Drawing from the skills of different disciplines—journalism, library science, art direction—this talk explores how we can all find inspiration and tell better stories.
Kristina Halvorson: So our next speaker is Brittney Dunkins, and I asked Brittney, "Brittney, what is a big risk that you took that had a really cool outcome?" And her response to me was, "I am risk averse." I was like, "That did not give me a whole lot to work with up here."
But the fact of the matter is I know that Brittney is not risk averse, because Brittney participated in our lightning talks, was it two years ago, yeah, two years ago, and got up on stage and just killed it. We almost on the spot invited her to come and speak in one of our breakout sessions in the following Confab. So Brittney is many things, but she is not actually risk averse.
I've had the pleasure of mentoring Brittney over the last several months, although I am sorry to say that most of those calls ended up with me just cracking up at her jokes and energy. Brittney is here to share with us her perspective on strategic storytelling. So please welcome to the stage, Brittney Dunkins.
Brittney Dunkins: Hey guys. So I'm Brittney, like Kristina said. We're going to talk about strategic storytelling. And the reason I wanted to talk about this topic is because most of us work in content and a lot of the conversations I have, either when I'm working with clients or even in positions where I'm working internally, when we're talking about content, the fact that we're actually talking about storytelling isn't really addressed. And the idea that storytelling and content are separate things, no matter what you're working on whether it's product content or you're working in a marketing function, or you're working in sort of a web function, they all kind of come together in storytelling. That's what I want to talk about today.
So usually what ends up happening is that someone will say something like, "We need stories." And when they say we need stories, there's an idea in their head around what stories are. So if you think of the word story, for one person they're saying, "We need stories, so we need this page on a website that's telling someone about a product to express information about that product, the narrative of this product."
Or they're talking about a blog post. They're always talking about a blog post. Or they're talking about social media, or they're talking about any number of things, an app, right? But when they're really talking about stories, they're attaching format and channel to the concept of storytelling before we've done any of the real work around what we're trying to say about storytelling.
So what I like to do when I think about storytelling is kind of bring people back to these four areas, which is listening, empathizing, then moving into execution and deciding whether or not we want to repeat the story, instead of getting into the production windmill.
So for listening, a lot of people will focus this around research. So the idea is that we do a lot of research. We talk to people. We conduct studies. If you're lucky, you're not a one person team. But I think most of what that comes back to, like fundamentally what it comes back to, is just figuring out how we can be better listeners.
Kristina actually asked me what I think content strategists do and this is the answer that I gave her, this is probably about six months ago, is that as content strategists or people who work in the content world, the thing that we should be best at is listening and becoming problem solvers based on what we hear. And active listening is really about providing space for people to respond rather than imposing on them some sort of narrative or structure around the information that you want to get out of them in order to develop a story or in order to develop what their priorities are, telling them what their priorities are, telling them what you want to execute, just giving them some space to kind of see where they are in the process of understanding how content works and how storytelling works.
And so the first place that we can start is really just engaging with people internally. I know that there's this balance between internal stakeholders, so all of the people who might be our allies or our enemies, because I have several, or people out in the world who are our users or our customers. But it really starts with engaging with them and providing some level of outreach.
And I think about this, like not just asking a question or asking a series of questions or putting together all of the questions you think need to be answered—I come from a journalism background, so maybe this is sort of influencing my take,—but it's about asking the right questions and usually that has a lot to do not with what you pre-prepared, it has a lot to do with what happens in the moment, when you sit down with someone and you're reading not just what they are saying to you, but you're also picking up on their nonverbal cues. What do they mean when they give you a response? What are the things that you can glean, and how can you get to the question that's going to give you the right answer about what their content priorities might be?
And then the second thing is observation. So observation requires boots on the ground. I have spent a lot of time alone, which sounds weird, I'm sorry, but I've spent a lot of time alone just going for walks and things like that, and I think that that's when you kind of pick up more on what's actually happening out into the world that you're supposed to be doing storytelling about. And that's what I feel like is really important in developing a narrative, stumbling upon the things that are happening within your organization, and with your users, and with your audience, in order to observe naturally the narratives that are occurring. Because the best stories are the ones that we don't make up, the ones that are just not fictional narratives around what the story is that we should be telling.
And so for the audience, I know this is pretty obvious, right? Who are they? You need to know who your audience is if you're going to develop a story. What do they want? But the last thing I think is really important is why should they even trust you? So establishing relationships and building those relationships during that process of figuring out what your story is as an organization comes with understanding internally, who are the people that you're working with on a day to day basis that are going to support you in your effort to develop storytelling, and why should they trust you to execute storytelling in a way that meets not only your priorities and the priorities of the organization as a whole, but also the priorities that you have. Why should they help you?
