Meetings in the Post-Pandemic Era
Experience Builders

Keys to Creating Inclusive Meeting Content

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The spectrum for inclusive content is wide. By recognizing where your event may be deficient, using universal design concepts, and asking attendees what works for them (and doesn’t), you can create learning that meets a broad array of needs.

Many associations have made advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority in their programs and services, including in meetings and learning. Compared to your organization’s past practices, you may think the learning you offer at your conferences is inclusive—but is it really?

“The most important thing that people always forget about is that you need to realize when you’re not being inclusive,” said Carolyn B. Thompson, a meeting planner and facilitator at Training Systems, Inc. “There’s a very large number of us who would say, ‘Yes. I love diversity and inclusion. Everything that I design and that I lay out for learning, whether it’s a big event or small, I always take those things into account.”

However, that’s not always the case. Learning styles, native languages, ability levels, and educational achievement likely differ among your attendees, and while you may have made strides to expand inclusiveness, you still may not be meeting the needs of all learners.

For organizations looking to make conference content more inclusive, experts say the key is to recognize where you’re missing the mark and identify which learners you are underserving. Ultimately, strengthening those weak areas will benefit an even wider array of attendees.

Leverage Universal Design

The good news is that research into how people learn has led to a better understanding of how to make education programs more inclusive and effective. Dwain M. Starks, M.Ed., chief learning officer at the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography, recommends following the principles of universal design, a formal, research-based framework for optimizing educational outcomes for all types of learners.

“With what has been built for people with accessibility needs, we often find we all benefit from it,” Starks said. For example, in everyday life, the curb ramps that allow wheelchairs to smoothly access the curb also benefit people pushing strollers or rolling wheeled luggage. Similarly, adding universal design elements like captioning will help people who have difficulty hearing as well as learners who prefer to read text.

“Universal design gives us an opportunity to meet various learning preferences,” Starks said. “Some people prefer to watch a video or prefer to listen to audio instead of reading it. We make sure that we’re hitting different learning preferences through those types of means, with multiple modalities and ways in which people can consume content.”

Another simple guideline will help you avoid creating “cognitive overload,” he noted. “One of the things I’m big on from the learning perspective is making sure the content is at an eighth-grade level. That way, all audiences who are from different backgrounds can easily consume the content.”

“With what has been built for people with accessibility needs, we often find we all benefit from it.” — Dwain Starks, Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography

Get Diverse Viewpoints

Of course, how conference content is selected and who delivers it are critical aspects of inclusivity in meeting planning. That means ensuring that people who sit on selection committees, as well as the speakers they choose, represent racial, age, gender, cultural, and other aspects of diversity.

Starks noted that organizations can broaden inclusion in other ways as well.

“Those [opportunities] can come through volunteerism. Those can come through contributing to being a reviewer. It could be working along with me as a subject matter expert,” he said.

Ask About Learning Styles

The best advice for improving inclusivity of your conference learning will likely come from attendees themselves. Surveys are a fine starting point, Thompson says, but they rarely garner enough insight on their own.

“At the most you get 10 percent response on a survey, and that’s after you worked really hard at it and made a really good survey,” she said. “Is that being inclusive? I don’t think so.”

The next step is to have one-on-one conversations about learning styles with a diverse cross-section of your members. “Walk into that conversation with a very specific list of questions, and train yourself—or have somebody help you learn—how to re-ask,” Thompson said. “Most people don’t know how to be specific, so they give you something that’s not specific enough for you to be able to take action on.”

So ask questions that explore their actual learning experiences, she advises. “Ask them, ‘When was the last time it was really easy for you to learn?’ I say, ‘Explain to me in great detail. What was the [content leader] doing? What contributed to your ease?’ Then they start telling you things, and you get them to drill down on it.”

If the person is still struggling to answer, “then go for the opposite. Most people could think of a time when it was close to impossible for them to learn something.”

The back-and-forth of conversation, Thompson says, can surface the practical barriers that undermine inclusion in your learning programs—and reveal the creative solutions you need to break them down.

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now.

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