Chimmy Kalu on sharing your own point of view through public speaking

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Chimmy Kalu about her journey as a public speaker and how her passion for design and accessibility paved the way. She talked about speaking to share her point of view, how she develops talks with feedback from her network and the importance of understanding you core message.

In our Women Talk Design Speaker Stories series, we’re interviewing Women Talk Design speakers 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.

Chimmy Kalu is a User Experience designer who works with companies that put people first, helping them create products that solve real problems. She believes that accessibility shouldn’t be a dirty word or “nice to have” — and that inclusive design practices need to be integrated as the baseline. Having worked as a software engineer for half her career, Chimmy is able to translate user needs, technical limitations & business goals into accessible, usable and delightful products. Over the last decade, Chimmy has worked with heritage brands like British Airways, Vogue and GQ, to transform their offerings and deliver pioneering products and experiences for their users. She’s also worked with startups and entrepreneurs, helping them understand their users and how to connect with them. Chimmy writes, speaks and teaches UX/UI and inclusive design around the world.

On why she speaks and what she’s speaking about…

Chimmy started off by telling us what drives her to speak and the topics she finds herself most interested in.

“Aside from the fact that I like talking, I feel like I have a specific experience or set of experiences that are interesting to share. I have points of view and I like showing those. People talk to me about them privately and I speak so that they can go a little bit wider than just my friends.”

“I mostly speak about design. I’m obsessed with design and I just can’t stop talking about it. I also talk about accessibility. People are often overwhelmed by accessibility, or think that accessibility is a very, very big thing that we need to tackle. So I try to help people understand that you can do your part even if the rest of the world isn’t going along.”

“And my final thing that I love speaking about is lovable products. I love products. I love to talk about products and experiences that I love, and how other people can create those experiences that people would love.”

In describing how she develops talk topics, Chimmy highlighted the need to keep current, even when discussing similar topics over and over. She said she takes inspiration from her peers and mentees.

“When I’m doing talks, I try to make sure that whatever I’m talking about is relevant. Giving the same talk over and over again, perhaps might not be suited unless I have new angles for that talk. If I’m going to design conferences, I really talk about things that I love. I’m super passionate about design so whatever’s currently floating my boat is what I focus on.”

“I mentor lots of people who are coming into design and usually they’ll take my workshops or I meet them in some other circle of design interactions. They have a number of questions that they ask me. Once I’m getting the same question from multiple people, that becomes the basis of a talk. Designing for Complexity came because I’ve answered the same question to 4 or 5 of my mentees recently. Clearly, if 4 or 5 of my very small pool of mentees is asking this, other people must be asking this, and therefore this is worth considering as a talk idea…assuming it actually works out as something that I have a very specific point of view on.”

On her first public speaking experience…

Although she says her first talk was a co-talking experience, Chimmy credits a talk that came about through her design and teaching experience as her entry into public speaking.

“While it’s probably not so obvious these days, I was really shy as a kid. I had to give a speech at my high school graduation and I was literally trembling as I gave that speech. Fast-forward a decade later when I’m working and I got to the point of my career where I started presenting findings from UX research to my company. After I’d done that a few times, I started thinking, ‘Oh my God, while I’m nervous about presenting high school speeches, I’m okay when it comes to talking about design.’ So I asked if I could speak at the School of UX. I teach design [there] and the same person who runs that also runs the UX Conference. That was my entry into public speaking.”

When asked about that first talk, Chimmy admitted she thinks it could have gone better. But she took the lessons learned from that experience and kept on speaking.

“By the standards I hold myself to, I would say it was a disaster. I had this clever idea that I wasn’t going to memorize my slides – I would just have my slides as a teaching aid and I’d go on to the stage with flashcards, which I was going to put on the podium and surreptitiously slide through. It wasn’t surreptitious enough. I think everyone knew that I was looking at my flashcards as I gave that talk.”

“There are 2 things that are true about me: The first is that I like a challenge. Upward curves are my friend. And [the second] is that, as long as I’m not what’s the average, I will push on with something. So I assessed myself to not have performed worse than an average newbie to speaking, and therefore decided to give it another go with a touch more preparation.”

On how she finds and applies to speaking opportunities…

Now that Chimmy is a more experienced speaker, she has opportunities coming to her in addition to the ones she finds through her own searches.

“It’s a mix. Sometimes folks reach out to me – I did the AIG Conference because they reached out to me, for example. But I also have certain conferences that are on my radar. The sort of conferences that I’d love to speak at. I will cycle through thinking about them and I apply to them when my checking aligns with when the request for proposals comes through.”

When evaluating what events to speak at, Chimmy said she considers the subject matter and the location most.

“It’s 2 things. It’s either a conference with a subject matter that I’m really passionate about, in which case I want to attend and speak at those kinds of conferences. And the other thing is if it happens to be in London or online and it aligns with something that I’m interested in talking about. Then that [is] something to either speak at or apply for.”

