Being Inclusive When Your Audience Is Unknown To You, Part II

how to add DEI when presenting to unknown audience

For too long, companies such as ours let it be other people’s business to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive world. What authority did we, a small boutique training and consulting firm, have when it comes to another organization’s DEI? In recent months, we’ve reconsidered. We have decided we do, in fact, have a responsibility to support our clients’ DEI efforts. We feel it is important to speak out on issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability, especially within our sphere of influence: communication training.

We are committed to continuous learning, active listening, admitting when we get it wrong, and course-correcting openly. We commit to helping others understand their responsibilities to create the conditions for fruitful conversations for all. We’ll do this in our workshops, public speaking events, and private coaching sessions. Every client interaction we have and blog we publish represents what we understand to be the best practice at the time.

In our previous blog post about delivering effective business presentations to audiences you don’t know, we focused on practical matters, such as how to assess how much your audience understands the context and terminology you use in your presentation. But there’s another issue to consider, and in many ways, it’s both more delicate and more important than your business terms. The other thing you won’t know about your audience—even once you arrive, meet, and greet them—is who they are and how their various identities will affect the way they receive your message. The age, gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and disability status of individual audience members all affect how they hear and respond to your content, just as your own identities affect how you receive information from others.

The main thing to do in this area is pretty simple, frankly: don’t be a jerk—either intentionally or unintentionally. In other words, use the fundamentals of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace to build trust. Remember, engaging an audience involves trust. If you insult your audience, include insensitive material in your presentation, or simply show yourself to be oblivious to the needs of a diverse group of people, you’re never going to build trust. No matter how spectacular the business achievements, if the person presenting them comes across as unaware or uncaring, it won’t matter.

Delivering effective presentations with diversity, equity, and inclusivity in mind

So what do you do to ensure that your presentation content is welcoming to all and free from unintentional problems? There are several things, none of which are all that hard once you commit to them.

Check your content

Make sure that your slides, and the language you intend to use in presenting them, are free from words, phrases, and images that have a history of discriminatory usage.

  • Do a bit of Googling and familiarize yourself with which common phrases have racist, ableist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive histories. There are lots of reliable sources that will give you lists of terms to avoid when composing your slides and notes.
  • As you run through your presentation in preparation for delivering it, listen to the language you use as you improvise. Do you say “you guys” a lot? Do you use stereotypes in your examples like, “Let’s say a doctor gets a call from his nurse, and she tells him…”? Do you use any of the words or phrases you eliminated from your slides and notes? If so, the best way to avoid saying them in front of your audience is to scrub them from your speech altogether. When you’re in conversation with family or friends, and you hear yourself say something you’d rather not say in front of an audience, simply go back and replace it with a more neutral term. This will get you out of the habit of saying it at all.
  • Be aware of the stereotypes inherent in the images you use, such as the hoodie-wearing young white male innovator, the Asian IT person, or the female parent as the default caretaker. Unfortunately, image searches and image libraries don’t always offer the variety you might wish for.

In addition to weeding out what can be viewed as offensive, proactively work on folding in examples and imagery that represent diversity. Here are just a few to think about:

  • Allow all genders, ages, and ethnicities to represent competence, professionalism, team engagement, and family harmony.
  • Allow all ethnicities, ages, and body types to represent beauty and desirability.
  • Allow people with disabilities to be shown doing appropriate jobs and activities, including at the highest professional levels.

There’s a bit of a delicate balance to strike between real inclusivity and a level of “wokeness” that draws more attention to what a great ally you are than to your content, so ask a variety of your trusted colleagues and team members for some perspective on your presentation to ensure it focuses primarily on effective delivery of content.

Connect with everyone

As you know, eye contact is one of our key engagement skills, and we hear from learners that it’s hard to make eye contact with people who are different from them. Most often, they’re talking about the VP, CEO, or another big decision-maker in the room. But nervousness can also result in avoiding eye contact with people who are unlike you in other ways. One of the most effective things you can do to ensure that everyone in your audience feels included and important is to share your eye contact as widely as you can. Not only will this help build the trust of your entire audience, but it will also give you important cues to how everyone is receiving your content.

If you make a mistake, apologize

In the event that you happen to use a term you wanted to avoid or state an assumption you’d like to take back, the most effective way to undo the damage is simply to apologize and then move on. “Sorry, I’m trying to train myself not to use that term. I apologize. Now as I was saying about our sales projections…” You’ve acknowledged and apologized, but you haven’t made an opera out of it.


Companies are taking diversity, equity, and inclusion seriously, and it’s incumbent upon each of us to internalize the idea that we cannot make any assumptions about our audiences when we present. Preparing content with the goal of including everyone and not giving offense should be a standing goal for all speakers. Making sure everyone in the room feels they can trust you and are included in your presentation goals will lead to effective, well-received business presentations.

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