How to frame your institution's story

You’re more likely to capture the attention of key stakeholders if you draw attention to your institution’s vitality through well-chosen details and an acknowledgement that you don’t know how the story ends.

Most institutional leaders realize that any opportunity to tell their organization’s story is a gift. The best become adept at presenting the story in a way that makes long-term supporters proud of their commitment and strangers to the institution rush to learn more.

The least proficient, however, tell the story as if they are reading it from an eighth-grade history book. This can create doubt in the minds of donors and bore potential supporters.

What distinguishes these two presentations from one another? What makes for a compelling institutional narrative? It has very little to do with the charisma with which it is delivered but has everything to do with the framing of the story itself.

First, the compelling telling is driven by the dynamism of an institution’s story. A good telling draws attention to the vitality of an institution -- to the tensions of its past, to the challenges faced and overcome, to the decisions that have been made which have shaped the organization, and the enduring values that have carried it through. Powerful institutional storytelling makes it sound as if the organization could be radically different today if any of these moments had been different, because that’s the case.

Second, details really matter. Writing teacher and former reporter Roy Peter Clark recounts how, at the St Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times, new reporters were admonished never to write their story without getting “the name of the dog.” It was a shorthand way of saying that reporters must be attentive to the details of their story for the story to breathe on its own. The same is true in institutional history-telling. Saying that a university was kept alive by the financial contributions of churchgoers is interesting; saying that three laypeople wrote checks at the end of every month to cover the deficits of a university’s budget for years after its founding feels qualitatively different. It’s the same story, but the detail makes the story come alive -- and, in this case in particular, reminds donors of the power of individual sacrifice.

Third, the story isn’t tidy and doesn’t end with “happily ever after.” Unless you are writing the obituary of your institution, its history is not finished. Yet, in so many poorer tellings, the story is neatly wrapped up at the end, and in this, there is a subtle and unintended message that an institution’s best days are behind it. Good institutional storytelling invites listeners to find themselves at the edge of an unfolding story, wondering “What’s going to happen next for this place and these people?” and more importantly, “How can I be involved in the future?”

Telling an institution’s story is one of the gifts of the leader’s job. By telling the story well, the leader honors the complexity of the past while imagining an even brighter future.