The power of authenticity


Vivian Maier was an intensely private street photographer whose work was discovered by accident in 2007, two years before her death. Since her discovery, writers, historians, art collectors, and the public have fallen in love with her work and are burning to learn more about the enigmatic person behind the Rolleiflex. Although she shot over 150,000 images, only a few were ever printed. In fact, over 2,000 rolls of film were left unprocessed in the canister. In spite of that, her work matured in concept and quality over the course of her life. How does a photographer improve without seeing the photos? How does a full-time nanny find time to become such a masterful observer? Those are the kinds of questions I and thousands of other admirers have about Maier. I think our fascination is rooted in Maier’s authenticity. She had a genuine passion for photography—a passion that she followed without the need for critique by others or audience approval. Her creative drive was an end in in itself. That authenticity is enormously appealing. That is the quality we all should aspire to in our work for education. The closer we come to authentically capturing the essence of a place, the better we will communicate to our audience. Do the photos feel real or staged? Are the words honest or are they institution-speak? These things matter a great deal if you want to be seen and remembered.

Mixed messages

I noticed this eye-catching display outside of a restaurant in Rome. What a great idea! Too bad the cigarette butt and ashtray were left carelessly in the scene. Suddenly the idea of dinner here is much less appetizing. What a great reminder about the importance of minding the details when we reach out to our audiences. Happy marketing and buon appetito!

Communications check, mate

Chess Team Billboard

Did you hear about the recent controversy spurred by a Webster University billboard (shown above) touting their successful chess team? Webster athletes who felt slighted by the tongue-in-cheek statement unleashed a flurry of tweets expressing their dismay. How did a playful ad calling attention to Webster’s academic prowess turn into an insult to the institution’s jocks? Obviously, that wasn’t the intention, but communications can be a tricky game—especially when you add humor to the mix. Sometimes no matter how well-planned your messages are, they can be misunderstood. So what’s a communicator to do? Conduct your research, know your audience and what you’re trying to say, and then make your move.

It’s not about the cards you are dealt…

The Netflix show House of Cards has received high praise for being the first successful online-only drama series. Now, they’re turning heads again. The show made Emmy history for being the first online program to be nominated for Best Drama Series, a prestigious Emmy Award category.

Television networks battle to attract the most viewers. For decades, that race was limited to four major studios—ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX. The arrival of Netflix’s “House of Cards” is upsetting the status quo in spite of its comparatively limited production budgets. Netflix understands that it’s not the size of the budget but the quality of the creative concept that attracts viewers. The best way to deliver your message is simply to develop great ideas.

This fact applies not only to television. Businesses, organizations, and institutions should also take note. Instead of wasting precious dollars developing the glossiest brochure, the loudest commercial, or the flashiest website, pay more attention to finding creative solutions. You may think your luck could be better, but as Netflix shows, it’s all in how you play your hand.
David Thompson, GCF intern

A Ground-breaking Moment

Late in 2012, the New York Times published a multi-media story called Snow Fall, The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. If you have not yet seen/read the story, we are happy to introduce it to you here. Snow Fall is a ground-breaking moment in multimedia journalism, one of the first articles to illustrate the dynamic possibilities that occur when new media are thoughtfully integrated with the written word. As you scroll through the story, stunning animated graphics, slideshows, and video interviews add clarity to the unfolding drama. My favorite graphic is the vertigo-inducing flyover of the Cascade Mountains with ranges and ridges graphically delineated. What is particularly exciting is that the visuals enhance the story rather than overwhelm it. In fact, the story runs for a whopping 10,000 words, which is well over the copy count of most magazine articles.

I predict that Snow Fall will mark a change in the way we do multimedia storytelling. The possibilities are as vast as the northwestern mountains.

Brick and mortar that inspires

The Waterhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve

Courtyard, the Salk Institute

Courtyard, the Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi

Several years ago a friend and I visited the Case Western Reserve campus in Cleveland. We wanted an up-close look at the impossibly curvy Frank Gehry-designed building that houses the Weatherhead School of Management. We walked inside, outside, and all around the building taking photos and pointing out radical shapes and crazy angles to each other. The innovative structure thoroughly impressed us, and as it turns out, we are in good company. Recently the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran an article on the building and its connection to the Weatherhead School’s brand of unconventional creativity. One student observed, “When you think business, you think uptight, corporate suits. This building is not uptight. This is where the business world is heading.” Fred Collopy, a professor at the school, notes, “This building says it’s all right to be unique, different, and special. It says to students, ‘You don’t have to be like the manager in the next cubicle.’”

