Why 'diversity of thought' should be the new normal for event organizers

by Mike Sharkey

Gartner said Flow 2018 featured the most 'diverse and applicable' event content they'd ever seen. Here's the behind the scenes story and four ways your next event can achieve 'diversity of thought.'

Been to a business conference recently? Chances are you've sat through an all-male panel session. And you won't have been alone. Open Society Foundations puts the number of event speaking roles filled by women between 2012-2017 as low as 26%.

Data on the representation of ethnic and other minorities at industry events is harder to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests a similar story.

So if the 'manel'* is a thing, and all white panels are still a thing - how can event organizers move the needle on equality?

We caught up with Katy Cooney, Global Events Marketing Lead at Workplace - and the mastermind behind Flow - to find out.

*Manel. (noun). A panel of men brought together to discuss things. Unfortunate side-effects include manelists failing to realize they’re involved in something that can marginalize women.

1. Don't start with a quota

Focusing on your key messaging can help you avoid relying on a diversity quota.

“Diversity should be a given, not a starting point,” Katy says. As they prepared for Flow, Katy and her team instead created a clear vision for the whole event, including messaging, narrative and the outcomes they were looking for. Part of the message was business transformation - how leaders can transform their organizations as the world of work changes around them.

Flow 2018 panel

One of the Flow 2018 panels

“So we focused on this idea of 'change',” Katy says, “and we made a conscious decision not to highlight diversity as an issue in and of itself. We talked about it as a necessity. As something that should be the new normal. We built it into our agenda in that way.”

By focusing on the message you have better visibility over the people you'll need to help tell your story. And speaking of visibility...

2. Take the holistic view

Looking at your event 'in the round' allows you to identify areas where you're not saying something different or adding to the conversation. It allows you to find diversity of thought.

“We didn't just look at it by session, we looked at it in the round,” explains Katy. “Every time we added a new piece to the speaker puzzle we stepped back to see how it fits together. What's the look and feel? Does it tell a story?”

A critical part of that was making sure different points of view featured in the narrative arc. And a natural extension of that was asking the question: are people coming from different backgrounds? People who could offer something interesting to a dynamic and mixed audience.

Katy believes this approach drives your ability to find the best speakers. The ones that have the point of view you're looking for and not necessarily the “well-known experts” that do the rounds at many industry events.

She calls this 'diversity of thought'. Which is a cool name. But what's really cool is how it can connect your roster of potential speakers and your event themes directly to your audience.

“This approach allowed us to build agendas full of 'diversity of thought'”

- Katy Cooney, Global Events Marketing Lead at Workplace by Facebook

“And that's really important. Respecting your audience. They're going to come with a varied set of backgrounds and points of view. And diversity of thought enables you to focus on finding people your audience can relate to.”

And that isn't just for each individual session - it's across the whole event. “The holistic view allowed us to identify areas where we weren't saying anything sufficiently new or different. It meant we could fill the gaps.”

3. Crowdsource the best...

The insight, experience, and networks of your internal team is a huge asset. Use it! Opening up the search gives you a better chance of unearthing the diverse points of view you're looking for.

So how do you find your speakers? You crowdsource them.

“We tossed it out to all of our teams. Our salespeople, product design, engineering. We set up a poll in our Flow Workplace group and asked everyone to come up with ideas and vote for speakers and panelists. They gave us access to their customer knowledge and stories. It's a different way to approach it than normal.”

And it works. Not only does it give you a wider selection to choose from, it naturally pulls you away from the tried and tested. It forces you to rethink your idea of the 'ideal speaker' or calling on the people you've worked with before.

“I think this was a massive benefit for us because our customer teams brought us people they thought would be charismatic. People they knew had an interesting and deeply relevant story to share.”

The end result is a diverse set of speakers and panelists. And the numbers at Flow 2018 are a testament to the approach. 50% of speakers and panelists at Flow were women and 24% were from underrepresented groups.

“It worked. 50% of speakers and panelists at Flow 2018 were women. And 24% were from underrepresented groups.”

Tellingly, these panelists ranged from big names in the Tech sector and beyond like Sheryl Sandberg and Jason M Lemkin, to subject matter experts from all levels at a variety of other organizations

Those guests included Pradheepa Raman, Chief Talent and Innovation Officer at Stanley Black & Decker, Rahul Sekhon, CTO, Sun Life Financial, and Charisse Evans, VP of Customer Experience Integration at Delta Air Lines who were all on hand to share relevant and interesting stories with the Flow audience.

See what went down at Flow 2018 to learn more about speakers and panelists at last year's event.

4. ...But prepare to dig deeper for speakers

Digging deeper will help you find genuine thought leaders - irrespective of rank or title. It's harder. It's worth it.

But it's an approach that requires more from your organizing team. It takes more time. And it also means you sometimes have to say no to a really cool speaker.

“We said no to a few that came through because we knew the agenda as a whole had no more room,” Katy tells us. “We already have people who have that same point of view and background. We had to pass on a few good people, but we stuck to our guns and in the end, it paid off."

And although that might be a challenge, it's worth it. It forces your events team to dig deeper.

Skimming the surface of the executive level or the regular pool of speakers almost guarantees you'll end up with a monotonous message. The 'echo chamber of the c-suite,' as Katy calls it. But dig deeper to find the actual subject matter experts - the ones who aren't necessarily the most senior people in the organization - and suddenly everything gets interesting.

“You achieve diversity of thought. You get greater representation. You have a better chance of being relevant to your audience. And that's kind of the point, right!?!”

With huge thanks to Katy Cooney, Global Events Marketing Lead, Workplace by Facebook.

Read what went down at Flow 2018. And then register your interest for Flow 2019.

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