Jen Wood is the General Festival Manager at Edinburgh International Science Festival. She has worked for the Science Festival since 1993; continuously since 2004.
Please note: This is not a transcript of the event- just notes as an audience member! Notes taken at the ‘Engaging with Festivals’ Edinburgh Beltane breakfast networking session, 4th May 2010.
2010 was a very successful festival. To give an idea, there were approx. 68, 000 visitors at the 2009 festival and nearer 80,000 visitors to the 2010 festival. The ‘open-access’ outdoor exhibition at St. Andrew Square presents a challenge because it is hard to record and present visitor numbers.
What are festivals?
Time set aside for celebration, specifically of science and technology. A time for people who are not confident about science and don’t feel they understand the subject to see the science and technology in everyday life and get a feel for the subject through experiences and “hands on” events.
Edinburgh is a festival-orientated city with 12 major festivals. While the Science Festival concentrate on marketing locally and through local authorities, Festival Edinburgh extend the reach of the festival and promote it nationally and internationally.
EISF is the first festival in the calendar year, happening over the Easter holidays.
Who are the audiences?
Anyone from ages 3 to 93! The hope is that children will come when they are very young and keep returning through primary school, secondary school, as young adults – and find something exciting and relevant every year. The Science Festival is better at targeting some ages- for example; Generation Scotland means that EISF are very skilled and experienced at tailoring events to primary school children.
Teenagers are an audience that the Science Festival are keen to focus on, but have had mixed success rates in the past.
Focusing on the type of people, it would be those with curious minds- especially those who are disengaged with science.
Postcode analysis shows that the visitors are largely local. With a small marketing budget it is difficult to encourage more Scotland-wide participation as the acquisition costs of attracting visitors from further afield is high.
This year, the Science Festival has broken into social networking (including Facebook and Twitter). This has created an interesting online dialogue in parallel to the festival, with speakers ‘tweeting’ and various comment trails on Facebook and Twitter. Anecdotally, this has brought people along to events, and allowed communication with the teenage demographic who will not pick up traditional brochures etc. Next year, there are plans to broaden out into podcasting to increase the Science Festival reach internationally.
What makes them such a good way to engage with the public?
Edinburgh has an educated, festival-going population. This allows for ‘cultural cross-pollination’, where marketing across the festivals allows reach to members of the public who might not normally come to science events, but are open to interesting events and new experiences. These people can be ‘hooked’ with suitably engaging events (e.g. Brian Cox introducing a film).
The Science Festival uses different marketing tools to the large external organisations, but hopefully complimentary tools to maximise awareness of the festival and external organisation’s involvement in the festival.
EISF also links into tourist campaigns, and encourages visitors to Edinburgh over the Easter period- a good selling point for the city!
What makes a good event?
The Science Festival provides a platform for more ‘daring’ events, which might not be suitable during normal programming. For example, the zoo proposed a ‘cow autopsy’ event which was accepted by EISF in 2010. Despite vocal opposition (including a Facebook group devoted to the cancellation of this event), the Science Festival was able to support this event which was delivered non-gratuitously by a trusted event provider and was very informative for attendees.
The Science Festival is an opportunity for organisations to market themselves differently from the rest of the year and try out diverse new events. Other examples of innovative events are the sleepover at the zoo and a two-day video game studio aimed at that elusive teenage market!
Roadshow style events (such as the outdoor exhibition and ‘Bang goes the theory’ roadshow) are free events taken out to the people, including those who don’t normally engage with the Science Festival. Market research shows that people who don’t engage with the festival still think of science as ‘boring’, and will not choose to spend leisure time pursuing it. For a first experience, they are unlikely to pay. It is important they have a good first experience, and associating with trusted, popular brands (like the BBC) are a good way of broadening audience interest.
Another key is take a subject of general interest and relate this back to the science, like the ‘Science of Whisky’ event at the Scottish Whisky Heritage Centre on the Royal Mile. There is lots of science and technology surrounding the subject, but whisky ‘taps in’ to a passionate audience and is culturally relevant so it appeals to visitors.
Controversial speakers like Richard Dawkins get people talking and spark some debate! Also, old favourites like Lego have to remain in the program. EISF does try to circulate events and keep the Festival fresh each year, but some classics are requested year after year.
EISF has a world wide reputation. It is the first Science Festival, one of the biggest in Europe and many people throughout the world are amazed and inspired by what is achieved here in Edinburgh.
