Education, Event, Communication

46 Min Read

Designing Women San Diego: Design Your Talk Topic

Designing Women San Diego hosted Danielle Barnes, CEO of Women Talk Design, for their event,  Design Your Talk Topic.

Designing Women is run by Julie Morgan and Teena Singh as a 5-year-old group that champions and amplifies female UX professionals.

Women Talk Design’s History and Mission

Women Talk Design’s mission is to help get more diversity in the speakers on the stage, supporting women and nonbinary people in design and tech at large. It was started by a designer, Christina Wodtke. In 2013, she was speaking at a lot of conferences and events. She had been in the industry for about 25 years, and was really pissed off that she was often the only woman on the stage. She knew a lot of really incredible other women and said, “Why aren’t they speaking?” And so she started Women Talk design as a directory to feature different speakers. And after interviewing organizers and speakers, they found that it wasn’t just that women weren’t being asked, but they were often saying no. So they now work with conference organizers on how they can design more inclusive conferences that speakers want to be a part of: creating a safe space, a code of conduct that is being enforced, paying their speakers, access to childcare, accommodations for people who might need them. The final piece is encouraging more people to raise their hands to speak, to practice and feel confident once they do.


Design Your Talk Workshop

The workshop started with discussing how to determine your next talk topics, figuring out what you want to speak about.  

One of the things about public speaking is there’s a lot that goes into it, everything from how do you initially get the motivation to speak, to how do you come up with topics, to designing an actual talk and delivering it with confidence. 

This workshop was focused on this beginning, giving the audience a framework.

It starts with the context, discusses audience, brainstorms topics, through 10 steps. 

(Women Talk Design has other workshops on other parts of the speaking process.) 

The goals for this workshop were: 

  1. “I do want you to leave with a framework that you can feel like you can do this again. So yes, we’re going to generate ideas in this workshop, but you’re going to leave in different places depending on how hard you are on yourself, or how much you thought about this before. But I want you to continue to be able to do this after the workshop. 
  2. I also want you to have time and space to work on this. Because the thing about working on a talk in general is that it takes time. And it takes thinking through things and digesting your ideas and really spending the energy to do that. And it’s hard to do that, right. And that’s your job. Your work is saying, I want you to craft a talk and giving you two weeks to do this. It’s really hard to do it on your own. And so part of this workshop is to me the time and space. 
  3. And the third thing is that this workshop is super interactive, we’re gonna be doing things but you’re also going to be working together. And if you leave this workshop with one thing, I want you to know that you should not go out of this alone. Because I think a lot of times when we think about crafting a talk, or comparing anything that we’re going to share in public, we think ‘I want to get this perfect before I share with anyone else.’ And it’s so important to invite people in, at every stage when you’re coming up with ideas when you’re crafting your talk, and when you’re practicing delivery. And so I hope that you’ll leave this workshop just really having the confidence that you can reach out to other people and bring them into something,” Danielle said.

Identifying Topics

Write down the answer to the first question, “why do you want to speak?”

If you don’t know why you want to speak, write down what are the reasons that you might want to speak. 

Some of the audience answers included challenging themselves since they were afraid of public speaking, crystallizing ideas by speaking about them to a lot of people, finding your people at conferences (something the instructors sees a lot of for introverts who may not want to network but if they speak at an event, interested people may come up to them afterward and introduce themselves instead of vice versa), for work/obligation, to enhance your career and personal brand, to learn a topic better because of the research involved, to prepare for writing a book, sharing lessons learned, and more. 

The reason that you start with why you want to speak, is because your why is going to be really grounding for you throughout the time that you speak. Part of it is going to be your motivation. 

When you have several different ideas for talk topics and don’t know which one to choose, you can decide by thinking about the purpose of why you’ve been doing this in the first place. For example, for building a professional brand, maybe you want to speak about something that’s more technical or more within your field. Whereas if you want to inspire others, maybe you’d give more of a talk about your career or life.

Your why also helps you get excited to get on stage. “I had one speaker who, right before she gets on stage, she reminds herself of why she’s speaking and it’s that last bit of motivation when she’s scared shitless in front of an audience,” Danielle said. 

CAMP Framework for Speaking

It’s a design framework, which is [spinning]. And it was coined by Christina Wodtke, the founder of Women Talk Design. The framework that we’re going to use is CAMP.

C stands for context.

