Alba Villamil on finding your “verb” in speaking

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Alba Villamil about her journey as a speaker and how she uses speaking to challenge assumptions.

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.

Alba Villamil headshot with graphic that says Women Talk Design speaker stories

Alba Villamil is an independent User Researcher who specializes in designing for the social sector. Her work focuses on making products and services more equitable for historically underserved and vulnerable populations like refugees, low-income parents, and domestic violence survivors. She is also a facilitator at HmntyCntrd, one of Fast Company’s 2021 Most Innovative Companies, where she teaches about research and design ethics to design practitioners. She has spoken in front of the OMB at the White House as well as at conferences like the UXR Conference, Rosenfeld’s Advancing Research, DCUX, and World IA Day.

On why she speaks and how she got started

Every speaker has their own reason for speaking. Alba started off by explaining that her motivation comes from a desire to challenge the gatekeeping and status quo she’s experienced.

“I think it sounds immature when I say it out loud but it’s out of spite and anger. I came into the design industry from a social science research background and it was kind of a culture shock. My training in sociology was focused on issues of equity and ethics and rigor – all these topics that I’m incredibly passionate about because I mainly work with vulnerable and historically underserved populations. But when I went to design events, I never saw anyone on stage talking about those topics. And when I brought them up during network sessions or during Q&As, I was constantly talked down to and dismissed because those were not seen as relevant topics by those design leaders.”

“I had a particularly demoralizing interaction with someone who is a relatively well-known person in the design industry. The person basically told me to my face that I had no idea what I was talking about. And I had to pause when I heard that because I don’t consider myself a hardcore ethnography [expert] but I know my shit – I had good training, I’ve experimented with a method, I’ve read a lot. And it was then that I realized that a lot of these design leaders were just gatekeepers and they were peddling these ideas and practices that could hurt participants, their communities, and even researchers themselves. And quite frankly, someone needed to stop them.”

“Around that same time I came across this quote by Toni Morrison and that’s, ‘if there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ I applied that principle to speaking on stage and I wanted to prove people wrong by applying to conferences and being validated that these topics were relevant and that they were really important for designers and researchers.”

Alba talked about her first experience with public speaking as an opportunity that came through a friend and gave her “the speaking bug.”

“I definitely participated in a lot of events by Women Talk Design and Ladies That UX Boston – small scale, maybe 10-20 minute presentations – but my first conference experience was actually offered to me by a friend. I didn’t even know at the time that he was a conference organizer. But he basically [said], ‘Oh, you’re always complaining about XYZ in small groups. Why don’t you just complain about it on stage?’ He really took a chance on me and he invited me to be a speaker at [this upcoming event]. Things took off from there – I got the speaking bug.”

On how she finds engagements

Alba highlighted platform involvement as the key to finding speaking engagements, whether that means local meetups or social media or forums for larger organizations.

“One of the best investments that I ever made for my public speaking career was actively participating on social media – Slack communities, Google groups, Facebook groups and, as much as it can be a trash fire, Twitter. When I first started getting into social media, it didn’t come naturally to me. I’m someone who prefers to stay quiet unless I feel like I have something to say and so it took me a while to find my groove and understand what I want[ed] to put out in the world.”

“It’s less about the platform and more about the type of relationships that you create. [Twitter] has created this network that we now recommend each other for jobs, we recommend each other for speaking opportunities. And that’s because we know what each of us brings to the table because of what we have shared on Twitter. If you prefer in-person meetups, for example, just make sure that those relationships in your network are completely aware of what you’re interested in, what’s unique about your perspective, and what you could talk about if you were invited to a talk.”

“I had this realization that I should just lean into my natural nerdiness. When you regularly contribute to any type of forum, people get a sense of what you’re about – how you think, what type of values and energy you bring. Being on Twitter and sharing some thoughts that I had about research and ethics and equity was an opportunity to show people what type of thinker I was [and] to do some audience testing. It allowed me to hone in on what I really want to say and for whom and how. [For] my first couple of talks after my first conference talk, I essentially took some of those Twitter threads that I had written and just compiled them into those applications.”

As Alba has developed as a public speaker, she said her criteria for selecting engagements has evolved.

“At this point in my speaking career, it’s about how much I am getting paid and it’s about the culture of the organization that is inviting me.”

