Thursday, April 16, 2009

5 Storytelling Essentials

(Update: 5/15/09) If you are coming from The Recruitment Minute, Welcome and thanks for reading. You might also be interested in Ask Better Questions and Is It Worth Printing?

As much as we think and talk about branding and storytelling these days, we often fail to consider true storytelling elements—character, plot, dialogue, scene, place, point of view, and sensory detail. Good stories have tension and conflict. Even the heroes have flaws. So how can you persuade readers of an institution's virtues and still tell a good story?

Protagonist and plot. Every campus's brand story is a mythic archetype with mythic heroes: the revolutionary, the discoverer, the change agent. As you begin a branding process, look for the plot lines in your institution’s big story from founding to now -- plot lines that make your heart beat, that have elements of risk and excitement. Once you understand the big story, everyday heroes will reveal themselves as well: students, faculty, and alumni who live and embody the brand.

Great beginnings. Good stories open by drawing the reader in emotionally, sometimes with childlike anticipation. But even intriguing openings should act as practical "doorknobs" that, with a turn, allow the reader to enter the story's world. Some of the most effective openings can be both emotional and practical: "What matters to you?" "Coming here was like seeing the entire world all at once." "Put yourself in the way of opportunity."

Sensory details. Once the audience enters your world, you must make them experience it. Whatever the medium—text, photos, film, web—the more you get out of the way and let your audiences experience the story for themselves, the better. In the best stories, action, description, and dialogue stand on their own. They have settings and scenes you can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear.

Scene, dialogue, narration. Institutional stories require scene and dialogue just as much as compelling fiction does. Think of photos as scenes, quotes as dialogue, blogs as the internal voice of a character, institutional voice as narration. How are they working together to communicate the narrative arc of your story?

Strong finishes. Endings are just as critical as beginnings. They can resonate and reverberate in the reader's mind to project an imagined future that continues to play even after a book is closed or a film has ended. That's just the response we want to evoke in prospective students and donors—an imagined future.

Novice fiction writers typically hear that no one will ever care as much as they do if their stories get written. Accepting this harsh truth is the first step to telling a story good enough to lead to true communication. No one will ever care about our institutions' stories as much as we do. We have to make them care by telling good stories. Only then do we have a chance of making our stories theirs.

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