Why I Speak: Celebrating Black Speakers in the Women Talk Design Community

At Women Talk Design, we believe that when you allow yourself to be visible–when you speak, write, and put your ideas out–you give permission to others who see themselves in you to do the same.

In celebration of Black History month, we brought together a few of the incredible Black speakers in our community who are making their voices heard.

Meet Lisa Dance who facilitates workshops and training on ethical research and inclusive design, Natalie Dunbar who uses her unique skills as a content writer, user researcher, journalist, and social scientist in her role as a UX-focused content strategist, and Delia Grenville who is a senior executive leader, process-driven change agent, with more than 25 years’ experience in high tech roles.

We’re recapping some of the excellent stories and advice Lisa, Natalie, and Delia shared on why they speak, how they got started, what they’re sharing with the world, and what’s coming up for them in 2023. We hope they’ll inspire you to share your own ideas and experiences.

And remember to celebrate, amplify, recommend, invite, and PAY Black speakers–not just in one month, but all year round.

How did you get started with public speaking?

Lisa Dance: Well, I got so mad that I wanted to say something. I had been seeing issues around technology and felt I needed to say something. I read this book, Automated Inequality: How Tools Punish, Profile, and Police the Poor. That really encouraged me. I have a perspective on this and I’m not hearing people talk about it. So, when a local design group was having Lightning Talks, I put my hand up, even though my voice was very quiet, and said, “I want to say something about it.” And that’s how I started in 2019.

Natalie Dunbar: I attended a conference back in 2010 and filled out the evaluation after the conference. The conference organizers asked me if they could call me to talk more about what feedback that I had to give–it wasn’t an awful experience, but it wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. By the time I finished laying out what it was that I thought I had signed up for, they were like, “Would you like to come back and speak at the conference next year?”

That was in 2010. I took a break after that talk–which went well–until about 2015. Then, a friend of mine was like, “Hey, I need somebody to co-present at a local meetup.” Not long after that, Danielle found me on Linkedin and asked me to do a similar talk about speaking at conferences. And here we are!

Delia Grenville: I have been talking since I could talk. I come from a family of 3 girls. I’m the eldest of immigrant parents to Canada and I had to be a representative. Since I have to be a representative. I was talking before I knew what public speaking was.

My mom really believed in teaching. She was a teacher in her former country so she would leave me and my sister writing prompts. That was her creative way. She declared us full readers when we could recite a Dr. Seuss book. That was really the beginning of my presence as a speaker. It started there.

What other ways do you share your voice, in addition to speaking?

Delia: For those of us who have been on campuses where it’s majority white, you get noticed for a lot of things you’re not intending to be, like classroom proportions in an engineering class. In a mechanical engineering class, I was the only woman of color. In 79 of us, maybe 9 of us were women and I was the only black woman. 

You know what it’s like–we’ve all been to the fourth grade history class where people finally learn about the history of the US or Canada, and everyone turns to look at the one black kid. They still do that at university. That sort of gives you a voice to talk about issues.

I remember in high school there was a statement that was made–and, I didn’t realize the implication of it–but the teacher said, “The people who go to this school aren’t real black people.” I said something about that and that got me sent to the administration. 

Standing in your own voice and saying what you think is important: got me talking and got me interviewed–even as an undergraduate student–in the newspapers, on issues related to what my experience was as a black female in whatever particular domain I was in.

Lisa: These days, I’m always posting something on social media. Linkedin is my platform of choice but I also put on my own events so I can talk about and construct presentations on things that I want to share out into the world. That’s how I’m being visible.

Natalie: Up until I started writing the book, I was doing a lot of freelance writing outside of my day job. I have a journalism background and I love to “write long” as I like to say.

When I was listening to Delia, I was thinking about how I got involved in student leadership and government at a very young age after being the only black kid in class where we had to watch one of those really bad racist movies. And I was asked to explain things. I was the Google back in the day. Early on, it happened like that.

Through writing and social media–Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram–and, of course, the book, writing and speaking led to the whole book thing.

What is a project or speaking engagement you have coming up this year that you’re excited about?

Natalie: The content design and content strategy space that I work in has been plagued with a lot of layoffs unfortunately. Yet, I’m seeing these calendars. This week alone, there was Utterly Content out of the UK. There are all these events still happening, which is great.