“I [have] started looking at patterns – Am I the only person of color that was invited to that event? Because that has happened to me before. Is this an event that has had problematic interactions with speakers of color before? Then I probably don’t want to speak there either. Even if there was a good opportunity in terms of publicity, I don’t want to associate my name now with certain types of organizations.”

“For internal stuff, it’s really about how much they’re paying.  You know I think one of the things that you learn really quickly is that organizations want to use your voice, especially if you talk about sensitive topics, but they don’t want to compensate you for that. I am very explicit about my rate when I’m working with for-profit organizations because they have the money.”

Alba also talked about where she is currently focused on in her career – doing in-house talks and creating her own events to use her platform to amplify others.

“That spiraled into invitations for in-house [talks], which I’m starting to do a lot more [of] now than doing public-facing talks…I’m in this weird moment in my career where I’m taking a break from doing public speaking in conferences and focusing more on internal talks but also creating my own events because I want to give that platform to other people that are doing incredible work that people should know more about.”

On the importance of compensation

Alba clearly outlined how important compensation is for her as a speaker and how even new speakers should value their time and their voice when approaching paid versus unpaid engagements.

“As someone who works in the social sector, we’re used to smaller budgets. One of the things that we have to get over as speakers, especially if you’re a woman of color [or] if you’re someone who comes from a low income background is sometimes we don’t have a sense of how much money these organizations have. Someone told me that I was undervaluing myself. Someone was just like, ‘How much do you charge? You need to at least double that at the minimum. That’s not acceptable.’”

“If the organization is charging people for the event, they need to pay you. If you’re invited to do a talk at Google or Facebook, those people have trillions of dollars – literally – and the idea that they’re not going to pay you is ridiculous. If you’re being invited for an internal talk, charge at least $10,000 for a one hour session at a company like Google. That’s a minimum. If you’re invited to do an internal keynote, you should be adding even more 1,000s to that $10,000. From some research that I have been doing, [at] a lot of design conferences… a lot of speakers are charging at least $5,000. So if you’re offered a keynote at that type of conference you should be asking for at least $5,000. That should give you some checkpoints but really it’s up to you. If you’re planning on using speaking as a way to supplement your income, you’re probably going to want to charge more.”

“I always think about how much money they have but also how much effort it takes for me to do this talk. If it takes me 20 hours to write this talk, what is my hourly rate? That should be charged times 20 and that’s your starting point.”

On how she develops her talks

Alba walked us through the three things she considers when developing a talk – what is her verb, what is her persona, and what is her format.

“I like to think of this process in three parts. Figuring out what I call your “verb” – and I’ll get into that a little bit later – what is the persona that you want to adopt, and what is the format that you want this to take.”

“What I mean by verb is how do you want your talk to relate to the status quo? ​​One of the things that I approach my public speaking with is I want people to refuse assumptions that we take for granted in research. When I talk about ethics, I’m always talking about what type of principles should you refuse that are apparent goods but really they’re not actually good for our field. I’m all about refusal, challenging, questioning, and all of my talks have that underlying thread. Some people might be more interested in affirming what exists, or celebrating what exists, inspiring people who are doing the work that you know they’re doing.”

“Then I think about the persona that we create about ourselves. Lean into the words that you want associated with you. I call this like my speaker brand or my speaker persona. Decide what type of content and what type of performance you need to enact for that content.”

“For me, I like to be very critical – I’m always questioning assumptions. But at the same time, because I’m a woman of color, I don’t want to come off as an angry Latina. I don’t want to come off as immature so I’m very careful. When I’m delivering a critique I try to be very thoughtful and calm. The calmness comes from my performance- I speak in a very slow and grounded way. And the thoughtful part comes from how I create a bridge between what my audience currently thinks about the topic and the destination that I want to take them to – that change in their mindset. I often use intros for my talk as that bridge.”

“The third thing that I always think about is format. Some talks are better suited for certain formats than others. This is something that I got from a workshop that I did with Women Talk Design. The folks over at Twig and Fish had this great mini workshop where they handed us this worksheet that made you think about the topic that you were interested in [and] different formats that it can take – Do you want it to be a case study? Do you want it to be a personal narrative of your journey as a speaker? Do you want it to be a demo where you walk through how something works? And you can try to fit your content in those different types of formats to see what is best suited for that verb and that persona that you’re trying to sell.”

For more on the worst speaking advice that she’s received, how she uses different formats and platforms, and the impact public speaking has had on her career, check out the full event below.

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