Chimmy talked about her process for applying for speaking engagements and what goes into the application process ahead of talk development.

“I like to call it a social media summary or Twitter summary. It’s a quick snapshot of what I’m going to talk about. Generally I will build that simple version with (1) what’s the problem that this talk will address, and  (2) what will be the outcome for anyone who listens to it. That’s easy to summarize in a couple of sentences and just whet someone’s appetite for the topic.

“If I’m doing a full call for proposals application, then I’ll go into a little bit more detail around the topic. But I don’t go too much because, quite frankly, a lot of the time I submit the request then build a talk. Unless It’s one of my signature talks, which I seem to give at least once a year.”

On how she prepares for talks…

Chimmy talked about preparing for her talks by practicing them with smaller audiences and honing in on the core message.

“I pick a topic that I want to speak about and I kind of prepare an outline of that topic. Then, if I feel confident enough about the outline, I’ll find somewhere to do that talk for the first time. Typically I want to do the talk somewhere smaller, whether it’s other people’s workplaces or my workplace – we have a learning hour. I do a small version of the talk just to make sure that there is a story and it’s worth putting the effort into. If that’s successful, then I will expand the talk to suit different lengths.”

“Sometimes I do a 10 minute talk, or 30 minute talk, or a 45 minute talk all based around the same message. And over time, I put a little bit more preparation into the presentation so that I know the flow of the content. I very rarely memorize the whole talk because I like to speak about something for which I’m extremely comfortable. That’s why I do a lot of design talks.”

“Someone told me in 2018, when I was trying to perfect my speaking a little bit more, that the key to seeming natural no matter what you present is to always think about your core message. So, no matter what topic I’m doing, I have the one-minute version of that talk. [I think], ‘What is the thing I want someone who listens to me for just 1 min to take away? What do I want someone who’s listening to me for 10 min to take the way?’ And so on, and so forth. If I know what the core message is, then I will build the output around that core message and decide through that workshopping process what elements help with the core message or detract from it.”

As part of her process, Chimmy said she gets feedback from her peers, mentees, and partner when she’s building a talk.

“Maybe it’s my personality but people feel very confident giving me feedback. I have a couple of mentees or peers that I will occasionally ask to join. If I’m doing it at work, I have the other designers join me and give feedback on whatever the material is.”

“My partner is also a very important source of feedback. Typically if there’s a recording, I play it back and say, ‘What are your thoughts?’ And if there’s no recording, then I just get her to watch me and tell me what she thought or what I should share.”

On how she handles speaking mishaps…

Chimmy talked about having her fair share of technical difficulties occur during talks but moving through them by acknowledging we are all human and giving herself the same grace she gives to others.

“The worst was a talk that didn’t happen because I’d forgotten I was teaching. The day of the talk, I go into my calendar and it’s my monthly invitation that I’m teaching a workshop. It’s a paid workshop that I can’t cancel [at the same time as] the conference. I had to send my apology, and that was probably the most horrific thing that has happened to me. Really, that was complete lack of awareness.”

“I think most people don’t really care about these things. We all think, ‘We’re human.’ I’ve never once had someone speaking, and something went wrong and I went, ‘Oh, dear, so unprofessional!’ So I just give the same sort of grace to myself as I give other people. And if it’s something to do with slides, I will say something like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I have no idea what’s going on!’ I feel like I have more than my fair share of tech issues, and I’m shameless in letting everyone know that.”

On the best and worst advice she’s received…

Chimmy had some great advice to share, noting that the best advice she’s received is to decide whether advice you get is really for you.

“So the first thing I’ll say is a little caveat – when people give advice, you really need to decide whether the advice is for you. This is something that my grandpa used to tell me when he was alive. Look at the perspective of the person giving the advice to decide whether you should take the advice.”

“One that’s good is one I’ve mentioned already – think about the subject of any presentation. Whether it’s a talk or a presentation in your workplace, think about the core messages and make sure that you have a strategy for any length of time that you have. You can go on thinking that you’re doing a 30 minute talk and have tech issues and have to deliver it in 15 minutes. You have to have a strategy for that. Thinking about your core message so that you can adapt to anything is probably my favorite bit of advice but I’ve ever gotten.”

“The worst of course is the pacing…I gave a talk just before the pandemic at women-driven design and when I watched the video later I was horrified. It seemed like I’d been running miles. I was panting the entire time, which I considered to be horrific, because I thought, ‘How did I not notice? Could everyone else hear this?’ And this was one talk where I was pacing up and down because I’d seen somewhere that it was advisable to pace. Notice that I have not paced since…But of course, it works for other people so it’s not bad universally. It’s just bad for me.”

“It’s hard to know what’s bad advice because if you Google things people can seem like such authorities. One of the reasons for the little workshops that I do is if I’m taking on something new, some piece of advice, I want that safe space to test out the thing.”

To hear more about Chimmy’s thoughts on collaborative speaking, in-person vs. virtual talks, and how public speaking has impacted her career, check out the full video below.

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