Building a Diverse Speaker Roster

Have you noticed that most of the speakers at your WordPress events look alike or come from the same background?

In technology, it’s common for those who belong to the major population of an area to end up doing most of the public speaking. Those who do not fit into that group have many reasons not to step up to speak – for example, they may not view themselves as belonging to that group, or they may not believe they have anything of value to contribute. As a result, the kinds of speakers at tech events – in our case WordPress events – can frequently become homogeneous.

In North America, for example, many speakers at WordPress events are young, white, cisgender, straight men. There are many other voices that aren’t being heard as much: women, LGBTQIA+ individuals (which include non-binary, trans and genderqueer folk), people of colour, people of different physical abilities, neurodivergent people, folks who are older, etc.

Why does it matter? Why does it matter?

Why does it matter who is at the front of the room speaking?

  1. The speakers don’t represent the audience.
    Many WordPress events are successfully expanding the kinds of folks who are in the audience. For example, there have been more women-identifying WordPress event attendees in Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, Canada. But without having women in the speaker roster, they may feel like they don’t belong there. There are many folks with a wide range of knowledge to share and everyone can feel included.

  2. Our speakers help shape our technology.
    WordPress is amazing in that it is open sourceOpen Source Open Source denotes software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified. Open Source **must be** delivered via a licensing model, see GPL. and so all sorts of people use it. We want a more fair representation of our community among the people who are speaking about the ways that WordPress is used by all.

    One of the ways in which WordPress is being shaped is by the people who speak about it publicly. Many diverse folks, by nature of having different life experiences, would approach challenges differently. Just as how a developer’s point of view is different from a user’s point of view, so are our viewpoints as speakers. Many people have experiences that aren’t necessarily being shared right now.

    If only one kind of person is speaking about the technology, they may be missing key issues that would make it more accessible for more people. Size of text and color contrast are two simple, but significant examples. People with vision challenges, such as people with age-related vision loss, or people with color-impaired vision, may have trouble reading small type with low contrast. If those people aren’t heard, those problems go unseen. There is much more that can be considered if folks who are affected have the opportunity to speak up.

    Sometimes these accessibilityAccessibility Accessibility (commonly shortened to a11y) refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people with disabilities. The concept of accessible design ensures both “direct access” (i.e. unassisted) and “indirect access” meaning compatibility with a person’s assistive technology (for example, computer screen readers). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accessibility) changes wind up benefiting everyone in significant ways as well. A great example of this is how in 1918 the first “Talking Books” were created for veterans injured during World War I and for other visually impaired adults. Almost 40 years later, audiobooks (and podcasts!) are wildly popular in the mainstream, among sighted and visually impaired readers alike.

    When diverse speakers (and contributors) influence the direction of WordPress, that helps WordPress reach a larger audience and be a better product overall.

Now that you know why it is a great idea to build up a diverse speaker roster, let’s look at some challenges in doing so and some potential solutions.


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Challenges and Solutions Challenges and Solutions

Community is not diverse Community is not diverse

There is a lack of diverse people coming to your events, and you don’t know diverse people who use WordPress.

Solutions:

  • Ask people in your network to introduce you to under-represented people they may know who work with WordPress.
  • Go out and find those communities in your area – online and in person – or ask people to make an introduction for you to those groups. Form genuine, friendly relationships with community members so that they can help you reach the WordPress enthusiasts in their communities.
  • Experiment, or invite others to experiment, with meeting at different times, days, and places — sometimes a lack of diversity at an event is a result of only meeting at a time and place that is only convenient for a limited group of people. For example, people with children have a harder time attending events at 9pm at night, so a weekend gathering may be a more inclusive option for that group.

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Speaker applications are not diverse Speaker applications are not diverse

There are diverse, qualified folks in your community, yet they are not applying to be speakers.

