Your Most Powerful School Marketing Tool

The Science Behind Storytelling and How It Can Be Used to Entertain, Engage, and Brand Your School

telling your school's stories

Recently I attended my uncle’s funeral in Southern California. He worked as a school principal for many years, and two teachers spoke at his memorial. They honored his memory by sharing stories. One of the teachers described the following experience:

As she was walking back to her classroom, she saw a man run out of her room carrying her purse. She ran to the office and told my uncle. He quickly set off with the school janitor in hot pursuit of the thief. The teacher described my uncle running down the road dressed in his suit and tie. He caught the man soon after and retrieved this teacher’s stolen purse. The teacher joked that while the purse probably only had about five dollars in it (the thief had already spent it on some street vendor), it meant a lot that her principal would make such an effort for her. Then she asked, “How many principals do you know who would run two blocks in a suit to save one of their teachers’ snatched purses?” While this story exemplifies one man’s character, it also sheds light on the culture and atmosphere of the school. 

Telling school stories that inspire, excite, entertain, and encourage your school community is at the heart of successful school branding and critical to your school’s success. 

What stories come out of your school each day? What do people say about your school? Instead of allowing everyone else’s stories to spread daily through hallways, parking lots, or on the sidelines of a sporting event, create added value by asking your school administration and staff to join in the conversation. 

In this blog, we’ll look at the scientific side of storytelling and explore how other school administrators across the county are implementing various storytelling tools. 

Science Behind Storytelling

In a recent TEDx talk about storytelling, David JP Phillips explains how stories affect us physically. His presentation entertains and informs. Phillips presents evidence to suggest that storytelling is, in fact, the most powerful tool we possess. Phillips describes the positive effects of storytelling using three components of storytelling. When properly mixed in, you create what Phillips calls the “angel cocktail.” 

  • First, tell stories that get people excited
    As human beings, we are programmed to tune in to stories. So whenever you share stories, your listeners get excited. Listening to this type of story increases levels of dopamine and affects your audience. Just by telling a story, your listeners experience an added measure of focus and attention as well as increased memory and motivation. 
  • Second, touching stories bring people together
    If you are willing, expose vulnerable aspects of yourself by sharing times when you experienced difficulty or stories of others in tragic situations. The effects on your audience lead your listeners to feelings of trust, empathy, and generosity; they also feel more relaxed. This is because the listener’s levels of oxytocin have increased. Phillips describes this effect saying the listeners feel “more human.”
  • Lastly, don’t forget to make them laugh
    When you tell jokes and stories that make people laugh, you’re not only giving people a chuckle and a smile, you’re giving them something more. Stories that make them laugh increase their endorphins. Increased endorphin levels increase creativity, focus, and relaxation.

There is an opposite to this mixture, which Phillips calls “the Devil’s cocktail.”

  • The Devil’s Cocktail
    The devil’s cocktail combines emotions that result in unproductive feelings. Stressful situations, irritating noise, or negative feelings increase our levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which fosters feelings of intolerance, irritability, cynicism, poor decision making, impaired memory, and lack of creativity. What an unpleasant mix!

Functional storytelling, storytelling that builds trust, encourages relationships, improves memory and recall, and relaxes and focuses your audience is done using the angel cocktail elements. You don’t need all three components in every story; that may be emotion overkill—but make sure you incorporate at least one in your school stories.

Stories that educate, inspire, and entertain us carry with them underlying themes that we connect back to the organization involved. Its scientific background affirms that storytelling is an extremely powerful and useful tool in school branding. Since stories can bring people together, storytelling should be at the heart of school marketing and strategic communication plans for schools across the United States. 

How School Marketing Experts Use Storytelling

As a school administrator, you love it when you hear your school’s success stories. The perception of your school brightens. This awareness creates enthusiasm. Of all of the people on the school campus, your administrative role gives you access to so many stories! 

When you see or hear about a moment that inspires, encourages, excites, or entertains, consider taking a moment to record that experience. These little moments when you witness your school brand embodied in the good things happening at your school is actual evidence that supports your school brand. Don’t let these moments pass by unshared! Pass the good word along to your school community! 

Let’s explore how school marketing experts are using current technology to share their school stories.