And then also for your audience, why should they trust you? They don't even know you. You're asking them to tell you exactly how they're using your product, or you're asking them to tell you exactly why they should like your website or why they should like your organization. But they might not be as familiar with you.
And then the last piece I think that's really important is assessing. So the data that you have is only as good as the framework through which it is collected. I worked a lot with personas. You won't see anything about personas in this presentation or about content calendars. I don't want to talk about them. And one of the reasons why is because the data that sometimes goes into items like personas or the information that people glean is it doesn't really have a basis in the reality of what's going on because the structure by which the data was collected wasn't necessarily the right framework.
So I think that when you are collecting data and you have someone analyzing it and providing you with metrics around how your stories are performing wherever they might be or how your narratives are resonating wherever they might be, try and figure out exactly whether or not that data is trustworthy and compare it against the real experiences that you had during the listening and observation phases, which are much more like peer experiences of people telling you how storytelling might actually work for you.
So I think that it's important to come back to this piece, which is your mission, vision, and values.
So for storytelling as a whole I feel like there are all these camps where people are focused on potentially just the creative side of storytelling, or people are really focused on the side of storytelling that's linked to conversion. So we give you this story, now we want you to do something that will provide value, will provide value to you, but also it's an exchange, we're prompting an exchange.
But how much of our storytelling is really linked back to our mission, vision, and values? Most organizations will have a strategic plan, and storytelling is a tactic within a larger strategy. It's not content production, content planning, content management. It's not something that's separate from your overarching strategy that should be developed in some sort of small back room, it's something that should be linked up and completely aligned with who you are as an organization.
But when we're developing all of the mechanisms around how we do storytelling and content production, a lot of times that is not at all even brought into the conversation, like referencing back to your mission and vision, you don't often see that in your editorial style guide maybe, or how people are developing the content and stories that they put together.
So this is a way that I have thought about figuring out how to put together stories that do match to a strategic plan or do match to a strategic goal. And one of the ways that we walked through this in the workshop yesterday on this topic was just outlining at the top of the line, not a content problem, so not we need more content, or we need more stories, or we have a goal to produce more, or we have a goal to reduce, or we have a goal to combine how we do storytelling, or we have a goal to get people to provide more information to us so that we can produce more stories, but more around what do we want to say as an organization? Who are we? Where do we belong? What kinds of narratives actually make sense for us and then how does that actually attach to our core values? If you don't have a storytelling goal that isn't attached to a core value, then likely that story is not going to resonate and represent who you are as an organization.
And then developing a content area to support that as a response, and we're going to walk through an example. I should also say that when I say the word story, I am really talking about narrative in its purest form. I could tell you a story right now on stage and it's not necessarily like a physical thing. It's not a thing yet until I put a shape around it, so we'll get to the part where you put shapes around your story, so content container.
All right, so here's an example. This is a higher ed strategic plan example that's based off something I've seen from a couple of universities in the past. And it's around an issue that they were having at the university with students who were experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. And so the university decided that they needed to address this in some way, and they didn't feel prepared to. So they created this task force, because of course they did.
And so I happened to be a part of the task force. And by that I mean in one regard I was a consultant and in another regard I was actually part of a team and helping to develop that response required some communications. So the communications typically will translate itself into some content work. And I know all of you aren't doing this type of work specifically, but I hope this example will resonate.
And so one of the things that we talked about when we were thinking about sort of building a responsive content area was figuring out what was the storytelling goal around this response that we wanted to create to this issue? So providing mental health resources, support, and information. Those were like the three areas that we knew we wanted to tackle. And then the core values that they had stated, usually you have a mission, you have a vision, those things are documented. You can refer back to that in order to list out community, diversity, inclusivity are the three areas that we know this ties to in our mission and vision.
And a responsive content area that we talked through was wellness. So the difference between building kind of a responsive content area versus a proactive content area, which I will show you, this is designed around a problem. But I don't always think that it has to be that way. I think that it's actually better if you are very vocal about the issues that you stand for as an organization through your storytelling, because then people won't have to ask your opinion. They will already know. The stories will already exist. You'll have built the narrative.
But anyway, in this example, wellness is the content area, and then below that are three different ways of addressing that topic area through stories, campus resources, national awareness, student groups. One of the things that I think is really important about these three different areas is that none of them are from necessarily an institutional perspective. So the narrative that we're trying to tap into has a lot to do with the community that is experiencing the problem. And it has less to do with how we feel and how we're positioned on this issue.
