How to Diversify the Speaker Lineup

Conferences draw many attendees based on who is speaking or presenting, and people are beginning to notice who is not in the speaker lineup, too, wrote Sarah Milstein, CEO of Lean Startup Productions, in a Harvard Business Review blog. She cited the World Economic Forum, which took place in Davos, Switzerland, in January, where only 18 percent of speakers (46 of 250) were women. In turn, women made up only 15 percent of attendees. We translated Milstein’s advice into tips planners can use to select speakers that better represent their group. First, planners need to commit from the start to improving the selection process. “The top leaders of your event, regardless of their own identities, need to share a commitment to changing your systems,” says Milstein. Another important step in the process is to look beyond the typical candidates on the speaking circuit. “You can provide unique value by finding sharp people that everyone doesn’t already know. To attract those candidates, advertise that you’re seeking new voices and use thoughtful language,” says Milstein. Bringing in new speakers can be risky for planners expecting a certain quality of presentation, so Milstein encourages speaker training and having a “farm system.” Try holding casual events to “try out” speakers you don’t know. “Just offering [training] can draw proposals from strong candidates who are new to public speaking and can prompt managers to encourage promising starts to apply,” she says. Overall, planners should challenge themselves to think outside the box. “Traditional methods will lead you to traditional candidates,” says Milstein. Take chances with presenters who may use language or tone outside your attendees’ comfort zone. “Your gut will often tell you they aren’t a fit for your event. Override your gut,” she says. The diversity of your attendees is often dependent on the diversity of your speakers. By being aware and committed to developing a wider base of speakers, you can grow your attendee base in return.