In the 1950s, biologist and doctor Jonas Salk took a much-needed break from his lab in Pittsburgh and spent a few months in Italy. He was deeply inspired by the peace and serenity of the 13th-century monastery that overlooks the town of Assisi. Refreshed, he returned to the US to continue his work and soon after developed a successful polio vaccine. He later built the Salk Institute so that it reflected the architectural rhythm of the monastery in Assisi.

A physical space effects how we think, feel, and create. What do your buildings say about you? Is your campus “on brand?”

College taglines that work


We’ve all seen them—taglines that are stale, comical, or simply forgettable. I’ve talked to some college communicators who see taglines as a distraction and refuse to use them at all. Writing a great tagline is one of the toughest challenges we can tackle. Abraham Lincoln once wrote: “ I’m sorry I wrote such a long letter. I did not have time to write a shorter one.” Brevity is one of the challenges of tagline writing. Imagination, simplicity, and authenticity are others.

“Think different.” “It’s the real thing.” “Just do it.” “Pizza! Pizza!” Corporations have long used imaginative taglines to reinforce their brands. A well-written tagline can cut right to the essence of a company and create a lasting message of quality or benefit to the consumer. Like a haiku poem that derives its power from a few carefully chosen words, the tagline can distill a complex admissions program or capital campaign down to a strikingly powerful message.

Well-written taglines work. Poorly written taglines don’t. Unfortunately, clichés and corniness dominate the college tagline scene. Here are suggestions that will help you keep it fresh and make the most of your tagline opportunity.

  1. Make it personal. Write a tagline that will make sense only for your institution. We created the tagline, “Success begins with CCSU” and a logotype, CCSUCCESS, for Central Connecticut State University. The tagline transforms a commonplace word into a personal and powerful message for the university.
  2. Use short, punchy words. Choose a crisp Anglo-Saxon word over a longer, loftier Latinate word. Use ask instead of inquire; start instead of commence; build instead of construct; pick instead of select.
  3. Give yourself time to do it right. Great taglines are the product of thorough understanding. Don’t create unrealistic deadlines that force a poorly conceived solution.
  4. Reinforce your institution’s mission. Consistent messaging is vital in all we do as communicators, and taglines are no exception. If you find the tagline and your mission in conflict, it’s time to change one or the other.
  5. Highlight a key benefit or attribute. “Think is for girls” is the tagline Sweetbriar College displayed in hot pink letters to appeal to Gen-Y students who might not have considered enrolling in a women’s college. The campaign was a hit and first-year enrollment increased by 40%.
  6. Play with words. “The power of X” makes good use of the serendipitous letter X in Xavier University’s name to create a memorable tagline.

What does it take to really see?


Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small—we haven’t time—and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.
-Georgia O’Keeffe

In a few simple words, Georgia O’Keeffe gets to the heart of it. Truly seeing takes time, patience, and attention, yes. But the key to observation is the mental state of the observer. To see clearly, it helps to enjoy the act of observation. Just like the enjoyment of building a friendship over the years, seeing needs to happen when we love what we are doing. It’s helpful to keep this in mind on days when work feels like a struggle. It may be time to kick back, have a cup of coffee, or take a half hour walk across campus. A change of pace helps to clear away frustration so that you can return to the task refreshed and raring to go.

An authentic voice


I recently re-read Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and became absorbed, once again, in the harrowing and moving world of peasant Wang Lung and his family. Banned in China for years, the book is now hailed by contemporary Chinese writers such as Anchee Min and Maxine Hong Kingston for its authentic portrayal of ordinary Chinese lives. Buck wrote with authority because she pulled from her observations as a missionary’s daughter in China and experienced first-hand the day-to-day lives of the Chinese people around her. Buck also spoke fluent Mandarin and was determined to capture the feel and flow of that language in English. She explained that she conceived the story first in Mandarin Chinese, which she then translated into English. It’s like reading the story in Chinese without the language barrier. That’s why every sentence rings with authenticity. What a wonderful reminder of the power of an authentic voice.