“When people come together to pool their ideas, experience and energies in a common cause, there’s very little they can’t achieve. Nottingham provides the evidence.”
Peter Bradley, Director SCT, Nottingham Evening Post, 26 February 2008
You want to start a Speakers’ Corner initiative in your neighbourhood. There’s just you. How do you get going?
Every local Speakers’ Corner project will be different. But here’s a simple step-by-step guide which signposts some of the issues you should think about and which we hope will help get your project under way.
Don’t be daunted by what follows. We’ve tried to answer all the questions you might have but some will be more relevant than others and you won’t have to address them all at the same time. What’s more, with a little help from your friends, starting a Speakers’ Corner project will probably be easier than you think!
As suggested below, more detailed information on a number of the topics is available in other guidance notes on this page.
Who do you know who might want to join you?
Try to put together a small group of like-minded people who will contribute ideas and share the burden of the early planning stage.
What do you want to achieve?
Explore the Speakers’ Corner Trust website and debate and develop with your colleagues a vision and a model to suit local circumstances.
How big do you want your project to be?
Discuss with your colleagues the geographical area you want your project to cover. There’s no harm in thinking big but, at least early on, focus on what you think you can manage. It could be the whole town or city or perhaps just your neighbourhood – it’s not the size that counts but what you’re able to do with it…
What model do you want to adopt?
You don’t have to create a Speakers’ Corner as a public space in the early stages and in many smaller towns and in rural areas it may be difficult or even inappropriate to do so. A Speakers’ Corner initiative is not dependent on creating a Speakers’ Corner but if you do plan to do so, you will have to consider some important issues such as where it should be, whose permission you will need, who might be affected by your plans, with whom you should consult and, how it should be designed and how, in due course, it should be funded.
But experience has shown that creating a Speakers’ Corner as a public space really does attract public support. People like the idea that there is a space in their town or city centre which represents their rights as citizens, even if they never use it.
Clearly you should seek and may need the support of the local authority and the police as well as others with a direct interest in your proposals including commercial or residential neighbours and amenity and interest groups. But again, our experience has consistently been that Councils, police and others have been very supportive and getting permission for a Speakers’ Corner has not been complicated.
Whether or not you establish a permanent space, you may want to create a mobile Speakers’ Corner which can be used there or elsewhere. It helps to be able to be seen and heard and to see and hear and speakers like a platform and audiences like a stage. A friendly carpenter created a fold-away Speakers’ Corner in Bristol for £150 and you could probably do the same!
SCT’s guidance note Speakers’ Corner Protocols provides more detailed advice.
Does your group have the right set of skills?
As your planning develops, you may need to recruit supporters with different skills and backgrounds and, perhaps, with contacts and networks of their own. This will not only help your planning but also the project’s credibility.
Can you get influential backing?
You should consider consulting with and developing support among key local organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors. If they feel that your plans are serious, well thought-through and non-partisan and if you can demonstrate growing support for them, many will be prepared to provide at least ‘in principle’ support and that will do to start with (even if practical is always better). Where possible, start with people you know.
Local authority involvement is not essential but it is certainly a big advantage. If you don’t have a contact at the Council House, approach your local Councillors or your Parish Council. Though the support of local politicians can be very valuable, seek to ensure that it so far as possible on a non-party or all-party basis.
Try to ensure too that even if you receive enthusiastic backing from the Council, your project remains and is seen to be independent of any particular organisation or interest.
Can you get good publicity?
You must judge when the time to seek local press coverage is right. If you try too early your plans may not be sufficiently developed and you may set off in the wrong direction. Ask yourself whether you’re ready and, above all, whether and how publicity will help your cause. In the first instance, try to talk to the editor or a senior reporter: the seriousness with which the paper takes its first report often sets the tone for the future.
Have a clear idea of the article you’d like to read or hear (though don’t expect it to turn out quite like that!) The media like hooks on which to hang news stories so try to provide the right one: perhaps you’ve won the backing of an important organisation or an influential individual or you may be launching a consultation on your proposals or organising a public meeting to discuss your initiative.
Your story is a good news story! It’s about an initiative by and for the local community. Make sure there are enough positive elements to talk about and a range of different people prepared to say supportive things about it either in a press release or perhaps at a briefing meeting with a local reporter.
