Schessa Garbutt on starting messy and learning what works for you

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Schessa Garbutt about how they got started public speaking and the ways they approach calming their nerves and feeling confident in their speaking.

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.

In white letters across a pink background: "Women Talk Design Speaker Stories with Schessa Garbutt" and the original date and time of the event next to a round photo of the speaker, a young person with tan skin and short, dark hair wearing glasses and small gold hoop earrings, smiling and looking slightly to the right of camera.

Schessa Garbutt (they/them) is a Belizean-American creative polymath and founder of Firebrand CreativeHouse based in Inglewood, CA. Their design practice focuses on brand identity and UI/UX for social impact initiatives and mission-driven organizations. Garbutt is also an essayist (recently in The Black Experience in Design anthology) and lecturer, speaking on diversifying design history and co-design practices at universities and organizations such as IDEO, SF Design Week, MICA, Where are the Black Designers, and Adobe’s Wireframe podcast. Garbutt holds a B.A. in Design from the University of Southern California, and a certificate in Type Design from Type West.

On how they started speaking…

Schessa started off by telling us about their interesting start in public speaking. Rather than starting on a stage, Schessa says they started with friends.

“I was raised by a Belizean mother and she always encouraged me to be creative. She was like, no matter what you do, just be good at it and make me proud. Classic first-gen stuff. So I pursued [creativity] in school and pursued it as a job. 

In 2020, I left the studio that I was at here in LA and that’s what I’ve been doing the past 3 years is working for myself as a Creative Director in brand identity design.

How I got my start in public speaking is a little bit silly. My friends and I would do something very nerdy, called Powerpoint parties, where we would get together and everyone would give a 5 minute presentation on any topic. I presented on cyborgs, I presented on aliens at one point. I think I talked about fonts. Other people talked about things like pancakes and clouds.

It was a great, low pressure way to practice being in front of people and talking about something that you know a lot about and care a lot about. [You can] practice being in front of a bunch of people and having eyes on you, but with zero stakes because it’s just your friends. 

For me, it framed public speaking just as a way for me to share my thoughts. And it doesn’t have to be really staunch and buttoned up and stiff–it can feel casual, it can feel like a conversation.”

On what they speak about…

When asked what topics are most important to them, Schessa highlighted their interest in challenging white- and euro-centric design systems and the importance of rest and intuition.

“The thing that I’ve been speaking about the most recently is how a lot of the design history that we learn, a lot of the rules of design that we learn, are very based in white- or euro-central aesthetics and values. [I look at how] they manifest themselves through grid systems or font typefaces and what is the history behind those–calling that out. 

Especially for me, as a queer, first gen, black brown person, I don’t see myself reflected in the design cannon. I’m not super interested in only focusing on this one sphere when there’s the whole rest of the world’s cultures to look at for design inspiration.

Something [else] that I haven’t spoken too much about publicly, but would like to, is the importance of rest and intuition and ancestral listening in our creative practices. That’s something I’ve touched on before that people connect with but I haven’t had a deep dive into that.”

On their first speaking engagement…

Schessa talked about their first formal talk and how the experience actually helped build their confidence.

“It was pretty cool. It was up in the valley and I spoke on a panel with two other black professionals in design. One of them was the Creative Director or the VP of Design for the Oprah Winfrey Network. The other one, I cannot remember what her role was, but she was a badass in her own right. And then there was me. 

We were talking about our career paths and how we’d gotten to the places that we were at in design. I was speaking with these two really lovely people. On one hand, that was intimidating. On the other hand, the organizer who had set up the event was like, ‘Hey, you’re up there for a reason. I asked you to speak for a reason.’ That really helped with my imposter syndrome.

The advice from that is if somebody invites you to speak, it’s because they really love or care about what you have to say. If they choose your proposal for a talk, it’s because they think, “Oh, this person gets it. This person understands the theme that we’re trying to cover at our conference or our panel.

I [also] think that we can learn something from everyone, and that includes ourselves. Even if you think like, ‘There’s nothing I can share that these people haven’t heard before.’ There definitely is something from your lived experience or the way that you studied things or the way that you connect things. That is a new perspective.”

On how they develop their talks…

Schessa explained how they watch others speaking and use what they like and don’t like to build their own process.

“[There was a] talk that I was particularly nervous about because it was in-person and it was for other designers. A week out, I talked to a couple of friends who I always bounce ideas off of. Then, on the train ride down to San Diego, I actually had Figma open, and was making the presentation on the train to the conference.

I did a lot of writing and sketching and word mapping of my ideas before I took it into the slides. I like being messy on pen and paper.

I made a skeleton of the slides I knew I wanted to be in there, but I didn’t know how to connect them. I spent the first day of the conference observing the other speakers and taking notes on how they were presenting their ideas–how they were presenting their work, how they were presenting something complex, something simple, how they were laying out their slides. The morning of the second day, I just filled in everything and rearranged all of the slides in an order that made sense to me.

