What is ESG? (And how does it Impact the Speaking Industry?)

Table of Contents

Introduction

ESG issues are hot topics these days. And if you’re thinking “ESG? What is ESG? That wasn’t in The Successful Speaker…” keep reading, we’ve got answers. 

As an aspiring or established speaker, you have undoubtedly encountered ESG topics at conferences or during market research. But we all do with fancy acronyms, you might smile and nod along when you hear the term without understanding what it means for your industry and your speaking business. Or maybe you’ve heard about it–you know it stands for “environmental, social, and governance”–but think it’s reserved for investors and publicly traded companies, not professional speakers. And maybe that used to be the case. 

But listen up–ESG matters to businesses of all sizes in all industries. And that means it matters to speakers. 

In fact, we identified ESG as one of our top speaking industry trends for 2023. But given its importance, we think it deserves its very own piece. Today we’re going to try to answer some of the most common questions about ESG, including: 

  • What does ESG stand for? 
  • Why is ESG important? 
  • What does ESG mean for businesses?
  • Why does ESG matter for speakers? 
  • How can I work ESG into my speaking strategy? 
  • …and more! 

If you’re struggling with these questions you’re not behind the times. Today’s piece will have three sections–the definition of ESG, why ESG matters and, most importantly, how ESG plays into speaking. We hope you leave with a greater understanding of why this speaking trend is here to stay and how you can integrate it into your speaking strategy.

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1. What is ESG?

ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance. 

OK, you might ask. Environmental, social, and governance what

Well, just about any factors within those categories that relate to a business’s brand and operations. ESG is a framework, rather than a fixed set of concepts. Depending on global circumstances, new issues might pop up within ESG or wane in importance. Before we talk about why it’s so important for businesses to stay on top of ESG factors, let’s go over some of what each letter in the triad entails. 

Environmental is probably the most familiar. Climate change, carbon footprints, and sustainability have all been part of corporate lingo for a few years now. Just a few massive global corporations are responsible for most of the world’s plastic waste. Younger generations look to a future marked by dismal environmental events without radical action. As a result, they are holding those corporations accountable with protests, boycotts, and political advocacy. While big corporations have the greatest obligation to right the wrongs they have committed, all businesses must work together towards a more sustainable future. 

Social is perhaps the most up-and-coming letter within ESG, and one where all businesses are held to an increasingly higher standard. This category encompasses the ethical and relational actions of a company–in short, how they affect people. Are money and human resources used to foster a healthy and happy workplace? Do investigations reveal ethical workplace conditions, including in overseas production facilities? Is the company committed to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion goals in a supportive rather than tokenizing way? If a company has a poor record in this category it can have major impacts on brand perception and employee retention. And since bad reputations travel fast (especially on the internet) even small businesses have to work hard toward these goals.  

Governance refers to the management of a company and the business practices within leadership. Think of issues like accounting and financial transparency, communication with stakeholders and investors, and how much money the CEO makes in proportion to the company’s stated goals. While in the past executives may have escaped scrutiny for nepotism and corrupt practices, the spotlight is on–and rightly so!

2. Why does ESG matter? 

If you google ESG, a lot of the top results are related to finance and investing. ESG started out as a framework for investors and stakeholders to evaluate a company’s impact not just on their bottom line, but on the world. While this approach has been around for decades, it has gained traction in recent years beyond the investing world. Today, consumers are also evaluating companies based on those factors and making their purchasing decisions on that basis. Everything from environment-friendly packaging to humane workplace conditions has the potential to influence the decisions of an increasingly ethics-conscious consumer population. 

Because of this, companies that are not publicly traded have to pay attention to ESG too–and rightly so. Whether due to investor or consumer pressure, businesses in every industry now have to compete for more than the best product. Establishing commitment to principles within the ESG framework paves the way for brand loyalty in a world where people make purchasing decisions based on values as well as price and quality. 

Sustainability is an illustrative example of how ESG issues permeate every industry. Climate change concerns the whole world. Every person and company has environmental impact on some level, although the responsibility is proportional to the size of the company. Corporations like Unilever have led the way in big sustainability initiatives. Some brands, like Patagonia, have made sustainability a core part of their brand–and it’s not too late for others to follow suit. While not everyone has to be a trailblazer, those who are reluctant to adopt sustainable practices will fast be left behind. Public policy initiatives around e.g. plastic products force businesses to catch up if they want to succeed. We cover sustainability more in our piece on 2023 trends for the speaking industry. (We also recommend checking out #8 at that link to learn more about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the speaking industry.)

