I first noticed Dyana Valentine when she took the stage in the HOW Conference opening session. She was a natural on the stage. When she agreed to be part of my HOWmazing project, I was excited (and intimidated!) to have the opportunity to speak with her one-on-one. From her tips for aspiring speakers to conference etiquette, Dyana’s advice was spot-on. Our transcribed interview follows.
I am interested to learn how you found your career on stage.
I always wanted to teach. Like when I was five, I decided I wanted to help as many kids as possible to tie their shoes because I thought that was the radest thing I had ever learned. And I thought … Everyone needs to learn this! This same passion keeps running through me. And it always showed up. It showed up when I was in grade school, when I was at TA in high school and college. Then every job I ever had was the nosy bossy one. I think it has been a natural part of who I am. Then I went to a party hosted by Peleg Top where they made me play charades (I hate charades, there is always someone who leaves crying). And of course I dominated. The host of the party, Peleg Top, who started the creative freelancer conference with Ilise Benum.
After Peleg said, “Hey, I think it would be really great if you did a little warm up activity for a little conference we are putting together. It is the first one of its kind – blah blah blah.” And I figured why not, then found out it was to be in front of 400 people in Chicago. I was sick to my stomach literally for six months. But I rocked it out! Standing on that stage was affirmation that I wanted to do more of it. You know, I have a pretty big personality and the stage allows me to be even bigger and the authority of the stage allows me to get away with a lot. I like to blow peoples brains out when I turn it on. I learned the perfect venue for my creative expression was the stage. It all made perfect sense.
When it comes to your presentations what drives your choice of topic/theme?
I have some keystone conversations that I like to have. Helping people make decisions, test ideas and communicate.
I hosted a make decisions collaboration workshop at InHOWse. We don’t necessarily think about collaboration as decision-making. We think about collaboration as happening after you have made a decision. But collaboration is a beautiful set of tools to use in the decision making process, problem solving and sorting out what gets prioritized.
The testing ideas level, I mean that’s a beautiful thing about the CFC, it’s a rich environment where people come with a open minds towards my cornucopia of ideas.
Pitch perfect is basically our way of communicating ourselves to the world. Whether in print or verbally or whatever. Distilling those messages down is challenging for everybody. Hell, it’s challenging for me! Which is why I created pitch perfect in the first place, because I needed it. So I don’t want anyone thinking oh she’s perfect. Well you can think that if you want to but. Totally not true.
If somebody comes to me and they don’t kind of fit into one of those three things, then they’re really not trying to make a decision or test an idea or communicate. I mean, I don’t know who they would be, but I wouldn’t be the one to help them. You know. You know if someone was trying to streamline their accounting, I wouldn’t be the one.
If you were to summarize what you wanted the audience to get out of your talks, what does that look like?
Oh well those are two completely different questions. So in terms of what I set out as an intention is umm my idea behind anytime I am gonna be sharing something with a group of people. I wanna make sure that it’s useful, that I actually have something to say from a personal level about it, so I don’t present other people’s material or aggregate. You know I don’t do a full on aggregation talk where I ‘m not an expert in any particular subject matter. So my positioning is to cultivate my own inspiration share that with other people and figure out how we can practically apply it. That’s my ultimate kind of goal. If in the process we are laughing and having fun, and there is a high vibration and I can take a room of people and just elevate the frequency then I’m in heaven and I feel like the cosmos is smiling down on me going that’s what we want! So that’s kind of like bonus things I think that they sometimes are the thing itself for the attendees. Sometimes its just like, I heard many people come up to me and say, “ I just came to be in the room. I just wanted to feel that feeling of being of having the rush of a room full of people like filling out their I’m really good at stickers and just the verve that happens. So I mean if that is the only thing I end up doing is making people feel better or feel more excited about what their up to. I’m fine.
When you are up on stage and looking at the audience, what do you see? (yes I got ahead of myself and merged two questions into one – thanks for pointing that out Dyana – you were on the ball!)
So in terms of what I set out as an intention… anytime I am gonna be sharing something with a group of people. I wanna make sure that it’s useful, that I actually have something to say from a personal level. I don’t present other people’s material or aggregate. You know I don’t do a full on aggregation talk where I’m not an expert in any particular subject matter. So my positioning is to cultivate my own inspiration, share that with other people and figure out how we can practically apply it. That’s my ultimate kind of goal. If in the process we are laughing and having fun, and there is a high vibration and I can take a room of people and just elevate the frequency then I’m in heaven and I feel like the cosmos is smiling down on me going “That’s what we want!” I have had many people come up to me and say, “I just came to be in the room. I just wanted to feel the rush of a room full of energized people.”
