Stories Matter, So Make Yours Better

Tim Jones shares five ideas to help you find better stories and improve your brand narrative.

September 8, 2015

A few months after graduating from college, I got my first real job as a reporter at a small semi-weekly newspaper in southeastern Virginia.

There, I learned firsthand how fundamental storytelling is to how we relate to each other and to our world. And I learned how to write “refrigerator news”—stories people cared so much about they would cut them out and hang them on the fridge to share with friends and family.

While the channels, tools, audiences, authors, opportunities and scope have all grown immensely since my days as a small-town reporter, the essential truth hasn’t budged. Stories matter. People share good ones.

Today, storytelling is more critical than ever, especially for marketers. So we do everything we can to be relevant, relatable and meaningful to our audiences. We try desperately to embed our brands into their hearts and minds. We know—scientifically and anecdotally—stories are the best way in.

But our biggest challenge is the sheer volume of content. Colleges and universities compete with bigger, better-resourced brands who spend much more to produce content for the dwindling attention spans of the same audiences we’re after. Despite what every higher ed marketer has heard at least once from board members and/or senior administrators, the solution isn’t to “just tell our story better” or change the perception that “we’re the best-kept secret in [insert place here].” Nor should we pile on more press releases, event releases and award announcements.

The real solution is to tell better stories.

Fortunately, colleges and universities are awash with story opportunities, provided you know where to look and what to look for. So here are a few ideas to help you expand your perspective and improve your brand narrative.

Less What. More Why.
Descriptions, explanations and announcements certainly have a place in higher ed marketing, but they aren’t always stories in and of themselves. Don’t write the “University Full Name of Endowed Professorship Faculty Member Name publishes research in Prestigious But Sort Of Obscure Journal” story. Instead, ask: Why is the professor doing this research? Why is it interesting enough to be published? How will the work impact people in your audiences? In short, don’t settle for description, but tell a story about why something matters at a very personal, relatable level.

Diversify your storytelling tools. 
The tools and techniques we have to tell stories are almost limitless. Challenge yourself to find new, interesting, engaging and innovative ways to tell stories. Don’t rely solely on the written word. Use images, video, shapes, sounds, colors, design, technology and conversations to create a compelling narrative. Sometimes imposing restrictions (however arbitrary) can force innovative thinking. Something as simple as “cover this event without a single on-camera interview” can breathe life into an otherwise predictable approach.

Let others help. 
While social media introduces a remarkable set of storytelling tools, it also introduces an extraordinary number of authors and publishers, all willing and able to tell their own stories. Use this to your advantage. Incorporate their stories into everything you produce. Celebrate contributions and accept the good with the bad. Listen carefully to what matters to your audiences and use what you learn to shape your brand narrative with relevant, meaningful stories.

Embrace conflicts and resolutions.
Every story must have conflict. It’s not a story without it. Use conflict and resolution—overcoming some obstacle, solving a difficult problem, changing direction or discovering something unexpected—in every story. Doing so will ensure your stories have a clear point of view, which is critical in the crowded world of content.

Write beyond your brand. 
Stories are universal. They are how we relate to one another, remember things, and make sense of the world. Every story we create should hope to find relevance outside of our institution. Ask yourself, “Why would someone who knows nothing about us or our brand care?” The best stories make the answer to this question undeniably obvious.

Tim Jones is associate vice president of marketing at Clarkson University, in New York.


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