If you’ve been to the Tunbridge Wells Soapbox Race or tuned into The Big Chat podcasts then you’ll know Nicole Piesse Turner – or Coco as she’s affectionately called by friends. Here she tells us all about her fascinating career to date, reveals some exciting plans that you can be involved in too and why she is happier now than she ever has been…
“It feels so weird sitting in this chair!” laughs local media entrepreneur Nicole Piesse Turner – or Coco – as she’s more affectionately known by her family, friends and colleagues.
But Coco hasn’t just made that statement because there’s something wrong with the bright orange leather retro armchair she’s sitting on. As she pops on her headphones and grabs her microphone she says she simply finds it strange being the ‘interviewee’ in her eye-catching Big Chat studio.
“I’m the one usually doing all the grilling so go easy on me Eileen,” she giggles as her production crew, who work with Coco on the weekly Big Chat podcasts, then set me up with her famous lips mic so I’m ready to interview her.
Coco has asked me along to her graffiti-tagged Big Chat studio, which is based at her home in Groombridge, to talk about her fledgling career as a broadcaster, as well as her ongoing work with her PR marketing and firm Chatty Hatter, and owning and running the Tunbridge Wells Soapbox Race, which takes place in Dunorlan Park on June 24 for the fourth time.
“I’m very nervous but I’m also excited to chat to you about all we are doing across our numerous projects,” says Coco as her producer presses record and we’re suddenly on air.
“I think one of the things that drives me is that I absolutely love Tunbridge Wells. I was born here and have lived here all my life. I used to think that it was quite boring when I was younger but actually I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“I’m a big believer in community and helping others get their message across,” she continues. “I’ve been able to do that running my public relations business Chatty Hatter for the past eleven years but I’ve really enjoyed doing it with the Dunorlan Soapbox Stars Race and now The Big Chat podcasts.”
Wearing a pair of her trademark Edney & Edney colourful designer glasses and dressed in a beautiful cerise pink silk two-piece from the local fashion brand bod & ted, Coco says she enjoys personally collaborating with local brands to help them push their message out.
“Our podcasts are sponsored by Edney & Edney eyewear and I wear a lot of clothes from bod & ted for social events. I’m proud to be a brand ambassador for both these brilliant independent businesses. Collaborating like this is about keeping local companies communicating and having the chance to tell others about them.”
And the business of communication is certainly something that Coco has always enjoyed doing throughout her professional career.
“I started out in sales as I was quite chatty and found it easy to talk to people. I ended up working in London and loved it but by the time I’d had my two children it was time to rethink what I wanted to do as all my salary was going on childcare and I wasn’t able to see my kids as much as I wanted to.”
Coco explains that she decided to take the plunge and set up as a freelance PR, convincing her former employer and two other firms to set her up on a retainer fee for consultancy work.
“I’d always advised people on how to spend their money when it came to advertising and marketing so I thought ‘why don’t I continue to do that?’ It was daunting at first but I was soon able to set up my company Chatty Hatter from my kitchen table and it’s kind of snowballed from there really.”
Coco explains that she and her small team initially did a lot of B2B work connecting directly with businesses locally, nationally and internationally. They’d purchase advertising, sort budgets and run marketing campaigns but it wasn’t until Coco had the opportunity to get involved with Tunbridge Wells’ inaugural Soapbox Race in 2018 that things really started to hit the fast lane.
“At that particular time my father was really sick, I’d split up with the father of my children and lost a dear friend. But then I met my now partner Garry Jeffrey who asked me if I wanted to help him with this idea he had of getting businesses to race soapbox karts around Dunorlan Park for charity. That’s when it all changed for me as it really opened up my creative side. I suddenly realised what I was actually capable of doing and it was such an exciting project to work on!”
Coco says that although there was pressure to get the event off the ground, in terms of signing up sponsors and participants and raising money for the selected charities chosen – Hospice in the Weald and ellenor hospice – the Soapbox Race also served as a great distraction from the emotional turmoil Coco was going through at that time.
“I think that’s why I am now so passionate about talking about mental health. You have to reach out and communicate if you are finding things difficult. In a strange way The Big Chat has become a vehicle for people doing that. For example we recently invited the rapper Valentine on the show to talk about his music and we ended up talking about his mental health journey too.”
