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September 8, 2021

How to Diversify the Speakers You Hear and Hire

With race and inclusion being at the forefront of social issues in America over the past year, the advocacy for representation has received growing attention. Diversity and inclusion champions  have called on national institutions to create accessible channels to diverse voices. Amongst those channels are the stages and platforms at events and scheduled meetings.

Stages at professional events, large or small, present a perfect gateway to the representation needed to challenge non-inclusive thoughts and behaviors, but data shows they are being severely underutilized as such. 

The Lack of Speaker Diversity: A Missed Opportunity

Although recent research shows that diversity amongst speakers at nationally held events has increased, a large gap still exists before reaching a fully diversified planned panel of speakers. A 2020 EventMB study showed that out of 150 surveyed events, more than 40 percent did not have a Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) keynote speaker. This, of course, does not include all areas of demographic diversity, nor does it include all speaking opportunities. (This percentage would likely increase when considering these additional factors.) 

Recent reports show that the lack of such representation, especially in the context of work, leads to a feeling of disregard that is reflected amongst associates. 

In 2020, the Association Forum partnered with McKinley Advisors to study and understand the current state of diversity and inclusion efforts in the association industry which is known for regularly hiring speakers for meetings and conferences. After surveying over 5,200 members across ten associations predominantly in the greater Chicago area, only 46% of associations have actually implemented having diverse speakers or presenters at conferences, meetings, and events as a part of their Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) strategy as perceived by members. 

Speaker diversity should be a tactic leveraged in every organization’s DE&I strategy for a number of reasons. 

Speaker diversity can provide an opportunity for genuine representation and exposure to marginalized communities.

It affirms the cultures of underrepresented groups by allowing them to see themselves, enhancing their ability to identify with the speaker, and creating a new level of connection. 

In another situation, it can serve as exposure to a new aspect of a culture different from your own. This single interaction could be one of the first few times someone in the audience has heard from an underrepresented voice in a particular community, especially in a position of authority. That rare experience (for them) can provide a new perspective that perhaps they otherwise may not have heard.

For example, a pastor who is gay, or political leader who is trans, or a coder who is blind speaking at a conference could bring completely new ideas to the topic at hand, and could also influence a listener’s thoughts, biases, and actions toward those communities. These experiences perhaps are one of the most influential benefits of this form of representation, as it can create a lasting impression on both those who do identify with the speaker as well as those who don’t.

New representation creates an opportunity to combat implicit biases. 

In my previous piece, Representation: The Anecdote to Unconscious Bias, we discussed the inevitable existence of implicit biases or “mind bugs.”

In his 2013 book, Blindspot, psychologist Dr. Anthony Greenwald wrote that outsmarting “mind bugs” required, “awareness, a desire to improve, and a method for improving.” That means in order to actively redirect our unconscious biases, we must seek out what challenges our perspectives.

Dr. Greenwald’s co-author and colleague, Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, wrote of positive results in combating her “mind bugs” when using a simple screensaver technique. Every day she fed herself exposure to people doing actions in contrast to the original stereotype that inspired her bias, such as a model who is trans or an athlete who uses a wheelchair.

Just by regularly changing her screensaver, she was able to adjust her automatic preferences and biases. She accomplished this only through consistent exposure to things that contradicted those same stereotypes. Seeing a speaker on stage from an underrepresented community can serve as that consistent exposure for some of your attendees. Speaker diversity could contradict the same stereotypes that inspired their biases.

Speaker diversity challenges non-inclusive thoughts and behaviors.  

Having a variety of voices to counter our biases should lead us to a place of self-reflection. This exposure should act as a stepping stone to a deeper analysis of our personal beliefs and actions. It should guide us to a place where we ask ourselves: 

“Am I surprised by the presence of this speaker? What were my assumptions when I saw them? How would I have engaged with them prior to me learning they were a speaker? How did I react to their content initially? Would I have reacted differently had the speaker looked like me?”

