Although progress continues to be made toward event diversity, lining up a group of diverse event speakers is still a top concern for event organizers who are committed to continuous improvement.
We know that event attendees want the speaker lineup to reflect who they are, but the reality is that speaker lineups rarely mirror attendee demographics. According to the 2019 Bizzabo Diversity Report, only 33% of event speakers are female, and the least diverse types of events include summits (85% male versus 15% female) and conferences and conventions (66% male versus 34% female). EventMB found that 35-40% of events don’t have a single Black speaker.
Luckily, one positive side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the rise of hybrid and virtual events, which have delivered equity in ways we couldn’t have imagined. For example, one study that looked at STEM conferences found that women’s participation in virtual conferences increased by as much as 253% compared to in-person conferences.
Keep reading to learn more about why event diversity matters, how less-known speakers can make your event shine, and some strategies you can use to build a truly diverse and inclusive speaker lineup.
Understanding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I)
When most people hear the phrase event diversity, they think about demographics that check a box — race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, or ability. But there’s more to choosing a speaker lineup that champions diversity and inclusion. Here are few definitions to help:
- Diversity refers to recognizing that every human is unique and has physical, social, and psychological differences that set us apart from everyone else (e.g., race, sex, gender, religion, ethnicity, language, marital status, socioeconomic status, mental and physical prowess, sexual orientation, education, learning ability). In practice, strategies around diversity focus on ensuring representation.
- Equity recognizes that certain groups of individuals have traditionally lacked the access and opportunities that have benefited others. Equity initiatives focus on making adjustments to correct that imbalance.
- Inclusion, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability).” Whereas diversity focuses on representation, inclusion is about developing ways to ensure groups feel like they belong. In the events industry, inclusion means creating event experiences that welcome people of all walks of life and celebrate our differences.
But, according to Rachel Heller, senior event content manager at Bizzabo, there’s a lot more to DE&I than meets the eye — particularly in the events industry.
“It’s not just the diversity of the speakers themselves,” said Heller, “it’s also a diversity of ideas, which you only get when people from different backgrounds are represented.”
When you’re lining up speakers for your next event, you also have to consider neurodiversity, learning styles, ensuring content is being delivered in an equitable way (e.g., so that people can attend remotely), and more.
Why Event Diversity Matters
Leading event organizers aren’t simply embracing DE&I to check a box. Embracing diversity and inclusion ensures your attendees feel seen, heard, and represented. Here are some additional benefits of baking diversity into every step of your event strategy:
- It creates a more rewarding experience: According to Caitlyn Georger, Grace Hopper Celebration Global Events Program Manager at AnitaB.org. ““Representation matters. Employing DE&I elements throughout an event will promote an integrated experience for the audience, speakers, and content. When we bring together diverse mindsets, backgrounds, and audiences, it leads to a more expansive journey and — ultimately — a thriving community that is increasingly aware and inclusive.”
- It’s what people want: According to a Sprout Social study, 70% of consumers believe it’s important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues. The survey also found that more than 60% of consumers believe that brands have the power to reach large audiences and create real change. People are expecting a lot from your event content and speakers, and it’s important to put your vision, mission, and values on display.
- It enhances your event’s curb appeal: According to a CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workforce Survey report, nearly 80% of individuals want to work for companies that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion. One has to assume that if people want to work for DE&I-driven employers they want to attend DE&I-driven events. By featuring a diverse speaker lineup, you increase the likelihood that a genuinely diverse group of people will attend your event — extending your vision and achieving your event goals.
- It nurtures a more welcoming environment: Attending your event is one thing. Having an engaging and enriching experience to the point they want to come back is quite another. This is another area where a diverse speaker lineup can help. “People won’t be inspired if every speaker is a cis-white man,” Heller said. “Your audience is more likely to attend your event if they see themselves reflected in the speakers.”
Champion Unique Voices With Lesser-Known Speakers
It’s understandable if you’re planning to engage some marquee speakers for your next event, but prioritize choosing speakers that aren’t as well-known and give them the tools they need to succeed.
“Consider positioning your event as a platform for people who maybe haven’t had an opportunity to speak before. Provide them with the support they need to be successful — that’s how we create a more diverse community of speakers.”
Senior Event Content Manager
One way to help newbie speakers excel is to help fresh speakers through coaching on best practices for speaking to in-person or virtual audiences. You may also want to recommend helpful tools, such as Yoodli, which gives AI-driven feedback on your presentation skills. The more you can support potential speakers in developing their speaking chops, the greater control you have over the quality of your event content too.
As an added bonus, promoting first-time speakers can accelerate your speaker acquisition engine for future events, encouraging more and more folks to throw their hats in the ring for the first time.
“If your audience sees people on your stage that they can relate to,” Heller said, “they’ll want to speak too.”
5 Ways To Build a Diverse and Inclusive Speaker Lineup
Let’s turn our attention to some specific strategies you can use to cultivate a diverse and inclusive speaker lineup.
1. Put Out an Open Call for Speakers
If your goal is to ensure more diverse speakers are at your next event, put out an open call for anyone and everyone to apply. To make the process as easy as possible, provide clear instructions on what you’re looking for (e.g., years in the industry), along with examples of what content has been successful in the past.
“Let them know that you’re not accepting sessions based on how long they’ve been in the industry or how many times they’ve spoken in the past,” Heller said. “If someone has something important to say and can say it well, you’re going to support them.”
2. Search for Speakers on LinkedIn
Luckily, you don’t have to start from scratch when sourcing diverse speakers. For example, platforms like LinkedIn can be particularly helpful for putting a diverse speaker lineup together.
“If I’m planning a mechanical engineering conference, I’ll join LinkedIn groups for mechanical engineers, post messages in them, and search for people who are diverse,” said Heller. “You have to show people they have a voice. You’re not just giving them the opportunity to speak, but you are giving them the opportunity to apply.”
3. Join Forces With Global Diversity CFP Day
Global Diversity CFP Day has been another helpful way to find and support diverse event speakers, according to Heller.
“It’s an event where underrepresented minorities can get coaching on how to craft their signature talk,” Heller said. “You sit with them, write a title and abstract, and help them develop their public speaking skills. You can also make sure your event is on their radar.”
4. Ask Your Colleagues and Your Network
Always remember that you don’t have to find and vet diverse speaker candidates entirely on your own. To this end, Heller recommends engaging your colleagues to see whether they know anyone who might be the perfect fit for your next event.
“You have to do the work,” Heller said, “but there are definitely people out there that can speak at your events.”
Additionally, you should consider reaching out to folks in your network and other employee resource groups to try to find the right candidates.
5. Take a Chance for Event Diversity
As an Event Experience Leader, you’re no doubt focused on putting on the best event possible. But that doesn’t mean you should only try to engage with high-profile speakers who have long track records of success. For Heller, sometimes it’s worth taking a chance on someone who has a great idea — as long as they’re willing to put in the work and they align with your event’s vision and goals.
“You never know when you might launch the next famous speaker,” concludes Rachel.
Cast a Wider Net for a More Diverse Speaker Lineup
We can all take a cue from DE&I leaders like Lesbians Who Tech, whose speakers at one of their tech events were 80% queer women, 50% women of color, 25% black & Latinx, and 15% transgender and gender non-conforming.
But if you’re not sure where to start with event diversity, pop over to SHRM’s diversity, equity, and inclusion speakers bureau for some speaker ideas or read our blog article, “7 Ways To Ensure Your Event Champions Diversity and Inclusion.”