#Speakers101 Speaker Diversity: What Not To Do

I saw this tweet a few weeks ago and my soul lit up. It will be a beautiful day when we get there, butit won't happen without some serious soul searching. It feels a bit ridiculous to think about “panels” and “soul searching,” but the fact is that events continue to highlight the same voices over and over, and the conference-going public is getting tired of it.

Here's a typical scenario: A company has planned an event. The date is set, the details are in place, and at some point before, during or after it’s mentioned that the event doesn’t include much diversity.  Maybe ahead of time someone notices a lack of people of color among the shiny headshots on the event website. Perhaps someone tweets a picture of an all male panel as they sit on stage, clouding the event hashtag with angry messages. Or later a picture pops on up my favorite Tumblr, “All Male Panels.”

After years of working in conference planning and speaker management in multiple industries, I’ve seen and heard first hand what doesn’t work to repair this all too frequent occurrence. As noted in the first post of this series, speakers are often the forgotten value in the event planning equation. It takes intentional work to create change, and I believe knowing what not to do is important. Creating an atmosphere of inclusivity  takes intentional effort to create a mix of that feels engaging and inviting for both attendees and speakers.

 I’ve worked with and heard from hundreds of speakers and noticed some trends where diversity is concerned that don't work. So here’s what NOT to do:

The Last Minute Invitation

Planning an event is a months long process, and speaker selection tends to happen early on in that process. Sending a last minute invitation to a female speaker or person of color right before an event is insulting. Most will totally understand if a new space has opened up, but if your list of speakers is mostly men and in the last few days you’re suddenly inviting women, especially after public outcry, it’s not a good move. The simplest way to avoid this is to look specifically at the speaker mix before invitations go out.

The Massive Panel

You’ve planned a panel discussion and your speakers are confirmed ONLY to realize there are no women or people of color involved, so those additional voices are added in addition to existing speakers. More people means less time for everyone to speak.

This move takes what should be a substantive conversation and turns it into a sound bite situation, because more people means less time for everyone to speak. Even worse, if the moderator isn’t skilled at managing the conversation it’s so easy for one or two voices to dominate a panel. And speaking of moderators, let’s talk about...

The Diverse Moderator

Moderators have a very specific role on a panel. Ideally they aren’t there to share their own experience, but rather to introduce the panelists and guide their conversation. So tacking on a woman or POC to moderate a panel doesn’t necessarily mean that person will be an active participant in the conversation. If there are slides or visuals involved, the moderator is often responsible for making sure that content is prepared, along with some degree of prepping panelists in advance. It can be a lot of work, and shouldn’t be an afterthought to improve diversity.

The “We Need Diversity” Invite

Unless it’s directly relevant to the discussion, getting an invitation to an event that explicitly invites a participant because of their diverse status is also insulting. If you want to highlight the importance of diverse voices for ALL speakers, note in the formal invitation that goes to all participants how you have a commitment to showcasing a variety of voices among your speakers. You can also create an event policy that states the diversity goals of the event for staff, participants and attendees. Here are a few examples of great event policies from Google and Eventbrite.

So as you can see, it will take some additional work on your event or content team’s part to execute this, but an inclusive strategy for events is worth the effort. Your hashtag will thank you.