Tea Uglow on the importance of saying yes and the impacts of speaking

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Tea Uglow about her journey as a public speaker and the profound impact speaking has had on her life.

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.

Tea Uglow is a founder member of Google’s Creative Lab. She works on a range of projects with cultural organisations and practitioners to enable artists, writers, and performers to use digital tools to amplify or augment their artistic, theatrical, or musical practice. She has 3 books including A Universe Explodes and A Curiosity of Doubts and was awarded a Peabody for digital storytelling in 2018. Her 2016 TEDx talk has more than 1.6m views. She mentors queer, BAME, female, and other intersectional creators and coders worldwide. She likes pop-physics, behavioural psychology, and shopping.

On why she speaks

Tea started off discussing why she speaks by pointing out she doesn’t have a defined reason – she likes it and she’s good at it. 

“I like it. It’s like the way some people like running or swimming. I think a lot of it has to do with performing genuinely in that I spent most of my life performing in one way or another. But almost everything is performance so being on stage is a very comfortable place to be. Not because I’m acting but because you get some fluency, everything is more under your control there than anywhere else really.”

“I didn’t ever really want to speak and I was pushed into it and pushed into and pushed into it. I remember at school, being shoved up on the stage to do things. And when people laugh, when you begin to feel some control over an audience and some control over what you’re saying, it is a very powerful drug. It’s a thrill. It’s the same as getting on a fairground ride.”

“I speak because I enjoy it so I will probably do it anyway. I’d do it to an empty room, I’m sure. And it’s a craft and it’s a skill and you learn things and you meet people. And if you practice from an early age, you forget that it’s hard and you’re comfortable at the edge of what it is that you’re capable of doing. You have those disasters where everything goes wrong and those things are okay.”

“It’s also amazing how much people want to hear. It’s an odd thing to talk about, but I’m always rather startled that people do want to hear what I have to say…Mainly the reason I get over myself is that lots of people listen to me. But I genuinely find it really mystifying, especially as I keep thinking that I’m just talking about the same things over and over again. It’s very peculiar.”

On how she started speaking

Tea talked about speaking from a young age but, when it came to speaking professionally, said she began by stepping in for people she admired who did not like public speaking.

“I think the first time I spoke I was DJing for my boss. I’ve been with them a lot of times and they hate speaking, like how you would imagine anyone normal would hate speaking – they get really nervous, they get anxious. So the first gigs in a way, were really high profile – they were New York Design Week and Cannes. I was running the decks because I’d compiled all of them. And I think I’d also been doing the same for other sets of senior execs when I got to Google. I quickly came to this place of putting together talks.”

“It was great. It was really, really empowering to stand on stage with someone who you respect enormously and feel like they’re giving it to you. I’ve often tried to do that. Whenever you get a chance to speak with someone from your team, it’s a really challenging dynamic.”

On how she’s evolved as a speaker

From performing on stage through speaking professionally, Tea credited enjoying speaking, just saying yes, and working with others for most of her evolution as a speaker.

“There was a strange sort of amalgam of going into agencies to talk on behalf of Google, like a business meeting and then every now and again I remember doing live class[es] which was like a ‘teach yourself to code’ class. And this thing turned into a marathon exercise. You got to the end of three hours and everyone else is exhausted and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, I really enjoyed that’, which I don’t generally do – I’m not an extrovert at all. I can’t do more than one person at a time, maybe two. But, you know 10,000 is fine.”

“Basically, I just always said yes. And that kind of grew and grew. It’s fun for me.I don’t really know what the audience is that I’m getting into and I don’t really know what we’re going to be talking about. For me, the talks are very organic. So they tend to be a little bit less structured.”

“I [also] like being behind the scenes at the event. If I’m not backstage at a conference, then I’m not at a conference. I don’t think I’ve ever been to one properly.”

On what she’s speaking on

Tea discussed the current topic she’s speaking on within the broader context of interweaving topics with something “bigger and truer.”

“I did come out of the lockdowns [in] Sydney [when] we were having live events for the last six months or so and the first talk I did was a hot mess. And [my agent] was there for that, and we had a little tet-a-tet afterward. It was just that I had so many things that I wanted to talk about because there were so many ideas and conceits and spaces that you want to go, places that you want to take people. Quite often the talks are an interweaving of my experiences with the work that we’re doing. As they got more elaborate they began to be less about the work actually.”

“There are normally several talks in each talk. My agent would really like me to just do one talk but it’s so limited if we just do one thing. [And] she’s like, ‘Yes, but it would be really helpful for the clients if you could just the one talk.’ And that’s a very valid point. Not everyone wants a massive brain-melting exercise. Sometimes it’s really useful to dive into a topic that you have a great deal of knowledge about.”

