Ep #33: Public Speaking Your Way to an Amazing Career with Dina Sorensen

by | Podcast

One of the best parts about being a coach is seeing my clients really thrive. Watching clients build robust and successful careers as speakers, oftentimes improving other aspects of their lives and work along the way, makes everything worth it. And today's guest, Dina Sorensen, is a perfect example.

Dina is a self-described “archipreneur” – an architect plus an entrepreneur – who is also a designer and a public speaker. Dina pushed herself to get into public speaking almost a decade ago when she realized she needed to build upon her communication and presentation skills to get across just how passionate she is about her work. She's been landing great speaking engagements ever since!

On this episode, Dina and I talk about how she's used speaking to build not only a unique career but a unique level of control over her career path. Dina shares how she came to speak on big stages fairly early in her speaking journey and how she copes with the speaking anxiety that is often part of her process. We also discuss the importance of authenticity to your message and why serving your audience should always be at the core of what you present. Dina is one of my longest-standing clients and she's got tons of wisdom to share!

If what you heard here today was useful, you’ll love the free guide I’ve created for you at speaksoitmatters.com/yes. Sign up now and get immediate access to our Power & Grace Speaker’s Toolkit (including The Only Presentation Outline You’ll Ever Need). 

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How public speaking allowed Dina to diversify her career and build a unique, amazing career path.
  • Why she values the control she's earned over where her career goes.
  • How Dina realized that her voice was incredibly important to advancing the work she was passionate about and excited to share with the world.
  • How she landed two important speaking engagements on big stages right at the beginning of her speaking career.
  • How Dina copes with speaking anxiety.
  • How she transitioned from a more academically-minded presentation style to one that can better serve a wider audience and resonate more deeply.

Listen to the Full Episode:

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Full Episode Transcript:

You are listening to the Speak So It Matters podcast, episode number 33. Welcome to Speak So It Matters, where we share a mix of stories of inspiration and super practical public speaking and communication guidance to help you release all the barriers to becoming the speaker you know you're meant to be. Some of us are called to use our voice to serve others and our world as well as to become the most fully expressed version of ourselves. If that's you, you've landed in the right place. Let's do this, my friends.

Hello my speaker friends. I am so excited to introduce you to today's guest because Dina is one of my longest standing clients. Dina speaks all over the world, and really, the start of this ramped up part of her speaking in her career and in her thought leadership really began a little more than eight years ago because she was a part of a very innovative project within the architecture and school design world. So Dina and I started working together then because she would literally start getting pulled on to amazing stages. This is one of those interesting things that you don't know about it until it starts happening to you or someone you know. Oftentimes, we're thinking to ourselves, “How do I get on those great stages where I can be a part of those big, meaningful conversations?” And it's a good question to ask, and of course, there are ways to position yourself to get there.

One of those ways, and I think it surprised Dina, or she didn't have this in mind when she was first working on this project, was to do something really remarkable in her industry, and she and the team that she was working with, there were administrators at this school, and then there was a research team at a university, there were public health experts, and they all came together and created a research project before a school was designed and built, and then have been studying and learning from the before and after of that project. So Dina does a lot of speaking on the project itself and about healthy schools and how to create a built environment that supports health and wellness and learning for our kids, but she also speaks a lot about working together in the architecture and school administration world in a really innovative way, how to work together collaboratively across many different disciplines.

So Dina's career path is really inspiring because stepping into thought leadership the way that she has over these years has given her some incredible opportunities to speak on stages all over the world, which is exciting and has allowed her to be a part of some of the biggest conversations in her industry and the most meaningful ones, but it's also meant some exciting career moves for her. So I'm excited for you to get to hear this conversation, hear the insights that Dina has experienced across her years as a speaker, all that she's learned as she's learned more about who she is as a speaker and thought leader as well as just the process of being out there and sharing it and some of the benefits and delights. So I hope you enjoy this conversation even half as much as I did.

