Organising Speakers’ Corner Events

The Speakers’ Corner initiative seeks to promote open, face-to-face discussion and debate in which a broad cross-section of the community is able and encouraged to participate and a wide diversity of opinions is welcomed and respected.

This note is intended to provide helpful guidance for Speakers’ Corner Committees and other organisers of events. It is not intended to be prescriptive but it is important that all those who contribute to or participate in Speakers’ Corner events respect the principles which lie at the heart of the Speakers’ Corner project.

The Speakers’ Corner Principles

The principles which should inform all Speakers’ Corner events are that they should

  • be attractive and accessible to all
  • be strictly non-adversarial and non-partisan
  • provide all participants with an equal opportunity to express their views, within the law, and respect diversity of opinion
  • be conducted calmly and without rancour
  • seek common ground rather than confrontation
  • aim to engage, inform and enrich opinion and, wherever possible, entertain.

If these objectives are to be met, careful thought must be given to every stage of the design, organisation, promotion and conduct of a Speakers’ Corner event.

Forming Partnerships

Speakers’ Corner events have two central objectives, to attract as good an attendance as possible and to enjoy a high quality discussion. Both depend to a large degree on thoughtful as well as effective organisation.

Speakers’ Corner Committees are voluntary bodies and may not always be able to call on professional support staff to organise events. So far as possible, having agreed a programme, they should enlist existing organisations and networks, often from the voluntary sector, to help design and plan events. Partnership will not only reduce the burden of administration, but also significantly enhance the quality and likely success of the events themselves.

Themes and Target Audiences

Preferably well in advance of the event itself, the organisers should consider not only its theme but also the kind of audience they might be targeting. Before agreeing a subject and title, they should consult with organisations and individuals with strong networks in the community or interest group they are targeting and seek not only their advice but also their partnership in organising and promoting the event.

For example, in planning events intended to attract young people, youth organisations (including the youth service, school councils, student unions, voluntary groups etc) should play a major role in developing the theme and identifying the speakers, venue and other arrangements. They also have a key part to play in tapping into their own constituencies and communications networks to publicise and promote events.

The titles of events should be designed to stimulate interest but if they are unnecessarily controversial or provocative they may set the wrong tone and potentially undermine the quality of debate. An imaginative title accompanied by a brief account of the issues or questions it raises might both attract and inform participants.

An extract from material advertising the Coffee House Challenge organised by the RSA to promote the Speakers’ Corner initiative in Nottingham provides an example.

What Does Nottingham Have To Say For Itself?’

Speakers’ Corner Trust is planning a project to encourage Nottingham people to participate in public debate and active citizenship.

Do we really want to know what our neighbours think? Do we want them to know what we think? Will it lead to better governance or just a free-for-all? What’s to be gained – and what could be lost – if we encourage people to speak their minds? And who cares anyway?

Identifying Venues

Venues should be carefully chosen to match not only the numbers expected to attend but also the theme and, above all, the target audience if there is one.

It may be appropriate and even desirable to hold some events – for example on ‘big’ issues with widespread appeal – in Council Chambers,  large municipal buildings, theatres or lecture rooms. But others may be better suited to more local and, for some, less intimidating venues such as community centres, village halls or places of worship.

Some venues, including faith centres, schools and pubs, will attract some but deter others. Some people who do not have access to private transport or have a disability will be excluded from venues they cannot reach. Some, particularly mothers of young children, may find it impossible to attend events outside school hours or unless there are crèche facilities. Others, particularly the elderly, will not wish to attend meetings far from home or after dark.

It may not be possible to accommodate all these needs and preferences simultaneously, but the organisers of events should consider all such issues very seriously.

The Role of Speakers

It may not always be either necessary or desirable, particularly at smaller events, to invite a speaker. But when speakers are involved, their role is to lead informed discussion but not to dominate it. Speakers do not necessarily have to have strong views but they should have insights and the ability to express them which will command attention and respect as well as stimulating ideas and, above all, participation.

Speakers should introduce the subject for, as a rule, no more than ten minutes and though they should be given further opportunities to respond to discussion or introduce new ideas or information in the course of the meeting, they should understand that their contribution is intended principally to encourage the exchange of views and opinions among all the participants rather than win converts to their own.

