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The Tenkara of Communications

What Japanese fly fishing can teach us about the value of getting back to basics.

August 8, 2017
 
 

I realize that I’m taking a bit of a risk by building a communications blog post around the concept of Tenkara, which is a radical if obscure form of fly fishing practiced in Japan. Odds are that few communicators know or care about this fringe strain of a very specific sport.

But then, it’s the height of trout season in the high mountain streams, which means I’m distracted. I close my eyes and hear the burble of water to the east. How can I write about my day gig amid such preoccupation? Don’t worry, I’ll get to the point soon enough, tying it all up like a neat little Tenkara fly.

Here are a few things you need to understand about fly fishing: it’s difficult, it takes years to master, and it employs lots of expensive gear. The popular image is of someone in a complex wading outfit wearing a vest with dangling baubles and waving a thousand-dollar rod, hurling loops of colored line over a stream and very likely catching no fish.

Why do things the easy way, when you can build an entire industry up around making it more difficult? Kind of like higher education marketing, right?

Enter Tenkara. You use an inexpensive, telescoping bamboo rod (I bought mine on Amazon for $7.98), no reel, a fixed length of line and only one fly, no matter where or when you fish or what species you’re trying to catch. All the gear fits in your pocket. This is a radical departure for western fly fishers used to selecting from thousands of different fly patterns, dozens of rod styles all with the notion of changing your kit to match very specific conditions. In short—it’s not up to changing your fly to catch the fish, but adapting your technique.

I recently embraced this form of fishing. I find it more meditative and enjoyable without all the stress provided by choosing from vast array of gear and tactics available. And I’ve been catching more trout than ever.

What’s more, I’ve found that the philosophies I’m employing more and more in my communications work are evolving to mirror this approach. We’ve recently released our latest broadcast commercial, part of our university’s new Out There campaign. With this video, we aimed for a very spare script and a series of visually told stories. And when tasked with creating more spots for our College of Engineering or our OSU Cascades campus, we didn’t start from scratch, but are rather adapting the same script and format and making more subtle changes, like using a different narrator or changing some specific images. The main reason we took this approach was simplicity: we arrived at a combination that worked. As tempting as it is to try some new techniques and tactics, it’s never wrong to stick to the basics. Jumping on the latest cool technique can be especially deadly when it comes to marketing videos. Remember star wipes and page curl transitions? It’s the fastest way to make your work look dated a year from now.

Beautiful images and simple stories never go out of style. And it’s always a good thing to go through your communications toolkit and get rid of everything you don’t need. For me, one culprit is video gear. I always bring more lenses, cameras, and other gadgets than I need. On a recent project I set the requirement that all my gear needed to fit into one small bag.

When it comes to writing, I’ve set the goal of doing more with fewer words—to use a lighter touch and trust our increasingly sophisticated audiences to see the bulk of the iceberg below the surface.

In marketing and communications in higher education, as for any industry, it’s become all about the baubles. We have our overstuffed vests full of needless gear. All of our internal clients are looking for something new and shiny, the latest thing that they believe kids want. Conferences are filled with the latest and greatest. Maybe it’s a social media tactic or messaging platform, complete with complex charts and graphs.

But the old, simple ways, like the ancient tradition of storytelling, usually work the best. I think that’s what wisdom and experience means for a communicator. Instead of lurching after the latest trends, tactics, frameworks, and vendor products, it’s our responsibility to look back over our careers and return to the tools that have worked the best and have been met with consistent success over time.

So if you were going to boil down your lifetime of experience to a few simple tactics, techniques or approaches to storytelling what would they be? For me it’s a powerful story, told sparingly and paired with simple, lovely images.

The Japanese mountain people who developed the Tenkara method were subsistence fishermen. Their lives literally depended on a successful catch, and yet they had the courage to head to the high streams only with what would fit into their pockets. So as a communicator, you should trust your own skill. Trust your wisdom. And trust your audience to recognize the deeper meaning rather than beat them over the head with big words, complex explanations or faddish tactics or gear, instead heading to the mountains with only our most trusted skills in our pockets, confident in our eventual success.

David Baker is a writer and media producer who works in interactive communications at Oregon State University.

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