The thing that’s exciting for me that’s coming up is also bittersweet. It’s Confab, the Content Strategy Conference that’s held in Minnesota every year. It’s the last one and I’m keynoting on the last day. Then, the week after that, there’s another conference called Lead with Tempo, which is for content design leaders.

Those are two events that I’m really looking forward to. And, as I’m speaking, to offer time to mentor people and answer questions and keep stoking curiosity about the work that we do in UX and design.

Lisa: I’m going to continue my roadshow of Stop Making Flawed Products. I present my “3Q-Do No Harm Framework” for product teams to help them if they haven’t started the conversation.

[There are] also some research projects that I’m excited about. I have been wanting to dig into research around people being first generational to high income–how they build wealth and how our financial advisors and banks and all kinds of financial services are serving them.

Then, I have a new presentation about how unusable technology is. You can have one small, simple thing spiral into weeks and months of agony trying to get it resolved. I want to bring that discussion to the forefront. At the same time that we’re championing AI so much, we still are failing at the basics. A lot of leaders need to understand that as well–they’re putting millions into AI, but sometimes you can’t get a payment to go through and it takes two weeks to get the issue resolved and your money is in a limbo.

Those are my passion projects I’m trying to pursue this year.

Delia: I have several. 

1. I am an ICF Certified coach 

2. I am passionate about how I show up on social media. I feel like I’m a little bit tired of LinkedIn especially. Why aren’t we talking the truth, especially in [social media] professional space.

3. I have a podcast–To Live List–and that’s getting up and running. It’s a fun way to express yourself. I always wanted to have a talk show and technology has allowed us to have a talk show. If anyone’s interested and checks out the podcast and wants to be a part of the talk show, feel free to email me. 

Why did you decide to write a book?

Natalie: I have to be totally honest, it was not a decision that I made.

I was introduced to the publisher. When that introduction happened, I thought, “Oh, Rosenfeld Media, they put on conferences, they do workshops.” I thought we were having a conversation about me doing a talk. Obviously that was not the case. Writing a book was not something that I wanted to do. 

I published my first book when I was 8 years old. It was stapled papers with drawings. I’ve been writing since I was a kid in one way or another, but I never thought that my first book would be on content strategy. And then user experience. But once I started doing it, it felt natural. It was a great experience.

I’m really glad I did it–and I can’t believe that I’m gonna say this out loud–but I would do it again.

Delia: Y’all, I’m gonna show this to you right here. I printed out my Facebook posts after 10 years and [it turns out] I was writing a book. I didn’t know that. 

A friend of mine who read the posts said, “You should stop giving this to us for free.” I go, “Well, it was something that I needed to express.” That was just living inside of me. So there was a conversation I was having with all of them, and she literally would shame me and say, “You need to put this in a book.” 

I printed it out and my husband said Kinkos wants to charge $85 for what you printed out. And I go, “That’s so mean of them! Pay them.” They wanted to know if I wanted it bound and I went, “Bound? Why bound? I didn’t even put page numbers in.” There were 581 pages. My daughter said she would label it for $10.

It was a real reckoning to me, because I did not know that I had written that much. Not all of it became a book. I hired an editor to go through it and it was reduced and it’s there that I picked part of the first manuscript. 

There’s a lot of content design work that I couldn’t have done. It needed another reader to go in there and say, “This is worth it. This is an idea.” Then she did all the grouping into topics. From there, we moved into what the book would be.

What was it like to deliver your first public workshop?

Natalie: It was absolutely terrifying, I kid you not. I don’t know what it was. My first workshop was based on the book. My publisher asked me about doing a workshop before the book was even done. But it was the opposite of what I thought and I did get a lot of guidance. 

I was like, “What am I going to talk about for 3 days?” I didn’t want to just repeat what people could read in the book. How could I make that interactive? How do I make it interesting?

I did not shed any tears while I was writing a book. I cried about the workshop. 

It was different than putting together a talk. Sometimes, I will put together a talk from an article that I’ve written, or I’ll see that there could be an article from a talk. And I teach Yoga so it wasn’t that it was teaching.

It’s just like, how do I keep people interested over that period of time? I started seeing the people that were signing up and I freaked out. It ended up being a really awesome experience. I lived to tell the story, and I would do that again too.

