On Writing and Speaking

Comfort Zone

I’m a designer. Writing and speaking are uncomfortable chores for me. As a graphic design student at the University of Florida, I did everything I could to avoid writing and speaking. I only did either when it was absolutely required. Now that I’m a working professional and have been a practicing designer for a good while, I realize just how much I undervalued the art of both.

As a designer, making controlled progress on my designs is directly related to my ability to present the work convincingly with poise and confidence. This doesn’t come easy.

For me, a good presentation is an artifact of having collected my thoughts in advance and articulated them in a way that is authentic and believable even (read: especially) when improvised. In advance of a presentation, I usually write bullet points of the things I want to cover. I may refer to my notes during the presentation but it’s usually complete improvisation. Writing the bullet points down serves as a rehearsal so that my thoughts are organized. I sometimes have to write things on sticky notes or rewrite them in the order that I prefer to cover them. I also try to anticipate questions a client may have so that I’m prepared to think off script. I’ll keep my notes handy so that when I do go off script, I know how to get back and don’t forget to cover important things in the heat of the moment.

Challenge Yourself

Why is this important and what does it have to do with writing and speaking? It has everything to do with it. It’s all about organizing your thoughts and being able to articulate them in a way that others will understand.

With speaking, you usually get one shot. This is why some good writers still shy away from speaking. It can be terrifying. But good writing leads to good speaking: you can write and rewrite before anyone else reads what you have to say. Like anything, to be good you have to face your fears, learn what works for you, and keep practicing.

Because my confidence is lower as a speaker than as a writer I try to write more than I speak, hoping that mastering one will naturally lead to being better at the other. I try to do one or the other on a semi-regular basis to challenge myself to continually get better. I want to be better at transferring my thoughts and ideas to peers and especially to clients. The more I can get my clients to trust me up front, the more I will be able to guide the design and see my ideas come to life. The same can be said about gaining the trust of your fellow teammates. These are essential to career growth.

Sharing Is a Privilege

If your title is not Writer or Speaker then you should consider opportunities to write or speak as part of your job as a privilege, not a chore. I’m fortunate to work at Viget where these opportunities are core to our values. We have four blogs where we’re encouraged to offer our opinions, share with the community, and sharpen our writing skills. Once a week we gather for lunch and listen to a 15-minute talk led by someone different every week. Topics range from personal interests and experiences to sharing what we’re working on. I look forward to this all week and I’m extremely bummed when I can’t attend. Not only do I learn something new every week, it’s a great opportunity to practice the art of speaking with an audience that I’m comfortable with. Making this a regular practice readies me for bigger challenges should the opportunity arise.

If you don’t have the privilege of writing or speaking at your current job, try to initiate the practice yourself. Inspire others. If you still run into resistance, find ways to do it on your own time. Create your own blog or offer to guest post on someone else’s. If you are terrified by the idea, don’t be. The only way to overcome your fears is to face them. Believe me, you will thank yourself later.

Some Examples

As mentioned, Viget has four blogs. Those blogs have produced over 1,000 posts to date. They’ve served to give us credibility among our peers. Comments on the blogs have helped us to discover new tools and solve problems we couldn’t have on our own. We reference specific posts when we’re recruiting and talking to prospective clients. Thus, they’ve helped us hire new people and gain new work. Several of our staff have posted to prominent blogs like Smashing Magazine, Webdesigner Depot, and UX Booth. Some have been offered speaking opportunities. Many of these requests were directly related to ideas originally spun up in the Viget blogs. Viget alumni like Ben Scofield, Jackson Wilkinson, and Samantha Warren continue to write and speak in notable and impressive ways. I’ve observed people like Whitney Hess go from a largely unknown to a fairly well known UX designer, speaker, and writer. A little courage goes a long way. 

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

You have thoughts and ideas, too. Probably really good ones. Do yourself a favor and share your thoughts regularly either in written or spoken form. I think you’ll find that doing so only leads to better things.

For me, any form of writing or speaking is directly related to the hope that I continue to improve at presenting my design work. I want to be able to produce design that is useful, meaningful, and joyful for my clients, my teammates, myself, and the intended audience. I believe that strengthening my skills as a writer and speaker are directly related to my happiness as a designer. I hope that you will, too.

Tom is vice president of design and works in our Falls Church, VA, HQ. He has over two decades of experience as a designer and team coach, and works with clients such as the University of Pennsylvania and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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