7 Keys to Inclusive Events (Both Virtual and In-Person)

‘Diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are not just buzzwords. There is ample evidence that companies foster greater innovation and perform better financially when their workforce is diverse.

But diversity alone is not enough. Without inclusion–a workplace where people feel as if they belong, diverse talent will leave- or they may not even accept an offer in the first place. In particular, Millennials and Gen Zers of all backgrounds place a premium on working for inclusive, diverse workplaces – it is almost as important to them as salary.

Nowhere does an organization’s commitment to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) – or lack thereof – surface publicly than in the events it puts on. That’s why it’s essential to design your events to include a  diverse lineup of speakers, panelists, and audience members.

This is not just optics. A diverse lineup of speakers enables the exploration of a wider range of viewpoints, creating richer conversations and more interesting panels.

There are a lot of ways to ensure that your event is diverse and inclusive.

Diversity of Presenters

Aim for a diverse lineup of speakers, panelists, and moderators. Ensure you are including people of different races, abilities, gender, sexual identities, and cultural backgrounds. This can take extra effort because people tend to rely on their existing networks. Branch out and dig a bit deeper to connect with speakers that are not part of your current speaking ‘circuit’. 

Including underrepresented voices–like women, BIPOC, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities–helps create a welcoming community for all at your event. Be sure to give speaking opportunities to rising stars as well, rather than showcasing the same people over and over again who are always asked to speak.

There are also associations of women in just about every profession you can reach out to, as well as speakers bureaus and databases with specific focuses on diverse voices.

Pay Your Speakers

Allocate a budget for speakers, especially keynote speakers or workshop facilitators. You are asking someone to contribute their time and expertise, so plan to compensate them appropriately.

Professional speakers are trained in engaging an audience, spend hours upon hours preparing for your conference in addition to all of the time and money they spend perfecting their craft. Speaking is their livelihood.

At the very least, if it is an in-person conference, waive the entrance fee and offer to cover travel and accommodations. If it’s a virtual conference, offer panelists a stipend to pay for childcare the day of the event.

Especially during coronavirus when many kids aren’t at school, parents are balancing work commitments with getting their kids online and engaged in their online classrooms.

They will be extremely grateful for a childcare budget and it will help to ensure that the speaker is punctual, hassle-free, and absent a toddler pulling on their clothes mid-session.

You can also experiment with including the cost of childcare in a ticket. Consider giving your attendees a $100 coupon to Care.com, Vivvi, UrbanSitter, or another caretaking platform.

Event Pricing

Pricing is an obvious barrier to entry that can exclude people. Generally speaking, your prices should be lower for virtual events than in-person events, which will open the former up to a much wider audience.

Some ideas for bringing in a wider audience:

  • Reduced or free entry for entrepreneurs or startups
  • Reduced or free entry for startups founded by underrepresented groups
  • Sponsorships to cover ticket costs
  • Early Bird pricing
  • Buy one ticket, get one ticket (BOGO)
  • Bulk pricing for teams of people from the same company
  • Free entry for volunteers or students
  • Reduced entry for young professionals
  • Scholarships for those with financial need
  • Pay what you can

For paid virtual events, creating tiered ticket options opens your virtual doors to an audience with valuable insight and contributions that may not otherwise be able to attend.

Bring Diversity and Inclusion into the Conversation

Include a talk or workshop within your event that has to do with elevating diversity and inclusion in your industry.

Some popular topics:

  • Inclusive Leadership
  • Diversity and Innovation
  • Sidestepping Bias in Tech
  • Allyship in the Workplace
  • High-Performance Teams = High Belonging Teams
  • Empathy in Crisis
  • Embedding Anti-Racism in the Workplace
  • Gender Equality in Practice

An Inclusive Q&A

Consider using software where Q&As can be upvoted, like Poll Everywhere, so that the question people are most curious about rises to the top, as opposed to the question from the loudest voice.

Remember that you may have participants with visual impairments. The facilitator or moderator should clearly repeat the question out loud before asking panelists to answer.

Keep in mind that some people need more time to compose their thoughts before they ask a question. Instead of jumping into the Q&A by asking if anyone has questions, take a one-minute break to give your participants time to think of any questions they might have and write them down.

You can also choose to allow people to submit questions in advance of the event itself. As the moderator, pay attention to who is asking questions and try to vary who you choose to engage.

For example, research shows that choosing a woman to ask a question first increases the likelihood that more women will ask questions afterwards.

If someone is making an interesting comment in response to a question in the chat, consider bringing them into the conversation to make their point on camera like a panelist.

Accessibility

Accessibility should also be a top priority when designing your events, even virtual ones. If you’re hosting an online event, include closed captioning. If you’re hosting an in-person event, consider obtaining “window” masks, which have a transparent plastic area over the lips so that one’s lips are still visible. These masks enable more genuine interactions with hearing-impaired attendees who use lip reading as a method of communication.

Hiring a sign language interpreter is also a great way to ensure that participants with hearing impairments are able to fully participate in the event.

As you make the shift back to in-person or hybrid events, make sure your venue is ADA compliant. Though historic buildings can be cool conference venues, the older the building, the less likely it is to be accessible.

Ensure that there are ramps to get into the conference venue, as well as onto the stage. Also, ensure that you have enough seats so no one gets stuck standing and an accessible seating area for people who may need it.

Inclusive Language

Language matters. Using inclusive language and abstaining from othering language can create a more welcoming environment and discourse for all. Here are some things to consider when drafting event messaging and your day-of talking points:

  • Be gender-neutral. For example, instead of saying, “Welcome ladies and gentlemen”, say “welcome all” or “welcome to all of our distinguished guests.”
  • Don’t assume pronouns. Use ‘their’ instead of ‘him’ or ‘her.’
  • Avoid exclusive language that may be only relatable to certain people.

Consider instructing speakers to diversify the stories in their examples or their speeches. Consistently referencing Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs to illustrate a point–for example–perpetuates the idea that leaders in tech come from similar backgrounds.

Conclusion

Building a diverse event takes a combination of intention, creativity, strategization, and resourcefulness.

Ensuring that your events are diverse–from the speakers to the audience members–will foster a more memorable and meaningful experience than an event repeatedly frequented by the same homogenous group.

It will also enable people who might typically be excluded to gain access to the networks and connections they need to rise in their career or to grow their business. There is a broader societal shift occurring that your organization can and should help facilitate–a shift to a world in which all voices are valued and heard, not just the voices of the dominant party.

About Samantha:

Samantha is a facilitator, trainer, and public speaker with a specific focus on DEI, women’s leadership, and social impact. She has run workshops and trainings all over the world at educational institutions, NGOs, and companies, such as Harvard University, IE Business School, Verizon, Slalom, and CRESA. She is the founder of Empower Global, and is also a trainer for Equal Reality, a virtual reality company focused on DEI, and CREDAS consulting.

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