Hello, speaker friends. We get to take a slightly different view into the speaking world today. I could not be more delighted to introduce you to one of my longest time and most prolific speaking clients. This brilliant thought leader has enlightened and inspired countless rooms and auditoriums, full of school administrators, designers, teachers, public health experts, other architects, more that I'm just not thinking of now. Dina Sorenson is my favorite example of how thought leadership speaking can help you build a career with incredible impact, and really have authority over your career path too. You'll hear what I mean as she shares her story and we just chat about this. So I can't wait to share Dina's insights from her exciting speaking adventures. Let's dive in. Dina, I love that you're here. Thank you.

Thank you. It's great to be here.

Awesome. So let's start with the beginning for you because I think your story, it's really fun to kind of get the timeline of your speaking adventure. So how did you start speaking and why?

I started speaking, I think it was probably around 2010 or so, and formally for my work at that time. Prior to that, most of my presentation work was in the context of either pitching to a client or being in graduate school and having to sit up in front of several high-powered critics to help them understand complex work. So I was always pitching or presenting in some way, shape or form for quite a long time. And then the first opportunity to speak more broadly to a larger audience was through a very specific project that was really special to a lot of people, an architecture project that also had some components of research attached to it, and I kind of dove into opportunities to speak because I felt very strongly at the time that if I had a part and piece of the work, and I was responsible as an author for that content, then I should be enabled and empowered to speak to that content publicly.

Ooh, ooh yeah. That's a really great way to say it. Yes, you should. I hope everybody just heard that, 'cause you had done so much great work with this team, and there was a team, and you had people on the team who would have been willing to stand up and speak on behalf of the project, whether you were there not, not in a mean way. They were going to do that if there was an opportunity, but you wanted to be there too.

I did. I wanted to practice telling the story, and I also felt very attached to the work itself and thought the most authentic approach to telling the story would be through my voice, and then of course, I would support my teammates in whatever way that they needed in case they wanted to also go out and share the story. I just felt, all of a sudden, I just had this a-ha moment that using my voice was really important to my growth and development at that time, and that I really had to be assertive about taking hold of those opportunities, and if they came my way spontaneously, I would say yes. And if I had to be more strategic and go find those opportunities, I did that as well.

Yes, you have. That is for sure. That first one, I want to just kind of give those who are listening a window into that particular opportunity because it was kind of high stakes pretty early in your, I know you'd been speaking in a lot of different, in graduate school and on behalf doing the interviews for clients to get jobs, pitching for jobs. But this opportunity to get on a stage was kind of a big deal. Can you just talk about what that first conference was?

Yeah. I feel like the first, when I look back, the first real conference where I can say it was for me, I considered it the big time because I knew the audience was going to be very diverse. National conference, I think you're referencing the AIA conference in Chicago. It just had a much bigger feel to it, and also because of the topic, it had drawn a lot of attention. So the AIA, American Institute of Architects, usually gives you a heads up as to how many people have signed up for the event. And at that time, 300+ people was a lot. So I was used to speaking with anywhere from two to 45 people, but not much bigger than that. And that was really a big breakthrough and a turning point for me. Not only the type of venue, the audience, the copresenters I was with, but really, the kind of emotional depth and value of the story itself was something that hadn't been crafted yet.

So it was kind of the first opportunity I had to work with you to kind of ground the storyline in something that was very personal to me and other people, and then kind of talk about the project from that vantage point or that point of view. So it was very special, kind of a breakthrough, and very nerveracking to say the least building up to it.

Didn't you have two opportunities around the same time? I feel like there was something in D.C. with a high level, were they politicians or …

Yeah, The Washington Post did a beautiful event.

That's right.

Focusing on health, and that was equally as important and with a lot of attention on it, but a completely different venue. And so when you go from that idea of 300+ people in a ginormous room with a stage and big screens to a very small venue with an invited guest list of about 40, but it's being filmed and screened simultaneously across the Washington Post. And I only had 10 minutes with another person, so it was just completely different experiences but both kind of back to back, as you mentioned, in time with different preparation, different desirable outcomes for those and just such a major difference between a long talk and a short talk.