Yeah for sure! I think what I came out of the whole thing was the energy which kind of sustains you and inspires you to realize your passion and pursue what’s on your mind.
Yeah, one of my clients who works with me every 3 or 4 months calls it the filling station. She comes to the Dyana filling station. She’ll just have a single session and be like “OK, I’m fine. I just needed a little hit.”
So what are you experiencing from the stage?
I think is a really interesting question. There is actually a reflexive process. You know like reflexive verbs like you know in Spanish or something like that where it’s like I see myself whatever. I don’t even know what reflexive means but a call in response or there is a circular pattern that you give energy to and the energy comes back to you. You know it’s a total drug. I will be the first to admit like I just go to tap the pellet bar that is joy in the human form. And when people have volunteered to be in a room and they are just so excited and they come with their own motivation. I really resist people calling me a motivational speaker, that’s why I use inspirational speaker or provoker or you know functional muse or MC. Because really it’s about facilitating the energy that is already in the room. I am not like filling your vessel. I’m there to play with what you already have and turn up the heat. So for me I’m there for… well, totally for me. I don’t get paid a lot to speak at HOW and nothing wrong with HOW, I’m not slamming them but I ‘m not in it for the money in that particular situation. It’s really to be in it to polish my craft, to have a venue to turn up the heat and to raise the vibration of a community of people. And ideally to have the experience then distribute automatically. Like all the tools I bring. I always do a workshop of some kind. You are never going to see me just talking. Unless I am just introducing somebody or something like that. But when I MC, I’m kind of just talking you know. But always my talks are workshops. You are always going to be doing something, your are always going to be integrating that knowledge and taking it out of the room. If there’s not a takeaway or a distribution route then I feel like I’m cheating a room full of people.
In your experience of doing this for four years, have your found the feedback from your audience change where your talk leads? Do you find when something isn’t working and you have to go somewhere else?
Oh you mean midstream? Oh Yeah! And there are lots of other factors that can cause you to change path. At InHOWse, they had copied the wrong handout. And I am sure it was my fault and I’m not blaming anybody. Five minutes before it was starting we didn’t have the ‘corner stone’ of the talk that I had prepared. So what I did was, say “Close the doors. No one can come in!”, and I went to my PowerPoint and deleted 14 slides. I stood there for a second and thought of another activity that I could do. I quickly figured out how I could integrate it into the time. And said “Open the door and go get me some blank paper.” And we just fucking rocked it! So it definitely helped to have taken an improv class last year. I have been in lots of situations where everything went to hell in a hand basket and everybody lives, so I don’t fall apart necessarily as the first course of reaction. Although that definitely has happened.
I have been lucky to just never had a room not be totally into what I was doing. There was a couple corporate gigs I was working where the room was more quiet or a little more stiff. Or for instance there wasn’t the kind of safety you have in a group of strangers. Like who cares whether I write down what I am struggling with in a group of strangers. But if I am sitting next to my boss and I want to write down my boss is an asshole on my exercise, I can’t really do that. So making a safe place for people to explore what they came there for is my job. So I will for instance mix, I will have people raise their hand if they are sitting next to somebody they know or raise their hand if they are a boss and always make the bosses move. So things like that I think help facilitate. Then the fact is one who has the experience of having a room just go crickets on you is just a great learning experience. And you totally live through it and get over it. You get help to figure out what to do in those situations. I have had lots of speaking mentors and you know I am not like a savant speaker. It takes a little bit of work. Sometimes you come out and the audience had an awesome time and you are like, “That Sucked!” Like I skipped slides, I screwed something up; I said somebody’s name wrong. But then the audience is like ‘yeah!’ you are awesome!
That is great. It is funny one of the other questions I came up with after talking to some of the other speakers was about that moment when you want to go up and talk to the speaker after your session or making a connection after the fact.
I love that by the way.
For myself, I find I have that little voice that says whatever you say is silly or stupid. I don’t even know what to say really. But you, you have just have an intense vibe that is both intimidating and supportive. I found I really had your attention. You were listening to whomever came up and was very open, which I think really helped someone to say OK, I can talk to this person because she is so friendly.
