While we are seeing a return to in-person and hybrid working, online events and conferences are here to stay, writes Jo Stansfield MBCS, Founder and Director of Inclusioneering,

Done well, online events offer great opportunities for inclusion of diverse stakeholders, speakers and participants, welcoming a broad spectrum of people who may otherwise face challenges to participate. Online events can remove barriers such as physical access and facilities, travel considerations or time away from responsibilities like caring for family.

Moving online doesn’t confer inclusion by default. Here, I share my top tips for how to design and run an online event keeping inclusion throughout, from conception, through inclusive design, inclusive planning and inclusive execution, to concluding activities and building feedback into the process.

What do diversity and inclusion mean?

Diversity refers to the mix of people in a group. If everyone is from the same demographic group or background, the group is not diverse. A diverse group has a mix of people from a range of backgrounds. Some dimensions of diversity include: gender, race or ethnicity, religion, nationality, ability/disability, neurodiversity, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background.

In the context of professional events, participants may also be diverse in their professional backgrounds. Inclusion refers to the way that we treat people. An environment is inclusive when everyone feels that they are equally included and their needs are met.

To run an inclusive online event, we must plan with awareness of the diverse needs of our stakeholders, speakers and audience.

Designing for accessibility and inclusion: The event

For an event to feel inclusive, diversity of speakers is paramount. For people in minoritised groups, seeing people who share an aspect of their identity represented ‘on stage’ matters. They may be pleased to find an aspirational role model, or to find out about success from their community, as well as realising the belief that people like them can succeed in this environment. Conversely, lack of speaker diversity is highly visible and will detract from the event’s appeal.

  • Consciously select speakers from a range of demographic and professional backgrounds.
  • Set realistic but stretching goals. For example, a goal might be to achieve at least a 60-40 gender balance of speakers and the same in the audience.
  • Take particular care to avoid ‘manels’ (panels of all men) and all white panels. These groupings are, unfortunately, common in male-dominated industries like IT.

Attracting diverse speakers and participants can feel challenging and I often hear people express belief that there is little that can be done. This situation most easily arises when we only use our own networks to find people, or have a narrow definition of which topics are relevant to a discussion. Here are some suggestions of things to try:

  • Broaden the scope to include adjacent professional communities with overlaps into the topic area. Look beyond job titles to source speakers outside of your traditional pool to bring in different experiences and points of view.
  • Reach outside of your usual community. For example, you could ask the BCS regional or specialist groups (e.g., BCS Women or BCS Embrace) for suggestions and recommendations of speakers.
  • If appropriate for your event, consider a public call for participation and proactively engage with experts from minority communities to invite them to apply.
  • If you have a budget, pay your speakers. This can particularly enable people working in tech from minoritised communities to participate. For example, IT specialists who belong to minoritised ethnic groups are around 50% more likely to be self-employed than white IT specialists. Time taken to speak and to prepare for speaking can cause loss of income, which is an impact not faced by employees from larger organisations that support their speaking engagements.
  • Avoid tokenism. Don’t stop when you find one person from an underrepresented background.

If you are invited to speak at an event, you can also help to influence the diversity of the event. Ask about the other speakers. Increasingly, experts are pledging not to speak on a ‘manel’ or at an all-white event. Let the organisers know your objection and ask them to invite a more diverse set of speakers.

Scheduling for accessibility

It’s never possible to accommodate everybody, but you can work to avoid inadvertently excluding whole groups or communities from your event. When deciding on the scheduling:

  • Check the date for clashes with school holidays, religious festivals, or other major events that may impact people in your target audience
  • Plan for breaks and avoid the temptation to squeeze too much in. If the event comprises several sessions, ensure break time is scheduled and adhered to. While we all need breaks, adequate break times are essential for self-care for anyone with more complex needs. Alternatively, they may enable a parent to check in on their kids, or reduce feelings of overload for people with neurodiverse conditions.

Selecting an inclusive event platform

There are now many platforms for hosting online events, each with a range of features to help people engage with your event. You may simply need an online communications platform, or perhaps a more fully-fledged conferencing capability. Here are some features to consider for inclusive design and accessibility:

  • Does the platform offer several different means of communication, e.g., voice, video, live and asynchronous text based chat, polls and Q&A? This can enable people who struggle with one mode of communication to use another without difficulty.
  • Is there the ability to add live subtitling to sessions? This is now a feature of common platforms like Teams and Zoom. Not only does this help for people with hearing loss, it’s also useful for people with noisy background conditions and for people who are not native English speakers to understand the spoken content more easily.
  • Are there accessibility controls? The best platforms I’ve seen have accessibility profiles to modify the visual style for people with vision impairments, cognitive disabilities, ADHD, epilepsy and more. They put control into the users’ hands for font style and size, highlights on links, colour contrast and saturation and give the ability to minimise distractions like content autoplay.
  • Is it compatible? If the event platform is web based, check its compatibility with screen reader technology and the ability to navigate the site easily with the keyboard.