Yeah. And you really had to, as I recall it, it was kind of figuring them both, I don't remember the span of time, I just remember we were working on this sort of bigger, what is this talk overall, what's the message overall? But then you needed to, the audience is such a big deal, and so your content really changes as you know, as well as anyone, you shift it depending on who's in that audience. So all that, while you were like, “Oh my gosh, this is new to me in this domain.”

Yes. I have to say at that time, my preference at the time was for the long talk just because I was still honing and crafting a certain kind of comfort level with these short, very short intense interviews or, or talks or whatnot. And I feel like I've come a long way since then, but yeah, it was back to back, kind of full speed, high intensity opportunities that were radically different.

Yeah. And one of the questions that a lot of people ask me is how do I get great speaking gigs? How do I get on these great stages? And from pretty early on, you've been on some of the great stages in your industry. So what did you do or why you think that happened, because you've been at the AIA multiple times, and then you've done other projects with them since, right?

Yeah. I think the topic, the subject matter that has been really close to my heart for a long time is still relevant, for starters. It's not a topic that I'm trying to create relevance around. It's already of interest to a lot of different people because it is complex. So when you look at a topic like architecture and public health, there are obviously a number of ways you can approach that. That's very exciting emergent, producing new work, do thinking new ways of partnering with people that traditionally aren't in architecture. So I think there's just a novelty factor around that topic, number one. And then the other thing that I've learned in terms of being able to pitch a talk on a larger stage is just the legitimacy of the speaker. So I feel like all the talks that I did for a couple of years to build up to these larger venues was adding depth to my portfolio of talks.

It was adding evidence that I am in fact an expert, I have something really unique and powerful to offer, and that it's not just to inspire, but it's really to get people to a whole new level of thinking in their own work and craft. And so I think as you build a portfolio of talks and the evidence around your expertise, it becomes obviously a lot easier to strategize on where you want to be and when to keep kind of building up the power of those talks and the venues and whatnot.

Yeah. I love that because I think you're speaking to sort of these two elements that are both true, and they kind of, gosh, I want to come up with some visual, but I can't. It's like when one of them is bigger, the other can be smaller. Like if you've done something really remarkable that is of great interest, which is really what had happened with your project, which we should explain what that is in just a minute so it doesn't sound so mysterious. So you do something remarkable, and then you're more likely to get pulled onto stages because you've done something remarkable. Now unless you've proven that you're not good on a stage, you know there's a good chance you'll get opportunities on pretty nice stages for that because they want to hear about this project.

It's of powerful interest to the audience, but if you haven't done something yet that is that remarkable where people are like, “Oh, nobody's done this before,” and it's one of the big questions in our industry and you're more at the exploratory stage or early stage, then you really need to have built up thought leadership status, and that helps you get on the stage more, and you've only done both over these years. But some people would say like, “Oh, well you got on great stages right from the beginning,” and yep, sometimes that happens if you've done something really remarkable that people want to hear about. Otherwise it's over time.

Yes, it was definitely over time and continues to be over time, and it's just a reminder that those early talks and even some current opportunities are times to experiment. So when I look back, each one felt like a speech to the world because it was such a big deal for me to start working on public speaking. So I took each opportunity, big and small, very seriously and applied a lot of rigor to doing my best to pull it together so that it would be impactful and useful for the audience. And I think those early experiences, I would trip up a lot on the impactful for the audience part because I was still very much an academic and a practitioner and somebody who could successfully sell an idea to a client or a team mate, but that's a completely different way of communicating, and when you have an audience that is blessing you with an hour of their time, reading an academic paper isn't going to really cut it for most people.

So I had a lot of those talks where I could hone and practice and, quite frankly, fail in order to understand why it's so important to almost get out of your own way and be empathetic to each individual in the audience and what they might want to get out of that talk. It took me working with you for a lot of years and a lot of practice in those and almost every talk to realize I have to actually be an audience member to this message and try to imagine how I could walk away being influenced by it.

