What Speakers Need to Know about DEI

Table of Contents


Earlier this year, we covered the top speaking trends for 2023 on the blog. While all of those trends are important in their own way, a few of them involve complex social issues and deserve an extra look. To that point, we’ve already covered ESG in another recent blog. As a refresher, environmental, social, and governance factors matter to all companies, not just big corporations with fancy investors. One of those ESG factors, DEI, deserves a deep dive of its own. (In case you didn’t reach the end of our top trends list and you’re wondering “Wait, what is DEI?” we’re talking about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion).

DEI has been a hot topic for a few years now and will only grow in importance as 2023 wears on.While there’s a lot to say on the topic and a lot we have to leave out, think of this piece as a primer on DEI with speakers in mind. There’s a good reason DEI had its own spot on our top trends list–and today you’ll learn why. We’ll start by covering the basics–everything you need to know about DEI before you even think about speaking on it. Then we’ll elaborate on the impact of DEI within the speaking industry. Finally, we’ll give some pointers for how to become a DEI speaker. 

1. What is DEI? 

DEI is about far more than abstract concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is a framework within which individuals and organizations acknowledge and address discrimination, inequity, and exclusion. There are a lot of amazing resources for diving deep into these topics. In a future blog piece we will direct you toward some of the experts who speak, write, and educate in this area. For now, we’ll do our best to fill you in. 

Race, ethnicity, religion, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and age have historically been the primary topics within this space. (That list should sound familiar from the Civil Rights Act and other anti-discrimination legislation.) However, as DEI is (appropriately) an inclusive term, there are a few other categories that are important to keep in mind. Socioeconomic status, mental health, and neurodiversity have increasingly entered the DEI conversation, especially in the workplace. While the concept of DEI has its roots in the civil rights movement, recent political and social events have thrust these issues to the forefront once again. As investors and customers alike reevaluate companies based on their social consciousness and other ESG factors, there is no room for the outdated biases that still lurk in many organizations at all levels of the leadership hierarchy. Change is happening–and those who don’t change will fall behind. 

DEI initiatives aim toward an atmosphere of overall fairness, mutual respect, and cultural competence. At the organizational level, this means acknowledging the experiences of individuals who have been systemically marginalized because of their identity. But that acknowledgment is hollow and empty if it is not followed by action. Whether we’re talking about an industry, company, or team…it’s hard to let go of how things have always been done. Personally espousing the values inherent to DEI does not automatically exude those values into their workplace. Many professionals are still skeptical about DEI in the workplace even if they try to treat everybody fairly in their personal lives. Even well-meaning leaders hesitate to shake up the status quo. As a result, DEI initiatives are often short-lived and unsuccessful. 

Real commitment to DEI is a habit, not a trend. More and more, companies who realize this create positions and hiring staff to keep them on track (e.g. “VP of DEI”). But a whole new executive is not really necessary–although it can help. All it takes is one motivated individual to spark change that nudges leadership in the right direction. Institutional espousal of DEI relies on a partnership between management, employees, and outside educators. This kind of partnership requires humility, open discussion, and willingness to learn. Equipped with the right information, stakeholders and leaders have to work together to overhaul systems that traditionally exacerbated or ignored struggles faced by team members. And who better to learn that information from than from inspiring speakers bringing implementable ideas to the table!

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2. What DEI means for the speaking industry.

Whatever has an impact on many industries has an impact on speaking as a whole. It’s part of the speaking lifestyle to adapt as new market trends come your way. But before we discuss the ramifications of DEI for speakers, let’s focus on speaking as its own industry for a second. Racism, injustice, and discrimination lurk in the speaking industry just like they do anywhere else. We hosted a discussion on racism and the speaking industry with trailblazing entrepreneur Nicole Walters a couple years ago and many of her observations unfortunately still ring true. While speaking is a very decentralized industry, speakers are known for their sense of community and strong networks. It’s key that moving forward, our community set a high standard for promoting justice and inclusion in all industries. 

Even if you never plan to give a talk on a “hot-button topic,” learning and reflecting on topics related to DEI will in turn make you a strong, positive representative of the speaking industry. Encourage your fellow speakers to learn alongside you, and their clients and audiences will benefit too. Audiences increasingly expect speakers in professional spaces to be socially conscious. You don’t have to mention every breaking news story that touches on charged issues, especially if events are still unfolding. But don’t tiptoe around the elephant in the room, or your audience will see you as out of touch.