Christina’s article that she has is actually a framework for designing just about anything, you can use CAMP to design anything. First, is our context. Why this is our audience, what is it that we’re talking about, and why it’s going to be the event. 

A stands for architecture.

What is the shape of our talk, before we dive into the nitty-gritty details, essentially figuring out what your talk looks like. There are different architectures using storytelling. You can have a story-driven talk. 

M stands for mechanics.

These are the things that are really going to help make your talk. “I’m going to skip to the next part because I have a hard time explaining mechanics without poetics, the experience that you’re creating for your audience,” Danielle said. 

P stands for poetics.

How do you want your audience to feel? So even though it’s the last part of the process listed here, you actually think about P during the context. But it’s not something that you can make happen until you’re building up towards the climax. And that’s where the mechanics come in. The mechanics here are the techniques that you will use in order to help you convey your points, like using dialogue, or pauses, or humor in your talk. 

Or the way in which you use your body language via mechanics. “If you’ve ever seen speakers talk about this really big thing, or this really small thing, they’ll move around as they’re making different points. There’s a really amazing Creative Mornings talk from Paula Mendoza in New York, a creative director in the Women’s March, and she gives a talk all about how she needs artists. She wants to start her talk, making us all feel like we’re in a pretty dark place, and her poetics are ‘How can I convey a feeling of doom and sadness, and this is what happens in the 2016 election.’ Because after that, she wants to bring you up and inspire me to think, ‘I can change this, I can make change.’ And so in her mechanics she’s using, describing the setting of the day that they found out that Hillary lost the election, and she uses pauses, and she changes her inflection and her tone. And this is all helping her create the experience that she wants for her audience,” Danielle said. 

This workshop focused on the context because this is where our talk topic fits. The other things come later. 



Context can refer to if you have slides or something really specific like the venue. Who’s your audience? Do I have a clicker? Do I have a mic? Some of those nitty-gritty things you don’t necessarily need to know before you have the talk, but it’s all part of the context. What are some of the things that are within the context of the event? The organizers, the audience, audience size, things that we need to know before we start crafting. Audience size could affect interactivity: big groups will be less interactive than small audiences.

Time of day is another type of context. Morning is going to feel different than giving a talk at 3pm or in the evening.

Seating arrangements are context. Groups of tables facing each other, or rows of chairs facing the stage?

Demographics are context. “I always caution with demographics by asking why you might need it. Because I think a lot of the times you can make assumptions based on demographics that aren’t necessarily what we’re looking for. So if you’re thinking you want to speak to 22-year-olds, you ask, ‘ why do you want to do that?’ Because I want to talk to people who are new in their career. But there have to be people who are in new careers who are 50. That’s important, too,” Danielle said.

What jargon your audience uses, the cultural references they are familiar with, and the humor they understand are also context.

If you already have an idea before you have an audience, think about who would care about that topic in order to find the right audience, the right event to speak at. Where do those people gather? Knowing those top places to give your talk could help you refine your talk and tailor it down to your audience.

The audience and event will depend on your why, why you want to speak. If your goal is to build your professional brand, you may want to speak to people senior to you in their careers. If your goal is to teach, your audience may be younger than you. 

Learn about your audience. What are their motivations for attending a talk on your topic? What are other things you may know about them? These things should help you refine and narrow down your talk ideas.


Finding talk topic ideas

You might have some loose ideas of things that you’re interested in, especially thinking about why you want to speak. 

Rachel Nabors started her career as a cartoonist and now works in design and development as a lot of the animation. She wrote an article on finding your killer talk topic. And she said when finding the topic that she wanted to speak about, she asked herself these different questions and figured out her intersection between all of these things. 

  • What do you love? 
  • Where do you come from? 
  • Where are you now? 
  • What do you do? 
  • What do you wish you were doing? 
  • What makes you special? 

Ask yourself these different questions and find your niche within them.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher wrote a book called “Technically Wrong,” about toxic tech. She published an article called, “Don’t feel like an expert, share anyway.” She interviewed a  lot of different people, trying to figure out what is stopping people from speaking and how do you come up with what you might want to talk about. Her pieces of advice that came out of this is that experience is not required. Even experts don’t always feel like experts. So you don’t need to wait until you’re expert to speak on something. 

You can also do a lot of research as long as you have some interest. She encourages you to do it for ‘past you.’ If you can’t think about what you might want to talk about, think about your audience as your past self. So what do you wish that you heard? But what do you wish that you had learned that you ended up learning the hard way? Everything is new for someone. 