[Watching the other speakers,] I figured out what made sense for me–what worked for me and what didn’t. Sometimes you’ll see a speaker where you’re like, ‘This is not aesthetically the style I would go for but I liked this aspect of their presentation, I liked how they laid out their points here, or how they took us through a story.’ It’s important to learn things that you do like, but it’s also nice to see what you don’t like.

Five minutes before the presentation, I listened to I’m That Girl by Beyonce very meditatively in the front row of the auditorium as people were filing in.”

To develop their talks, Schessa pointed out that they start “messy”.

“Sometimes I know the point that I want to make but I don’t know how to get there. It feels like, ‘This is the nugget of what I want to say, but it won’t make any sense without the other context.’ 

That’s why doing outlines and just writing and being messy is really useful for me. It lets me retrace the steps in my thoughts and how I got to that main thing I want to say. I figure out how I can take the audience along on that story to get them to what that main point is.

Figuring out and outlining beforehand works for me. Sometimes it’s journaling, or just doing long form writing. Sometimes it’s sticky notes where I’ll write down each idea, and then I’ll rearrange them until it’s in an order that would hopefully make sense to other people.”

On how they’ve dealt with speaking mishaps…

Schessa said that they go into every event understanding that something will go wrong and they don’t let it throw them off. 

“Something tiny goes wrong every single time I present. The key is to mentally prepare for it–there will be a random hiccup. A little something is going to go wrong and it’s important to not let yourself get caught up in whatever that’s gonna be.

You can’t get into that cycle of, ‘Oh, it’s not going right. Oh, now I’m flustered. Oh now I’m going to have a full-blown panic attack. Oh, now I have to go on stage and now I’m in my head and I forgot what I’m going to talk about.’ 

I just take a breath, reset and then keep going. I’ll do that in the middle of a presentation as well. If I’m tripping over my words or I feel like I haven’t taken a breath in 60 seconds, I’ll take a pause and take a really deep breath in and out. It helps me to clear my head and to speak a little slower.”

On how speaking has impacted their career…

Schessa credits speaking for increasing their visibility in a more human, connected way that other channels can’t.

“Speaking for me has been a great way to let others learn about my practice and learn what I’m about in a way that’s more engaged than social media or traditional marketing.

When people can see that you’re a human being and see your face or hear your voice and get a sense of your story and who you are, that is much more memorable and engaging than just being on social media, for example.

My public speaking has helped me to tell my story in a more narrative and emotive way than people just reading my website. And it’s helped me reach folks who wouldn’t have necessarily been interested in my work prior.

Recently, I was on an Instagram live with The Nap Ministry talking about a rebrand that I did for them. The Nap Ministry has followers from all different walks of life–folks who are teachers and activists and care workers and lawyers and healers and nurses and folks all over the map. Those people aren’t necessarily thinking about design everyday or aren’t thinking about the people behind the stuff that they have in their life. That’s an example of how public speaking allowed me to reach folks outside of the design sphere, outside of type design, which is a very small world.

Those people were still able to connect to my story and connect to the work in a way that was more accessible to them, which was Instagram live.”

On their advice for new speakers…

Schessa shared three pieces of advice for new speakers: know yourself and what you need, keep your slides simple, and get evidence of what you’ve done.

“My first piece of advice is to know yourself and know what you need prior to doing something that’s really nerve wracking. I’m never not at least a little bit nervous before public speaking so to prepare for that, I know that I need to be relaxed. I need to have a nap, I need to get ready, I need to feel like I look nice and have some water nearby.

What are the self-care things that you need as a person in a physical body before you do public speaking? Maybe it’s dancing beforehand, maybe it’s listening to your favorite song. Whatever is going to make you feel confident. And, it’s okay if it’s corny.

Number two, I would say sometimes folks like to put a lot of words on their slides–more than the audience can read. They think, ‘Oh, I want to have words on the slide, because if I forget what to say then I can just read it.’ My advice is only put the things on the slide that you know you won’t be able to memorize. For me, that is names and dates. If I’m doing a history lesson, I will make sure to put the names and the dates on the slides because I know I’m going to blank on them when I actually get up to present. The parts that I know that I’ll remember are the story and how those things are tied together.

The third thing is make sure to get some kind of proof of what you did. I’m notoriously bad at this. I won’t get a recording, I won’t ask somebody to take a video or a picture. 

If you want to keep doing more public speaking, it’s nice to have. Again, people like pictures, not words. It’s nice to have some photographic evidence of what you did.

If you do have a recording, watch at least once or twice so you can see what your cadence was as you’re speaking–if you’re talking too fast or too slow. See how your body language was. See where you need to adjust things.”

For more on Schessa’s dream speaking engagement, how they bring creativity into their speaking, and the more representative imagery they believe the world needs, watch the full video below.

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