The Art of Telling Great Stories to Sell Event Tickets

This guest post is by Maricar Jagger, public relations officer at the University of Portsmouth (UK) specialising in events management and promotion. She looks after a number of different events from public lectures, concerts and exhibitions, to building openings and conferences, as well as the occasional staff parties. She holds an MBA and an MA in Arts Administration from the University of Cincinnati (USA).

I work on many types of events, and promoting those requires more than just marketing skills.

Sure, you employ nice words and pretty pictures to flog your events on posters, flyers or emails; you add them on to listings both online and in newspapers and magazines; you pay for adverts, but what else?

Sharpen your inner journalist; get more column inches and exposure for your events by teasing out the stories connected to them.

You might have heard press people talking about ‘the hook’. What is it that makes people look up, want to read your story and want to come along to your events?

Here are some examples to get your creative juices flowing:

 The Ig Nobel aka Improbable Research

Some of the greatest storytellers are the Ig Nobel people, who created awards and a ceremony that are such a send up of the actual Nobel Prize that it has carved a reputation of its own.

Behind the funny and the seemingly irreverent look at science, it is trying to give science and scientists more publicity. And it works.

Every October the organisers pick the winners and in March the winners would tour the UK. They promote their UK tour with the stories behind the winning research.

The show at our university is always a sell-out and a great way for us to promote our scientific work.

The lesson for EventProfs: Tell the stories of your speakers and artists. This helps build a more rounded picture and gets people more personally invested in seeing them.

Hurrah for Doris

The Rowans Hospice looks after people in the final stages of their cancer care. The valuable service needs lots of funding, but the team there is never short of a good story.

For example, who would not be inspired to undertake their own adventurous fundraising event when 101 years old Doris manages it by abseiling down the Spinnaker Tower? The story is very charming and inspiring; and every year Doris never fails to make it to the news (even onto the BBC).

The Rowans Hospice has a poster girl in Doris and this has brought the attention of many people to the valuable work the hospice does to treat cancer patients in the final stages of their life, help raise money and nudge people to run their own fundraising events.

The lesson for EventProfs: Find yourself a ‘hero’ or personable spokesperson and use their endearing personality to raise the profile of your events.

 It’s a flop

 At the beginning of the year Colin Jagger (yes, related), the Music Director at the University of Portsmouth, was putting on a show at the King’s Theatre.

Usually we inform the local newspapers about the show and they will interview one or two of the cast and the story will be published a few days before opening night. At worse, it will only get a listing entry on the What’s On guide.

This time, the chosen show was Allegro, something of a flop when it first went on stage in 1947, even though it was by famous musical theatre producers Rodgers and Hammerstein. Our Dramatic and Musical Society wanted to put on a revival show. You might think this was a marketing disaster from the beginning.

However, the story was quirky enough and when I pitched it to the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, they absolutely loved it! Interviews were duly recorded and as a result the broadcast was heard not only on the programme, which has a listening figures of around 7 millions people, but it was also broadcasted on 48 other stations in the UK.

Following that it was on the BBC World Service, and was heard as far away as the USA. How is that for exposure? More importantly, it sold a few extra tickets!

The lesson for EventProfs: Look for an unusual angle – even if it seems counterintuitive – so it makes your event stand out and makes it more newsworthy.

The Lion Who Wanted to Love

I am passionate about music and the power it has in transforming lives. The classical music world however has a reputation of being elitist. Much work has been done to change this view.

One very successful group is Music in the Round, which introduced a way of enjoying classical music without all the stuffiness. Like the name suggest, the musicians play in the round, with their backs to the audience. This allows the audience to feel like they are part of the music making, rather than just watching.

Music in the Round also holds concerts for children. One of the ways we managed to promote the concert to a lot of parents and children is by holding a drawing competition.

The competition gets the children excited about the concert long before they come to the performance. And as the winners were announced at the concert, guess what? People want to be at the concert to see who’s won.

The drawing competition also gives the chance for the concert to be in the news, gaining more opportunities to do even more publicity.

