Help Your Speakers Embrace Diversity and Inclusion

Note: I wrote the following article for ASAE-The Center for Association Leadership, and it was originally published in their Associations Now Plus members-only resource. It is used here with permission and ASAE retains the copyright.
A full commitment to diversity and inclusion means that an association’s educational programming—and the speakers providing it—reflect the learning community. Here are some practical steps associations can take to help presenters prepare sessions that reject assumptions about the audience and meet diverse attendee needs.

Association resource materials for speakers traditionally include key dates and deadlines, room and AV logistics, and suggestions for slide and handout presentation. Some also include basic tips on adult learning and how to create more engaging and interactive sessions.

Yet additional guidance in a critical area too often is missing: designing for the composition and culture of your learning community. Although this may be particularly valuable to presenters from outside your organization, even internal subject-matter experts can benefit from more specific instruction on how to design and deliver a session that not only is inclusive of the diverse participants they will address, but also reflects a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusiveness as core values. Learners want to both see themselves and hear themselves reflected in session content and delivery. 

Here are a few examples of what associations are doing to help presenters prepare.

Guidance and Orientation

LeadingAge Illinois, like some associations, includes a brief statement in their speaker guidelines “to sensitize speakers to the potential diversity in the audience.” It urges speakers to review their course content and style for inclusive language, professional content versus personal beliefs, and potential sexist, discriminatory, or similarly insensitive language.

Presenter standards from the Promotional Products Association International also include advice on introducing panelists in a non-sexist manner and avoiding visual aids that show people in stereotypical roles. The latter echoes encouragement from the LeadingAge Illinois statement to “make no assumptions about those in the group other than a common interest in the content area delineated in the printed meeting materials.”

One way to prevent speakers from making assumptions about attendees is to provide them an accurate profile of their audience. No doubt you orient new employees to key elements of your profession or industry, demographic data about your membership, and some of the cultural norms that may be unique to your organization. Speakers would benefit from the same insights.

As a presenter, I find it useful to also receive detailed event or conference profiles that provide similar information for the specific conference community. Several years ago, I benefited from conversations with staff at the Foundation to Prevent Blindness about what types of visuals I could use effectively given the range of sightedness in the audience. Based on their guidance, I included more and differently designed visuals than I would otherwise have used.

Other orientation materials could include
  • a glossary of key terms and acronyms to use (as well as ones to avoid) and other tips on appropriate language.
  • insights about learner preferences that you have gleaned from previous evaluations.
  • a brief overview of the current environment for your profession or industry (trends, challenges, opportunities) to help presenters customize content with the most relevant examples for your current context.  
Speakers can be more inclusive of diverse attendee needs and interests when you provide specific information to help shape what to include and what to exclude in their content and delivery.

Broadening Participant Perspectives

To help its subject-matter experts and other presenters infuse equity and inclusion into their conference presentations, ACPA-College Student Educators International offers comprehensive guidance for speakers in a micro-site. Dr. Kathy Obear, a diversity educator and organizational development consultant who led the development team for the guidelines, describes them as a “proactive step to help presenters develop formats, curriculum, and facilitator techniques to better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse membership.” 

While the ACPA guidelines help prepare speakers to design more inclusive sessions, Obear says they also are intended to “help facilitators infuse issues and images in presentations that help participants deepen their multicultural competencies and challenge implicit, unconscious bias.” In other words, presenter preparation should include planning how to help learners broaden, deepen, and be more inclusive of the perspectives that they themselves consider.

Doing so is both art and science. Associations should engage speakers in sharing advice with each other about strategies they use to challenge the potentially limiting perspectives of participants on ways that facilitate growth and learning.

A Self-awareness Checklist

In my undergraduate coursework as an English major, one of my instructors taught my class to proof our work seven times, each time focusing on a specific variable: tone; spelling, grammar, and punctuation; cohesiveness of argument; and so on. Associations looking to help busy presenters design and deliver more inclusive presentations may be wise to create a similar checklist, one that includes such proofing criteria as inflammatory or unhelpful language, diversity of content sources referenced and examples offered, visual portrayal of people and groups in materials, and presenter confirmation bias. Until diversity in presentation design and delivery is your default, a checklist is a helpful tool to make sure you aren’t missing a critical program enhancement.

Other presenter support—such as webinars, online resource centers, and speaker coaching—can address these same opportunities but in more specific ways. To make tangible improvements in their programs, analytical and more detailed-oriented presenters will appreciate having “before and after” examples of infusing inclusion into a session design, a particular teaching technique, or even a slide. 

Finally, associations should consider including a speaker-prep workshop at their conferences to continually build the capabilities and confidence of their members to be better presenters and learning facilitators.

The Person Behind the Presenter

Statements, tips, and checklists can definitely enhance a speaker’s presentation mechanics so that sessions better exemplify an inclusive design. But every presenter is also a person, and for these mechanics to have authentic meaning presenters may need to do their own inner work related to diversity and inclusion. 

That work has value beyond the conference itself. As Obear aptly notes, “Most organizations are preparing members to serve increasingly diverse populations locally, nationally, and globally, so their members may want more knowledge and skills for better serving others across all group identities.” Evidence that an association is truly committed to equity and inclusion should include support and learning opportunities for the person, the professional, and the presenter.