This is thinking about our audience. Maybe something is so second nature to you, but if someone is outside of your field or newer in the field, it can be new to them. When you give a talk, you’re telling your perspective on something. So even if you’re talking about something others have heard about, you’re sharing, you’re infusing it in your perspective and your stories. And it makes it unique to you. And that’s a talk that no one else can give. 

These are things that Sara says to keep in mind when you’re thinking about what you want to come up with all these, these things are important.


Workshop Exercise

Brainstorm anything that we can talk about, using the questions above. Put each idea on a different notecard. Find where the ideas intersect. See what would really appeal to your audience. Remember your why. Hand the cards off to another person to see where they find overlap and connections. Here are a few additional questions to add into the mix:

  • What’s something you can’t stop thinking about? 
  • What’s something people always ask you?
  • What are some of the past experiences you have? 
  • What do you want to learn? 
  • What did you learn the hard way? 
  • What’s the latest project you have done? 

A few of mine involved advancing women in leadership, that’s my mission and also fits into the theme of what do I want to learn? One thing I’d like to learn is how exactly do people become a CEO, what are the different paths and how to teach that to people, to make it more clear? 

An idea that fit under “What I learned the hard way,” was that getting raises and promotions and jobs is not usually based on working hard and fulfilling your job description. I had a lot of career changes, from finding new topics that interested me more while the traditional linear career path advancement wasn’t working well for me, that topic fits into the thread somehow as well.

Another thread was why do I love going to events like this, why I’m involved in Ellevate, why I’m reading about these topics all the time.

For the “What do you wish you were doing” question I usually think of writing and speaking and other things revolving around a personal brand, the money-making side of that is not clear yet. 

A call to action in your talk

The next step was thinking about what is the one thing when people come to your talk, that they’re going to walk away with. They might have access to resources or things you shared. They’re gonna remember one major idea and maybe some other takeaways. But it’s really good to focus yourself on what is the one thing that this talk is about? What do you want people to do? How would you summarize that in a sentence? Then ask for feedback on this with someone.


How to find events to speak at

Someone in the audience mentioned webinars. With some topics, it might be better to have an audience, and you have to figure out what is best for you. Danielle actually doesn’t like doing webinars because she loves seeing her audience and looking at people. At bigger events when the lights are in your eyes and you can’t see anyone, she feels like she’s talking to herself. But a lot of people love not being able to see their audience. Some people feel much more comfortable presenting in front of people they know, these people support or cheer me on, some people do not want to speak in front of anyone they know, because they’d rather speak in front of people they never have to see again.


How do we get some of these opportunities? 

Sometimes there isn’t a call for first speakers. Some meetups and conferences post about looking for speakers. A call for speakers can be anything as broad as ‘send us your proposal,’ or as specific as Grace Hopper, SXSW, where you read all of these different things, answer all of these different questions. There might be a specific process of reaching out, there might not be, but a lot of event organizers want to hear from you, especially meetups that are local. They’re always looking for speakers. And so reaching out and introducing yourself, sharing your talk and why you want to give it specifically to their audience can be really powerful. Sharing who you are and how you have experienced that relates to this talk.

Adapt your bio for your talk and event, make sure that it explains why you’re qualified to give this talk.

Just letting it be known that you want to speak is really powerful because a lot of the times people in your community, people that you know, have speaking opportunities, but might not necessarily think of you without knowing that you’re interested in speaking. Starting to tell your friends, starting to tell your coworkers, posting it on social media, on your portfolio, talk about which topics you can speak about. It’s a mix of putting it out into the universe and then also seeking out different things. 

For those of you who work at companies that might be smaller and actually make it easy to just schedule a meeting and say, ‘Hey, everyone, I want to give a talk, let’s all get together for lunch, I’d love to give this talk,’ where some companies have like a structured team meeting where you might be able to give your talk for their conferences. 

A lot of these opportunities happen far in advance. You might mark that on your calendar for next year. If you reach out at the last minute, it’s probably not going to be super successful. “I used to be responsible for putting together our company’s call for proposals for South by Southwest. One thing that was really fun about that was I put together a lot of panels, which is a really cool opportunity if you’re newer to public speaking. Panels can be good if you’re new since you’re not the only voice in the room. So you don’t have as much pressure on you,” Danielle said. 

