Novel Ways

Use the elements of fiction to tell a compelling campus story

Branding is commercial storytelling, and campus communications and marketing pros should consider using the elements of fiction--character, plot, dialogue, scene, place, point of view, and sensory detail--when they are writing and telling their institutions’ stories. The author describes how campus writers can persuade readers of an institution’s virtues and still tell a compelling story.

The first time I heard the phrase "tell your institution's story," I was a brand new public relations director at a small liberal arts college near Los Angeles. The president, my new boss, wanted me to call a veteran public relations man at a higher profile institution down the road to get some advice. I liked the word story when the veteran said it. After all, I had a novel in my closet just like every other former English major.

I soon learned that everybody uses this phrase about every institution. But almost no one conveys in that throwaway line the reality that telling a good story isn't easy. It is worth the struggle, however. Bringing the craft of fiction writing to institutional stories will make your story better.

Brand as story. "A story that's never completely told" is how brand guru Scott Bedbury describes a great brand. James B. Twitchell, a University of Florida professor of English and advertising, wrote in his recent book Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld that branding is commercial storytelling. And 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?

Find the campus' story by being open to not knowing what it is when you begin. Get to the good stuff by banishing internal editors and letting your characters tell you the story. Fearlessly dig into an institution's archives without judg-ing history's protagonists; listen to the disparate voices of the students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and community members who speak freely in focus groups; design questions without presuming to know answers. What you're looking for, listening for, are the heroes and plot lines that make your heart beat, that have elements of risk and excitement.

Protagonist and plot. Good stories don't play it safe. For one college, the hero of its story is the new world of colonial America—"a petulant brat" who needed a new kind of leader and thinker. The college's founder, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, established the college as an antidote to the new country's patrician institutions. A boarding school's hero is the young person who bravely leaves home—sometimes traveling halfway around the world—to put himself "in the way of opportunity."

Every campus's brand-story is a mythic archetype with mythic heroes: the revolutionary, the discoverer, the change agent. Once you understand that story, your institution's everyday heroes will reveal themselves as well: students, faculty, and alumni who live and embody your institution's story. If it's a compelling one with universal themes (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl), readers will never get tired of it because they'll be able to see themselves as the protagonist in a tale they want to be part of. You'll never get tired of telling such a story; you'll find ways to tell and retell it through its everyday heroes.

Great beginnings. Good stories open by drawing the reader in emotionally, sometimes with childlike anticipation. But even intriguing openings act as practical "doorknobs" that, with a turn, allow the reader to enter the story's world. Some of the most effective first lines in viewbooks accomplish both the emotional and the practical purpose: "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, the 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 readers see, touch, taste, smell, and hear.

In "The Dead," James Joyce doesn't tell readers that the snow against the window echoes Michael Furey's pebbles. Rather, he enables readers to experience it, and in so doing, they have an epiphany along with Gabriel Conroy. Sensory detail, quotes that haven't been overly polished, film that captures honest scenes and exchanges, and blogs that allow heroes to speak for themselves all artfully unmediate the message, giving an institution's story texture and nuance.

Real conversations. Institutional stories require scene and dialogue just as much as compelling fiction does. Think of photos as scenes, quotes as dialogue, and institutional voice as narration. How are they working together to communicate the narrative arc of your story? Even today, when you might be telling your institution's story through nonlinear media such as the Web, you still can think of its structure the way short story writer Alice Munro does—as a house with many rooms, any one of which can be entered first.

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. 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 that is 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 our readers care by telling good stories. Only then do we have a chance of making our stories theirs.

This article is from the May/June CURRENTS.