How to do an event like Banter in six easy-ish steps
As Banter reaches 100 today, a foolproof guide to putting on your own talky event
I’m a big fan of these how-to-do-stuff guides. Una Mullally compiled a guide to setting up a film festival based on her experience with OneTwoOneTwo, while Damien Mulley, who has done a huge amount of events, wrote about what was involved with putting on a conference. Since we started doing Banter – and especially since it was obvious that we weren’t going to stop doing them – we’ve had loads of people approaching us either wanting to bring Banter to an event they’re doing or looking for some advice on what’s involved in starting an event of their own. Here, then, is a bit of a guide based on what we’ve learned over the last five and a half years to how to do a talking-about-stuff event like Banter.
(1) You need an idea to talk about
The best events are the ones where you’re as curious and interested in the topic as anyone else, though you’d be surprised by how curious you can be about things you might not necessarily know anything about. For instance, I knew nothing about craft beer or cocktails, but those topics were intriguing because people were suddenly talking about them and those two Banters were amongst the best we’ve done.
Find your idea and then hone the idea. As we’ve learned over the years, the worst discussions are the ones where the topic is too wide and unwieldy to begin with. Instead of, say, a discussion about clubland, find a meaty topic with bite around clubland and concentrate on that.
(2) You need a venue where you can talk about your idea
Unless you have a lovely gaff and are prepared to welcome all manner of randomers to it, you do need a public space of some sort. Banter started because Trevor O’Shea from Bodytonic Music approached me about doing some talky stuff in the Twisted Pepper back in 2009, though neither of us had any idea we’d still be talking about this thing all these years later. We started in the small upstairs room and then moved to the main room downstairs a year later when we were pulling bigger crowds.
Decide what kind of venue you want (with or without a bar, a big room, a small room, an interesting room, a room with a view, a room which will fit 50 or 250 people etc) and start looking for it. There are a plethora of interesting spaces in every town in this country and it’s simply a case of knowing what you’re after and looking for it. Over the years, I’ve compiled a mental map of interesting spaces and rooms around Dublin which might be suitable for events like Banter so you need to do some cycling or walking around your town and find the space that works.
You’re going to have to negotiate venue hire with the owner or manager or landlord and this will dictate the cost of your event. Does the room already have a PA, stage, lights, chairs, tables etc? Do you have to bring them in? Where do you get them locally? How much do they cost?
We started off initially with Banter at the Pepper as a free event, but we’ve slowly brought in a charge for a reasons. For a start, people used to sign up for the free event and then not show up on the night. We found that roughly 50 per cent of those who signed up were no-shows so if it’s a free event, you probably to have the event oversubscribed unless, of course, you’re Ed Sheeran. We give away a very small number of tickets for free to the early birds, charge a fiver for the rest of them (even then, people buy tickets and don’t turn up – the boom is back, baby) and use EventBrite to keep it all in check.
(3) You need some people to talk about your idea in the venue
We’re getting ahead of ourselves booking the venue and putting tickets on sale and all of that because we just have the idea and that won’t butter many parsnips. You now need some folks to talk about the idea unless you’re going to talk about the idea yourself for the whole night. You’ve probably already got a fair idea who these people are likely to be. It could be people who know about that topic insideout, people who are interested in the general gist of that idea or people who work in the general area of that idea. You put together your list of would-be speakers, decide what the format is going to be (Banter favours either a panel discussion or one-on-one interviews) and then approach the first name on your list.
I know I am probably making this part of the process seem more simpler than it probably is, but that is what’s involved. You approach the person you’re after and ask them politely if they’re willing to take part. You tell them about the topic, the format, the date, what’s involved, who else will be involved and how long you’ll need them for on the day or night. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the fact that most people will probably say yes to you. Unless, of course, you’re approaching some megastar heavy-hitter with agents and managers and reps and then you’re in a whole different ballpark. But we’ve found with Banter over the years that most people are decent and willing to help if they can. People respond very well to polite emails or approaches so be nice.
