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Telling the Story of Your School


Whenever I attend an open house or school fair, I always brace myself for an onslaught of facts and figures. Whether it’s blockbuster test scores, impressive college or secondary school enrollment data, or an outrageously high number of extracurricular activities, every school seems to have cold hard numbers to show how great they are.

 

Unfortunately, while all this information is essential for families to understand what your school has to offer, the numbers do not always have the impact you want. Families need more than hard data about your school. They also must understand what that data means for them and for their child.

 

Choosing a school for your child is not like picking a stock or drafting a fantasy football team. Families are searching for a school where they feel welcome, where they feel safe, and where they feel they are giving their child the best shot at future success. The selection process is an emotional one as much as an intellectual one, and you don’t appeal to the heart with data about your current and former students. You need to help prospective parents envision their child at your school. And to do that, you need to tell a story.

 

The Power of Storytelling

 
Marketing professionals have long understood that the most effective way to motivate a customer to action is through stories. Human beings are hardwired to respond to stories – it’s been our dominant form of entertainment since the creation of oral myths and cave paintings. When we hear a story, we can empathize with the characters, putting ourselves in their shoes and learning to understand the world from their perspective.

 

Think about how Apple sells iPhones. Does Apple drone on about their processor speeds or the number of megapixels in their cameras? No. Instead Apple makes an emotional argument, showing off the amazing photos their customers have taken with their iPhones or demonstrating how customers use their iPhones to stay connected to friends and family. Apple’s goal isn’t to win a technical argument about the superiority of their products. Apple’s goal is to demonstrate to consumers how their products will make them feel.

 

How can you use stories to create these kinds of emotional connections? Let’s take a hypothetical example of a school that just built a new robotics lab. Obviously, the school is going to want to tout this robotics lab to prospective families. But what is the most effective way to do this?

 

All too often, schools employ a dry, technical approach. They list the number of computers they purchased, talk about the cutting edge software the students are using, and reaffirm the school’s commitment to STEM. Unfortunately, while this approach might sound persuasive on paper, it lacks a human touch and emotional punch.

 

A different way to tout a new robotics lab would be to tell the story of a particular student who benefited from it. Maybe this student never saw herself as a tech person, but after she had a chance to play around with the new computers and software, she joined the robotics team and is competing in a city-wide competition at the end of the month.

 

The two approaches are describing the same robotics lab, but the difference is that the second approach tells a story. Your school is likely full of stories, from students, teachers, parents and alumni. Telling these personal stories turns a forgettable laundry list of numbers into small human triumphs which are memorable and relatable.

 

Stories Allow Prospective Families See Themselves in Your School

 

One of the biggest roadblocks many families have to get over when choosing a new school is trying understand how they’ll fit in. Once again, stories can help these families see themselves as part of your community.

 

Going back to the robotics lab example, you can see how the “just the facts” approach might leave a family feeling apprehensive. Sure, your school has a fancy new classroom, but will my child get anything out of it?

 

The storytelling approach, however, allows a prospective family to put their child in the center of the action. You want families to see your school as the kind of place that can transform struggling students into success stories and to propel successful students into greatness. Hearing a story about a student who walked in apprehensive and walked out a robotics master allows a family to picture their own child undergoing a similar transformation.

 

Showcasing your successful students is an immensely powerful aspirational approach to marketing your school.  Parents intuitively understand that their child will change and grow at your school.  Showing them the “example” of what their child can become via story telling or through using student ambassadors is a great way to motivate them to choose your school.

 

The Elements of Good Stories

 
I’ll admit, my sample story about the reluctant robotics genius might seem a little convenient. After all, not every class has a ready-made hero waiting in the wings. That said, I can guarantee that your school has dozens of great stories to tell, each of which can highlight a different selling point you want to communicate to prospective families. You just need to know where to look.

 

First, look for stories with clear heroes. Whether it’s an outstanding student, a star athlete, a famous alumnus, or a beloved teacher, remember that compelling stories are about human beings, not institutions or events.

 

Next, look for a moment when the hero of your story faced a challenge. Your famous alumnus wasn’t always famous, right? What did that individual have to overcome to get where they are today?

 

Once facing a challenge, the hero must make a choice. Heroes aren’t passive observers. Heroes are active participants who make the decision to take a challenge head on.

 

Finally, the hero’s choice creates an outcome that wouldn’t have existed if not for them. In our robotics example, the reluctant student didn’t just learn to love robotics, she’s now on the robotics team. The history of the school, albeit in a very small way, was changed by the hero’s choice.

 

Making Stories a Central Part of Your Communication Strategy

 

This formulation (choice, challenge, outcome) can be used in all sorts of communications with prospective families. For example, your school’s website likely describes your faculty and students by the numbers, but does it take the time to tell any of their stories?

 

As you fine tune your website to make it a marketing asset take care to make sure you are using stories wherever you can to make that emotional connection with prospective families. Don’t just put up pictures of your baseball team. Tell prospective families how they came back to win their division. Don’t just list the AP classes you offer. Tell prospective families about the teachers who put together the program. Don’t just list the academic credentials of your principal. Tell prospective families why your principal decided to pursue a career in education.  And please, write it in language that the common person understands.  No educational jargon or acronyms

 

One particularly effective story to tell is a day in the life of a particular student. There’s no better way to show off the combination of academics, community, and extra-curricular activities your school offers than to do it through the eyes of one of your pupils. Whether this story is told on your website, in an email, or through a video, it allows prospective families to experience your school in a way that a list of your course offerings and other activities will never capture. Even better, by seeing it all from the point of view of a student instead of an administrator, it makes it much easier for families to take the leap and picture their own child at your school.

 

Similarly, as you guide families along the path towards enrollment, it can be useful to tell them a series of smaller stories about other families who have taken each step along the way. Don’t just ask a family to submit an application. Tell the story of a family who didn’t think they would get in but decided to submit an application anyway and ultimately was offered admission. Allow prospective families to see themselves in the stories of others who have gone down the path to enrollment before.

 
Your school has plenty of stories.  Everyday you do some incredible things and impact the lives of your students.  Telling these stories is key to increase your admissions.

 

Need help discovering the stories that will make your school stand out? Set up a free consultation today!

Nick LeRoy

Nick LeRoy, MBA, is the president of Bright Minds Marketing and former Executive Director of the Indiana Charter School Board. Bright Minds Marketing provides enrollment and recruitment consulting to private, Catholic and charter schools. For information about how Bright Minds Marketing can help your school improve its’ student enrollment, send an email to nick@brightmindsmarketing.com or call us at 317-361-5255.

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