The proof of the pudding

Every 6 months or so, going back as far as 2006, and doubtless further, the issue of diversity in speaker line ups at web industry events raises its head. And there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Folks raise the spectre of “political correctness”, camps harden. Occasionally there’s a mea culpa (for which the “offending” event is roundly praised), and nothing much seems to really emerge from all the sturm und drang, as 6 months later it happens all over again.

Now, at Web Directions, we’ve been holding events for this industry since 2004. And, if you take a look at our lineups over the last few years, you’ll see that women on the whole tend to be pretty well represented (and you know, there are other groups that it might be important to consider who are under represented on our collective stages, so hopefully we can start addressing that issue as well).

First, if you don’t think a diversity of representation, in and of itself, is important at events like these, please stop reading now. Really, there’s no point. I believe, in and of itself, this is an important goal. You might believe that quality in and of itself, unconstrained by any other consideration is all that matters.
I don’t.

Because everything we do has all sorts of subtle consequences. And to me, it’s important to do your best to think about those consequences, and ensure the outcomes from these are better, rather than worse than they otherwise might be.

Let me give you an example.
Suppose that you are running a conference about X. And suppose that the very best speaker on earth about (like so much better than anyone else that no one will even argue with you)
is also a racist, homophobic misogynist.
If all that matters is their presentation on its merits, then of course you’d have them speak right?

BTW, this is not a straw man argument. This is called a “reductio ad absurdum” argument.

  • Assume something is true.
  • Derive something false based on that assumption
  • Demonstrate the assumption is false
  • It’s maths people, it works.

OK, so if you are still reading, let’s think this through a bit.

You want the best possible content
you want to represent a diversity of people in our industry/community

How do you go about this?

Here’s how you don’t go about it (at least in our opinion at Web Directions, and we’ve put our money where our mouth is for years on this).

Don’t have a request for proposals.

1. If you make your decision based on proposals, you have people on stage who are the best at writing proposals. The best at writing presentation abstracts.
Which is almost 100% unrelated to whether they’ll present well.
Because presentation is about a great deal more. It’s about

  • stage presence, including personality, comprehensibility, warmth, humour
  • quality of narrative
  • quality of slides
  • content of presentation

2. You will get a certain kind of person, disproportionately male, who will submit a proposal. This doesn’t make them bad people. Indeed, the sort of confidence to back themselves probably (I’ve no evidence for this, sounds intuitive, which when it comes to human nature gets tricky) means they’re more likely to have the kind of confident stage presence that makes people feel comfortable. But then again, maybe they are self overestimating tossers, who will make the audience hate them.

You’d be surprised, by the way, how many PR people contact us about their awesome client, who would so improve the quality of our event by stringing together jargon laden cliches and buzzwords. We have a special gmail folder for those ones.

Purely submission driven events are always going to be over represented with men. Blind assessment of these submissions is not going to change this. Because you are starting by regarding a certain kind of personality type that is disproportionately male.

3. Unrelated to the main topic, but important issue. You are the convenor. Think of yourself as an editor. The content and structure of your event is your responsibility, not that of random submissions. At Web Directions, we turn this process upside down. We think about issues that are important to our audience (not just ones that are hot right now), and structure a program around these. We then look for speakers to address these issues. And by look, I mean really spend a lot of time and effort locating potential speakers who can address the issue well, who can present, and contribute to the overall event (which is more than simply speaking, we feel it is important that speakers are there for more than just their slot if at all possible).


Maxine and I spend a great deal of time scouring the web for interesting blog posts, articles, slideshare decks. We look for intelligent people saying interesting, non obvious things. If they can express these things well, visually, in writing, then maybe there’s a good chance they can do this on stage as well.


Web Directions runs all kinds of free events around Australia, and supports others like Ignite, Trampoline, and more, which give people an opportunity to begin, and further their presentation career. What Do you Know this year featured nearly 70 speakers, some experienced, many we’d never seen before, sharing their expertise. Some of them went from there to speaking at our main events. We hope, and believe many more will too.

We also give people the opportunity to get a taste of what it is like up on our stage by introducing speakers. More than one person first graced a stage as a Web Directions session MC, and has gone on to speak at the event. Even to Keynote our events.