We don’t have easy answers for discussing delicate subjects–it’s up to you how to handle these things in a way that befits your personal brand. With practice (and a dose of humility), you’ll do so gracefully in no time. Simply opening up more about these issues as they pertain to your talks or bringing along your audience as you educate yourself can make a difference. If all speakers work together toward a more equitable, inclusive future with input from people of all backgrounds, everyone will benefit. 

Now, let’s talk a little bit about how the impact of DEI opens up opportunities for speakers. Statistics increasingly reveal a correlation between Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to company performance and success. (Read more at this McKinsey report.) As we mentioned, this has led to companies hiring specialized DEI staff. In turn, this means the creation of DEI budgets. And where there are budgets, there are events. If a company takes their mission to prioritize DEI seriously, these events will be just as vital as other essential workplace trainings. Relying on employees to educate their own coworkers when a sufficiently “diverse” holiday rolls around? Lazy, tokenizing, and often ineffective. Hiring speakers with a proven record of expertise and a well-articulated pitch for the change they can effect? There’s a solution that can drive real change. 

3. How to become a DEI speaker. 

The gist of all this is: DEI speakers are in high demand to help transform culture at the industry, workplace, and leadership levels. And we aren’t just talking about big corporations here. Universities, nonprofits, associations, small businesses…every type of organization that hires speakers is facing the same questions to varying degrees. 

There are many different niches you can target as a DEI speaker according to your expertise and your mission. You can build roadmaps for your industry to uproot injustice, educate on DEI issues and awareness, advocate for marginalized groups, help individuals confront their biases…the list goes on and on. For speakers who prefer smaller, intimate audiences, the burgeoning relevance of DEI is great news. Trainings, workshops, and roundtables are all incredibly effective formats for DEI topics. Since the goal is to elicit lasting change, you can make a compelling case for a workshop series instead of a one-off engagement. 

If you prefer to deliver keynotes, you can approach becoming a DEI speaker from a couple different directions. Many industries organize conferences around particular identity groups within the field (e.g. women in tech). Universities host DEI summits for staff that bring in outside speakers. Big industry or association conferences that happen every year will offer opportunities too as event planners recognize their role in helping start these conversations en masse. As a DEI specialist, you can market yourself directly to these kinds of events and opportunities.

What if DEI isn’t your specialty but you care about one or more of its pillars? Add them to your speaking menu! Being able to competently address timely DEI topics as they pertain to your industry will be an incredible differentiator that sets you apart from other speakers within your field. Even if you don’t expect to field a question about privilege, microaggressions, or inclusive language, it’s good to know how. 

We’ll finish up with one of our favorite values that upholds a successful speaking career: integrity. To be a successful DEI speaker, integrity is your biggest priority. First of all, your own integrity matters–even more than in other fields. If you are faking your expertise and passion for DEI, you won’t just garner a reputation for being inauthentic (which is bad enough). Since DEI is inextricably intertwined with social justice, you will be seen as a fraud who is trying to profit off of people’s struggles. Don’t get into this field if you aren’t serious about it! 

Secondly, you will have to vet your clients’ integrity carefully. Research the organizations you are considering working with even before you get on the phone. As with any topic, you should position your speaking services as solving a specific problem for your audience. Getting clear on the problem you solve will help you gauge the integrity of your clients. If your client is scrambling to check a box or virtue signal, they will have a vague answer (if any) for how your talk fits into their broader vision. At the start of your career you may have to take some sub-par gigs to gain experience. But as you refine your speaking business, developing a discerning eye for their integrity will help you forge relationships with the most rewarding clients. 

Looking for more tips? You can listen to our podcast with renowned DEI speaker J. Israel Greene here

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DEI comprises a weighty set of topics. They involve real people and difficult experiences. Learning about them, let alone speaking, requires time to ponder and reflect. Speaking about them often requires communicating hard truths to your audience. But weighty topics are the ones that need good speakers. If we’ve answered some of your questions about DEI for speakers and you want to learn more, good news! We have more content like this coming up right here on the TSL blog. And if you want to work with our coaches to integrate these ideas into your speaking career, we would love to help.


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