And so here's an example. Do you guys know what Active Minds is? So Active Minds is a student organization that's really committed to mental health. And so one of the stories that we ended up working on is a Q & A with an Active Minds' president during National Depression Screening Day Awareness.
So once you have a model in place, the really important thing is to figure out whether or not your model is sympathetic and empathetic to internal stakeholders and external stakeholders. I hear a lot of people talk about how we really need to focus on empathy for our external audiences. It's really important that we understand their diverse perspectives and incorporate them.
I think that that's true but a lot of us work in very large organizations and very diverse organizations. And people come to the table every day with diverse perspectives. And if you're building a storytelling strategy that's supposed to be linked to your strategic plan or your strategic goals as an organization, it's also really good to be empathetic to your coworkers. Instead of developing a storytelling strategy and saying developers are difficult, which is a thing that people say all the time, it's really good to kind of think about what are the things that they're juggling? How are their priorities incorporated into this framework that I've developed? How can I make sure that the storytelling framework that I put together really incorporates how their perspective is coming to the table?
And this is the most critical part of that, because I really feel like storytelling is sustained by these relationships. Unless you’re a consultant who burns bridges at every turn or don't really care about internally what sort of relationships you're building with folks who are going to be helping you with all of the storytelling work that you're doing, I think that these relationships can make or break your strategy sometimes. It will always be difficult to put together your storytelling if you don't have someone internally who, oftentimes they're called allies, if you don't have someone internally who is an ally for you.
And so, after you've sort of worked through the framework that you want to put together, there are these four areas that come up in the process before you actually make anything. So at this point you have narrative ideas, and you have a narrative structure that's tied to your strategic plan, but it's not necessarily executable yet. Because there are all these things that have to happen before you actually make anything or decide what needs to be made. And I think that the four areas—ideas, priorities, tracking, and selection—are things that are often not documented.
So how ideas are gathered and from whom and what people are responsible for in the process of gathering ideas when you are doing storytelling sometimes can fall to the wayside. There are no documents. I worked in really large organizations where people would just say, "You know, that's institutional knowledge. It's going to take you a while to catch up. We have people that we can introduce you to." Meanwhile, like six years later and I'm still setting up my phone and it's taking forever.
When you start to work through a process of putting together ideas and outlining how people can support you in your efforts, after you've spent time listening to them, it's easier to get them to work with you on the program. And then the priorities that you put together, there has to be criteria set forth for deciding what stories are going to go where and how are we going to execute on them? And I also think it's really important to figure out who's going to do that? No one ever really likes to address that until someone says no. And it's usually this discussion where, "I thought I was in charge of deciding what stories were going to get made." And another person says, "No, Jim, it's me, I get to decide," and nothing gets done.
So ahead of time you can put together some documentation around who is actually going to be responsible for this process of selecting your priorities for stories and what that criteria looks like. And a good thing to do is just refer back to your framework. What do we stand for as an organization can be the thing that you always go back to. It doesn't have to be more complicated than that.
I think there are some problems that are harder to get over and those problems are more related to your overall organizational strategy. So you can't build storytelling off of a strategic framework that's broken. But luckily, we're content people, so we don't have to worry about that.
So tracking is the other thing. I think that when you are tracking your stories, before they actually move into a production workflow, or before you actually figure out what needs to be executed, I would just keep track of the things that are happening. If you're using a boots on the ground approach, if you understand your community, if you understand what narratives are out there, making sure that you have a place where those ideas live so that they don't get lost is really important. And deputizing people within your organization to be your support is a really helpful way to do that.
One thing that you can do is figure out who internally here is not just a decision maker, someone who's worried about either the outcome or the profit of something or someone who's worried about these priorities that have more to do with production and resources, but who are the people who kind of just know what's going on?
When I worked in higher ed, one of the things I noticed was, it was always people who worked at the front desk, anyone who works at a front desk in any department in a university knows exactly what's happening at all times. If you go up to them, you can find out what's going on with student A, what's going on with student B, who got fired, no I'm just kidding. But you can find out everything from these people. And they're really good at helping with the tracking of stories and tracking of narratives internally.
And then finally, the selection process, so a formal selection process is just when are we going to decide and how are we going to decide what stories are going to get published based on the criteria for our priorities?