I feel almost like I've planted you. It's like, wow, you're just saying all the things. That's exactly true, and when you change that vantage point, now it doesn't mean you automatically know how to do it. This is where I think that's what you were just speaking to. This is where you did work really hard and still do at times, because you have this brilliant brain that just thinks in this intellectual way, and sometimes that's perfect for an audience. But in other times to serve them well, you need to find a different way of saying it that's still yours so you don't lose yourself, and you've just done such a beautiful job of that. People are probably like, “What does she speak on?”

You've given hints. So just talk about what kinds of things you speak on some of your most recent talks.

Well, I love being able to talk about architecture through the lens of other sciences or other dispositions. So it might be a talk on a specific project, but I might tell you more about the science behind some of the design features. For example, some of the social science or behavioral science or health promotion science. So I really like describing and opening up an understanding about the built environment through more than just design. So one example of that is a recent, very short talk here at the AIA, Washington D.C., that was titled Designing for Diversity, and based on the title, you might expect certain things as an audience member. But I really talked about how we limit the experience of design when we come to design with cultural bias and therefore, we can't be giving people of all types of diverse experiences opportunities to leverage their exposure to design essentially.

So that was one way that I wove a lot of interesting social science components through the domain of design. So talking about different types of furniture that had been designed for specific outcomes like making sure that people can be more creative or more productive or more inspired, whether it's spaces or furniture in those spaces, things like that. So I really enjoy talking about my core professional expertise in architecture and design and art, but then reaching beyond the edges of those territories and bringing in a lot of knowledge from other industries and sciences to help people get excited about it, really.

Yeah. And it works. You would probably be shocked to know how many times I talk about you and also what I've learned from you. As a mom to three daughters, and I'm involved at the school in various things and so the topics come up, and I just am amazed at how much I know. I do get to hear some of the deepest riches of your brain in those areas, but it really is so fascinating, and it can be tricky to translate that kind of thing into something that an audience can just sit back and relax and enjoy. And I don't just mean you're there to entertain them. I mean enjoy learning, engage in sort of a open way.

Yeah. And I think, again through and by working with you, how to bring all that together is so critical. I never could've done it on my own because the other aspect about public speaking, or even speaking with a client about topic areas that aren't actually yours, for example, if I talk about why kids need to move to learn and how that comes from neuroscience and other sciences, as an architect and designer, they're gonna look at me and like, “Yeah, right.” I'm not a neuroscientist, so when I tap into these other fields for that expertise, it's not as believable, as an architect or designer. So to your point, when you do a public speaking event and you start to tap into all these other areas of expertise, you want to make sure that you're not actually tipping too far into that field that isn't yours. Otherwise, I think you can come across as somebody that is maybe not rooted and grounded in what you do day to day. I don't know, that has another kind of component of influence.

So I think how you use that stuff in a talk is, you have to be very discerning and how you weave it in there for sure.

Yeah, recognizing where that expertise comes from, and knowing how to express that expertise through something like credible source, or there are lots of ways that you can bring in that stuff that you do know so much about, but I understand the key with great public speaking, really all kinds of communication and connection is trust. It's that connection and trust, and so as long as you keep honoring that trust by recognizing where you are, the standing expert, and where you're using someone else's expertise to support an overall message, it is something to learn. It's true how to do that. And I'm glad to see how much you have because I know there have been times when that's been uncomfortable and it can be right. You're like, “How much of this can I say?” But it's so powerful the way you weave it together. So when you learn how to get that right mix of content so that it's really fully supports your message.


So I want to talk about speaking anxiety with you. Is that okay?

Yeah. I know all about it.

You mentioned it earlier and just said it was very anxiety provoking, especially in the beginning. So talk about, you've been speaking for a long time, you've spoken in a lot of different places and a lot of ways on video that was going to go out to big audiences. You've done it in a lot of places. So does speaking anxiety still show up for you? Has it changed over time, and what do you do about it if it does?

