How to Meaningfully Increase Diversity at Events–and Why It Matters
Promoting diversity, equity and inclusion requires action from leaders. Learn how event producers can increase representation and build a better community.
For years, I’ve heard conference organizers complain about how difficult it is to foster diversity at events, particularly onstage. “How can we possibly make our event more diverse,” they say in so many words, “if ‘diverse’ people won’t submit talk proposals? And it’s not like we can go out and just say, ‘Hey, we need more diversity! If you are a person whose experience is often marginalized due to systemic oppression and exclusion, please buy more tickets!’ We are helpless to do more.”
I get it. Not too many years ago, I was there.
Let me pause here to say that I come to the table with all the privilege and attendant blind spots of a white person in America. That’s likely one reason why our audience at Confab in the years following the conference’s debut in 2011 was homogenous in many ways—because, yes, most presenters and attendees were white.
But this went beyond race: There were far more women than men. There was a narrow age range. We didn’t see a lot of people openly identifying as LGBTQIA. No one was talking about neurodiversity. Creating physically accessible spaces and experiences for everyone was a checkbox on a list. I wasn’t trying to create a space for people just like me . . . but I had created a space for people just like me.
For a while I excused it by saying, “Well, the larger field lacks diversity, and that is a bigger issue that impacts our ability to diversify speakers and audience.” Then it was, “We can’t force people to apply to speak.” Then, “What, am I supposed to do paid advertising that targets ticket buyers by demographic? That’s not how we do business.”
For what it’s worth, I have compassion for my past self. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. I was mostly struggling to get my head wrapped around what the actual problem was—that is, the cause (systemic oppression) versus the symptoms (inequity and lack of diversity). So ultimately, our first step towards meaningful change wasn’t any particular action or program. It was me, as a business owner, admitting that I was straight-up ignorant about most of the issues that actually affect event attendance and participation. It was me choosing to sit down, shut up, and listen.
Thankfully, over the years—and only with the help of our incredible advisors, attendees, speakers, and supporters—Brain Traffic has made progress. We’re honored to host an increasingly diverse, inclusive community of speakers and attendees at our Confab and Button conferences.
So in the hopes of supporting other events organizers and participants, I’d like to share a little bit about how we’ve meaningfully increased the diversity of our events. (I also have opinions about what’s at stake if we don’t, as a broader content community, put diversity on the front burner—so you’ll get those, too.)
Why diversity at professional events matters
Professional events and meetups don’t just reflect the communities they represent; they actively shape them.
Put simply, if folks looking at the field of content from the outside don’t see themselves represented—on the stage, on websites, in workshops, and on social media—on what planet would they be interested in trying to break in?
I know a little bit about this experience myself.
Back in 2008, I spoke at my first national conference. I was the only woman on the main stage out of a dozen speakers … and I didn’t even realize it until I was about to go onstage. I decided to acknowledge it at the end of my talk and call on the organizers to commit to better representation the following year. The backlash from the (mostly male) audience was extraordinary. “Why should they pick women instead of just picking the best talks?” Ahem.
I also regularly received emails from event planners who didn’t even try to hide their intentions: “I need a woman speaker for my panel. Are you available?” Or, “Hey, one of our women keynote speakers backed out. Can you step in?”
And that was my experience as an established professional who’d already achieved some measure of success. I shudder to think how someone at an earlier stage in her career—a young professional perusing the list of panelists, an audience member, or a student—would have felt.
I don’t want that for anyone. Ever. I bet you don’t, either.
Bottom line? If we want the content community to be as brilliantly diverse as possible (and we do), then we can’t rest on our laurels and wait for underrepresented folks to find us. Instead, we need to proactively call in the community we wish to cultivate. Not to check a box or fill a quota. But to nudge this field we all love toward its fullest possible expression.
That’s why it’s so critically important that we create spaces in which diverse populations feel not only welcomed—but actively called to the stage.
How we’re working toward more inclusive spaces at Button and Confab
In the beginning, it was really as simple as this: When people pulled up the speakers page for one of our events, we wanted everyone to see themselves reflected in the lineup. So we made some changes. We decided to:
Intentionally invite diverse voices to the stage
A typical trope that gets trotted out is “just pick the best speakers regardless of gender, race, age, or ability.” But sometimes the best speakers don’t feel welcome or invited to raise their hands in the first place. They need to be sought out and supported.