Solution:

  • Extend the invitation to folks directly to apply to speak. You can reach out to them in person, by email, over Twitter, etc. They may tell you their reasons they wish not to speak and if they do, listen. The following replies in the next few points can help address their concerns.

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Speakers think they have nothing to talk about Speakers think they have nothing to talk about

When invited directly to speak, they said “No” because they think they have nothing to talk about.

  • Typically, when a member of an over-represented group of a community knows a little bit about a topic, they feel like they know enough to give a talk about it. They’ve seen many faces like theirs up on stage before.
  • Conversely, when someone from an underrepresented group knows a little bit about a topic, they frequently don’t feel they know enough to talk about it. They don’t see people who look like them presented as experts. Also, many diverse folks set a much higher bar for “expert” knowledge than other people do.
  • Thus, when we ask underrepresented people: “Would you like to apply to speak at our WordCampWordCamp WordCamps are casual, locally-organized conferences covering everything related to WordPress. They're one of the places where the WordPress community comes together to teach one another what they’ve learned throughout the year and share the joy. Learn more.?” we often get these two answers:
    • “What would I talk about?”
    • “I don’t know enough to give a talk” or “I’m not an expert in anything.”

Solutions:

  1. Share that at WordPress events, all speakers are encouraged thusly: “don’t teach a lesson, tell a story.” The story/case study format has a much broader appeal and is much less likely to be outdated or just plain full of inaccuracies. Many people forget the details of how-to talks, but with stories they learn how to learn. And also, everyone’s an expert in their own story.
  2. Ask the person what WordPress topics they’re passionate about, and encourage them to consider a talk about one of those topics.
  3. Ask what WordPress-related thing the person has learned recently, or mistakes they’ve made. 
  4. If the person feels like they haven’t learned anything yet, one idea is to suggest that they take notes as they start to learn something, so that they can tell their story about it.
  5. Suggest things you know the person could talk about based on what you know about them. Maybe you know that they just created a new theme, or they have a story about their journey learning how to do something.
  6. Post a list of suggested topics on the speaker application page so everyone has access to inspiration. It won’t replace a speaker training workshop, but it may reach people who can’t attend the workshop. 
  7. Run the Diverse Speaker Training workshop that will help folks see they have many things they could talk about, and also helps them through many other obstacles they may have currently to public speaking. Sign up to run the workshop here: http://tiny.cc/wpdiversity.

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They don’t feel comfortable They don’t feel comfortable

When asked, the person said “No” because they don’t feel comfortable with public speaking.

  • The person has no experience with public speaking, or has had bad experiences with it, and is not feeling comfortable doing it (but does want to).

Solutions:

  • Small steps to build confidence are valuable. Suggest that the person speaks first to:
    • the mirror
    • a video camera
    • pets
    • friends and family
    • small videos on social media, like Instagram and Snapchat stories
    • smaller Meetups
    • your local WordPress MeetupMeetup All local/regional gatherings that are officially a part of the WordPress world but are not WordCamps are organized through https://www.meetup.com/. A meetup is typically a chance for local WordPress users to get together and share new ideas and seek help from one another. Searching for ‘WordPress’ on meetup.com will help you find options in your area. (before speaking at a WordCamp)
    • etc.
  • Suggest the person be the moderator of a panel of a topic that they are interested in.
  • Invite them to participate with a panel session, either as a moderator or speaker.
  • Suggest they interview another speaker on stage or be interviewed.
  • Suggest giving a lightning talk. Ten minutes is a great way to start.
  • Suggest giving a duo talk with someone who is a confident speaker.
  • Remind them that just about every public speaker is nervous, even if they don’t look like it!

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They don’t want to handle Q&A They don’t want to handle Q&A

When asked, the person said “No” because of the Q&A section.

  • Handling questions and answers is preventing the person from being willing to speak.

Solution:


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Being An Effective Ally Being An Effective Ally

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You want to help encourage diversity but you don’t know how. You want to help encourage diversity but you don’t know how.

