Focusing on your audience - 'Stitches and Stories'

By Dr Heather Richardson, lecturer in English at The Open University

Heather explores how she tailored her workshop to meet the needs of her audience and created a safe and relaxed environment for Belfast communities.

Can you tell us a little bit about your event?

‘Stitches and Stories’ was a community sewing event, with the audience hand-stitching a linen patchwork quilt based on a map of Belfast. We were communicating research findings on community segregation from the ‘Belfast Mobility Project’, a research project headed up by The Open University’s School of Psychology. We also wanted to use the event to build connections among the participants through storytelling and the sharing of memories. The final output will be a piece of textile art which can be displayed in venues across Belfast and provide more opportunities to talk about segregation and belonging.

Who was your intended audience?

The decision to host a community sewing event arose from my own experience of the conversations that arise when groups of people come together to sew, knit or engage in other textile crafts. Our intended audience was anyone who had an interest in textiles and craft and was open to exploring the power of storytelling and conversation as a way of building community connection.

The event was marketed primarily through social media and contacts with local craft and writing groups, and on the Ulster Museum’s events page where we held the event. We hadn’t worked with the audience before, and many of them were attending a sewing event for the first time. Many participants came on their own, and some came with a friend or family member.

Activities at the Ulster Museum for ‘Stitches and Stories’ © Heather Richardson
Activities at the Ulster Museum for ‘Stitches and Stories’ © Heather Richardson

How did you make sure the event was the right fit for your intended audience?

Our primary objective was the event would be enjoyable and stimulating for the audience, so we created a format that broke proceedings down into stages, with lots of opportunity for participants to mingle and move about if they wished. There was a poster, leaflets and a large paper map for the audience to annotate with stickers and post-its. We also got funding from our institution to provide tea/coffee and pastries, which contributed to the audience’s enjoyment of the event. Our venue, the Ulster Museum, was chosen partly because it is in a central location and is perceived as ‘neutral’ in terms of local political and community divisions.

How did you make the event accessible and inclusive?

In terms of the content, our research was delivered in bite-sized chunks throughout the event, starting with a brief introduction. At particular points during the event we paused and gave the audience ‘conversation starters’ on themes from the research, which they were than able to talk about in their groups as they continued sewing.

We also considered access when choosing our venue. The Ulster Museum has excellent access for people with mobility issues. Our event was on the ground floor and the venue’s accessibility was highlighted in our marketing of the event.

Were there any challenges throughout the process? What were the major successes?

The biggest challenge was the amount of practical preparation work before the event, such as designing the quilt pattern, dying the linen and cutting up the quilt patches. The event itself was a delight: the room was full of laughter and conversation, and the audience seemed thrilled with it, particularly as it was free. It was particularly lovely to see cross-generational connections being built, and to have several participants who had recently moved to Belfast from overseas. We learnt how many stories people carry within them, and how validated they feel when they share them.

Do you have any audience-based top tips you would give to someone organising a future Being Human event?

  • If your event involves the audience doing or making something, bear in mind that not everyone will know how to do the basics. Doing a quick step-by-step demonstration at the start will help.
  • Try to get budget for some refreshments – the audience will really appreciate it!

If you would like to learn more about shaping an event around your audience’s needs please check out our planning toolkits on how to put on a public engagement event.

This project was part of Being Human’s 2019 Open Call pathway. If you would like to be part of the festival please visit our ‘Get involved’ page.

Image reading The Open Univeristy - Stitches and Stories - Community Project
'Stitches and Stories' short film