I was really there to facilitate conversations between the participants. We all had the same material. We were all going from the book. I just put information out there for them to react to and I got out of the way so they could learn from each other. That was a really powerful and wonderful experience.

There was no time that I talked more than 15 minutes. Once I found my rhythm and felt confident in how I had set things up, they wanted more time to be able to chat with each other, so I made adjustments on the fly. Approaching it more as I’m just there to facilitate a conversation. I personally detached from it. I wasn’t so worried about whether they liked it or not–they wanted to learn something so here let’s all learn from each other.

How do you balance being introverted with public speaking?

Lisa: As long as I feel like I am prepared for what I need to say, then I can do it. I would never be an extemporaneous speaker. I remember in middle school they used to have these language art programs, and they would have the extemporaneous speakers. They’d give them a talk topic and they would just talk. That’s crazy.

Over the years, I have figured out my measure and what settings that I’m comfortable in. For me, I would never like going to a pure networking event. I don’t want to be in a room full of people who don’t know each other, trying to make small talk. I’ll go to events, but you have to have something to do. Then we have something to talk about

Figure out what your measure is–[what are] the things that you want to do and that, at the same time, you can be comfortable in who you are. And you can change over time, too.

What was it like to deliver your talk for TEDx?

Delia: Be careful what you ask to manifest in the universe.

I went to my first TEDx event in May of 2022. It was their tenth anniversary and, if you want to hear more about it in detail, it is the second episode of my podcast.

Many of you know I love production. I love the process. I love how things come together and how everything moves and flows. So I put myself near the stage so I could watch all of the photography and everything that was going on.

The curator of TEDx Portland spoke about what it took for the speakers to make it to the stage, and I gave myself 3 years to be in that position. He’s Canadian, I’m Canadian, we’re both living in Portland. So I wrote notes and it wasn’t purposeful networking, but that is what you do in networking, right? 

I went over to their facilities for lunch and we had a long conversation. I was already working on my passion topic about workplace mobbing, organizational discomfort due to bullying, and a lot of things like that. My presentation was done and I ran them through the first version of it. He called me back weeks later and said, “That stuck with me. We’re going back to salons and I would love you to do a TED salon.” 

I don’t think I asked enough questions. I want everyone to know that–ask more questions. I did not know that I had to completely memorize a 15 min talk. It was daunting and I think I wasted a lot of my available time being nervous and stubborn.

But it came together and the growth was to recognize that I could memorize something for 15 minutes. I knew I wouldn’t have any problem speaking extemporaneously but that bar of having every word said every time was super tough for me. But, it was a great experience.

Who are the other speakers who inspire you?

Lisa: Two black speakers. First, Tressie McMillan Cottom–she’s a writer that does speaking as well. [She’s] a sociologist and I like how she breaks down things that you’re seeing at a society and organizational level.

Then, I like Danielle Cook. She’s an illustrator around justice themes but is a speaker as well. I enjoy her.

I’ve also done several events with Carol Smith. She’s not a black speaker but what I love about her is that she says things in such a direct way. She says, “If you have an AI and you don’t know what it’s doing, you need to cut it off. And I’m like, “Yes, somebody who actually has some common sense about these things!” That’s how I met her several years ago. 

Natalie: For folks that are in our space–in the UX and design space–the list is long. Candi Williams, Aladrian Goods, Jonathan McFadden. I just heard a dynamic talk from David Dylan Thomas. Those people are my heroes. I love listening to them talk.

In terms of inspiration and someone who has really been knocking my socks off lately: Caroline Wanga. She used to be SVP of Diversity and Inclusion at Target–I work for Walmart and I’m listening to the Target lady talk–but she’s amazing. She’s now the CEO of Essence Communications, the magazine, and all other good stuff. 

She says something that is so powerful in one of the talks that I heard. She’s talking to a management trainee group, and she says, “If you can’t be who you are, where you are, change where you are, and not who you are.” So she is very powerful.

Delia: So on the same theme that Natalie was talking about. I love listening to Carla Harris. I’ve had the privilege of her even coming and facilitating something at work which was great. She was at I think Morgan Stanley and Wall Street and hiding herself and she’s a church girl. She sings in the choir, you know. She sang in a meeting once–she was her whole self–and when she started bringing that person to work, amazing things happened.

She tells that story in a lot of places and I think, as a black woman, she’s going to be one of the top leaders when we look back at this generation in terms of wealth and change in whatever lines of calling a thing a thing right. 

