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.

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.

Creative block

Who among us has not stared with despair at a blank page or screen as the Very Important Deadline approaches? That dreaded feeling is the price you’ll pay for working in the world of ideas. This telegram sent by Dorothy Parker—famed writer, critic and satirist—to her editor displays her characteristic wit as she describes her bout with writer’s block.

After we’re comforted to know that we are not alone, what can we do to get the creative juices flowing again? What works for me is taking a breather and getting away from the problem for awhile. In fact, I’ve noticed that my best ideas come early in the morning after a night’s rest. The solution will hit me and I can’t wait to get to the office to explore the solution. What works for you?

College taglines that work

excelling

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.

An authentic voice

goodearthnovel

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.