Yeah. So speaking anxiety is what I can say is now part of my process, and it shows up when I least expect it. And so those are the characteristics of it in my life. Early on it would be pretty persistent and kind of throw me off. As you know, if you have a lot of anxiety, really impacts your ability to think clearly and stay focused. And so I really struggled with that early on, it was very intense. In fact, at times when I was afraid I was really gonna fail or maybe I would not be liked, there were underlying core beliefs that I think were triggering the anxiety more so than just getting on stage. And so a few characteristics. One is, like I said, I think it's really part of my process, so I have to be open to it showing up when it shows up, and then having ways to cope with it when it does show up, and celebrating times when it doesn't show up.

So really noticing, “Huh, okay, this time it just wasn't there.” Maybe I had different thoughts in my mind. Maybe I had a little more internal confidence or I don't know, I just look for those cues, like how could I replicate this, because it's so easy. And then the other one is that in spite of that anxiety, no matter how hard it could be to get through the prep and practice and rehearsal, when I go to deliver, I don't feel it. It's always at the beginning or leading up to it or a minute ahead, but once I'm up anywhere ready to speak, I just perform. It's not a performance like an actor, but I'm so focused on the message and the mission and the eagerness to share and connect and influence that I don't have that anxiety, and then what you taught me, which from day one I repeat and I share it with everybody.

Just focus on getting your words and the story down because if your technology goes out or the roof caves in, something could happen where you don't have all these props holding you up. And so I take that to heart and I always focus first and foremost on what I'm going to say, the why, and then build, maybe it's images or a slide deck around that, but I'm always focused on the why and getting the talk set up no matter how anxious I am. And I think when I go to stand up and speak, because I have that and nothing can get in the way of that, I don't actually feel anxious when I'm there to deliver, and my PowerPoint can blow up if it needs to. I still got my story good and solid.

That's saying a lot to me. You're a designer, and so I assume, you have a lot of visual sort of focus. You don't tend to think that way, and so to have to really turned that on its head and said, “Okay, message first,” and then of course, beautiful design, and you always create amazing design, but you just know where it fits in importance.
Yeah, and I think the anxiety that you've been able to coach me through and teach me new tools and coping mechanisms have been just such wonderful gifts for life, not just for public speaking. And I think those are just part of the journey. It's like committing to really wanting to be a successful, articulate public speaker that serves the audience, and if anxiety and moving through that is part of that journey, then I welcome that. And it just is. I've learned so much about myself and other people and building this relationship with you, with this coaching relationship through anxiety, not through the successes. Do you know what I mean?

Oh yeah. Yeah. I love that.

It's been a gift actually, even though it can be difficult at times.

For sure. And I often say, I don't know how often I say it on the podcast, but I'll just say it now. It's never been really about public speaking for me. I know that's kind of a weird thing to say as a speaking coach, but even as I listen to you say that, it's about saying what you're meant to say in all kinds of different places. This just happens to feel like such a high stakes place that we get to practice all the hardest stuff, and then we can apply it in all the other places in our life, which is really what it's about, is saying it.


So just to kind of round out our conversation, because I do love you as an example of, I talk a lot on the podcast with entrepreneurs and business owners, and so your situation is unique in that you've really kind of built your career, you've worked inside of companies, but established yourself as a thought leader within those companies, not exactly independent of those companies, but not as part of those companies either. I don't know. I would actually say more like independent of those companies. So can you talk about that and what it's done for your career?

Sure. I think I dubbed myself an entrepreneur.

Oh, that's perfect. Exactly.

So that's a good question. I do have the gift of being in great companies that fundamentally value thought leadership because we live in a world of ideas within design, and so ideas and how you communicate ideas are critical to our success in this profession. So within the context of architecture and design, I think having people get excited about a sharing more broadly, either the work that you do or the mission or the values that you have as a design firm is a good thing.

For me personally, I have carved out kind of a niche within these companies because again, I really believe in authenticity and that a person's passion for what they do or where they see the world moving to. If you have a vision about the future, if you have a commitment to, again, influencing the world through great ideas or changes that you want to see in the world, then I think you have to take charge of your content, and that might mean working within the context of a company and working with a mentor or somebody that's close to you in your work to look for those opportunities and ask for those opportunities and then be supported in carrying those out.