3. ESG and the Speaking Industry

Marketing, sales, leadership, motivation…many of the topics within these categories are evergreen. Companies have always needed speakers on those topics and always will. While new problems arise for which speakers can provide solutions, they are comparatively stable. ESG, on the other hand, comprises a variety of topics that are fast coming into the purview of a greater number of companies than ever before. ESG matters for speakers because it is an emerging and fast-evolving business priority. Sustainability, equity, and ethics (to name a few) are incredibly weighty topics with complex histories within many industries. 

And like any such priority, ESG provides a wealth of opportunity for enterprising speakers. You can come at building a speaking strategy based on ESG from a variety of angles. Whether you prefer small workshops, workplace trainings, or snazzy keynotes, there’s a place for you. In a complex and somewhat nebulous fast-changing field, good speakers who can shine a light on the way forward are in high demand. Even if you have never considered environmental, social, or governance topics before, don’t write them off just yet! We’ll outline a couple scenarios here to give you ideas, but we encourage you to explore the possibilities. 

Have you been speaking to a particular corporate sector for a while but feel your topic is growing stale? Is your field slow to adopt new ideas, or somewhat isolated from cultural and political trends? You can continue to serve the same audience in a new way. Leaders in your field need a forward-looking game plan for incorporating ESG into their business strategy. You can give them the stepping stones, the strategies, and the next steps for becoming pioneers among their peers. 

In this scenario, you might face an initial challenge. When you pitch your new messaging to your clients, they might not be particularly receptive. Event planners are not in the business of taking risks, and might require some convincing that they should care about these topics. You might have to resort to one of our favorite speaking strategies–what TSL founder Grant Baldwin calls the “Trojan Horse” method. This means that while you speak on a broader, trusted topic, you integrate what you really want to talk about in a relevant way. For example, if you speak to digital marketers, you could speak about the importance of highlighting sustainability initiatives in ad campaigns. Gradually, your message will gain traction and you will be able to pick up gigs that don’t require you to disguise your desired topic. 

The second scenario arises if you are already passionate about environmental activism, DEI, ethical sourcing, or ESG in general. In this position, you can serve a wide variety of industries once you establish your niche. The widespread applicability of your expertise could present some pitfalls. In your enthusiasm, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can speak to everyone! Building a speaking business as an ESG speaker will require narrowing your topic and your audience just as any other speaking business. Consider starting with an industry that already recognizes the importance of ESG and is actively looking for educators. You can explore different audiences and different formats such as seminars, workshops, even creating courses. As you become an expert on your passion with ESG, you will likely be able to deliver exceptional inspirational keynotes to diverse audiences. 

Beyond these scenarios, ESG offers a great deal of thought leadership potential for speakers looking to grow via content creation. Keeping your blog subscribers, podcast listeners, or newsletter readers abreast of ESG news as it impacts a particular industry, for example, could build you quite the fanbase. If you already have a robust content creation platform, consider integrating topical matters pertaining to your field and ESG. 

Are you excited about these ideas but hesitant due to your own lack of experience? Acquiring the requisite knowledge is absolutely attainable. In addition to the resources on the internet, entire conferences are planned around topics like sustainability, DEI, and corporate accountability. If you’re looking to pivot to speaking about ESG topics, our advice is the same as it is for any emerging speaker. Find out which industries, companies, and events need those kinds of speakers and start prospecting! Especially because ESG speakers are a relatively new sector, this is an area where using ChatGPT or other similar tech tools to broaden your research could be a good idea. 

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Conclusion

You may not have encountered the concept of ESG before if you aren’t familiar with the finance and social enterprise industries. But within this framework lie an increasingly unavoidable set of issues and concerns for speakers and other professionals alike. And likewise, there lie many opportunities for speakers. Many well-known corporations have failed at ESG in big ways. And many small businesses, while not transgressing any human rights laws, don’t necessarily prioritize improving in these areas. That’s absolutely true–and something you can help change as a speaker. If you’re not sure how to get started making your impact, we can help.

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