“It’s really important to [have] at the core of your talk…something bigger and truer that you want to talk about. And it can frustrate the hell out of people when they actually want you to talk about a product. For me it’s about what we value in life, what we find interesting. And you can get to a place where you talk about philosophers and physics and the circus and books and you can go all over the place.”

“I’ve been talking a lot about books. We’re doing all these digital books and we did a book using Bitcoin in 2016. And what that was trying to illustrate was this idea that you can abstract a notion of value. Where is the value in books? We spent this time trying to pull apart how books worked [and] where the value was. And I did come back to that a lot – what is it about existence that’s valuable?”

“At the moment, I want [to] try and articulate the way in which we have really limited our notion of what digital is and what information can be and how we interact with it by making it all so screen-based. We have sound, we have light, we have all this space, and we all have this time. We have all these things that can interact really elegantly and we keep making them into apps. I always come back to that, which is that there are other more interesting ways to experience the world.”

On how she recovers when things go wrong

Speaking about her experience on stage, Tea said she sees on-stage mishaps as opportunities to work with her audience.

“The main thing is you don’t know how you’re handling [a disaster] until it’s happening. That’s probably the most challenging part about it. But you don’t know how you’ll be in a car crash until you [are] in a car crash – it doesn’t mean you should go out and practice it. I find that no one in the audience wants this to be happening. And they are suffering just as much as you are.”

“I would strongly advise against doing things you don’t know well. And when it goes wrong, it’s alright. No one’s gonna boot you off the stage, it is not the gong show. And they normally are right behind you so you can work with your audience. It’s a really good moment to go to your audience and go ‘Oops!’ because those moments when you become very human and very real [are] where you build enormous empathy and this big well of people who want it to go well for you from that point on.”

“I gave a talk at the British Library recently where the person talking just before me completely melted the system. And so they couldn’t see any of my slides and I couldn’t get to any of my slides. They said, ‘Well, what was it about?’ And I just gave the talk. Because I had to describe what would have been on the screen, afterward I had people going, ‘I wish more people did that. I wish more people spoke without slides because we could just focus on you and we could just listen to you and you described everything really well.’ And I was thinking to myself, ‘You’ve probably got a completely made up version of what this thing looks like and whether it’s any good.’ But it doesn’t matter, does it? That’s not the point. The point is where they have been and what journey they’ve been on.”

On using slides creatively

After talking about her experience having to speak without slides, Tea elaborated on the ways she has used slides more creatively in her own talks and seen them used by others.

“I am a great believer in not speaking to your slides…It’s making your audience do something, go somewhere with you. [It] also gives you a lot more freedom to make a mistake because you’re clearly trying something out, and they will go with you normally, unless you’re pushing them too hard.”

My favorite talk ever is a talk where the slides [were] so tangential to what I was saying. This [was] a very clever audience [so] they don’t need to hear from me. So I basically made the whole thing into a game where there was one talk going on in the slides with jokes, as if there was someone else talking right behind me about something else. And I think I probably didn’t mean it to be as different as they were but because I was on my own journey at the front of the stage and trying not to look too hard at what was behind me, it turned out really, really, really interesting.”

“I saw [two speakers] give a brilliant talk with two presentations where they basically just play tennis between these images, going back and [forth]. And it was so striking. My brain had never been able to think like that.”

On speaking’s impact on her career

Tea highlighted the importance speaking has in her life, both personally and professionally.

“It’s the most unexpected part of my life. I’ve been all over the world. And to do something that seems strange.”

“All the people that I know and love, who I miss so desperately, are scattered around the world because I’ve met them in that incredibly intimate moment backstage. When either you have your stomach falling out or that kind of complete sense of exhaustion. That’s the thing that I would say I would want to keep the most is the people that I’ve met. And now, out of my career, all of the things that didn’t matter – they’re just things. But those experiences have been really profound.”

“I spend a lot of time talking about [the] physical [and] tangible. This is my problem with digital – it’s not very tangible. And I think that we lose something very profound when we focus too much of our energies [on digital]. You think about how much of the last decade or two has been spent staring into screens. I find it absolutely gripping to try and get people to discuss what piece of information is lost.”

“​​You can see me quite well. Hopefully, the stream is good and you can hear me clearly. But it’s not the same as being in the room with you guys. The internet is amazing because we can be all over the world and come together but at the same time, if we [are] all in the room together, there’ll be something extra. And just pinning down what that extra is has been a journey.”

For more on the importance of loving what you do, how she evolves her talks into other mediums, and her process, check out the full video below.

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