There are so many different types of talks. There are panels, there are short lightning talks, there are workshops, there are keynotes, there are case studies, there are informational talks, and so on. That’s kind of all in the next step of this, really starting to refine, what do you want to talk about, what type of talk and starting to find those opportunities. 

It’s really great to figure out where you might start looking at the context before you go ahead and craft that whole talk. Because if you craft an entire talk, and then you can’t find any place to present it, that’s a bummer. But you could start posting things and get feedback on what you’re proposing and then refine it, and then find that opportunity and be able to create that top for that audience. 

Women Talk Design has a Google Doc that they try to maintain with about 30 different conferences that speakers in our community have recommended speaking in. That’s a good thing to keep your eye on. It also has different ways to get started, like reaching out to speak in a company. 


Collecting Feedback

If you know you’re going to speak at a certain place, you ask the organizers a lot of questions such as, how much time do I have? What’s the format? Is there a Q&A? 

Make sure you ask this one: Do you have a process for collecting feedback? 

It might be that they collect feedback from the entire conference but not for individual sessions. So there’s a lot of different scenarios which might happen. If you know that you want feedback, you might give your information at the end of your slides and say, contact me, I want to know what you think. Or you may ask the event organizers if you can pass out a feedback form, saying this feedback is really important to me. Print them out and bring them to your workshop because everyone’s busy. If I send it out afterward, you won’t fill it out. Ask while you’re here before you leave something out and leave it upside down to bring your feedback. 

How can you deal with negative feedback? Is it negative and constructive? You can do lightning talks that give people the opportunity to practice a talk in front of a supportive audience that talk a lot about how to give feedback. Such as, I wonder if you can practice using pauses instead of rushing?

Sometimes there’s feedback that may feel hopeful in the moment.

If there are 30 people in the room, and one person was mean to you and didn’t like me and like, maybe they weren’t your target audience. Maybe they were having a bad day. The best thing you can do is not take it personally. 


Handling Q&A

“I get this question a lot of, well, how do you handle Q&A? I know people that love it. I know people that hate it. Q&A can be really powerful because it allows you to connect with your audience. And it also is, you know, less pressure because it’s not a prepared talk. It’s like when you’re on panels. I can ask the answer questions when someone asks them. You can also learn a lot about what people understood and what people didn’t understand about your talk. You can learn maybe what your next talk should be about if certain questions kept coming up,” Danielle said. 

Q&A can be more as a part of practicing and getting comfortable with responding to those different things that can come up. It’s also understanding how the Q&A is going to work, the more prepared, and the more context you have can be helpful to prepare. Sometimes you’ll have questions submitted in advance, or sometimes you’ll have a host who is leading with Q&A for you. If there is a host you can ask them if a question comes up like this, can you help me? Take it away? You can ask to lead Q&A, and if you have the mic, then you have to deal with this. 



“Two things that help with my confidence. If you haven’t watched Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, watch it. The power posing, it’s really important right. I still get nervous and I think part of it is understanding how you can make yourself calm right away. And you learn over time how to handle nervousness. So one of our instructors teaches a lot about feeling confident in front of a room. And she always says, ‘It’s not about getting rid of your butterflies, it’s teaching them how to fly in formation,’” Danielle said.

If the issue with nervousness is physical reactions like shaking, think of solutions such as asking to give a talk that doesn’t involve a handheld mic, have a lapel mic instead. Breathing can be really powerful. Doing a one-minute meditation before you go on stage, taking really deep breaths, as an even just pausing during the talk. It’s actually really powerful in some ways, you can pause to emphasize a point, you can pause to then switch things up. And you can pause if you’re nervous, you just need a second. Practicing that can be helpful. 

The more that you talk and figure out what your thresholds are for different nerves then you know what you need to do to practice. 

Right before your talk, get out of your head, and really focus on being present. Because at that point, you need to trust that you have prepared enough to know all your stuff. And then focus on connecting with your breath and your body and your audience. You can also record yourself like videotape or audio. A lot of times people think practicing in their head is the same as practicing out loud, but you really have to say the words. If you videotape yourself and then you can see like, ‘Oh, I did this, or I did this,’ and have that feedback. 

Saying it in front of people is different than saying it out loud because then all those nerves start to activate.


Visit Women Talk Design

Visit Designing Women

Topics:   Education, Event, Communication