So I think you can self-direct your career when it comes to owning the content of your work and being authentic to how you want to deliver it. I just was always very focused on that. In fact, I had a recent colleague ask me, “How did you become a thought leader,” because this profession is so demanding on production and these very high intensity processes that take a lot of time. And I just said, “Well, I had a chance to speak and talk about a project in public, and I just said yes.” That was the first thing I did. I said yes, and I went and did it and it felt amazing and I just built that into my professional platform.

And you did that from however many years ago that was, you said 2010. So I guess it's been at least eight years in sort of on the conference stages and all of that kind of thing. And I know that you were at one company when you started and you did a lot of really good work in speaking there from this project and then other projects that kind of branched from it. And then you move to another company. Do you think, speaking, your thought leadership position had anything to do with that transition?

Yeah, so I met all the amazing colleagues I have now because of that kind of speaking circuit. So there were two pretty high-level talks that were, the right person was in the audience at the right time, and it was in those talks that I met my current boss and the global leader of our K-12 practice. And he always cites that it was in those talks that he kind of was like, “Wow, we need to try to get Dina to our company.” So he hadn't at that point seen my work or really deeply understood the depth of experience that I had, but it was definitely through the talks that sparked his attention, and then we really started talking seriously after one of those talks for about two years, talking about what life would be like to, move to this great company. And also with the talks, a lot of opportunities for writing.

So it's really created a lot of opportunity and opened a lot of doors, especially this life changing one where I went from one great company to a much larger venue and really made a big shift in my life because of those. It's been life-changing, actually.

Yeah, I love that. It makes sense too when you think about it. You're giving a sampling of, “Let me tell you all the cool stuff I know.” Where else do people who are running companies get to see the potential in someone without, at first, any sort of discomfort of, “Oh, should we interview them or not?” They get to just kind of get a sense of you, and when you're out there regularly like you are, both with your speaking and all of your thought leadership, all the different writing publications that you put out there and all of that, it's like the world is your LinkedIn profile in a much better way.

Yeah, that question is a great reminder of how doors can open when you're just authentically kind of being yourself in the world and taking a risk to share and being excited about what you have to offer. I think that really moves people and helps them to realize that they want you in their company.

Boom. That's the perfect close. Yes. So I just love talking to you, I always do, and this was just awesome. Thank you for sharing this conversation with me and our listeners. I just know they're going to get some beautiful gems from it and inspiration, the blessed inspiration we all need. Thank you so much.

Thank you Michelle. I appreciate it.

Well, I knew that was going to be amazing, and it was. I love having conversations with Dina, she's so generous and thoughtful, and I just knew that she would provide inspiration, but also nuggets of truth in there that help you really get a sense of what it's like once you're out there speaking regularly, what the benefits of that can be, and what some of the tangles of it can be too. So again, I hope that conversation was useful to you and enjoyable. I know I certainly enjoyed it. You know what I'm wanting all the time. It's just to help you see that this call that you feel to serve as a leader and a speaker in the world, that call is your sign, and that wherever you are now, there's a beautiful path forward, and it's really just about listening for the next step, the next move to make, and pretty soon, you could be looking back on quite an amazing journey as Dina is, and of course, she's not done and neither are you.

You know that I love to give you a really practical tools and resources to help you get out there and share your message far and wide. So this is why I created the Get Started Speaking Guide, and you can get that at speaksoitmatters.com/yes. You go there, you'll be able to download that workbook right away, and I'll give you all kinds of practical guidance including the only presentation outline you'll ever need. So go get that now to help support you in getting out there and making your difference with your message. So get out there, get out there, share your stories and your inspiration. Make the difference that I know you're so meant to make, and I'm here cheering you on always, and I'll be here next week doing the same. I can't wait.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Speak So It Matters Podcast. If what you heard here today was useful, you'll love the free guide I've created for you at speaksoitmatters.com/yes. Not only will you get immediate access to our Power and Grace Speakers' Toolkit, including the only presentation outline you'll ever need, but you'll also receive weekly updates with our best resources as they're created. I can't wait to see you out there shining your beautiful light and changing lives with your message.



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