‘Forty Winks Café’ was an online event which explored cultural representations of sleep and sleep health. It featured three short talks by Northumbria University’s researchers from the Humanities and Psychology. Prof Katy Shaw introduced the evening by discussing how literature has engaged with sleep from the past to the present. I then took the audience on a science fiction tour of nightmarish sleepless futures, which spoke to Being Human’s 2020 theme of ‘New Worlds’. Finally, Prof Jason Ellis spoke about sleep health and gave top tips for a good night’s sleep. The event concluded with a Q&A chaired by Claire Malcolm of New Writing North, an organisation that supports writing and reading in the North of England.
Why did you decide to do a Being Human Café and why was it the right format for reaching your target audience?
Our target audience were people interested in finding out more about how literature and culture engage with health and sleep, as well as about sleep health, topics that felt particularly timely given the pandemic and its impact on sleep patterns. Our cultural partner, New Writing North, offered invaluable advice when it came to the structure of the event and helped us reach this audience by advertising the ‘Forty Winks Café’ through their newsletter and social media.
The café’s exploration of the intersection of culture and health engaged our target audience by featuring speakers across disciplines – literary/cultural studies and sleep psychology – a combination that was particularly well received. We kept the talks short and focussed, and scheduled plenty of time for conversations and questions after the talks.
Holding the café online allowed participants to join from their homes and get comfortable (joining from bed with a cup of herbal tea was recommended!), which facilitated a relaxing atmosphere in line with the event’s focus on sleep and rest.
Did you face any challenges during the process and how did you overcome them?
Online events are a great way to reach a wide audience but can feel less connected than in-person events. In addition to building in plenty of time for participatory discussions, I strove to create a sense of connection with the audience from the registration stage, where I asked attendees to recommend their favourite book, film, podcast, or video about sleep. I then collated these suggestions in a crowd-sourced list, which I sent to attendees after the café.
What were the major successes?
Hosting a Being Human Café was a great opportunity to launch the ‘Writing the Sleep Crisis’ research project, which I had started working on just a few months before, to a non-academic audience. It was also relatively low-key admin-wise. The support I received from the Being Human team throughout was fantastic, and I do recommend applying for this strand of the festival, especially if you’re new to organising public engagement events, as I learnt a lot from Being Human and their online resources.
Seeing the audience engage so enthusiastically with the café’s topic – the intersection of sleep culture and sleep health – was the highlight for all involved. With New Writing North, we quickly realised how important discussing sleep through different lenses and perspectives is, especially during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has impacted our sleep in many ways. We therefore decided to develop together a follow-up project for Durham Book Festival 2021. More details coming soon – check out the Durham Book Festival and ‘Writing the Sleep Crisis’ websites for updates!
Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future event organisers?
Especially for online events, it’s important to give careful consideration to how you can build a sense of connection with the audience.
It’s fine to overbook your event – for free online events it’s quite common for people to register and then not turn up.
Work with and learn from a cultural partner!
Try it yourself
This project was part of Being Human’s 2020 Being Human Café pathway. To submit an event idea and be part of the festival please visit our ‘Get involved’ page.