Stories & School Social Media

Two school superintendents, Dr. Joe Sanfelippo in Wisconsin, and Tony Sinanis, in New York, run an upbeat podcast called BrandED. Recently they interviewed Amy Fadeji, a principal in Petaluma, California, about how she shares stories from her school through Twitter.

During the interview, Fadeji acknowledges that telling the school’s story is primarily the principal’s job. Her enthusiasm about this role is contagious. She says their school social media is about everyone sharing the message. She goes about her day looking for those magical moments. She attributes educational opportunities, like authors skyping into her classrooms, to the school’s use of Twitter. 

“All teaching staff is on Twitter. The librarian too,” she says. Once she recognized a student on the school’s social media platform, and, though it was just one brief moment in her hectic day, for the student it had a powerful, lasting effect. The student felt valued. When asked how she finds the time, she calls it a “change of mindset.” “Telling the story is a mindset. You’re always looking for stories…it’s contagious, it never feels like one more thing [to do.]” 

The school gets added mileage from their Twitter posts by “feeding” them to their website. 

Amy Fadeji is not the only school administrator known for her use of Twitter in education. Martha Peek, a superintendent in Alabama has also been recognized for using this tool to share her school stories. 

Springfield Platteview Community Schools websites are great examples of a School Webmasters program, Social4Schools.

Stories & Your School Websites

Social media cannot be the only place you tell your school stories. In fact, if anything, your school social media should serve as a secondary platform for your stories. Your primary platform needs to be your school website. However, sometimes schools neglect their online home. If you take anything away from this blog today, let it be this: Your school website is the best place to share your stories, your way! 

Let me explain. Gatekeeping is a process through which information is filtered. Journalism students learn that journalists are the “gatekeepers” of the news. It’s a sad-but-true fact that sometimes our schools don’t receive the coverage they deserve because the “gatekeepers” don’t think it’s “news.” You are the gatekeeper of your school website! Fill your district news page with stories from around your district and your school news pages with stories from your classrooms and hallways. Then you can use your social media to drive traffic to your website where your audience can read those stories.

Ridgefield Public Schools does an amazing job of this. The stories support the district’s mission and illustrate the actual events taking place on a daily basis that contribute to their vision. The district ensures its community never misses a story by sending out a monthly newsletter that drives traffic to the website to read the whole story. 

Where Can You Start?

Bonnie Leedy, CEO of  School Webmasters, believes that if you want to build loyalty, trust, and enthusiasm, sharing your school’s stories is vital. To begin this approach in your school, keep in mind a broad list of ideas for telling your school’s story. Bonnie suggests implementing storytelling in schools in the following areas: 

  • On the school website and social media 
  • During staff meetings, board meetings, and presentations
  • With back-to-school events
  • In school communications and public relations like in press releases, media relations, and crisis management
  • In customer service and customer service training for your staff
  • During interviews and recruitment efforts
  • When implementing change
  • Enhancing teamwork and professional development
  • In newsletters
  • In the classroom

Types of school stories you can share include: 

  • School’s founding or history
  • What we stand for
  • What we do
  • Success stories
  • Overcoming barriers
  • Your school’s customer stories (students, parents, alumni, staff)

It’s exciting to see the variety of ways schools are sharing their stories. For example, Allison Anderson, an educator in Oregon, shares current and practical ideas for sharing stories with your school community

One storytelling professor in Arizona recently told me that while most people recognize the truth behind the phrase “a picture paints a thousand words,” we may not always see the long reaching effect of stories. However, a story paints a thousand pictures in your audience’s mind. Gathering stories ought to be an ongoing effort as part of your school communications plan. 

As an administrator, consider one game-changing mindset shift: become a detective at your school and gather stories directly connected to your school brand (in other words, those that relate back to your school mission statement). 

If tackling school storytelling seems too daunting, consider School Webmasters’ website management, or other service lines. Think of the possibilities! With your full schedule, it may be easy to overlook school storytelling as “one more thing to do.” However, as you open up to the power of its potential, telling your stories truly could become your greatest school marketing tool. 

So, what’s your story? How are you going to tell it? And who’s going to hear it? It’s time to invest in your school’s stories.

Emily Boyle, Content Specialist