In conversation with Megan Henshall

Megan Henshall, global event solutions strategic lead, Google
Megan Henshall, global event solutions strategic lead, Google

Our IMEX News editor catches up with Google’s Global Event Solutions Strategic Lead (and one of IMEX America’s standout speakers) Megan Henshall to talk belonging and neuro-inclusion at events, as the Google Xi CoLaboratory prepares to step back into the IMEX spotlight.

Q. We’re delighted that you’re back with Google Xi CoLab sessions at IMEX. How have you used the findings from your CoLab sessions at IMEX Frankfurt in May this year?

We've heat mapped every idea and piece of feedback we heard in the mini design sprints to identify themes and patterns that will help us prioritize Google Xi research and experimentation through 2024. The CoLab sessions are some of my favorites to facilitate because of the diverse perspectives, and because of the fast pace, the conversations are often unfiltered and honest.

We love them so much, in fact, that we're turning our Google Xi space at IMEX America into a literal CoLaboratory where we'll run three days of interactive talks, workshops and, of course, more CoLabs.

Q. Can you give us an insight into Google Xi's belonging strategy? 

Our sights are even more aspirational than designing for belonging heading into 2024. The long-term strategy is about leveraging a belonging playbook and practice (in development), along with radical inclusion and humanities to design for human flourishing. That's the new mission, and we've collected incredible people from all over the world and across wildly different disciplines—art, science, tech, music, academia, architecture, philosophy, game design—to help us better understand and solve for rapidly adapting needs.

Q. Why does building belonging matter for events? 

Belonging is a fundamental human motivation and need, and it's a critical bridge to thriving. Where people thrive, so does culture, community and business. I personally believe the lack of belonging in our world has limited our ability to connect meaningfully to one another, to ideas and purpose—why else do we have events other than to accomplish these things? 

Q. How can event organizers tap into Google Xi’s work on belonging at events?

We have a few emergent insights tools: Belonging Index (quantitative) and The Wheel of Belonging (qualitative). These are work-in-progress, but available to anyone looking for data around the dimensions of belonging. We're using these tools, along with other research, to develop a playbook that will help translate the data into design interventions and tactics. We regularly post opportunities to get involved in research on LinkedIn and are always happy to receive inquiries and interest at [email protected]

 Q. How will Google Xi explore belonging at IMEX America?

Belonging is super personal and interpretive, but the intention and design of our entire presence over the three days in Vegas is about belonging, inclusion and designing for people rather than KPIs. Our space, our content and our partnership activations for IMEX America were lovingly designed and selected with IMEX participants in mind. So come hang out and explore with us at the Xi CoLaboratory and beyond, and draw your own conclusions about how the Xi concepts and ideas may or may not translate to your own work and event design practice.

Q. How has the Neu Project developed since it launched last October? 

A lot has happened since last year's launch in Vegas.  We've had nearly 20,000 distinct visits to the Neu Project website, with 10,000 downloads of the guide and checklist. Plus: 

  • We've broadened neurodivergent representation in the guide and checklist and added new stories and perspectives. 
  • We partnered with Getty Images and updated our imagery to include the #AutisticOutLoud campaign, developed to advance representation of autistic individuals in media and advertising. 
  • In partnership with EventWell, we developed the Event Welfare Champion course and completed training of Google's global event operations and security staff to safeguard and appropriately support vulnerable guests and event attendees. 
  • We launched our Event Sensory Support kits and made them available externally through the Google Merch Shop

We have more big things happening behind the scenes and some exciting announcements coming later this year. Stay tuned!

Q. Just a few years ago it seems that no one was talking about neurodiversity at events. Now it seems that (almost) everyone is. What do you think has caused this shift in awareness?

I love this question and I'm proud to offer my take. I believe the hearts of event professionals caused the shift. Few people make a career of events because they enjoy managing budgets or transportation manifests—most of us love this work because we love people and the opportunity to play a role in creating moments that imprint on their lives. Consciously or not, many event professionals are natural advocates and allies. 

I have a dear friend who often says, "first you have to care." The momentum and synchronicity around this topic are evidence that event professionals do care. This is a caring industry that wants to lead in topics related to DEI&B, and neuro-inclusion will continue to “trend” because it is one path to better care for a lot of people in ways that deeply matter.  

Q. And beyond the talk about neurodiversity at events, have you started to see real change at events you’ve attended as a result of this new awareness?

Yes. There are many organizations and agencies implementing neuro-inclusion in practical ways across their event strategies. I get multiple messages a day from neurodivergent individuals and event professionals driving the momentum—changes are absolutely happening. 

That said, there are still a lot of performative actions, like asking neurodivergent speakers to share their experiences without compensation or accommodations, disability simulations (for example, this is what it's like to be autistic) that generalize or minimize experiences and neuro-inclusion efforts without contribution and ownership from neurodivergent people. Performative actions have been part of other social justice movements, too, and they can be a necessary part of the learning journey. We should be kind and patient, but also honest and accountable with one another when we observe or experience performative CSR and DEI&B. 

Megan Henshall at IMEX America

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