Telling deeply satisfying, meaningful stories isn’t just a tool or device to use once in a while; it’s an essential strategy in communication and in marketing your school. If you want to build trust, enthusiasm, and loyalty that is ingrained with your school’s brand, storytelling is the answer.
Our brains are predisposed to think in terms of story. Story is how we create meaning. Studies show that a listeners’ brain responds by mirroring the teller’s brain responses—think Vulcan mind meld—so we intuitively pay closer attention when we hear a story. We tie stories we hear to our own memories and past experiences. We engage. A compelling story impacts us emotionally. We’re both imagining what’s happening and analyzing the story for content, information, and key messages. So, we are more likely to remember and internalize a story and act upon it.
Why should you care about storytelling? Because, as an educator, part of your job is to convince parents that entrusting their children into your hands is a smart choice. You want them to spend their resources, both time and money, on your school (through taxes, vouchers, tuition, or by volunteering). You also want to build trust, confidence, and unity throughout your school. Stories are the key. Not only are compelling stories remembered, they are shared. A compelling story will:
- Engage all of the senses
- Reflect and connect with people’s needs and emotions
- Embed themselves in people’s subconscious
- Make data and information believable
- Convey and demonstrate your values
- Create engagement and trust
- Differentiate your school from its competition
- Help people imagine a future that’s worth achieving
Think about the memorable stories you’ve heard. They inspire. They transform. Stories elicit actions like:
- Increasing enrollment. Stories help your target audience identify with your solutions, so they can see themselves (or their children) being successful in that environment.
- Highlighting differentiators. Stories provide real-world examples of how your school differs from other schools and helps you attract those whose interests and needs are a match.
- Increasing website traffic. Using stories on your website adds keyword-rich content, so you will be found. When used in conjunction with social media, your stories can go viral, and your school’s brand and reputation surge.
- Strengthening your relationships. When you tell a great story, it will be shared by the parents and students within their own circles, leading to increased enrollment and enhanced reputations. You can build spirit, pride, and loyalty by sharing engaging stories.
- Creating staff engagement. Sharing stories with staff will build a strong school culture. Stories create shared realities and put both vision and values into practice, thus creating positive behaviors.
How to gather stories from your staff:
Use a story prompt to get the wheels turning and help people recall their best stories. But just asking questions isn’t enough. You won’t get a story; you’ll get an answer. To elicit a story, your story prompt will be in two parts. The opening will be in asking, “Tell me about….” or “Tell me a story about…” or “Share with me a memory about…” or “Visualize a time for me when….”
The closing portion of your story prompt needs to be very specific to help the person select a story to share with you. So instead of saying, “Tell me about a recent classroom success,” you should rephrase it to say, “Tell me about a very rewarding experience for a student in one of your latest classroom projects.” Or, switch it up and put the specificity of the prompt before the question, like this: “I heard you had wonderful student success in one of your classroom projects this month. Tell me about your experience.”
Story prompt ideas:
Why did you decide to work here? (for staff)
Story prompt: Tell me about a specific event that helped you make your decision to work at this school.
Have you ever received exceptional mentoring? (for staff)
Story prompt: Paint me a picture of a time when you received mentoring and it felt truly memorable.
Describe a time when you saw one of our school’s values in action.
Story prompt: Pick one of our school values or goals that has a lot of personal meaning to you. Tell me about a time when you saw this value being demonstrated in an amazing way (by a student or staff member).
Describe a student success at our school.
Story prompt: Tell me a story about a student whose successful efforts or a challenge overcome demonstrated their strength of character. If applicable, tell me about how their efforts have influenced others.
Describe a teacher success you’ve seen.
Story prompt: Share with me a memory about a time a teacher in our school had a huge impact on the life of a student or another staff member.
Describe an alumni success.
Story prompt: Looking back, tell me about a time when someone at had an influential experience on you that helped you to become the person you are today. Tell me how you feel about that person or experience and his/her effect on your life. How did that person represent our school’s values?
How can you use story prompts to generate stories?
You can ask for help from staff at a staff meeting and explain how you intend to use these stories to better represent the school and its successes and values in your marketing and communication efforts. Start by sharing one of your own stories at the next staff meeting as a model to follow. Or try one of these triggers to get people thinking:
- Hold up a photo or image, ask your staff to look at the image, and then tell about (or write about) a memory it triggers. Remind them to include all the sounds, emotions, and smells/tastes that come to mind.
- Use music or an audio file to trigger memories, and ask your audience to communicate (either to a partner you’ve assigned or by writing it down) the first memory that comes to mind when they hear the recording.
- Share a metaphor, and ask for a story about whatever memory comes to mind when they hear it (especially as it relates to your school, their roles in the school, or their reason for being in the role they have chosen). You could say something like, “Tell me about a time when the expression “Have your cake and eat it too” held a strong meaning for you. Others might be, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” “point of no return,” “heart of gold,” or “reap what you sow.”
- Provide an online form for staff to make submitting the basic information you would need to craft a non-fiction narrative story. Then make an annual story assignment schedule (by grade level or department) so staff can be looking for stories all year long.
Consider having a contest, and reward the best stories received by recording the winners telling their story on video in spotlight stories for your website. This could also be an assignment in an English or literature or communications class. Be sure to have some good example stories to use as models for the students to understand how an effective story can compel their interest far more than merely stating facts. Involve teachers in the story gathering.
From Alumni or Parents:
If you have a blog and are an administrator, what a great topic to write about and invite parent and alumni participation. Ask for participation from parents involved in your parent organization. Invite board members or directors to participate as well.
Remember, one or two good stories can be a model for others and will also trigger other memories. So, make story gathering an ongoing effort, and before long you’ll have many wonderful examples of the qualities and successes that represent your school.
And, last but not least, always keep your ears open for good stories. Savor them. Collect them. Listen delightedly as others share stories (make eye contact, lean in toward them and let your genuine interest show with your body language and facial expressions). Don’t fill pauses with words unless they are “Go on,” or “What then?” Ask reflective questions, and then give appreciation to others who share their stories. Tell them what you liked most about the story and how their story affected you. Then, thank them again.
Where can you use stories?
- Website and social media
- Staff meetings
- Back-to-school events
- Board meetings
- Public relations like press releases, media relations, and crisis management
- Customer service (and customer service training for your staff)
- Mentoring programs
- Interviewing job prospects and recruitment efforts
- Implementing change
- Enhancing teamwork and professional development
- In the classroom
- Local media (newspapers, radio, podcasts, blogs)
Types of stories
- School’s founding or history
- What we stand for
- What we do
- What we value
- Success stories
- Overcoming barriers
- School’s customer stories (students, parents, alumni, staff)
Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.