But remember that the media also like controversy and conflict so, on the basis that that is not what you want, try to ensure that you don’t provide it for them. If you anticipate that the involvement or support of one organisation or individual will provoke the open hostility of another, either avoid them both or bring them both on board.
Be canny: you may be able to involve the local paper or radio station in your project either as a sponsor or by holding out the prospect of many good stories to come. If the editor knows that your project has community support, the paper is more likely to be supportive.
Can you get public support?
You may want to gauge the level of public support for your project before you approach key local organisations for theirs. That is a matter of judgement. But certainly if there is public enthusiasm for your initiative, you will strengthen your credibility among opinion-formers and decision-takers.
Organise a public meeting to present and discuss your plans. You don’t need a mass meeting; if each of your fellow-promoters brings three people, you should have at least 25 and targeted invitations (perhaps to local politicians, head teachers, faith leaders, voluntary groups etc) along with leafleting and press coverage should do the rest. Don’t set your sights too high: new ideas often take time to take root. But try to ensure that your meeting doesn’t clash with other events and takes place at a suitable time and in a venue people are prepared and able to use.
Make the event informal by providing refreshments and by focusing its purpose on discussion rather than speeches. Try to establish what local people would want from the project and what they would be prepared to do to support it.
Who will own and steer the project?
Once you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and a group of supporters, you will need to think about establishing a Speakers’ Corner Committee to ‘own’ and manage the project.
The colleagues who are already involved may provide the core and you may also be able to recruit others at public meetings but you should attempt to ensure that the Committee reflects so far as possible the broad community you seek to serve. Include representation from the public and voluntary bodies and businesses with which you have consulted and if you think that significant local groups are unrepresented, seek advice, perhaps from the Council, on how to make contact with them.
How can you attract sponsorship?
Members of your steering committee may have contacts among potential sponsors or access to resources. You may also want to approach the Council and major local businesses or employers for support.
Have a clear idea of what you need and also what your sponsor will get in return. You will not require a large budget and contributions in kind may be more valuable (and easier to provide) than cash. For example, the offer of venues for meetings or the sponsorship of events, publicity or a website could make a big difference to your success.
Our guidance note on Finding Funding may help.
How do you launch your Speakers’ Corner?
If you are developing a public space, you may want to plan a special, high profile event to launch it. Much will depend on the scale of the initiative but if you are creating a major landmark in prominent site, you will no doubt be sharing responsibility for the event with others, for example the local authority, with greater resources than you can command. Partnership is the key. The pages on Nottingham and Lichfield (under UK Projects) provide examples of contrasting but equally successful launches.
If your project is smaller in scale, the first public debate you organise could also serve as your launch. Choose (and perhaps consult about) the topic carefully so that you can be confident that it is attractive and relevant to a significant sector of your local community. Once you have settled on a subject (and a catchy but informative title), work with local organisations and individuals with a particular interest in it. They can help not only with its design and organisation but also by promoting it among their own members, supporters and contacts.
Secure attractive speakers to stimulate (but not to dominate) discussion and do your best to publicise the event in the press and around the community. Remember that celebrity sells so if you’re able to attract someone well-known, perhaps with a local connection or with an interest in the topic, you will considerably increase both media and public interest in your event. But also remember that securing a celeb can be a very time-consuming and ultimately frustrating undertaking and that even if you succeed you may find that the media takes more interest in the personality than your project.
How do you maintain momentum?
It is important at the planning stage to think beyond the launch, to ensure that expectations (yours as well as the public’s) are pitched at the right level and that you’re capable of meeting them.
So don’t be too cautious: people want to be part of something exciting. But don’t be over ambitious either because if you fall too far short too early in the process supporters will be discouraged.
One of your first initiatives may be to contact as many local groups and organisations as you (or the local authority or council for voluntary service) can identify, inviting them to propose and/or organise events or provide speakers under the local Speakers’ Corner banner. One email can go a long way.
If you have created a physical Speakers’ Corner, you may want to work with third parties to arrange occasional events there as well as in other venues.