More on that particular subject to come later, but first it’s important to note that despite having no experience of arranging a community event on this big scale, Coco and her team triumphed; raising £20,000 for charity and bringing the business community of Tunbridge Wells together in a very unique way.
The event saw celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager and Wicked Productions’ Tom Swift coming on board as official ambassadors and West Kent College students building the karts’ chassis.
“The support was just amazing. It was like a beast that just grew. We had over 100 people at our launch party, then thousands in Dunorlan later that summer all cheering on the karts and having a great time with live music, food and children’s entertainment.”
The following year in 2019, despite the torrential rain, the Soapbox Race was another huge success. This time raising £33,000 for the Taylor Made Dreams children’s charity, along with the Hospice in the Weald.
Unfortunately it also resulted in Coco injuring herself quite badly following a go kart accident. She’s made a full recovery now she tells me but still has the ‘dent’ as she describes it as evidence.
“The stress levels were pretty high,” she confides. “But then some local schools said they wanted to get involved and I just couldn’t say no! So it got to the point where even though it was quite stressful the race had to happen again as I didn’t want to let the children down.”
But then of course in March 2020 came a Covid-shaped curve ball, which saw that year’s Soapbox Race being cancelled and then, due to ongoing lockdown restrictions, the one in 2021 being postponed.
Finding herself with a lot more time on her hands and having to keep momentum for both the Soapbox Race and her business going, Coco says she came up with the idea of creating some podcasts.
“I’ve always been passionate about celebrating community and connecting people, so as we couldn’t do that in person I decided we could do it via Zoom instead! The Soapbox Race has always been such a great networking event but we couldn’t do it so that’s how we started broadcasting.”
Initially Coco set up an umbrella company in July 2020 called Big Chat Productions Ltd, which was a podcast production service offering content ideas and scripting, recording and broadcast services. At the same time, she also created a series of specialist podcast series including That Soapbox Chat, That Engineering Chat and lastly The Big Chat.
Coco had a visionary idea in mind for how she wanted this new venture to look and feel and so asked local graffiti artist Hugh Whitaker AKA Humor to come and tag the walls in her studio at home.
“I said to him ‘I’ve got this crazy idea and want you to paint the walls to bring it to life so we can broadcast from this space. He’s done an amazing job don’t you think?”
Given how vibrant and colourful the space is with its bright blues, zesty oranges and neon pinks it is certainly eye-catching but also very welcoming too so it’s no wonder that Coco’s idea for deep dive chats with everyone from business people and entrepreneurs to industry specialists, artsists and charity trustees has taken off so well. Did she take to interviewing just as quickly?
“I’d never done any broadcasting before – only badly on You Tube for the Soapbox Stars Race – but my friend Giles Paley-Phillips who produces the popular Blank podcast and is also a writer and director was a real inspiration to me.”
Coco then tells me that her company Chatty Hatter actually sponsored the first episode of Giles’s Blank series which has since seen the likes of the BBC’s John Simpson, football manager Martin O’Neill and entertainer Bonnie Langford being interviewed on it.
“I remember thinking I’d love to do something like that too and so in the middle of 2020 I started having fun with what eventually went on to become The Big Chat. We had Tom Swift on and also Dawn Stanford from Nourish and Arthur Ponsonby from The Right Tuition. It was a good way of keeping connected with local businesses but also with the charities we’d been working with too.”
Since that time of lockdowns, Coco has presented and produced dozens of shows and says the weekly Big Chat podcast platform has grown even bigger, opening up its interview possibilities to ‘anyone who has an interesting story to tell.’
“I’m always looking for people to chat to. It’s all about a hero’s journey for me. At one point we were solely focused on businesses but everyone has a story to tell so if you think that’s you then get in touch. This year we are concentrating on mental health and working a lot with Mental Health Resource. We’d love to hear from people if they have a story to share and they can do so by getting in touch via our social media channels.”
On that subject, Coco adds that she would love to grow these further but she only has a tiny team and the priority is really to target the right audience.