The conclusions we make and actions we take following those questions are what truly help us to contribute to an inclusive society. 

So, How Can You Enhance Speaker Diversity? 

On an institutional and structural level, there are regular systems set in place when selecting speakers. On an individual level, we use our personal preferences when selecting the speakers we listen to. With decade-old traditions, some procedures or habits must be revisited and revamped in order to enhance speaker diversity and truly amplify the voices of underrepresented groups. 

So where do you start when enhancing speaker diversity at your company or in your personal life? It requires analyzing the process from the very beginning, starting with the message. 

The Message

When planning for a speaking event as an organization, you should first analyze the planned content with the intent to find a new viewpoint. This could mean finding a direction on a current topic that slants a different way in perspective. 

It could also mean introducing a new topic altogether. Start with thinking about the previously organized speaking opportunity. What was the message? Who could relate to it the most? Who did it center? Make the intent of the new content be to highlight a new perspective or all-new subject matter. 

When planning a company-sponsored event, or choosing an event on an individual level, the goal is still to consciously eek subject matter that is different in some way. Diversifying the content we consume, helps us to be more open-minded, understanding, and accepting of people…  all people, even when our experiences differ or we disagree. 

The Speaker

Of course, the most important and irreplaceable step in promoting speaker diversity is actually hiring an underrepresented speaker—a speaker of a protected class. There are several ways to revamp the way you go about sourcing your speakers at both a large organizational level and a small local level. 

Speaking Agencies, Bureaus, and Networks:

Utilizing a speaker agency, specifically a diversity and inclusive forward agency, can help  ensure that the speaker, the audience, and the message are considered. This type of agency aids in providing qualified speakers for optimum audience experience around a variety of subject matters. They can provide speaker candidates with your diversity, equity, and inclusion goals in mind. 

Similar to agencies, a speaker bureau’s sole purpose is to provide a professional speaker for whatever your needs. I can personally attest to the outstanding quality in providing experienced, credible, diverse speakers from these top speaker bureaus: 

Apart from bureaus, another source for diversifying the voices around you is utilizing speaker networks. These organizations not only provide support and community to professional speakers, but they often house rosters or lists that are open to the public for browsing. Here are just a few:

With guidance from these hubs, you can always find a new speaker of your liking, and subscribe to their content!

Network Outside your Network:

Even with the wide range of costs of speaking agencies, there’s an alternative even more economically friendly than the cheapest agency… Your network! When sourcing speakers for organizations both young and seasoned, you should look at its selection of contacts and where it usually goes to seek speakers. Now, go outside that!

Your organization's inner network should only be referenced for recommendations not resources. Use those recommendations as a guide away from the regular “resource bank” of go-to planning procedures. 

Search new groups, and seek new places to find new contacts. There are LinkedIn groups, and Facebook groups, meetups, and community events (both virtual and in-person). These all exist as an opportunity to diversify your network, thus your referrals. 

Where companies fall short, the individual must pick up and take matters into their own hands. Diversify your network to add to this resource bank and make your own recommendations. 


It’s Your Time to Diversify!

From LinkedIn connections to hashtags across platforms (i.e. #Blackspeakers), the resources for finding diverse professional speakers are endless. Not only is the talent already available, but the opportunity for both businesses and individuals to diversify the speakers from whence they receive their content is already present as well. 

Thinking outside of the standard structured event, hired speakers should be diverse in situations beyond speaking panels. 

Think of every moment a message is being voiced, a lesson being taught, a story being told. Whether it be in a breakout room, in a certification course, or in a podcast interview, every individual scenario allows for an opportunity to hear from someone new, someone different... Someone who can relate to the audience in a unique way that is only possible through lived  experience. That experience provides a gateway for awareness, exposure, and empathy that fuels inclusion. 

Speaker diversity matters because representation matters. Speaker diversity is representation.

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Raven Solomon

Raven is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Speaker, Author, & Strategist who helps organizations understand generations, racial equity, and their intersection.

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