Remember that you have to start somewhere. Banter can point to a fairly hefty back-catalogue of guests and topics at this stage of the game so people have a good idea what they’re getting into. It was a much different state of affairs at the start so God bless Today FM’s Paul McLoone and Power FM’s Golden Maverick for saying yes when they were approached back in 2009 about the first one.
(4) You need to tell people about the event featuring people talking about your idea in a venue
In other words, PR and marketing. Fact: I’ve never sent out a press release about Banter. Occasionally I’ll email a journalist to tell them about an upcoming Banter which I think they’d like to know about or write about, but the one-size-fits-all press release to the big media mailing list is not something I’ve ever done with Banter and, to be honest, have no interest in pursuing.
Instead, we rely on a mixture of social media, our various websites (the Banter website and the Bodytonic website), the Banter mailing list (which, in truth, we haven’t paid as much attention to as we should have) and word-of-mouth to publicise the event. I know from the day-job as a journalist that I’m far more likely to pay attention to something when someone I know and respect tells me about it than if I get a press release about it so that’s sort of how things go with Banter. Media people prefer finding out about something themselves rather than having it shoved down their throat with nonstop press releases and needy emails (please note, PR people and those plugging things, that all journalists despise nonstop press releases and needy emails). If people find out about it themselves, they’re far more likely to be curious and want to know more.
So, basically, use the free tools that are already there to plug your event. Social media is a fantastic asset but again, as with the nonstop press releases and needy emails, don’t do the dog with updates, tweets and (especially) retweets and piss people off. Build a mailing list from the get-go and let them know what’s going on (memo to self: do something with the Banter mailing list and practice what you preach). Work out if there are some journalists who are interested in the topic you’re going to be talking about and get in touch with them. They might not get back to you, but you can bet you and your event will be on their radar.
(5) You need some good heads to work with
You could do it all yourself, but you’d want to be mad. There will be like-minded people who will want to help you out and give you a hand. Some will come onboard at the start and others will come onboard when you’ve a few events under your belt but, don’t worry, if your ideas and events are good, people will offer their assistance. You won’t be doing this alone.
In terms of Banter, there’s a massive team of people who’ve helped out over the years, be it the brilliant crew of folks in the Twisted Pepper or the people who’ve invited us to various events and festivals all around the country. It’s a list I’m afraid to attempt to compile because I know I’d accidentally leave someone out. They’re all wonderful, every man and woman jack of them.
There’s one person, though, who deserves a namecheck and that’s Eoin Cregan from Bodytonic. He’s the Banter backbone, the fellow we just couldn’t do this without. He was onboard from the first couple of events at the Twisted Pepper in ’09 and he’s had to put with me ever since. He’s the one who shoots down the more outlandish topic ideas, who has cut down on the talks which were too watery and who comes up with brilliant ideas all the time (the whole Living for the City series was his brainchild). A totally unflappable, cool, calm and diplomatic dude.
(6) You need to keep doing these events once you start
That’s the big lesson for me in all of this. Our third Banter featured two pioneers of Irish clubland, Tonie Walsh and Paul Webb, shooting the breeze about the very early days of Irish clubland and it was a fantastic discussion. But the turnout was terrible: just three punters showed and I’m fairly sure two of them didn’t understand English. We could have stopped the Banter thing there and then and called it a day but, for some reason, we kept going. And going. And going some more. It was only as we did more events that we realised what worked and what didn’t.
So many events start with great intentions and then run out of steam when they hit a bump. The plan may be to do a series of events, but the plans runs out of momentum after two or three gigs. The trick is to get back on the horse and keep going. The only way you’ll actually get any traction or momentum is by doing it again and again and again. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll learn lessons, you’ll have nights which make you beam with joy and you’ll have nights which make you wish you’d never bothered. Even today, even 100 events on, we still have talks and events when we know we could have done better with what we had. But we keep going. The sold-out Banter 100 is on tonight, Banter 101 is on next Wednesday, we head to Cork for the Quarter Block Party on Saturday February 7 and we’ve a few more humdingers to come in the next few weeks and months. Some words from the wise: you don’t stop.