Thank you for that, because I really appreciate that I am intimidating to people. Like people are like afraid that I am gonna make them do homework on the spot, which I mean I think, I understand how you got that impression. I admit I can be a total whip cracker. But I always feel so bad because then I feel like, “Oh my god, I have terrorized 300 people!” But you know I love talking to people, and I love hearing stories. It is why I am doing what I’m doing. You know I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t really find out what the truth is. You know I am impossibly curious about the truth. And the real truth. The, what moves you to physically be right here right now, I really want to know.
Knowing that you seem to have this innate ability to connect and really focus on somebody and talk to people. Maybe you have some insight on how you handle yourself in these types of public situations. What kind of tips do you have for other people to work on? How do you approach a speaker?
The way I really like to be approached is just come on up. I think that a lot of times people feel nervous and awkward. So they will do really odd social things like they’ll just come up and interrupt me in mid-conversation with someone else, and they can’t help themselves and blurt something out, which is totally fine. I do understand. I do it to when I have a little moment, “Oh my god, I get to talk to this person I am so excited.” I totally have fan moments. So I usually just kind of like receiving them into the group. Fill them in and say this is what we are talking about, and just ask them to hold for a moment. Stay here and breathe, I want to talk to you just hold on a second. The fact is dork moments happen, that’s OK. I also find that people can get really self-conscious about being emotional because the work I do is so intense. I know how I feel about my business; I know when I am taking risks, because this is a huge. This is like a gambler lifestyle, especially us entrepreneurs and/or freelancers. You don’t necessarily have to be an entrepreneur to be a freelancer. But independent people who work, it is a daily gamble.
It’s a rollercoaster!
Yeah. And I understand because I experience it myself. So sometimes you have a little break through or a little moment where I hope I inspire people to see a little crack of light and go into it and trust it. That can be a very emotional experience for people. I am not a big fan of like, “Here are 7 steps you can take to feel totally secure, never worry about money again.” That is not my gig. I’m a “Let’s just rip this open and be raw.” The nature of my work is very provocative, sometimes very emotional, so people have had a relationship with me that I haven’t necessarily had with them directly. So people have approached me its from a very emotional place. Now I will tell you right now I feel deeply honored by this. I have no problem with it all. But people are so surprised that I haven’t had the emotional interaction with them in particular they become self conscious because they have just cried in front of me and said how much something meant to them. I just want everybody to know I am not afraid of the emotional reactions. Sometimes it will surprise you and if you dork out, you just dorked out and just get over it. But in conferences there are often times when you only have that one chance to say hi to somebody and make a connection. Just do it, just be yourself. Say, “Hi!”, and try to be human about it if you can. Actually say something about how you were impacted by me. I want to know how my work impacts people and I don’t necessarily get that feedback all the time. I think people just assume that I know the impact it is having on them, but I really don’t. So for instance, you are shy and you want to follow up with this speaker – say what affected you and what you got out of it, how you used our material. That’s a total turn on for us. I have had tones of interactions with people who I have reviewed their pitches and followed up with them who are totally shocked that I would do that. The fact that I am not trying to make them my clients always surprises them. I’m not into recruitment, it isn’t what I do. Ilise Bennum is like, “Dyana, where is your marketing machine?” and I’m like umm. “Does like standing on stage several times a year count and the marketing machine?” to which she responds, “No.” My marketing just happens. The people who are really ready for me just come.
That is very organic. In fact I have to admit I fall into your category as well.
It is very naïve and I know it, but I’m OK with it.
What are your tips for someone who wants to start speaking, what are your suggestions?
This is going to seem totally ,obnoxious but just start speaking. Like literally show up somewhere and volunteer to speak at a local meet up. Create a meetup so you can speak in front of 5 or 6 people. Talk to your mirror. Start making videos. Like videos were like, It seemed like I was cheating by blogging and making videos, but the videos were the thing that actually let people know I had something to say. Ya know it was great practice. I think it is really important for people to have a trajectory of building a practice before soliciting speaking gigs. Because even in my case, someone who is very comfortable speaking in groups and facilitating stuff, and yet I was sick to my stomach for six months. Everybody thinks I exaggerate. I kid you not! The six months leading up to first several hundred-person gig in another city where people were paying me, and they were expecting me to present something useful. I was beside myself. So I got a vocal and speaking coach to work with me. I invested in three very expensive sessions because I thought I had to overcome this. And her response was “You don’t need me. Great, this woman is jinxing me! I was insane.