And recently, we’ve experimented with session formats, introducing 15 minute, highly focussed sessions, that make the transition to speaking about something you’re passionate about less daunting than starting with a 50 minute extravaganza.

Work at it

You really have to work at this to make it happen. It is true in our experience that women are less likely to put themselves forward, and more likely to turn down an invitation.
Do we have a quota? There’s no number we must hit, but we look for balance, and we kind of just know when we don’t have it. When we run a multi-track event, a lack of balance might mean a fair representation in say design focussed tracks, and little or none in developer focussed tracks.
Have we ever had a substandard speaker striving for diversity. I’d say, hand on heart, no. Certainly, well known speakers leaving the audience underwhelmed is a far bigger issue.

Dirty little secret

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret of conference organizing. The most well known speakers are rarely the ones people ultimately remember best, and rave the most about. It’s those who they’ve never heard of, who challenge them, who are. As I just mentioned, substandard presentations by “token” speakers has never been an issue for us. Substandard presentations by well known speakers has been on more than one occasion.

Trust us, “rock star” speakers won’t guarantee your event is a sell out success. This is not lollapalooza (note, now defunct) where people come to see the most popular acts.

A successful event has to reach far beyond those who follow the most well known industry voices on Twitter or comment on their blogs, to have the remotest hope of being an ongoing, sustainable event. Most of your audience won’t even know who they are. Truly.

Involve women

I have a whole swag of daughters, so from a personal perspective, this is an important issue. Going back years, decades really, equality, diversity, these have been important to me. But the truth is, I’m a staggeringly privileged person. I’m male. I’m “white”. I was born and raised in the developed world. I was sent to really good schools. I had parents who valued education, and had enough resources to invest in it for their kids. I went to about as good a University you could go to in Australia. So my perspective is ultimately basically theoretical.

Guys like me like to think that being intelligent, thinking a lot about something, knowing its history means we really understand it. In the case of things like discrimination, we really don’t.

I’ve had the even greater good fortune to have Maxine as a partner in Web Directions. Her perspective is what really guides the shape of our lineup. We discuss who should speak, about what, and why, all the time. We don’t always agree. But when it comes to this sort of issue, I trust her “spidey sense”. If you don’t have that sort of perspective, you’ll struggle. Because as well meaning, and intelligent as you are, it’s all still theoretical.

So, involve women, and others with diverse perspectives in your decision making, trust them and listen to them. Your chances of going terribly wrong will be greatly diminished.

By the way, for what it is worth, our first event, way back in 2004 had no women speaking. We realised this after putting the program together. We’ve made sure that we rectified this every subsequent year. But it demonstrates that unless you are conscious and work at this, you won’t do well enough.

In the eating

Now, while virtue is its own reward, might I point out that having been around since 2004, we’ve been around for longer than just about any event in our industry (at present I can only think of Web Visions predating us and still going, meanwhile juggernauts like Web 2.0 Expo have come and gone), with an audience of 35% to 40% women, having a commitment to diversity as a central, if not necessarily (until now at least) trumpeted core value, certainly hasn’t hurt us. Not once to my knowledge, have we been accused of tokenism. Not once has a speaker been criticised as substandard with the insinuation that they were there just to make up the numbers.

I always come back to a pretty basic question when I make a decision about important things in my life. What kind of a world do you want to live in? And how do I go about making the world a little more like that place?

At Web Directions, we’ve spent years putting our money where our beliefs are. And while it’s not why we do it, it’s paid us back in spades. And that’s a great privilege.

7 responses to “The proof of the pudding”:

  1. Firstly, I agree. You remember presenters because of what they show you, how they get through to you, not because of their purported reputation.

    Secondly, how do you get all your daughters into that swag? I only have two, and was never able to carry them together. ;)

    • By: karl
    • November 19th, 2012

    >3. Unrelated to the main topic, but important issue. You are the convenor. Think of yourself as an editor. The content and structure of your event is your responsibility, not that of random submissions.

    It’s on topic. If the conference organizers, aka editors, have chosen some people, it shows what the conference was supposed to be and why. It’s a statement by itself and that is quite cool.