Preparing for the event: published materials

Diligent consideration of inclusion and accessibility in your published materials for events goes a long way. Well considered, accessible materials speak volumes about the priority placed on inclusion. Materials can include:

  • Messages and images used for adverts and social media posts.
  • Invitations and joining instructions.
  • Descriptions of sessions.
  • Presentations shared on the day.
  • Requests for feedback after the event.

My first piece of advice is such common practice it perhaps doesn’t need saying: showcase your (hopefully diverse) speakers and their professional expertise! Include photos and bios, so people can learn more. If you make use of stock images in your materials, make sure to consider the diversity of people shown in your selection.

In written materials, you can take simple steps to be more accessible for people across the spectrum of neurodiverse conditions, or those for whom English is a second language:

  • Write in plain English.
  • Keep text simple and short.
  • Avoid figures of speech. Non-literal language can be hard for people with some forms of neurodiversity and many idioms are not shared across cultures.
  • Include images and diagrams that support the text.

Consider inclusive technology and how the content will be read by screen readers:

  • Use the ‘Alt text’ field to describe images, or include a description in the accompanying text.
  • Follow a linear, logical layout, using the structural elements provided by the authoring tool, e.g., headings in HTML, Word, or PowerPoint. Microsoft tools now all contain an accessibility checker you can use to help.
  • Do not only use colour to convey a meaning. If you do use colour coding, also describe the meaning with text.
  • Capitalise the first letters of words in hashtags, e.g., #DiversityAndInclusion. This makes them easier to read and means they are also more likely to be read aloud properly by screen readers.

For people with low vision and some neurodiverse conditions, it is also helpful to:

  • Ensure high contrast between writing and the background.
  • Avoid italics and underlined text.
  • Avoid animated content.
  • Keep the content uncluttered.

Preparing for the event: be adaptable to audience needs

While some adaptations might be needed because of a specific need, a well-planned, inclusive event benefits extend to the full audience:

  • Invite people to share any accessibility needs in advance of the event.
  • Invite audience questions in advance of the event. This helps people who may be unable to post questions in real time (for a variety of reasons) to participate.
  • Prepare a range of means of audience participation during the session.
  • Make presentation material available early on demand. This helps people who experience difficulty to engage with the materials live during the event.
  • Share step-by-step joining instructions in advance.

During an inclusive session

When the day finally arrives, here are some inclusive design principles to make sure everyone can participate fully:

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  • When each session starts, ensure it starts with a short orientation on how to use the conference room.
  • Be sure to start on time and state the ground rules at the beginning, including timings and expectations of any audience participation.
  • Panel moderators should ensure all speakers have equal opportunity to contribute.

If you are speaking (inclusive design examples):

  • Keep your speaking pace steady. Don’t rush your words.
  • Don’t cover your mouth. Some audience members may rely upon lip reading.
  • Use simple English.
  • Like in written communications, avoid figures of speech. If you find yourself using one, explain it in plain English too.
  • Describe any slide shown on screen. Remember that not all participants may be able to read it in real time.
  • Clearly indicate the different stages of the session, for example when it begins, when audience Q&A begins and when the session ends.

After the inclusive event

My advice mirrors good practice for any project. Build feedback and iteration into your process.

Apply accessible practices for written materials to create inclusive feedback forms and include questions to ask about perceptions of inclusion in the event.

  • How well were their needs met?
  • Did they find the event inclusive?

Reflect on what to keep doing, what to start doing and any practices that need to change.

Lastly, provide on-demand content for people to refer back to something they missed, or would like to watch again. Concluding summary notes can be another helpful resource to share.

Conclusion

Online events offer great potential to engage diverse participants and there are multiple ways to embed greater inclusion. I’ve touched lightly across many in this article and there is much more help available. From selecting speakers, choosing a platform and creating materials, to running your sessions and gathering feedback: some changes are simple, some will take more work. Whatever your starting point, each improvement will help to build a more diverse and inclusive community.