The lesson for EventProfs: Competitions and other tactics for getting the public involved with your events before they open can be a great way to build excitement and draw in media attention.

Your pie or my pie

A few years ago I was promoting a new musical. There were many aspects of the show that could be turned into stories to promote the show.

We held a competition to find one of the leading actors. We encouraged cafes to serve pies and of, course, we held a pie contest.

One of the characters featured in the musical is the silent actor, Buster Keaton, who invented the pie throwing comedy act.

We asked the local catering college to put forward a few pies by their students, the local food critic and Buster and Fatty (the characters) then judged the best pie.

This resulted in a story, which was accompanied by some hilarious photos of Buster Keaton eating the winning pie.

The lesson for EventProfs: Look for photographic opportunities to spread your PR message further as strong imagery is always a show-seller.

World’s most expensive pasty

My all time favourite is the story of the village shop owner and his most expensive pasty. It’s not about an event, but this is a great story.

Richard Shaw runs a shop in Southwick and behind the illusion of a ‘village shop’ they were, in his word, unfortunately  just a newsagent. They had little passing trade so had to find a way of bringing people into the village and more importantly the shop.

He started making bakery items and found that their pasties quickly became popular. So he created a Facebook page which has worked wonders. Next he paid for adverts in the local papers but this was not successful.

He recognised that the shops unique selling point was in fact the in-store bakery and the pasties were the highlight.

A neighbour, named Harry Potter (his real name!) suggested he make a chilli pasty. Taking the idea on step further, Richard thought it would be fun to make ‘the world’s hottest chilli pasty’ using the hottest peppers at the time, which were called nagas or ‘the ghost chilli’.

So on Halloween a chap named Harry Potter ate their first ghost chilli pasty. All of a sudden it dawned on him that a newspaper headline was staring them in the face.

He contacted the local news and they lapped it up. They got free nationwide media attention and went on to sell well over 1000 pasties.

Trying to be different was working for them and Richard was hungry for the next opportunity.

So he asked their Facebook audience for recipe ideas and the person with the chosen idea will be given 50p per sale per pasty sold for the first week. Facebook went wild and their followers grew in numbers massively

When they made the ‘hickory smoked Hampshire hog’ pasty, they sold a silly amount of these within the week. The person behind the idea received a £600 cheque. The sales massively outweighed the 50ps when all was added up.

Richard went on to make the ‘titan’ pasty; 4.5 kilos of pasty to be eaten within 40 minutes at £10 per go. If you completed it you got your money back. When the news hit the papers they were inundated with contestants to try it. To date no one has completed it yet!

Their stunt this year was to enter the ‘world pasty championships’ at the Eden project in Cornwall. This would give them a world ranking if their pasties were deemed good enough.

Unsure of what flavour to enter, he decided to go for the world’s best ingredients. He sourced meat from Japan, flour from Holland, pepper from India, swede from Scotland, potato from Illinois in the USA.

Little did he know this was now the world’s most expensive pasty. It came to £230 for just one pasty (or £25 per bite)! This has been their greatest success so far. They hit national and global media, newspapers, magazines, radio, television appearances. The best thing of all, the revenue and footfall in the shop grew tenfold.

They actually declared the top pasty company in Hampshire, third in England and fourth in the world after being judged with over 600 other entries.

When they started a little over two years ago, in the first quarter of ownership they were selling approximately 20 pasties a day at £2.50 each. Now they supply 28 shops that regularly stock their pasties, and they produce over 3000 pasties per week.

Now just imagine if you could take the same approach to grow your events!

The lesson for EventProfs: If there’s no story inherent to your event, find a way to create one by being bold and different (and involving your community). It could just pay off as well for you as it has for Richard.


The next time you are looking to promote your event, find out the hidden stories of the people involved, the unusual history of it or a unique angle, so you can tell some compelling stories. Don’t forget to drum up even more interest through competitions and photographic moments too!

These stories will make people love your event even more (and that will help you sell more tickets too).

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