    The notion of “rock star” is also quite interesting. It highly depends on the country where the event is organized, with a little difference which is a bit similar to the women/men bias (aka men don’t notice there is an issue). English speakers don’t notice they are other languages out of there with good voices. Everyone is reading English speakers, eventually commenting on their blogs ;), etc. but not every English speakers/conference organizers will make the extra effort to discover outside of their bubbles. (And yes WebDirections explored this avenue in Japan ;) ). By that comment I do not mean that they must nor even should, but just that there are very interesting voices outside of your own linguistic community. Paris Web in that sense is very inclusive by signing for deaf all talks, and providing to the attendance live translation of English speakers through headsets. If you have the opportunity to discover the ParisWeb conference, just go. It is quite interesting.

    • By: John
    • November 19th, 2012

    Thanks Clytie,

    I find it easier than fitting them in binders ;-)

    Thanks too Karl. We have explored all sorts of ways of being as inclusive as possible, including real time signing, real time captioning on a second screen (the entire first conference had this, including a memorable spoof of this by our good mutual friend Dean Jackson).

    I wonder what happens when we have real time machine translation that’s good enough? All kinds of potential.

    And I would hardly have to be tempted to go to anything in Paris, let alone a web conference (just justifying it domestically might be a challenge ;-)


    • By: chaals
    • November 19th, 2012

    ‘Trash’ is not actually a special folder.

    And yeah, there are lots of axes of ‘balanced representation’. Thinking you can have a perfect solution is probably almost as misguided as thinking it doesn’t matter.

    Scout, and Nurture, do. They give the people that the audience didn’t know, who do challenge them. If for no other reason than bringing a fresh perspective. There are lots of speakers I know who are famous because they are good at it. But I have heard what they have to say, and they will underwhelm me when I hear them the third time if it is really a riff on the same story.

    For the reason, people who are not brilliant speakers, but have something new and interesting to say, make an important *part* of the puzzle. (Since the audience is different people too, this is a puzzle, not a single choice repeated in 18 talk slots).

    But your “hypothetical” of a racist homophobe is interesting. Since I am pretty solidly against the ideas of racists and homophobes (and people who think there is no sexism problem in our industry, and various other ideas too), I find their views challenging. As the organiser of a conference, the “editor” as you so nicely put it, I don’t want those ideas to be the tone reflected by my event even if they are incidental to the main thrust. At the same time, the challenge of including someone who promotes ideas that set me on edge because they can inspire me in different areas is one that I find interesting.

    I don’t believe that racists or creationists (sorry folks, I don’t believe in that either) “deserve equal time”. If I find a speaker like that, I want to gently challenge them on our incidental points of disagreement while getting value from the knowledge they can bring which is central to “The Endeavour”. Not stand up and argue with them, but find a way to ensure that my editorial values are clearly reflected through the whole of the event, while allowing a plurality of views to be presented. If I can do that, I think I’ve made some progress towards building an interesting event – because it is about informing the audience, but more importantly about people leaving the conference with their brains in high gear.

    • By: Hilary Cinis
    • November 20th, 2012

    Thank you so much for saying what you did about proposal based submissions. Can I add to that, the ‘peer review’ aspect of it. Personally I’ve been through it and it was humiliating as yes, I can’t write a proposal and then had my ass handed to me through peers punching holes in my submission because it didn’t adhere to certain industry protocols despite it being about highly successful application and I had many insights to share on it. I’ve not attempted to do it again. And yes!, I have sat through many rock-star presentations wondering how in the hell this one got across the line as the content was simply insulting to the audience.

  2. Good post, John, and found myself nodding along as a fellow conference owner/producer. Especially pertinent was your reference to editing.

    I think events are like publishing; with a shared business structure – subscribers = delegates, sponsors = advertisers, program = content.

    I also don’t don’t call for speaking props and have wondered if I should. Thanks for setting me straight. It’s fine to be a dictator when it’s your event. Got to live and die by your decisions.

    And as for the “rock star presenters” v Joe Average – or in your case ‘Joanne Average’ – I could not agree more.

    In fact had one big cheese from the US whose presentation we had to cut short because it was just a freakin’ advertisement. My partners at the time actually hooked him.

    Hugely embarrassing – for him, that is, but the audience thought it was great, and that at the end of the day is what it’s about.

    You don’t have the audience, you don’t have a conference, or in the case of event professional like you and I, a way to pay the mortgage.

    Keep up the good work mate and hope to catch up soon.

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