Public Speaking for Designers: Tips for Success

Christina Wodtke created Women Talk Design (WTD) as a pipeline promoting design spokespersons from diverse backgrounds because she was tired of hearing the excuse that there weren’t enough women to speak about design.

WTD connects event organizers with a diverse group of speakers, and conducts workshops and seminars on public speaking. We’ve all got a story, but telling our story in a way that resonates is a skill.

IxDA Seattle is excited to share the craft of public speaking and storytelling with our design community. We hosted two workshops facilitated by WTD with sponsorship support from HBO. Here are some of the tips we learned:

Design Your Talk

Identify your angle

We all have our own unique perspectives. But what do you know that will expand other’s horizons or challenge their assumptions? This is where you should start when deciding what your design talk should be.

Check out Rachel Nabors’ post on finding your angle.

Understand the mechanics of storytelling

Design talks of any quality might contain a thesis, ideas, facts, anecdotes, and perhaps exercises. But it’s storytelling that bring these components together in a way that audiences can relate to and ultimately retain.

Nancy Duerte’s The secret structure to great talks
Kendell Haven’s Neural Story Network 

Make your Story Stick

Develop a sticky narrative by: 

  • Setting your context

  • Framing your goal as a universal motivation

  • Sharing the spark that pushed you forward

  • Building up to the struggle or challenge you faced

  • Showing the audience how you achieved resolution

  • Concluding with your call to action

Christina Wodtke’s The Secret to a Great Presentation

Structure Your Talk

Danielle Barnes (WTD’s CEO and the facilitator for our Seattle sessions), suggests you write down the components of your talk on sticky notes and then you can arrange and rearrange the stick notes to get the architecture of your talk worked out. 


For an engaging talk, weave a variety of these components into your narrative: 

  • Your thesis 

  • Ideas (supporting points of your thesis)

  • Facts (evidence supporting your ideas)

  • Stories (anecdotes that elucidate your points)

Craft your Talk as a Story

Ultimately, your talk should open with something compelling that draws the audience in and ends with a memorable takeaway. 

Danielle emphasizes that crafting your talk as a story also makes it easier to present because you’ve got a beginning, middle, and end. It’s not necessary to memorize every word by heart, but rather she suggests having the beginning and end down pat, and then focusing on transitions between parts of your story. 

Getting Comfortable on Stage

Effective speakers couple engaging storytelling with stage presence. But like storytelling, stage presence is not an innate talent – it is a learned skill. 

Cheryl Platz facilitated the second workshop, focusing on how to get comfortable on stage. Many of the tips she shared drew on her improv training. As humans we look for signals to figure out how to perceive others, so it is important to know what behaviors to project an authoritative stage presence. 

Mind and Body Awareness

Cheryl began by emphasizing the importance of mind and body awareness on stage presence. Everything we do with our body impacts how what we’re saying is received so it’s important to be aware of emotions and thoughts, and how they are reflected in physical expressions and movements. 

Projecting Status

The second important point to feeling more comfortable on stage is to project the right status. Often when people are nervous, they will display body language that is perceived as low status. People who project high status are often more convincing because they appear to be confident in what they are saying. You can project high status in the following ways:

  • Plant your feet in a wide stance – take up space

  • Open your chest

  • Make eye contact

  • Move with purpose

  • Speak slowly

  • Project your voice clearly

It’s also helpful to be aware of low status mannerisms, so you can avoid them! Low status cues can include:

  • Shuffling around

  • Avoiding eye contact

  • Slouching, folding in on yourself, crossing your arms, or other protective stances

  • nervous laughter

These behaviors can be distracting, and imply that you don’t belong. This makes it more difficult for people to engage with the story you’re trying to tell.

Use your nervousness

Of course, many of us get nervous when speaking in from of group. Cheryl suggests harnessing that nervous adrenaline to your advantage, in other words,  “get your butterflies into formation." If you have mind and body awareness, you will notice when your adrenaline kicks in and you can use it to direct your focus. Taking a deep breath, slowing down your speech, and intentional movement can help control the perception of nerves. 

Pause for Effect

If during your speech, your mind races and you lose your train of thought, try this: plant your feet, put your hands on your hips, make eye contact with the audience, and breathe.

Audiences interpret these pauses as intentional because your stance communicates high status. They may also appreciate the opportunity to catch up and reflect on the information they are absorbing. 

Try postures on for Size

Cheryl suggests playing around with these behaviors and postures to determine what suits your authentic self. Try it out by standing in different positions and walking at different speeds and gaits to see what makes you feel the most confident.

Ultimately, effective public speaking comes from telling your own story in a way that’s true to you.  

Thanks HBO for generously sponsoring these workshops!

Amanda Snellinger