A lot of times, we are not calling a thing thing thing in this community of a black women. Then we’re also frustrated that things are not moving ahead, yet we are conforming–of course things can’t move ahead. When someone is stepping on your toe, you need to tell them that it hurts. We are not taking that responsibility.

I gravitate towards speakers who are helping to answer the why around the fear, around the shame. Brene Brown does a lot on shame. There is a lot of shame in us admitting that this not right for us, right now. A lot of people think it’s courage, but what holds us back is the fear of, “If I say that, then what am I saying about myself? Am I truly not a value? Am I a weakling in some way?”

I don’t believe in imposter syndrome, although I’ve experienced it before. But it’s too cliche now. There’s something deeper that goes on within us. In my mind, it’s not an imposter. It’s actually the truest part of ourselves but was never nurtured or taken care of, because many of us had parents who didn’t know selves were part of children.

How do you approach structuring a talk and how is that different from your writing process?

Lisa: When structuring a talk, I always want to give some action items at the end. That’s what’s driving me. And then, that main core theme, I will write it out by hand, because that connects with my brain a lot better. I write it a few times before I put it into my deck.

I would love to do more writing. When I can get it out, people have said that it’s really good. But it takes a lot out of me to get to that point because I edit myself to extinction with writing. That’s been my challenge.

Natalie: This is a tough one for me because the two are so connected. It’s kind of a reciprocal process. 

Sometimes, I’m “writing long” about something–I might be writing an article that’s going to be published online. And I’m going deep into the research, gathering my quotes, and this and that, when I have to step back and start thinking, “How do I want to break this up to make it more readable?

When I start looking at those sub-headlines, I’ll think, “This is a talking point. This is something that I could actually pull out of this article and create a talk.”

Sometimes, it happens the other way around. 

It’s the basic thing of knowing the audience. There are conferences out there like Confab that are very well-established, so there’s an overarching theme. There’s an expectation of who’s gonna be in the audience and what they want to hear about. I try to go back and look at previous years’ talks if they’re there to avoid pitching something that somebody’s already talked about, but also to get a feel for what people are interested in. I call it social listening. 

When my son was little and he would write papers, I used to say, “The research will write the story for you.” Whatever I’m interested in, whether it’s for an article or for a talk, the research helps me frame the story I want to tell and then I tell a story. That’s how it comes.

Delia: This is a question I ask myself in my book and I talk a little bit about that. For me, technology changed a lot about how much I write and how I write, because somehow it became less intimidating to write on this little [phone] screen as opposed to writing on a big piece of paper. I knew I could write a text. It was captured in a way [unlike how] paper is–you can search through it afterwards and see themes and ideas.

It has also been very helpful being able to take a voice note. [You can] have an idea come into your head and not self-edit as you’re saying it–just say the idea out loud. Some of it might be junk, but it was all recorded the way I was thinking about it in my head. For me, when I start to write it down, I’ll be like, “Oh, that doesn’t sound as good as I thought it was sounding.” But if I just say it and then I go back and listen to it, I can see where it’s going.

Sometimes I hear things that I couldn’t have heard if I had just written it down and edited because I get to be outside of myself listening to what I said. 

I do feel like the writer’s voice within us, the storyteller within us, is a divine part of self. It’s not really caught up in this weirdness of external measure. Sometimes, we cannot hear that message that only we were sent to say. So recording helps me see what I didn’t even know I meant to say and that becomes the thing I’m meant to talk about.

What is the best speaking decision you’ve ever made?

Delia: To get past the butterflies because everyone has them. Then, to forgive any flub-ups because everyone has those too.

Lisa: Taking that first step in doing the first one, even though I didn’t know if people were going to hear me.

Natalie: The best decision I’ve ever made was to turn down speaking opportunities that just didn’t fit–whether it was my values, it was the organization, or just a gut feeling.

This is not necessarily about just getting paid. I don’t want to go back later and have to explain why I gave a talk to an organization.

People will change and organizations will change. But, if I had a feeling at the very beginning that it’s not what I should do, I don’t do it, and I’m okay with it. And every time, there’ll be something else that the universe will say I should be doing.

Watch the full conversation below.

A big thank you to Lisa, Delia, and Natalie for their experience and expertise with us!

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