get what you’re saying.’ It’s a good practice to say, ‘The concept we’re trying to tell you about – let me make that more approachable for you and help you like help you understand.’ [through stories].”

“It’s really important to our team culture that we all make space for our entire selves. That ends up showing itself in our creative work, where people have their own personality and they come in with their own perspective. There’s enough room for people’s whole selves in our work. Taking the time to embrace it and to make that space for people to share, ‘Hey here’s who I am.’ so you know who’s making this work creates a really diverse culture.”

On imposter syndrome and developing as a speaker

While Erin had her first speaking experiences early on in life, she still talked about the sense of doubt she felt in the beginning.

“While I always felt comfortable talking to strangers and developing rapport and that came natural to me, as a creative person, it took me a long time to get comfortable talking about the subject matter because I always had that imposter feeling [because] I didn’t get a traditional degree [and] I didn’t go the the typical path.”

“One of my first big client presentations as a designer was just a complete flop because I didn’t have that sense of bravery, I didn’t see myself in it yet. In my religious life, I had a whole empire built around building that confidence for me.”

She also shared how she moved through imposter syndrome and the ways she approaches speaking differently now.

“I started to just take every opportunity as it came at me and just said yes every time anybody asked me to speak. And it wasn’t always good. I have a lot of people that have really helped me build out talk tracks and really think through how to tell a story. A lot of people have really helped me and also inspired me on how they present themselves.”

“As a creative person, you’re often given platforms to present work or to tell a story and so it’s not too hard to find an opportunity. It’s always good to make the most of it and [spend] a lot of time thinking through and practicing for some of those engagements.”

“I would say yes to everything. The opportunity may not look like what you thought it would look like [but] say yes because it’s great practice no matter what.”

“The other thing I like to do is rethink the format a little bit. It doesn’t always have to be one person talking and filling the entire space. Hearing two people interact with each other is a completely different feeling. So I like to take a look at that and say, ‘How can we reframe the format we’re given?’”

“Something we’ve been doing at Zendesk is rethinking a team meeting we have. We’ve turned it into a podcast format – people don’t necessarily have to turn on the camera. And it’s just people talking and it’s more interview style. Rethinking how you can turn the tables on the basic format you’re given is a really important part of the process and making the most of that.”

On preparing for a talk and dealing with difficulties

Erin discussed how she stays grounded before going on stage and talked about why she actually looks forward to the little difficulties that arise during a talk.

“I always call my mom. [Because] you always have the nerves and raw energy and then you start feeling fake and it becomes over-engineered. I call my mom and she calms me right down. It’s talking like a real person – that’s a no bullshit relationship. And so, you know, whoever that person is [for you,] I recommend talking to them.”

“I think something always goes wrong. For me, I actually look forward to it because it’s an opportunity to show my character. How you deal with that – that’s who you are. So I like to make a joke out of it or  fill the space.”

On how speaking has impacted her career and how she related to and empowers others

One connection Erin made between speaking and her career was how it benefits not just her, but her team.

“There’s public speaking internally and then there’s public speaking externally. Speaking internally amounts to building a presence not only for myself but for my entire team inside of the company. That’s really important to the success of a creative team inside of a company – raising awareness [and] having a consistent presence. When I think about when we did a massive rebrand or when we launched new products or come up with new campaigns, being out there and speaking – not talking about numbers or lead generation, but telling the company about our personality and why we look the way we do and what impact this has on the business. [We were] connecting those dots for everyone inside of the company.”

“And [I am] opening that door for someone else. Yes, I do run the department but that doesn’t mean I have to be the one speaking. Opening the floor for the people who actually made the work to speak on behalf of the workers is super important. Hearing that wide range of different perspectives is important.”

“This is [also] where flipping the format opened up a lot of doors. It doesn’t have to be one person speaking and 100 people listening. Why can’t it be a whole conversation? Why can’t we have podcast style interviews in a format maybe nobody has rethought? That’s where we create more space for one another.”

In speaking outside of Zendesk, Erin is still focused on the connection she gets to experience with others and the ways she can help them.

“Externally, the best thing is when I hear from somebody early in their career who I’ve never met before but maybe heard me speak and they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m just getting started. I would love your advice [and] I don’t know where to go next.’ I think that’s just incredible. The fact that you can connect with someone like that.”

For more on how Erin is dealing with virtual speaking, what inspires her, and her favorite podcast, check out the full video below.

A special thank you to Zendesk Creative for sponsoring this event!