The largest marketing, sales and leadership conferences in the world are facing a huge challenge. Traditionally, conference audiences and speakers have been nearly 100 percent white males. However, times have changed. The make-up of the audience is now evenly split between men and women.
The event planner's job is to ensure that the right content is presented — content that will deeply resonate with the audience and make the overall experience meaningful. This boils down to choosing the right speakers for each opportunity. Event planners are keenly aware of the need to have more women — and other skin tones — on their stages. Event planners are now focusing on having voices that are reflective of the audience so that their inner conversations can not only be heard, but fully understood.
Related: To Increase Gender Diversity, We Need to Go Back to School
Curiosity drove me to better understand the perfect combination of voice and perspective these planners were looking for in the speaker selection process. After 59 interviews with conference hosts and meeting and event planners, it is extremely clear that there is a challenge to have the right collection of voices on their stages.
Lena Requist, president of ONTRAPORT, said that 42 percent of her customers are women. Nearly 50 percent of the audience at their yearly conference, ONTRApoolza, is female. “Having women on stage allows the audience to connect to the message in a deeper way,” Requist said.
Dreamforce, the mega-conference hosted by Salesforce.com, made efforts over the last two years to create women’s leadership events that solely focus on the conversation for women. I see this trend growing with other conferences too. Sheryl Sandberg said in her 2010 TEDWomen speech, “We’ve got to get women to sit at the table.” I’m here to say it's time we get more women on the stage.
The need for women speakers.
One of my first interviews of meeting planners was with Kim Garst, who hosts the Social Boom Event for 400+ entrepreneurs. We did the standard interview questions, and I asked her what gaps she was currently facing with her event planning.
"We just finished a planning meeting, and we have lots of men identified, but we are missing the feminine voice," Garst said. She explained most of her audience was women, and they connected better to the journey of another woman.
Related: Only 17 Percent of Venture-Backed Startups Are Led by Women
This kicked off deep research on diversity that was carried throughout my interviews with event planners. Some of the best quotes:
- “Diversity is very important to us and our audience.” — Breanna Jacobs, Social Media Strategies Summit SF
- “I want diversity in my speakers. Not enough females to choose from. I want to add color and different opinions." — Rich Brooks, Agents of Change
- “Diversity is about representing all aspects of the audience.” — Anna Hutson, Engage Conference
- "Diversity in our line-up is essential to connect with the whole audience." — Rebecca Croll, Start Up Festival
- “Marketing is about empathy. Diversity is very important to us. We work hard to have women speakers. Women tend to tell better stories.” — Ryf Quail, Ad Tech New York
- "We pay significant attention to the diversity of race and gender to create a balance.” — Elisabeth Osmeloski, Third Door Media
During these interviews, I didn’t lead with the question about the importance of diversity. Many would mention it without a prompt from me. This leads me to believe that there is a huge gap on the platform that needs to be filled. So, what does it take to get on one of these stages?
You still have to be good.
Even with high demand for diversity, event planners are not willing to comprise filling their stage time just because of a speaker’s gender or skin color. In fact, they are urgently aware of the need for the speakers be able to deliver their content in a way that entertains, while educating, the audience. This means you still have to be a good speaker to get the chance to address their beloved audiences.
One of the largest conference planners I talked to was Neal Cranna with Sage Summit. He's covering eight cities this year. “Don’t send in generic pitches," he said. "Research the event, and describe the value that you offer to our audience. Give practical insights.”
Related: How to Propel Your Speaking Career
The most eloquent description of how to get the attention of a meeting planner was from Greg Damus with Cult Ideas. “The spray and pray approach does not work," Damus said. "Create a custom tailored proposal that shows an understanding of the conference. This is the way to pierce the armor of speaking on our stages.”
The biggest desire is for practical and actionable content. “Our speakers provide key takeaways in their talks, or they will not be invited back again," said Ryan Deiss, co-host of Traffic and Conversion Summit. "It makes for a more memorable experience for the audience.”
Women, this is your wake-up call. The need is real. Event planners are challenged to balance the platform with your unique perspectives, your amazing insights and your feminine energy. Consider this an open invitation to put yourself out there, and share your wisdom.
If you want more information on getting on stages, check out 3 Reasons Why You’re Not Selected for Speaking. It was created from my 59 interviews with meeting and event planners.