“I’ve put a lot of my own time and investment in all this because I’m passionate about what we’re doing right now. We’re not just promoting The Big Chat we’re also doing a lot behind the scenes too by helping people produce their own podcasts such as Jess Gibson of the TN card’s first series and are currently involved in bigger scale B2B projects.
“Our Big Chat guests are totally varied, as is the way we film episodes now. For example we had DJ Cookie (AKA Jaime Cooke, founder of SPN) come in to talk about her new DJ-ing adventures.”
Coco is helping Jaime promote her Animals in the Night event at Salomons Estate on April 22nd and is attending a retreat that Jaime is hosting where you can learn to DJ.
“Previously when Jaime’s been on she has done a live DJ set and we want to do more of these immersive types of shows. The next time I chat to Rosemary Shrager for example it will be filmed from her kitchen so that should be fun!”
What does Coco, who is also currently training to be a West Kent radio presenter and has more broadcasting plans in the pipeline think her particular USP is?
“I’m a qualified NLP (neuro linguistic programming) coach, I was a yoga teacher for 12 years and I’ve had some mental health issues. I’ve had a lot of life experience and therefore I feel I can get a lot out of people. Most guests who come on to chat to me say they are comfortable when they’re talking to me.”
Coco reveals that she’s also getting into doing presenting work now having recently done a fashion event at the Amelia and hosted last year’s Picnic in the Park in Dunorlan for Tree of Hope charity.
Over the course of our chat it’s evident that charity, as well as community, is a hugely important part of what Coco does and one of those closest to her heart is the Pickering Cancer Drop-In Centre, located on Monson Road.
In fact as our interview ends Polly Taylor, one of Pickering’s trustees and spokesperson, arrives ready to be interviewed by Coco. There are big hugs and kisses as the two greet each other and they excitedly tell me that Coco and her team will be working on some new branding for Pickering which will be revealed soon.
“We’ve got lots more exciting projects up our sleeves so people will have to stay tuned,” she teases as we’re told our recording time is up by the Big Chat’s producer.
“A couple of things I can reveal is that I’ll be talking to Tim Laurence who is the Hoffman Process’s UK founder soon. I was lucky enough to have him as my faculty teacher when I did this week-long immersive and life-changing course.
“I will also be co-hosting a new show with Hannah and Dan from the Word Up poetry collective from the end of April. On the last Friday of each month we will feature some of the acts and creatives they’ve worked with in their community space at The Forum each week.”
Coco says she will also be working with Humor again, this time specifically to help with a yet to be revealed community project where he will be spraying a number of influential locations on behalf of different charities.
“All I can say at the moment is the project is about giving back some art and creativity that supports charities across the year such as well-being, foodbanks, shelter and assistance.”
Since the first Soapbox Stars Race took place in 2018, £83,000 has been raised for charity and Coco says they aim to get to £100,000 this year.
This year’s joint sponsors have just been announced.
“They are NFU Mutual Tunbridge Wells and Stoner Motor Company. Both will be raising for Hospice in the Weald but NFU Mutual will also race for Mental Health Resource and Pickering. The Stoner Motor Company have chosen the charity Demelza to support as well. The launch party for the event will take place at the Stoner Motor Company’s Hyundai and MG premises next month.”
Tickets for the event are already on sale says Coco. “This year should be bigger and better than ever so get involved people! Chatty Hatter will be racing and raising for Hospice in the Weald and Pickering Cancer Drop-In Centre, while The Big Chat will be racing and raising for Hospice in the Weald and Mental Health Resource. We’ve also opened up the karts to the general public so you don’t have to be a business to take part.
“Oh I really do enjoy doing all this,” beams Coco as we say goodbye. “It just lights me up!”
To buy Soapbox tickets visit twsoapboxrace.com/buytickets
To buy tickets for Jaime’s event: www.skiddle.com/whats-on/Tunbridge-Wells/ Salomons-Estate/Animals-In-The-Night/36292181/
THE BIG CHAT LINKS:
The Big Chat | Podcast on Spotify spoti.fi/3EAinFW
The Big Chat on Apple Podcasts apple.co/3YXeOSn
To buy tickets for Jaime’s event: bit.ly/AITN2023-04-22