3 Storytelling Fundamentals for Marketing in Higher Education

Shannon Lanus, Content Strategist, mStoner, Inc.
mStoner, Inc.
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Key Takeaways

What? Storytelling can serve as a marketing strategy in higher education to connect you to prospective students.

Now what? When telling your institution's story, it's important to understand your audience, your characters and what makes you stand out.

So what? Don't shy away from tension in your storytelling. Find stakeholders who convey the stories only you can tell. To brush up on your basic storytelling principles download: Digital Storytelling 101.  

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Content brought to you by: mStoner, Inc.

Storytelling is one of the most effective communication tools known to man. Humans use story to engage one another—explaining who we are, what we’ve experienced and why it matters. In the world of higher-education marketing, stories connect your institution to your prospective students, alumni and donors in ways that facts and figures alone simply can’t. In short, not only are stories important, but telling great stories is critical.

But let’s say you have a solid grasp on storytelling fundamentals, and you’ve made the commitment to incorporate storytelling into your communications. At that point, the two questions you’re likely asking yourself are:

  1. How do we tell stories that will resonate?

  2. How do we avoid sounding like everyone else?

The answer to both questions is the same: You must find the stories that only you can tell. This starts with knowing your audience and knowing your institution, then finding the stories that will foster a connection between you and the people you serve.

FREE DOWNLOAD: To understand or brush up on the basic principles of storytelling, mStoner’s presentation on Digital Storytelling 101 is a great place to start.

1. Know Your Audience

The first step in telling a resonant story is knowing whom you’re telling your story to and what their expectations are. “Game of Thrones” and “Frozen” are both compelling fantasy stories about reluctant young leaders who must save kingdoms in peril. But while one is edgy, explicit and violent, the other is cheery, gentle and family-friendly. In other words, these are stories made for two very different primary audiences. Moreover, while the primary audience for higher-education content—high school teens—might enjoy both “Game of Thrones” and “Frozen,” they’re not expecting HBO or Disney’s style and tone from a college or university. Though the example is extreme, the point holds: Understand your audience and their expectations.

In higher-education storytelling, there’s a natural inclination to focus on selling your institution. After all, you have a lot to offer. But put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Choosing a college is a huge, weighty, emotionally charged decision. And it’s one of the first big, adult decisions many teens make. Consider the following: What’s on their mind? What do they want? What do they care about? What are they afraid of? How do they behave? Whom and what do they trust for information? Once you understand that, you’ll have a much better sense of what will resonate with them on an emotional level.

2. Know Your Institution

Once you know whom you’re talking to and you understand the desires and emotions they experience, the next step is to think about what your institution brings to the table. To tell stories that are unique, you need to know what sets you apart. If you don’t immediately know what your differentiators are, explore the following questions:

  1. What do you wish people knew about your institution?

  2. What institutional milestones or accomplishments are you most proud of? Why?

  3. Among your students, faculty and alumni, who exemplifies your institution? What qualities do they have that speak to your institution’s mission and values?

  4. If a prospective student is trying to decide between your institution and your primary competitors, what are three reasons they should choose you?

Once you write down the answers to those questions, you’ll have a list of themes and ideas that represent your institution. However, themes and ideas only point you in a certain direction. Audiences engage with the events of a story because they care about what happens to a character. So let’s find our characters.

3. Find Your Characters, Show Their Struggle

Beyond the buildings, programs, initiatives and mission, what are institutions at their core? They’re organized groups of people working toward a common purpose. And what are stories at their core? In her book Story Genius, story consultant Lisa Cron writes, “A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result.” [Emphasis added]

It is Important to note here that your institution cannot be the hero of a great story because internal change is compelling when it happens to someone, not to something. Therefore, to tell compelling stories about your institution, you need to find these critical elements: the someone, the difficult goal and the internal change. One way you can do this is to consider the different groups of people who are part of your institution or who have been directly affected by it. You can look at compelling outcomes of students, alumni and faculty and work backward to find the story of how that success occurred. But if you do, it is critically important to keep in mind that an audience is engaged not so much by a happy ending, but by the combination of obstacles people face and the change they experience in pursuit of the happy ending.

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall writes, “While characters frequently do live happily ever after in fiction, they must always earn their good fortune by flirting with disaster. The thornier the predicament faced by the hero, the more we like the story.”

Or, as former Pixar story artist Emma Coats put it, "You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.”

Therefore, when looking for the best stories and characters from the people affiliated with your institution, the key is to find obstacles, struggle and conflict. There is a very understandable tendency in higher-education marketing to want to paint the rosiest possible picture of your institution and all of the people associated with it. But if you shy away from showing the conflict and discomfort that your students, alumni and faculty have experienced when they have struggled in pursuit of a goal, then you are shying away from story itself.

When you find a person in your institution who has overcome meaningful obstacles, faced surprising challenges or persisted in pursuit of a goal despite poor odds, take note and make a list. Compare this list against the one you made about your institution’s unique attributes. Where the themes overlap, you have the richest storytelling opportunities. It takes time and patience to find your best stories, but putting the effort into considering what your audience wants, what you alone can offer them and expressing what you have to offer through people will help you tell the stories that only you can tell.

Start With The Basics

Brush up on the core principles of digital storytelling. Download Digital Storytelling 101, on-demand and free. You’ll learn how excellent digital stories are constructed, the necessary roles for a storytelling team and why storytelling matters.

Author Bio:

Shannon Lanus, Content Strategist, mStoner, Inc.
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