I love your story.
You’ve got one. Everybody does. Storytelling is what makes people people, and it’s what makes organizations succeed or fail.
For 40-odd years, I’ve been in love with stories, and I’ve spent a lifetime building structures to help people tell them.
I cut my teeth in campus-community journalism and radio, then spent some time in translation and for-profit marketing. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time — I didn’t have a plan, per se, and it’s only retroactively, looking back, that I realized how much of it was repetition of a theme: find a place where stories need to be told, and not only tell them but build systems to help people tell their own.
Higher education felt a lot like coming home for me. I spent six years at the Queen’s University Faculty of Law. I was their first Director of Marketing and Communications, and spent my time there building a marketing and communications structure that has helped the brilliant and talented academics and students of the faculty tell their stories — and shine. We also launched three new online programs, established Canada’s best pro bono legal clinic, and did a lot more stuff besides.
Right now, I’m with Queen’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. It’s an amazing place, with jaw-droppingly intelligent people doing things that make the world better on a daily basis. The work is the same as it was with Law — not to tell stories for them, but build structures that empower people to tell stories for themselves, and elevate those stories to the national stage.
What’s the Work?
The Work is a strategic and structural mandate.
The strategy is in finding out not only what the organization wants, but what the organization needs.
It’s about market research, qualitative fact-finding, quantitative analysis, competitive review, innovative surveying, and good old observation over time. People have ideas and intuition about how to improve things: student recruitment, research promotion, national reputation, alumni engagement — but you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get into the guts of it to really understand what those stakeholders want and how those needles get moved.
The structural part is finding out how to build a system that moves an organization to one that empowers people to share what they do well, making sure they have the right framework and tools to do it successfully.
The art of the structure is in its constraints. Higher ed doesn’t have infinite resources, to put it gently: it’s always a question of how to do more with less. Getting to know your, and your team’s, skills and capacity intimately and make the most use of them. Find ways to turn any act of storytelling into something that can be adapted to multiple channels, multiple times. Engage and enthuse volunteers and part-timers to become a vital part of your storytelling matrix. Knowing when and how to contract, and what to expect when you do.
There’s a lot of other stuff in the mix too, and I care about it (and talk about it, and write about it), a lot. Reputation management. Crisis communications. Good ol’ standard-issue marketing. The art and science of print and digital publishing. Social media content, algorithms, and conversation management.
It’s all part of a vast and incredible spectrum that folds into the Work.
But at the end of the day, there’s two questions you have to answer at the end of the day:
Is what you’re doing in support of a strategy that works?
Are you working to build a structure that supports storytelling in your organization?
If you’ve got a yes to both of those, you’re on the right track.
That’s the track I try to stay on.
It’s the track that ultimately serves you, and your stories.
And I love your story.
I’d love to help you tell it.