by Greg Carroll, Tudor Collegiate Strategies
If you pay any attention at all to current events you know that we’re moving toward what is certain to be a painfully long, arduous, and likely unsettling election year. I have always been drawn to the news. My family has a history in the newspaper business and for a time I was a newspaper reporter and editor.
Back in those days I was always looking for a good story to write about. We are a culture that truly loves to tell stories and we do so without even noticing that we are. When we come home from work and share with our family and friends what our day was like we’re telling a story. When we offer advice to a coworker most often that advice begins with a story about an experience we had when we were confronted with the same situation. When we’re trying to convince someone to buy something we tell them a story about how the product worked for us.
When we are trying to affect a person’s opinion of us or the institution we represent what do we do? We tell a story. I was a dedicated observer of the recent rounds of Presidential Debates and guess what? Each of the candidates unabashedly told us their stories. One of the candidates was from a family of educators while another candidate’s family had worked in the mining industry. Another candidate had endured personal hardships of family loss while other candidates had overcome challenges related to race or personal lifestyle choices.
Why would individuals running for the highest place of power in the country and arguably the world tell us such personal stories about themselves? Because experts know that personal stories resonate deeply with people. That’s EXACTLY why we more than slightly nudge our clients to tell THEIR stories.
It sounds so simple – if you’re trying to win the affection of a recruit, just tell them your story! Yet, it is not simple at all. It’s a calculated strategy that requires skill. First, you have to understand that your story is not relevant unless you know something about the person you’re telling it to. For example, I am an outlier in my family as I’m the only one who does not enjoy Broadway shows. So, for them to win my interest they need to build a story about a Broadway show that is of interest to me. I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan so when the conversation turned to “Springsteen on Broadway” I was totally dialed in. If you’re going to tell a story about your institution BE CERTAIN it is relevant to your recruit and their family. You need to know your audience.
The effectiveness of your story requires that you [put yourself in the place of the person you’re telling it to. The audience is at a decision point so you need to ask yourself “If I were in their position what would I want to hear? What would make me want to choose my school over some other school?” You can only answer that if you understand your recruit and more importantly your recruit’s parents.
Sometimes, the most effective story is the story that, for us, had a bad ending. Telling the story about the used car you bought that wound up being a lemon is FAR MORE INSTRUCTIVE than telling the story about what a great choice we made. Admitting to a bad decision provides a moral to the story.
Story telling often goes off track when it’s stiff. We’ve all gotten the letter looking for a donation that reads like it was written by someone with Webster’s dictionary by their side. The letter uses all the right words but has no voice. We have all gotten that same thing in a phone call. It takes less than 10 seconds to realize whoever is on the other end of the line is simply reading a script. The message has no heart or personality. When you’re trying to engage someone with a story it’s critical to talk to them in your best friend voice. Your goal is not to impress them but rather to relate to them and that’s not going to happen if you try to impress them with your use of the English language or use buzzwords and acronyms. Keep it real.
As I mentioned before, we tell stories without even realizing we’re doing so. When we tell coaches they need to tell their story we often get blank stares. “What do you mean,” or “I really don’t have a story,” are common responses. In reality athletic teams are literally filled with stories, all kinds of stories that can connect with a recruit, a recruit’s family, or their high school / club coach. For example, if you’re a basketball coach you probably have anywhere between 12-20 players on your team. In all likelihood, they are from at least 10 different high schools, maybe a couple different states, studying in a half dozen different majors, and cover the spectrum of academic abilities ranging from advanced to needing academic support services. It’s unlikely all the members of your team look alike. It’s more likely they represent different races, ethnicities, come from different socio-economic backgrounds, have a variety of religious faiths, and span first generation college families to doctor and lawyer families. And that is just your current team.
Graduates from your program not only came to your team with these “storylines” but have written new stories since they left your institution. They have gone on to work in a dozen different states, they work for a dozen or more different companies, they may have even gone into coaching at the high school, college, or club level able to help you in a different way.
Another great place to look for stories is across your campus. As a recruiter don’t make the mistake of convincing yourself that your recruit’s choice is being driven only by you and your program. There are amazing stories in virtually every office on your campus. Maybe it’s the story of how your school embraces veterans or individuals with disabilities. Is a professor on your campus engaged with some amazing research project? What kinds of things are going on with your campus security that make the school one of the safest in the country? What kind of story can your career development director share about where grads are getting jobs and how much they’re earning.
Working across the different departments on your campus, including your program, allows you to tell the same story in different ways. The stories of success, opportunities, advancement are the same, just being told by different voices.
The value of storytelling can’t be overestimated. Before you pick a story to tell it’s important to know what your recruits’ interests are and what they are afraid of. With that information you can choose stories (multiple story lines about the same story) that will have meaning.