So the last piece, or the third piece rather, is execution, just getting it done. This is the part where you actually select a format and channel. So if you have a narrative in mind, how you execute that narrative or what needs to be executed should come way later than when you're figuring out how it ties back to who you are as an organization. Because something ... I should actually say, one of the things that can happen is if you produce a video, if someone comes to you and says, "I have an idea for a video." That's not an idea for a story. That's not a story. It's just an idea for a thing, and then you have to bear out whether or not you should make a video or you make a video and it takes six months and then it just sits there, or it goes up on Vimeo and then no one sees it, because you don't know where it's going to live because you didn't pick a channel, but you already made the actual thing.
So I think that it's important to identify what the narrative and then find a best fit format and a best fit channel. I think that sometimes the format or channel is like chicken or egg for me. Does format come before channel or does channel come before format? This is a question that I would ask of these people, the team members that you're working with, the people who are actual makers. Because one thing about strategic storytelling is that shifting between strategy and creative work and production work are three different things. They're three different skillsets.
And one thing that's really hard is to be the person who's in charge of being number one in charge of all of all of those skillsets and not relying on folks who are makers who have these individual skills that they bring to the table that are really critical to the process of deciding what is the best fit for this narrative? How can we work together to collectively figure out whether or not it makes sense to position this narrative on our website versus our social media channels?
And then finally is this repeat piece. I think that figuring out whether or not you should repeat a story or whether or not a narrative works for you is more based on whether or not you know it's working. So understanding how your narrative is working is simply based on metrics that are like “hard metrics.” And by hard metrics, I mean numbers. People usually just go straight to numbers in order to figure out whether or not their narratives are working. It has very little to do a lot of times with some of the other value that can go into storytelling that has a lot to do with representing who you are as an organization.
And so I try to break it down into three categories when developing measurement planning. Does this meet our tone, voice, and personality? Does this match up to our perspective and expertise? And does it also provide some sort of digital value? And digital value is much more broadly associated with the numbers that were more typically assigned to content management and measurement.
And I wanted to show an example of something I really love. This is an example from Boston University from 2014, when I was an electronic writer editor. That was my actual title at George Washington University. I was working on some digital content work for them and this piece came out from BU and was published on their online magazine. This example, obviously this is a magazine story, it's long form. It's from 2014. It has to do with their Chinese student international population. It was a three parter. I was seriously blown away by this for more of the aspects of it that were interactive at the time. There were a lot of videos incorporated. You could click through to different panels to learn about current students versus alumni. They flew to China. It took a year to produce the piece. It was rolled out pretty big. And the response was great.
But later on, when I thought about why this story resonated with me, it was because it kind of matched up to some of the things I was seeing at my own institution. At the time, I had been working on some content around first generation students and George Washington University had seen this really large rise in first generation students. And they were trying to figure out a way to tell that story and figure out a way to connect with who those students were. I had been working on figuring out how to do that as well. It was a part of some of the content that I was helping to create.
The parallel between that and this story is at the time ... also these numbers are things I just found myself for fun one day. I remember being in my office just saying, "Oh I need to find out if this model bears out with this example." So the numbers that you see are from 2012 up through 2014, and they're percentages of international student enrollment at Boston University. So they had seen this really big shift in their community, and then they developed this really lovely piece of content, this really lovely story, that tapped into what those stories were for students and alumni.
The response to that story was overwhelmingly positive, and I pulled some examples of that. But if you think about the framework that I showed you in the beginning, the things that Boston University talks about in their mission and vision is diversity, scholarship, and excellence. And the piece itself exemplifies all of those things, while not talking about them from Boston University's perspective, talking about them in a way that showcases what the students were experiencing, what alumni were experiencing, what even the parents of the students were experiencing, to build this more clear picture of the community that was there.
So the story itself was Fortunate Ones and the response from this transfer student is showing how the tone, voice, and personality of this story encapsulates the strategic positioning of the institution. So the student already knows before they start their application to transfer whether or not it's a good fit. They've already kind of built that relationship or made that connection through this content, and I think that that showcases the power of what we can do with some of the stories that we tell, and that our content doesn't have to be either voiceless and static or overly, not argumentative necessarily, but just overly exuding our position and who we are.
And the second example is from someone who is a current student, and it describes the reason that I chose to come to the U.S. and spend the most important four years here. If everything that I produced got a response like that from someone, I would know that who I am as an institution and what I'm building with my storytelling was really working.
Those types of connections are the things that you can't manufacture. They're not things that can be thought up in a room with people who are content creators purely or content strategists purely. It requires a lot of work to figure out how does this storytelling as a tactic really tie back to who we are as an institution? And I think that using this model—listening, empathizing, executing, and then repeating the things that matter and that showcase who you are—are what's really important.