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Avoiding Unconscious Bias When Delivering Presentations


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Leaders are often called upon to make presentations for groups large and small, both internal and external to their organizations. Inclusive leaders need to be mindful of their audiences when presenting information—whether at conferences, trade shows, or meetings.

Failure to fully understand who your audience is will reflect poorly on yourself and the organization you’re representing.

We all suffer from unconscious bias—but we can uncover our own blind spots by making sure that we’re getting input from those who reflect the background and views of the audiences we’re attempting to reach.

A recent situation faced by Apple and Adobe illustrates this. According to Emily Peck’s article “Apple Turns World’s Oldest Catcall Into Product Demo,” Apple and Adobe teamed up to show how a new, larger iPad makes it easier to edit photos using Adobe Photoshop. The subject of the demo was a woman. “In demonstrating Adobe’s new Photoshop app for the tablet, designer Eric Snowden imported a photo of a gorgeous woman with a fairly neutral look and proceeded to edit her frown upside down,” writes Peck.

While this doesn’t seem overtly offensive, women who saw the demonstration live, as well as women who have heard about the demo since, found it to be a little unnerving. Peck argues that this demo plays into the age-old catcall that men use toward women, urging and harassing them to smile when passing them on the street.

Chances are, Apple and Adobe didn’t intend to offend women when they were deciding how to share the benefits of using a larger iPad when editing photos. However, if they had been a bit more attuned to their audience, they might have recognized the slippery slope they were about to slip on. Recent media stories have been focusing on how some women are rebelling against being told to smile in the media (think Serena Williams), and there also seems to be a strong call to stop publishing photos of overly Photoshopped women.

Given these two pieces of information, it probably would have been in Apple’s and Adobe’s best interests to have picked a different subject for their demonstration. In fact, it might have best to not even use an actual person.

Presentation mishaps such as this, however unintended, reflect poorly on the company being represented. It suggests that they may be an organization that’s insensitive and may reflect the organization’s own lack of diversity. Such may be the case with Apple. “Overall the company is 70 percent male. Only 20 percent of the tech roles at Apple are held by women,” reports Peck.

This illustrates well the risk that organizations face when their internal audience is not diverse and does not adequately reflect, and mirror, the external audiences they seek to serve. Perhaps, if Apple or Adobe had more women in their workforce this issue might have come to light long before the live presentation ever took place.

Don’t run the risk of offending your audience. Do your research, scan the room, and make sure you fully understand the views, beliefs and opinions of those who are listening to your message. Be inclusive!

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