When I conduct communications audits, people at schools all around the country invariably tell me that they know who they are but have difficulty expressing it. We find that schools often express who they would like to be in the ideal, not who they actually are today. Mission and vision statements, core values and strategic plans are the springboard for lots of formal school communication, but these statements tend to be full of high-minded thinking and may not be easy to grasp.
A further issue it that not all members of the school community have the same idea of “who we are.” Getting agreement from your campus community may be just a matter of what to emphasize in your outreach, but sometimes it involves dealing with real disagreement.
Another branding problem is that independent schools think of themselves as totally special and distinct from all other independent schools. This sense of differentness grows out of love for the institution, but love can be blind. You are 95% like other independent schools, and that’s something to applaud, given the often-sorry state of American public education today.
Since you are far more similar to than different from each other, figuring out your distinctive attributes and a way to express your key “value proposition” is a crucially important brand messaging exercise. You have to accentuate that small percent that is unique to your school. Your essence grows out of the interaction of the people who make up your community. Your location, campus, facilities, and signature programs or methods are also distinctly your own.
Telling Your Story
So, how can you express who you are? This is where storytelling comes into play. Storytelling conveys meaning at an emotional level, connecting the teller and the listener through metaphor, drama and memorable details that leave a lasting impression.
The key to making a strong bond with the audience you seek to attract is empathy, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. What are your audience’s hopes, their fears, their questions as they contemplate one of the most important, deeply personal, long-lasting and expensive decisions a prospective family can make?
Anticipating your audience’s interests, needs and expectations and giving them a taste of life at your school can be done best if you start with active listening—from conversations to market research… and then using what you learn to convey the overarching theme of what you hold dear, illustrated in specific examples. These can best be conveyed through the voices of real people who make up the school’s extended family.
Persuasive writing means you have to dig down deep to get to the heart of the matter. Authenticity is a key ingredient of a powerful story. A narrative engages audiences through recognizable emotions and believable interactions among the characters involved.
A conversational tone is essential to a good story. Studies have shown that people respond more positively to emotional appeals than to generic writing that emphasizes features over feelings. The art of persuasive writing calls for story mode, not analytic mode.
Honesty and openness—transparency—increase your credibility. Reading is a form of commitment, and the longer your reader engages with your material, the more your perceived value will grow in their minds and the more likely they will take action.
Photos should be used as storytelling tools just as much as words—the visuals and text of your publications and website should support each other. The ideal situation is when you can combine interesting or unusual bits of information with relevant photos in an arresting graphic presentation.
Finding the Stories
- Rule with an iron editorial hand. View yourself as the advocate for the audience, and insist that your communications address their interests. Solicit opinions and conduct surveys to support your decisions.
- Learn the essentials of interviewing. Google and social networking sites can help introduce you to your subjects in advance.
- Engage an alum to help you organize and access material in the school archives. This is a great involvement tool as well as a way to fill the story basket.
- Be an active networker. Follow and participate in listservs, and join or form a group of communicators in your area.
- Visit classrooms, because teachers do not see their work with children as remarkable—it’s, well, what they DO. They are immersed in the day-to-day, and they will not automatically come to you with story ideas.
- Tap into the talent that resides on your campus—teachers and students can be your best examples and your best spokespeople.
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Plan ahead and aim to improve what you’re doing now before adding something new. Just say no when you have to.