Remember (again) that size isn’t everything: some events work better when numbers are limited and those attending feel able to contribute to them. Some sectors of the community are also easier to involve than others but that doesn’t mean that the hard to reach should be overlooked. By all means aim to start with early wins but, as your confidence and experience grows, be prepared to branch out and don’t be afraid occasionally to fail before you succeed.
Develop a programme which is varied in topic, format, time and venue to maximise its appeal to different people. Not all events must be serious in content or lead to a conclusion or a consequence. Some will be higher profile than others: not all of them will make the press but that isn’t necessarily evidence of success. If people enjoy them that’s a good result; anything else is a bonus.
Depending on your resources, six to ten events of various styles and sizes should provide a decent programme over the first twelve months. But remember that much of the burden of organisation can often be shared with third parties – for example interest or membership groups with a particular involvement either with the topic or the audience at which the meeting is aimed.
How should we choose topics?
A good programme will take careful account of the different kinds of issue which interest or motivate different sectors of the community and the different formats which are most likely to attract them.
Some – climate change for example – will be global in scale; some may be national – for example, the future of our public services and how we pay for them; some may be highly localised – what should be done about that patch of waste land round the corner; some will motivate a particular group – what kind of facilities young people want; some might attract people who like a good debate – is modern art a waste of time? Some may appeal to those who feel passionate about something important to them – such as what’s happening to English/Scottish/Welsh football.
All these topics will make for stimulating events and a varied programme. But before you start planning, you should have a clear idea of whom you are trying to attract, what they’re likely to be interested in and where and when they’re likely to attend an event.
Who will administer the project?
The development and launch of the project may take concentrated effort but once it’s up and running, the work involved in maintaining it is important but not necessarily burdensome, particularly if you know or learn how to tap into existing networks.
Your Speakers’ Corner Committee will be made up of busy people and it’s a fact of life that the more they have to offer, the less time they have for yet another commitment. It is important that you don’t frighten them away by appearing too dependent on them: you need their ideas, their reputation and their contacts. But you should also avoid relying too much on people who may have more time but not necessarily the right skills.
The Speakers’ Corner Committee might typically meet once a quarter to develop the initiative’s overall strategy while a smaller Management Committee, meeting perhaps once every six weeks or so, will take administrative decisions. It may be that Committee members are able to share the tasks which arise from the decisions taken. Alternatively, you might benefit from having someone to act as a part-time coordinator. If you can’t find a suitable volunteer, a supportive local authority or major local employer may provide some officer or executive time.
Important though that kind of sponsorship will be, it is unlikely to be particularly onerous. If there are no other alternatives and the level of activity demands it – in which case your project is already a success – you may have to raise funds to pay an administrator/project coordinator on a part-time basis. There are charitable funds which might be able to help. Sometimes the Council administers potential sources; often there are local charities which might help. Again, our guidance note on Finding Funding may help.
How do you guarantee success?
You can’t but with thoughtful planning, skilful networking and adequate publicity, you should be able to maximise your chances
Be imaginative about whose support you enlist but also think carefully about the practical details of your event and how you promote it. Venue is important: for some a special meeting place – for instance the Council Chamber – may be really attractive; others will not want or be able to travel far from their own neighbourhood. For some, daytime meetings will be impossible; others may not want to come out after dark. Some discussions are best led by invited speakers, but not all. Some people will come because the press or local radio station has stimulated their interest or curiosity. Some will respond to a leaflet, but if it’s delivered too far in advance they may forget about the event and if it arrives the day before it may be too late.
Some people have the interest and often the ideas and opinions but not necessarily the confidence to express them. Perhaps the local theatre will be prepared to lay on a couple of public speaking workshops in the run-up to the event, providing a real benefit to those who participate as well as good marketing for the theatre and good publicity for you. Theatres in Nottingham, Lichfield and Bristol have all organised free workshops which have been greatly enjoyed and much appreciated by all. You may also want to see the film Speaking Out which SCT commissioned with the Southbank Centre and which provides a fifteen minute introduction to speaking skills.
In short, be prepared to exploit whatever local resources you usefully can. If you don’t ask, you rarely get.
Good luck – and if you have advice or tips of your own to pass on, please let us know by emailing [email protected].