In cases in which more than one speaker has been invited to put opposing, alternative (or complementary) views on the same subject, they should focus on presenting their own case rather than undermining those of their fellow speaker.

Speakers should be engaged at an early stage in the planning of an event and fully briefed as to the proposed format, target audience and what themes, if any, the organisers hope to air. They should also understand the importance of observing the Speakers’ Corner Principles in their contribution to the event.

The Role of the Chair

The role of the chair is crucial. He/she is responsible for setting the tone of the event, for facilitating, moderating and where necessary steering discussion (especially when there is no speaker), for ensuring that every participant has the opportunity to contribute and for keeping good order.

Ideally, chairs should familiarise themselves with the main points which the speakers propose to make and with the themes which the speakers feel should be explored. They should also have an insight into the particular issues which are likely to be of greatest interest or importance to participants.

In advance of the meeting and in consultation with the organisers and speakers, the chair should have a clear plan as to how to develop the discussion to cover as many issues and include as many contributors as possible. However, that plan should also be sufficiently flexible to allow the debate to develop its own momentum and direction naturally.

The chair must command respect and be firm enough to exercise control when necessary. However, the better participants understand the rules of engagement, the less it is likely that the chair will have to intervene. It would therefore be advisable at the beginning of each event for the chair to summarise the Speakers’ Corner Principles, outline the format of the event and undertake to ensure that every participant will be treated equally.

The chair must judge how long each contributor should be able to speak according to the numbers attending and the time allotted for the event. In principle, participants should be allowed to develop their point but discouraged from making speeches. As many as possible should be encouraged to participate but no-one should be obliged to do so.

Participants, when first contributing, should be asked to state their names and their particular interest, if any, in the subject under discussion.

The Conduct of Meetings

The format of Speakers’ Corner meetings should reflect the equality of participants, including speakers, and avoid either hierarchy or confrontation. For this reason, platforms or ‘top tables’ should be avoided and seating should be arranged in the round rather than in theatre style.

If facilities, numbers and costs allow, refreshments should be provided as a means of creating a relaxed and informal atmosphere.

Other than perhaps for entertainment’s sake, discussions should rarely conclude in the passing of resolutions or the taking of votes. While opposing or alternative ideas and opinions will inevitably compete, Speakers’ Corner debates are not intended to be contests resulting in the triumph of one argument over another. A consensus may well develop and, indeed, may in certain circumstances lead to action. That may well be a welcome outcome of a Speakers’ Corner event but it should arise through agreement rather than division.

When a Speakers’ Corner meeting forms part of a public consultation, it must be made clear to third parties and to the media that they must not claim or report any majority opinion or agreement reached without the permission of the meeting which should be clearly minuted by the chair. Similarly, the views of individuals should not be reported without their permission.

Speakers’ Corner Committees will be encouraged to feature recorded events on their own websites. However, where a discussion is recorded, participants must be informed at the beginning of the meeting (and in advance publicity if possible).

Should the media wish to broadcast part or all of an event, permission should be sought from the organisers with as much notice as possible so that publicity materials can advise participants that this is the case. However, before agreeing to the involvement of the media, the organisers should carefully consider whether it is likely to distort or inhibit debate.

When, as may occur from time to time, discussions are undermined by unreasonable behaviour, the chair should offer the individual or group the opportunity to come to order. But if problems persist he/she should ask them to leave and, if necessary, suspend the meeting until they have done so.

Promoting Events

As with the selection of venues, the organisers must give careful thought as to the best means of attracting an audience. For city-wide events, the local press and media will be important. For local events leaflets, posters and word of mouth may be the most effective way of attracting interest. Over time, a local Speakers’ Corner Committee’s own website and/or email address list may prove particularly valuable.

As suggested above, partner organisations or those with a direct interest in the theme of the event should also be able to publicise events through their own publications, websites, email and text messaging networks as well as by word of mouth.

Speakers’ Corner Committees and the organisers of individual events should also form collaborative working relations with the local press and media and keep them informed of events well in advance so that they can publicise, report and in some instances perhaps sponsor or participate in them.

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