Improving storytelling is not just a simple matter of ensuring the college or university is portrayed as a catalyst or important ‘character’ within each story; it’s also about being bolder, braver, and more willing to create tension. Dramatic story telling involves protagonists and antagonists, good and evil, conflict and resolution. Too many stories written for “alumni, parents and friends of the college” are written in so pasteurized a way as to ensure that tension, conflict, and crises are never allowed to develop. There are never any ‘bad guys’ in alumni stories–the institution is almost never on the wrong side of history; the brilliant professor is never revealed to have once made a regrettable decision; the successful alumnus is seldom shown to have failed before they succeeded.
The most powerful stories ever told are not fairy tales–they’re real, they’re searing, they’re funny, they’re moving. They are powerful because they pull at the reader and demand something of him or her. They might inspire laughter, or tears or anger; they may discuss controversial issues. But they make their points because they are not dismissible.
It’s clear enough why so few institutions choose to be controversial rather than repeat the “…and they lived happily ever after” formula in story after story, but it’s a missed opportunity to penetrate the consciousness of the reader, to earn the respect of the reader by respecting the reader, and ultimately, to garner the loyalty and contribution of the reader.
Many college graduates, if pressed, would probably admit that the professor who challenged their assumptions, who pushed them the hardest, were also the best, highest-impact teachers they ever had. College is about challenging the status quo, challenging thoughtlessly arrived at conclusions, and questioning–always questioning. Alumni communications that hope to rekindle alumni confidence, pride and support need to take some overt risks once in a while, because the even greater risk is to be bland. When an alumni magazine is full of bland stories, it reduces rather than increases alumni enthusiasm to be supportive of the school.
Every school has to determine for itself how it will avoid being bland. But one way that works for every school is to avoid pattern recognition. Don’t use the same formula to tell every story. Use poetry for some, prose for others. Focus tightly in one, open the lens of the next. Tell joyous stories, but don’t be afraid of the heartbreaking ones. It’s real life–yours is a real institution. Be real.