Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2023

Real-World Advice to Make Meetings More Inclusive

Everyone wants their meetings and events to feel and be inclusive for all attendees, but it can be hard to know where to start. To help figure it out, MeetingMentor recently caught up with two experts on the topic: Danielle Duran Baron, CAE, Staff Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Industry Relations with the School Nutrition Association and Chair, ASAE Government Relations and Advocacy Professionals Advisory Council; and Sheri Singer, President of Singer Communications, who is Founder of Association Xchange and Ambassador Task Force Leader of ASAE’s Research Foundation’s Development Committee. Here is some of their advice.

Don’t make assumptions or treat different demographics as monoliths. Just because someone belongs to a certain demographic, don’t assume they are defined by stereotypes that may be ascribed to that demographic. Also, take care not to assume that everyone who belongs to a certain demographic will feel the same way about the inclusivity choices you make. Duran Baron tells of one organization that, after hearing the younger generation of Latinx members say they wanted simultaneous translation to Spanish on their webinars, considered doing that. But then they heard from the older generations of Latinx members who, having worked all their professional lives to prove they could excel in English, found the idea insulting. “Sometimes you hear one thing from one segment of a demographic, then another has a completely different experience, and they both have valid points of view,” she says.

Create a task force of representatives of your organization’s different demographics to inform the choices you make in your conference materials and speaker lineup. Singer recommends creating an ad hoc team task force that could provide feedback on the language and imagery used in conference materials. She cites the saying in the disability community: “Nothing about us without us,” adding, “As a white woman over the age of 40, I might be sensitive to certain things, while someone who has disability challenges might be sensitive to other things, while someone of color could be sensitive to something else. The makeup of the task force would vary depending on the makeup of your organization and the industry you represent,” she says. “If you’re based in New York City, think about having someone from South Carolina on the task force.” You don’t have to have a representative of every possible demographic included — that could get unwieldy — but do reach out to members who are not represented on the task force to make sure their perspectives are also considered.

“That ad hoc panel could be your organization’s saving grace when it comes to DEI,” says Singer. “They can be asked anything — language, photos, speakers, keynotes, etc.” 

Words matter. This can be as basic as the pronouns you use. For example, using male pronouns as a general fallback can be off-putting — and now even grammarians are OK with using “they” and “them” for singular person usage. Singer suggests using they/them instead of she/her and he/him for all meeting materials. One tool you may want to check out is the Witty extension (Grammarly for inclusive language), a free Chrome extension that some in the DEI space are hoping will gain traction.

Imagery also matters. You will end up doing more harm than good if you say you’re embracing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) but only portray white men in your promotional materials, Singer and Duran Baron say. “All the different pieces — the photos, the graphic elements, the words — work together. They need to be intentional choices that show you’re not just ‘stamping your DEI passport’ and moving on to the next thing,” says Singer.

Include diversity recommendations in your speaker guidelines. You may even want to hold a webinar to familiarize speakers with how they can be more inclusive in their language and approaches to their topics, both in their sessions and in any promotional activities they may take part in before and/or after the event. At least include information and guidance in your written speaker materials.

Don’t just include diverse speakers on a DEI panel. This is something all too many well-meaning event planners do, but you do not want to be one of them, Singer and Duran Baron say. Diversify all your speaker roster so your attendee demographics are represented everywhere, not siloed into a DEI panel.

Be thoughtful in how you diversify your speaker selections. While you do want to avoid “manels” — all male panels — don’t add a speaker to the panel just because they represent a demographic you want to include. That will backfire big time if they aren’t qualified to speak on that panel’s topic. “To avoid tokenism, make sure you’re asking people to speak on topics they are expert on, and then promote them as experts in that topic,” says Singer. Duran Baron adds that it’s not hard to find people from all demographics who are highly qualified to speak on pretty much any topic, but if you aren’t already familiar with them, it may be interesting to ask yourself why that is, and then work on finding new voices. Going back to the “avoiding stereotypes of treating people as monoliths” caution, Duran Baron adds, “No one wants to speak on behalf of their community or 20% of the U.S. population or those who were born in the same country they were. Ask speakers to speak to their own experience, not on behalf of an entire group.”

Go the extra mile (and the extra dollar) to do it right. While Google Translate is a wonderful thing, it will be immediately obvious to native speakers if you use it to translate your meeting sessions or materials. “When you do something in a sloppy way, the message you send is that the people you are trying to reach aren’t worthy of your top effort,” says Duran Baron. “Doing something halfway can actually end up being worse than doing nothing at all.”

Don’t stop with the annual meeting. For associations, the annual conference is usually the main event, but DEI should not stop after those few days are past. In every link, promotion, product, brochure, member outreach — every communication should have the same level of consideration you put into your meeting materials. “Weave DEI into every aspect of the organization all year long in every publication, podcast, video, social media post and email, not just in the meetings portion,” says Singer.

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