Solution:

  • Consider speaker diversity during the speaker selection process. It’s best if you can keep an eye on how many overrepresented vs diverse speakers you have in your line-up. Try to aim for 50% or more speakers from an under-represented group, if you can. Some selection committees will still prefer to use blind review, and if yours does, at a minimum you should set clear guidelines for what you’re looking for in applications.
  • Include diverse voices and organizers in the selection committee. This will help ensure everyone gets a fair shake and folks don’t feel tokenized when invited to apply.
  • Have more than one person in your speaker outreach team. More people looking means more diverse networks and thus a more diverse roster.
  • Have more diversity in your group’s leadership
  • Provide an easy and friendly way for folks to request feedback on pitches, talks, and slides, and to rehearse with you.
  • Read over our workshop materials at diversespeakers.info and use that info to help them.
  • Become a Speaker Mentor in the Diverse Speaker Training group. We welcome all folks and allies! Email us at speaker-training@wordcamp.org

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Someone spoke at your event and never came back. Someone spoke at your event and never came back.

You’d like to make sure that, as a start, the environment is welcoming and equal. 

Solution:

  • We are not paid at WordPress events, but if your event does have paid speakers, make sure that underrepresented people are paid the same as any other paid speakers.
  • Be sure that someone is there to greet the speakers when they check-in so that they feel welcome.
  • If there is speaker swag, make certain that everyone receives it.
  • Give their talks equal or extra promotions to the others. If the person is not already well known in the community  or doing a popular topic, the audience may not consider their session to attend. Remember that this person is there to give much needed fresh perspectives, and they will feel better about being there if there is a substantial audience attending.
  • In addition to promoting at the event itself, social media boosts for the person’s talks before, during, and after make them feel welcome
  • If you saw the talk and liked it, tell the person so.
  • Thank the speaker for coming out and let them know you hope they speak again.
  • Don’t send unmoderated speaker feedback unless the person requests it. Edit out negative feedback that isn’t constructive to their growth as a speaker. Frivolous negative feedback can prevent many folks from stepping on stage again.
  • Openly share your community’s goals for making more diverse and inclusive events, and celebrate your progress publicly!
    For example, WordCamp Miami posted these in their Camp’s Closing Remarks and on Twitter.

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How can we write our Call for Speakers in a way that encourages a diverse range of applicants? How can we write our Call for Speakers in a way that encourages a diverse range of applicants?

Solutions:

  • Because under-represented folks don’t see themselves represented as “experts” on stage and then often won’t view themselves as knowing enough to give a talk, specify in the call-out that speakers don’t need to be experts. Say that you’re interested in all ranges of experiences, and that everyone’s voice is valuable and interesting.
  • Encourage stories.
  • Encourage submitting talks about anything in WordPress that folks are passionate about. Remind everyone that non-technical talks are also welcome, such as users, community, design, marketing, and others.
  • Post a list of suggested topics on the speaker application page so everyone has access to inspiration. It won’t replace a speaker training workshop, but it may reach people who can’t go to events.
  • Folks with impostor syndrome – which is more common amongst people of underrepresented groups – will self-select themselves out when they see words like these:
    • Rock star
    • Superhero
    • Ninja
    • Jedi
    • Guru
    • Genius

Use a tool like textio.com to make your writing more inviting for more people.

  • Be mindful of using photos throughout the site for your event that show different types of people so that it is clear that a diversity of people are welcomed at the event. Be sure to include them on the call for speakers page.
  • Include the Code of Conduct on the call for speakers page to visibly demonstrate a real commitment to diversity and a safe environment for everyone.
  • Include a link to your page of accessibility accommodations
  • The website should be fully accessible
  • Make the use of social media accessible: Capitalize the first letter of each word in your hashtags, use all caps acronyms, put in ALT tags on social media posts, etc.

Following these suggestions will help in the road to including more people; that kind of radical inclusion creates an amazing space of respect and innovation for everyone!

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