It was and is important that people believe me. I shouldn’t put it on others experiences but it was a big deal for me and as comfortable as I am doing it, as excited as I am doing it. To do it on a regular basis you know it takes a little bit of maturity to pull it off well. And you can’t mature until you just do it. It is like telling a 14-year to grow up. You just have to live through the next 10 years until you get it, or 20 or 30 whatever it takes to mature.
It sounds like if you are gonna go skydiving, you are not going to know the feeling until you just jump out and do it.
Yes, and you can’t learn it from watching videos or reading here are the 10 steps. You know there are a lot of people who will say that that they are public speaking coaches which is great if they aren’t insisting and making you prove that you have gone out somewhere and spoken. Then it is bullshit. Not just pointless, it is bull. They are selling you something that is not going to work. I don’t care how many checklists you go through. Until you stand on that stage and your legs are noodelly and you are sweating through your really cute outfit and you are barfy and your mouth is all like all dry and you can’t remember your name.
You are really selling this.
I don’t want anyone to think I was blowing smoke saying oh this was so easy for me.
Yeah, I want to go out and do this now (sarcasm).
Yeah, rise to the challenge!
I am keen to hear your thoughts on the past HOW conference. What parts of the event did you take in and what was your conference experience driven by?
My conference experience was driven by being on the job. This event is a 6am – 8pm gig. I was working every single day, with media interviews and doing all kinds of behind the scenes that need to happen in order for me to be on my game and be prepared for my guys. I had somebody help me out at this conference, MeganColeman.com, and she was shocked at what it takes to do what I do. She was like, “No wonder you aren’t going to sessions, you are working, at work, setting stuff up!”
I was able to see several things that I thought were quite exceptional. I thought Christina Robbins and Joe (last name?) opening keynote was a stunning example of getting to that level where we are aware of what it takes to be exceptional. I think the whole first space second space third space all the time. I thought it was brilliant.
Yeah, it was a good physical point to remember when you are talking to people, thinking, “Ok, where am I?” A lot of people I was with at the conference enjoyed mocking the concept saying “Don’t come in my circle” or “Don’t breathe on me!”
But to me, them complaining about it or making a joke about it – that was them integrating the information. That didn’t bother me. I heard that stuff too and didn’t care. I heard lots of other speakers reference it in a mocking way, but to me it this reaction was making their point. Which I thought was great.
I also thought Cami-Travis Groves did a beautiful job. She had such an emotional story. It is so poignant, so experiential; I mean she hit all the points that I advise speakers who speak on international stages. She hit all the points just naturally. She is a very ‘giving’ story speaker. Cami’s story is rooted in her own reality versus being rooted in what she then interpreted it supposed to be or say, which was just gorgeous. She was elegant to watch.
In the end my conference experience is truly is driven by personal interactions. For example I had a real break through moment when HOW was interviewing speakers and authors for Design TV. Towards the end of my interview they asked if I had anything else to share. And I sat there for a second and was like yes! Then this sermon just came out of me. And I thought if they hadn’t asked that question and I hadn’t been tired or I hadn’t just been to Vogue to get some chocolate to thank the HOW people who planned all the stuff who never get seen or thanked. If I hadn’t been in that sort of ebullient love state it would have never come out that way. But it was gorgeous and it was all about telling the truth and I hadn’t really had an opportunity from stage to say that but I was really feeling it.
Then I had another defining moment in the hallway when somebody stopped me to say, “I had this really profound experience in your workshop and I am working in a new team in a giant corporation, it is the biggest job I have ever had and no one likes me. They aren’t letting me in. I am freaking out. I am six weeks into this new thing. Is there anyway you can help me?” And we just worked for an hour and a half on one of those elevated ring tables around a pillar. And we just got into it. We got down and dirty and there were tears and it was just gory. I just live for gore! I live for the truth. I live for people who are leaning into their excellence in a way that you can feel in your cells. Like that’s it for me. I would do that for free!
That is awesome!
So that is why I go. Just waiting for some stranger to ask me for some support. So I can learn.
So are you going to Boston next year? Is this a regular thing for you?
Yes. I am going to do inHOWse and a HOW workshop with Jim Krause who wrote the design index books. Jim and are doing a fun yet playful collaboration of 30 creativity ideas in 60 minutes. It will just be hilarious. I have to say that is a show I would want to see. Like sometimes I’m giving talks and I will do it because it is important to people. Maybe people haven’t experienced it or something that is one I would love to be in the audience for that one.
Thank you so much Dyana. I am looking forward to seeing you in June!
Images in this post are provided by Dyana Valentine.