Making Institutional Storytelling More Effective

Storytelling is all the rage these days in college and university marketing. Rather than endless promotional writing extolling the virtues of the institution itself, it’s understood now that it’s better to “prove” those virtues by telling the stories of inspired faculty, gifted students and successful alumni. Stories of human accomplishment are certainly more interesting to read than promotional copy.

We’ve all read plenty of uninspired, cookie-cutter prose that attempts to distinguish a given institution (only to be matched by similarly uninspired, cookie-cutter prose issued by its competitors, attempting to reveal their own points of differentiation). And every once in while one runs across a magnificent piece of expository writing, maybe coming from a college’s president–writing that intrigues the mind and touches the heart, and in so doing reveals something important and genuine about institutional character, commitment, or intellectual depth.

When it comes to institutional self-expression, not all expository writing is “bad,” but neither is all storytelling equally “good.”  For instance, how many times have you read a story in an alumni magazine that goes something like this:

“When Jamie Tstorytelling_branding_college_marketingruesdale (’15) was still in grade school, she competed in a spelling bee sponsored by the local Rotary Club.  It proved a seminal moment for Jamie, who had never before won an award of any kind. That day, Jamie was the winner, finishing first among 75 competitors.  Jamie credits that achievement with a lot of her success in life since, including her early decision admission to Differentiable University, where she is now a double Major in English Literature and Philosophy, and focused on a career in Journalism.  “I discovered that knowing how to spell words I didn’t even know was exciting and useful,” Jamie says, ‘especially so when reading the dense writings of Emmanuel Kant!’

Her professor, Jim Amazing, who has chaired the Philosophy Department since arriving at Differentiable in 2005 from an associate professorship at Harvard, agrees:  ‘Students who have the gift for intuiting the correct spelling of complex words also have the ability to intuit their meaning, and that helps them to both save time and comprehend more.’  As for Jamie, she’s grateful for the strong mentorship the faculty of both her departments have provided:  ‘it has allowed me to build on my strengths and move forward more quickly, and it’s made my experience at Differentiable University richer than it might otherwise have been.’”

There are many problems with formulaic storytelling, of course, but the one I want to focus on here is how Jamie’s story, in following a predictable path, fails to achieve its core purpose–to advance the reader’s appreciation for, and sense of identity with, the college or university that is publishing the story.

Let’s consider: Jamie came to college a great speller–a fact that has proven useful to her in her studies.  She is an ambitious double major, and her spelling prowess is helping her everyday to be successful.  What do we learn in the story about Differentiable University?  Only that a number of faculty have mentored Jamie, including one who once taught at Harvard.

What the story doesn’t tell the reader is much more than he/she already probably knew about the University. That there are good faculty mentors in the English and Philosophy Departments, we might agree, is reasonably to be expected. That one of the came from Harvard serves at best to remind us that Differentiable University is not Harvard.  But what does this story add to the reader’s appreciation for Differentiable?  Why did Jamie choose to come here, and why does she thrive here?  The story, written this way, is about something that happened to Jamie before she got to college–it’s not about the University or even its impact on her.

Even when the formulaic story is about something that happened during a student’s college years, or in an alumnus’ subsequent career, it’s possible to shine so strong a light on the details of the story itself, that the reader is unable to learn anything new about the institution and its value is left unconfirmed.

Perhaps Jamie’s story could have been reframed as Jim Amazing’s story. Perhaps the writer would pivot from Jamie’s spelling bee win to Professor Amazing’s particular technique for teaching philosophy. Maybe Professor Amazing could discuss how he and Professstorytelling college branding higher educationor Writer in the English department developed a system over the years to help students get the most out of their study of philosophy, by spending the first week of class mastering the art of “spelling by deductive reasoning”–a tutorial program they developed under the auspices of President Leader’s 21st century learning initiative. Maybe the two professors could speak about Jamie in particular, and how they were inspired by her story to develop this master class.

The point being, the story, while still honoring Jamie’s successes, could (and in my view, should) be a story of how Differentiable University provides the ideal academic environment within which collaboration between departments occurs with ease, and professors are motivated to find new, progressive ways to set their students up for success.

Making sure your stories serve the purpose of raising the reader’s estimation of the institution requires you to develop a storybook full of interesting, dynamic anecdotes that work individually and collectively to give the reader a deeper, more fully dimensional appreciation for the institution.

Remember, an alumni webpage or magazine article is not an opportunity to practice good journalism–it’s an opportunity to tell a great story, and in so doing, advocate for the publisher!

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