What are the funding streams of the EISF?
The Festival applies to the local government for Science Engagement grants, which are more likely to be received for the schools program than the City Art Centre. The Festival is heavily reliant on commercial companies, like Selex and Wolfson Microelectronics. They are starting to work more with trusts and foundations, plus funding councils. The Wellcome Trust has supported a overhaul in the City Art Centre and adult events in the program in 2010.
People at the Science Festival research the subjects available and audiences, trying to match funding criteria for the funding councils or trusts. However, EISF is conscious of not being pulled off their programming strategy to pander to government issues which their audiences do not necessarily find interesting or engaging. It is a case of linking the funding to the audiences and how they engage.
What are the most popular ‘guaranteed sell-out’ events? (with adults; children)
Big names; People who are on TV
EISF likes to see events where lots of people want to come, leave thinking it was fun and comprehensible! The audience should remember some of the science, preferably want to find out more- especially about traditionally “unfriendly” subjects like antimatter or black holes.
Events should meet, ideally exceed, the public expectation. They should inspire, build confidence and demonstrate the everyday relevance of science and technology.
Basically, the further ahead contributors can plan their event, the better chance there is that the Festival can include it in the program. Although EISF wishes to remain as flexible as possible to include really excellent ‘last minute’ events in the program, generally more planning is better. The main constraint is the printing of the program- which needs to be built, reviewed by a program advisory board to ensure a suitably wide range of content, designed, proof read by contributors and printed at the beginning of the year. EISF tries to close program entries at the start of October so proposals are usually submitted by the end of September.
EISF is aiming to develop simplified, accessible guidelines on how to get involved so engaging with the Science Festival is easier and examples of best practice are available.
What are common pitfalls?
Age ranges for events are a difficulty. It is necessary to give an idea of age appropriateness of events, but this can be restrictive and appear to be aimed at children when in fact it is suitable for any age person with limited knowledge of the subject. It also results in situations where parents may try to bring a 5 year old along to an event designed for 7 year olds, making it necessary to explain that a younger child will probably not understand the information.
For adult events, “over selling” can be a problem. It is misleading to give an event a sexy title suggesting a popular science topic, if in reality it is a fairly staid academic talk. It is important not to persuade people to come along to exciting sounding events if this is not what they are, or it simply affirms their idea that science is a dry subject with no relevance to them.
If someone is not a naturally gifted public speaker, it might be better to combine multiple speakers with a skilled chair. This means there is an ‘interpreter’ present who can bring the event back ‘on track’ if a speaker starts trailing off into academic talk (i.e. about quarks). They can effectively use humour, make sure the event remains relevant to the particular audience and explain complicated terms (like quarks) in simple language if the speaker has been assuming prior knowledge.
A skilled chair is of key importance to a good event. What training does the Science Festival offer them?
This year, chairs were offered training through the Edinburgh Beltane.
Do you pay chairs?
The Scottish Arts Council has recommended a £150 fee for event chairs. The Science Festival does not have the budget to meet such costs.
EISF obviously has good links to STEM subjects, not so much with humanities. Is there demand from EISF audiences for humanities?
EISF was approached by a social science researcher studying the use of biofuels in Africa. They felt this subject fit into a specialised niche which would not be suitable for their ‘broad brush’ marketing. However, they would like to develop a better way for humanities subjects to link with EISF.
The line is very blurred between social-science and natural-science. I work with bilingual brain cognition. Is this something the EISF is interested in?
Yes! ‘Brain’ events are always very successful at the Festival.
How about an event which looks at cutting edge new technology, but from a viewpoint of the potential implications for society (potential positives and dangers etc.) with a panel which includes artists and other stakeholders?
Anything directly relevant to lives is fascinating. We have had several sell out Mathematics events recently. This shows that even ‘hard sell’ subjects can be incredibly successful with the right subject (for example, relating maths to the credit crunch), the right speaker, communicating the idea in the right way and partnership with the right organisation.
Any secrets to long term relationships?
EISF has a number of long term relationships that work really well. For example, Selex have been helped and supported by EISF in developing an excellent event which is always busy, enjoyable for the audience and meets their public engagement requirement.
Staying in touch
Jen is very happy to receive emails about ideas for events, suggestions and continue the conversation begun during the Edinburgh Beltane session (firstname.lastname@example.org).