Did that phrase—strategic priority—just make your blood run cold?
I get it. After all, I’ve created a career writing for alumni magazines so I can avoid the corporate world and never have to hear jargon-y phrases like “value-added best practices” or “customer-centric core strengths.”
But unless you have complete autonomy in your publications, you probably have to think about your institution’s strategic priorities.
They might look something like this:
- Cultivating a culture of innovation
- Providing transformative educational experiences
- Strengthening distinctive academic programs
These priorities become particularly important (especially to your bosses) at certain times: A major rebranding. A new campaign. A communications overhaul.
That means you’ll probably have to tell stories about them at some point in your publication.
In a word: ugh
Here’s the problem: “a culture of innovation” is not a story. There’s no angle! It’s a topic. And even as a topic, it’s elusive. You can’t take a picture of a culture of innovation, or a transformational educational experience, or a distinctive academic program.
From abstract concept to concrete story
So how do you pull these ideas out of the ether and turn them into stories that you can actually tell in the pages of your magazine, annual report, or case statement?
The short answer is this: You’ve got to bring them down to earth.
You need to be able to paint a picture in your publication of what those words actually mean on your campus, for your students, and for your alumni all over the world.
It’s not easy, but I promise that it is actually possible to tell these strategic priority stories with humanity and heart—stories that your alumni will actually be excited to read.
Three examples you can steal today
Here are three ways I think about bringing these stories to life, with real strategic initiatives, and finished stories that I’ve done for colleges and universities.
STRATEGIC PRIORITY #1
Creating a culture of innovation
What this strategic initiative probably means: Your faculty members are doing some amazing research. They’re developing new treatments for cancer, or they’re helping us understand why the economy works the way it does, or they’re finding new ways to encourage voter participation.
The problem: Academic research is necessarily about details, and not always the details your readers will care about. Do you and your readers really have the fortitude to slog through a 1,500-word story about scientist’s basic research on T cells? Does anyone really want to know about the subset of voters in a local election for county commissioner in 1952?
The paint-the-picture solution: Instead of digging deep into esoteric details of a researcher’s work, ask them to go big: if they had all the time, money, and resources in the world, what’s the big idea in their field they’d chase after today? What is the problem they see, and what is the solution that time, money, and lots of smart people could achieve? Have them show your readers that better world. It’s more than simple fantasy: these “positive possibility” questions have been proven to increase creative thinking and a sense of community — the exact things you want both from your alumni and your institution’s faculty.
Example that worked: Here’s a big idea story I did for the University of Buffalo.
STRATEGIC PRIORITY #2
Providing transformative educational experiences.
What that probably means: Your school offers amazing experiences that change the trajectory of students’ lives: a mentor who led a student to a specific career, a study abroad experience that inspired a student to launch a nonprofit organization, a connection with a fellow student that opened their eyes to the world.
The problem: Good luck pinning down your alumni—even your most dedicated volunteers and donors—on the specific reasons they love Alma Mater U. You’ve probably heard every platitude in the book: “I am so grateful for my lifelong friends! If it weren’t for Alma Mater U, I wouldn’t be where I am today! Alma Mater U changed my life!” And on and on. These exact phrases are repeated so often that they’ve become meaningless.
The paint-the-picture solution: Instead of generalities, ask your alumni to talk about inflection points in their lives. Perhaps more than any other time in our lives, college throws us into situations that transform us. Sometimes it’s just *going* to college that makes a difference. Sometimes it’s a class or an internship. Whatever the case, many people have college experiences that are so pivotal that they cleave their lives cleanly into “before” and “after.” Have them go deep into these moments in their lives: What did it look like? How did it feel? What did they gain or lose?
Example that worked: Here’s a story about choosing a bigger life that I did for Macalester.
STRATEGIC PRIORITY #3
Strengthening distinctive academic programs.
What is even going on here? Fear not, it is definitely distinctive.
What that probably means: You’ve got some amazing program at your campus—a school of engineering department or a cancer center, a journalism program or an economics department—that’s crushing it with new research, rankings, or reputation. And it’s on the verge of rocketing even higher.
The problem: The go-to approaches—a bunch of profiles, a recitation of recent accolades—are usually yawners. How do you make your alumni understand that the work being done is more than just journal articles and grants, and that it’s actually making a difference in the lives of real people?
The paint-the-picture solution: Consider a news-you-can-use approach: who *doesn’t* want to get some good advice from some Ph.D.-level experts? Maybe an oncologist could offer the three questions that every patient facing a cancer diagnosis should ask. Maybe an economist could help dissect a day of stock-market swings. Whatever the case, service stories are almost always a win.
Example that worked: Kent State University has some amazing brain researchers, and I wrote a story that harnessed their expertise to help readers learn what it takes to keep your gray matter healthy through meditation, diet, and exercise.