We’ve always put out open calls for folks to submit proposals to speak at our events. In addition, our first round of reviews has always been blind—we read the proposals without seeing applicants’ names, titles, or companies. It doesn’t matter whether you work at a fancy company. If your proposal isn’t strong, you won’t make the cut.
Our approach seemed abundantly fair. But it wasn’t enough.
So we did two things. First, we made it clear on our website and all our promotional materials encouraging speakers to apply that we wanted to include a diverse array of voices. We had to work hard on the wording to make it clear that we weren’t practicing tokenism, but rather that we were working to ensure that our events reflect the community we want to see in content.
Second, we took a cue from South by Southwest (SXSW) and asked Confab and Button applicants to describe how they identify themselves. At the time, SXSW caught flack about this approach—some people felt it was an invasion of privacy. But guess what? It worked. For them, and for us.
Invite BIPOC professionals to shape event programming
In order to create a more diverse and inclusive event, we needed to do more than recruit BIPOC speakers. We needed to empower them to shape the event programming itself. Doing so opens up opportunities for marginalized communities to share their experience, perspective, and expertise beyond just “let’s talk diversity.”
This approach has led to smarter, more empathetic conversations about any number of topics. And it’s also helped us multiply our impact. For instance, at our last two events, we’ve had panel discussions in which every single panelist was a person of color. The response from POC attendees was overwhelming. Seeing themselves so clearly represented on stage was incredibly powerful.
The effect has been equally powerful. Each year, our audience becomes more and more diverse (and more and more audience members return as speakers).
Invest in scholarships
In the Covid era, all of our events have been virtual. That’s been a tremendous challenge in many ways. But it’s offered at least one unexpected silver lining.
The hard cost of an equity scholarship for our in-person events is astronomically high—so high that we have only ever been able to award a handful for each event. But as our events went virtual, the cost of granting scholarships plummeted. As a result, we’ve been able to grant dozens more scholarships than we otherwise could have. (In fact, we awarded eighty-nine scholarships to attendees for our upcoming Button conference. Eighty-nine! I am giddy!)
The question, of course, is how we will sustain the momentum moving forward if and when we return to in-person events. And hey, spoiler alert: I’m gearing up to ask companies to invest a whole lot more money in our equity scholarship program for 2022. If you’re interested—or want to help advocate for the program in your organization—please get in touch about sponsoring.
Ultimately, one thing is certain: Our ability to support so many attendees over the past two years has galvanized our commitment to scholarships.
Acknowledge the elephant in the room
In order to make space for greater diversity, we needed to step out of our comfort zones. We needed to be willing to talk about sensitive topics—issues like racial justice and systemic oppression—both on- and offstage. From panel discussions to Slack channels, we sought to normalize conversations that touched on DEI issues.
In addition, we had to be aware of and acknowledge the role our own identities play in our attitudes and interactions. More than once, I’ve had to say, “I acknowledge that because I am white and have a certain amount of power, status, and money, I might say some ignorant things or make poor word choices. Please call me out when that happens.”
Humility, curiosity, and the ability to shut up and listen are all critical to our ability to open up our broader community and be effective allies.
In the end, all of our efforts to build diversity at Brain Traffic events are really just a start. Like so many things we do, this is a work in progress. But one thing is certain: The content community believes in a future where people facing inequities and systemic oppression aren’t just welcome at the table, their presence is required. And it’s our responsibility to make sure they find their way there.
If you have ideas about creating more inclusive spaces at future events—especially as we return to in-person gatherings in 2022 (she said optimistically)—please get in touch. We want to hear from you.
Special thanks to Tenessa Gemelke (Program Manager, Brain Traffic), whose passionate commitment to DEI program initiatives made this post possible in the first place.
Kristina Halvorson is widely recognized as one of the most important voices in content strategy and UX. She is the owner of Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy; the author of Content Strategy for the Web; the host of The Content Strategy Podcast; and the founder of the popular Confab and Button conferences. Kristina speaks worldwide about the importance of content strategy, educating and inspiring audiences across every industry. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her two fantastic teens.