A Sold Out Evening at Arundel Castle. But Why?

Some thoughts for speakers and authors.

A big thank you to everyone who came to my talk at Arundel Castle on a tarmac-teasingly hot Saturday evening.

The format of the evening was: some wine and cheese, a natural navigation talk with Q&A and then home.

I spoke for an hour on ‘The Wonderful World of Natural Navigation’ and there were plenty of interesting questions at the end. What a kind, thoughtful and generous audience!

It was a sold out event that raised thousands for The Sussex Snowdrop Trust – a wonderful charity that provides care for seriously ill children at home.

Discovering that a talk has sold out is satisfying for any speaker. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that there are many reasons why some events sell out quickly and others are less well attended.

There were clearly lots of people who came to support the charity regardless of the topic or format of the event – and hats off to them. But there were other factors at play too.

Why do some speaking events sell out and others fail?

Pick a number between 10 and 1000 and I have probably given a talk to an audience very near that size at some point – many more near the lower end than the higher. After several hundred public speaking events, there are a couple of things I’ve learned about turnout and ticket sales that may be of interest to those starting out.

In the early days it is all too easy to take these things personally. Only 15 in the audience tonight! Nobody loves me! Take me to the green room, I need to be alone with my thoughts, darling!

About five years ago, something happened that I found instructional and helpful. I had been booked to give the same talk in two different towns in the same week. This is quite common, but this week proved to be highly unusual. One venue sold all 500 tickets and was turning people away. Ticket sales for the other event limped up to 9, before it was cancelled.

This surreal week illustrated something clear to me, something that I have never forgotten. Audience numbers are influenced by so many things that are out of a speaker’s control – and actually nothing to do with them. The speaker’s ability, profile and the subject of their talks are important over time, but do not always sway any one event.

Location and venue are important, but rarely paramount.

The skill and experience of the organiser of any event has as big an impact as any other factor – speaker included.

I always try to say yes when asked to speak at events, I am as grateful to be asked today as I was the first time. Pretty much the only times I do say no, with regrets, is if an inexperienced organiser appears convinced that setting out the chairs casts a spell that means that they will filled. They won’t. Even Ed Sheeran could walk into an empty hall if nobody knew about it.

The dream team is organiser and speaker both bringing their A-game to the build up, promotion and then the event itself. If both manage this, then lots of people attend and those who come have a great time and trust grows for the organiser’s next event. (This is an important part of how publicity professionals work. When my publisher suggests that I do an event, it nearly always has as much to do with the track record of that organiser as any other factor).

Back to Saturday’s event. This was a sold out event almost entirely due to the slick work of the organisers – not least Lucy Ashworth at The Sussex Snowdrop Trust. I wanted to thank her and the Trust here publicly because I’ve learned something else over the years: the words ‘local charity event’ can be tricky for speakers. Who would want to say no to helping any local charity? But, a sad truth: the words ‘local’ and ‘charity’ don’t always guarantee a well thought-out or run event.

Part of the genius of the organisation of this event was that it allowed people to be generous (tickets cost £25+ each and most people contributed more on the evening), whilst choosing to have fun and learn something new too.

The success of this evening lay in the hard work and canny approach of Lucy and the Snowdrop team. Together we raised thousands and we all had a good time.

My main tip for aspiring writers and speakers is that we can only do what we can do and if we focus on our work it is possible to learn to relax about the rest of it, including audiences. My journey to this relaxation point was helped by meeting a pair of poets. We were passing the time before we were due to give a talk or reading at the London School of Economics. I will spare the poets’ blushes by omitting their names. This is their conversation, as I recall it, fondly:

Poet A: Not many in for me today, only 40 odd I think.
Poet B: 40, that’s good. I drove to Cardiff last week to read to 25.
Poet A: Last year I had to fly to Edinburgh for barely more than a dozen.
Poet B: My first year on the circuit there was a time with only 6.
Poet A: 6 isn’t all bad. I had three at one my first readings, two of them left after my first poem and the last one looked miserable throughout…

You get the picture. And these were two of the most ‘successful’ poets in the country.

To celebrate a successful event on the weekend – but more importantly, learning to relax about what that even means – I have written some bad poetry:

Good folk of Arundel, I salute you!
There is no limit to what you will do!
You’ve crawled through a heatwave on hands and knees,
Because somebody mentioned something about wine and cheese.

Learn more about the excellent work of The Sussex Snowdrop Trust.

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