“Inclusion” is a popular term these days. In our industry, and beyond, it anchors headlines, carries captions and barks at us from ads. Does it represent a sea change in the way we go about our work and our lives? Or is it yet another fad, designed merely to grab attention and increase clicks? How does it work to our benefit in engaging audiences? And how do we create a sense of actual inclusion, rather than the echo of an empty buzzword?
The history of events is the history of engaging audiences:
- From the ancient Romans’ architecturally brilliant Colosseum designed to address accessibility for crowds of thousands, to their encouragement of audience participation by voting on the fate of their favorite gladiators
- From Elizabethan theater-goers cheering, booing and throwing fruit at actors, to William Shakespeare’s deliberate inclusion of clowning scenes in his plays designed as breaks for his attendees’ attention spans
- The success of events has always stemmed from an understanding of who the audience is, and then contextualizing all aspects of the event within that understanding.
While today, our audience demographics and expectations are largely different from those of our ancestors, the necessity for understanding them is much the same. In fact, with such intense competition for the attention of every individual that exists in our modern world—from unrelenting notifications, to interruption advertising, to doomscrolling—understanding our audiences, and crafting experiences grounded in this knowledge, is more important than ever.
Why is it important? Studies have demonstrated that when people are humanized, they can see themselves as part of the process of transformation, instead of just spectators of it1. With agency comes investment, and when audiences are invested, they are paying attention. But it’s not enough to delineate audiences into different groups; we must then actively engage those groups with experiences that speak to the group identity.
While diversity comes in a dizzying array of forms—age, educational, linguistic, physical, neurologic, cultural, racial, ethnic, industry, role, etc.—it is helpful to approach the inclusion of these diverse characteristics by collecting them into a few categories:
Representation is the act of reflecting our audience back to itself. As simple as this sounds, it’s amazing how entrenched old ways of doing things are, and how hard it can be to move the needle. For instance:
- Sales teams in the technology industry have increasingly higher numbers of female constituents, but the inclusion of female guest speakers at sales conferences has lagged far behind.
- Likewise, the numbers of female executives has also been slow to shift across organizations that are seeing growing numbers of female employees.
We at TENCUE believe that not only recognizing the disparate groups but also representing them at our events, on multiple levels, is crucial for audience buy-in. At one of our recent conferences for 18,000+ members of a Fortune 500 tech company’s sales team, we crafted our opening experience to respond to the shift in the sales team to a younger, more racially, culturally and gender diverse audience.
Some inclusive tactics we utilized aimed at representation were:
- Hip hop as a younger musical medium
- Flying in performers from across the world
- Incorporating instruments from various global cultures
- Showcasing different languages in song lyrics
- Intermingling varying genders among performers
- Highlighting multi-cultural faces and places in our opening video
Through these methods we introduced an inclusive vocabulary that was then carried through the rest of the event. Speakers, additional performers, conference content, inclusive language and optional badge pronouns all continued this inclusive approach at representation.
There is a tendency to consider only physical ableness when we hear the term “accessibility.” And while, yes, that is a large (and varied) part of the equation, accessibility applies to so many more groups whose needs should be taken into account. In fact, we recently piloted a program with our client to address the experience of neurodivergent attendees. We offered headsets to folks to help minimize the distraction and overwhelm expressed by a survey of neurodivergent-identified individuals in group contexts. The program was hugely successful: the number of headset requests grew steadily each successive day of the event and feedback from participating attendees was extremely positive.
Other initiatives addressing inclusion through accessibility include:
- Sign-language interpreters and assisted listening devices for those with hearing impairments
- Open captioning for those who speak English as a second language and those with hearing impairments
- Simplified language in oral presentations for those who speak English as a second language
- ADA ramps and seating areas for those who are differently abled
- Presentation font size minimums, and contrast and color guidelines for folks with low vision
- Color scheme environmental design for those with color vision deficiency
- Nursing Rooms for nursing mothers
- Gender-neutral bathrooms for gender fluid and non-binary folks
- Gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan, kosher, and halal food options for differing dietary restrictions
- Non-alcoholic beverages and mocktails for those who don’t consume alcohol
- Increased wayfinding for everyone
At first consideration, wellness might not seem to dovetail with inclusivity. However, when we regard Inclusion as the holistic incorporation of all aspects of our attendees’ humanity, it makes sense to view wellness as an extension of inclusivity. Audiences can’t be fully engaged if they aren’t comfortable, calm, and cognitively prepared. Offering various wellness programs to attendees helps regenerate and reset audiences so that they are in prime physical, emotional, and mental states to fully engage with an experience. It also demonstrates consideration for their entire experience as a conference goer.
Some offerings that address attendee Wellness include:
- Mediation Rooms
- Virtual Reality Meditation
- Yoga Classes
- Stretching Breaks
- Dog Therapy zones
- Puppy Cams
- Quiet or Sensory Reduction Spaces
- Reusable Water Bottles and plenty of Hydration Stations
- On-Demand Workouts
- Giving Pods for charitable and community-focused activities
- Strategic Agenda Design for optimal session lengths, adequate breaks, and realistic travel times
Inclusivity isn’t static. Audiences are always changing, and their needs and experiences are always evolving. Evolving with them takes constant work and re-strategizing. But crafting experiences that speak to all participants, and all facets of those participants, results in attendees who feel as though they are part of the conversation. And creating an audience that is fully invested, engaged, and empowered is well worth the effort, because those are the audiences that are moved to action.
1 Lyon, Cherstin, M., Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences.