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Storytelling: Your Competitive Advantage in Higher Ed

6 min read

Stories are engaging. Stories demonstrate the value of obtaining a degree by providing students with a real world example of someone who has walked in their shoes and reached similar goals.

Great storytelling can help you impact the lives of students.


With a diverse student population and extensive list of alumni, there is no shortage of stories to tell on your campus. You just have to find them, and tell them effectively.

On a recent episode of Mongoose’s For Your Institution Live series, we invited Neal Foard, Chief Marketing Officer for Within, Inc. and expert storyteller, to talk about the benefits of storytelling in higher ed.

Watch or listen to the full episode below!


“When you’re in higher education, you know perfectly well, there’s a big difference between dumping data on students and having them walk away with the fire of curiosity to learn more. The first trick to storytelling is, you have to really want to help someone that day. That means you care deeply about what they walk away with. A story isn’t worth telling if someone doesn’t learn anything.” - Neal Foard


Stories are easy to remember. They create an emotional response and inspire images in the mind. It can be difficult to scan a list of bullet points or a long paragraph of words and remember the information. It’s easier to recall a story with a setting, plot, and ending.

You can email, text, and post information, and leave the responsibility in the hands of your audience. But, if your goal is to inspire action, you need to connect with the person that you’re communicating with on a deeper level. 

Here are some more tips for storytelling at your institution: 


Good Storytelling Takes Empathy

The best presenter in the world would not be effective in a crowd of folks who do not speak their language. Taking the time to consider what students might be going through and what they might be interested in will help you find the right tales to tell.


Frame The Story

Ask yourself (or better yet, ask students) what they might be interested in. Once you have found that common ground, relate to those situations with examples of current students or alumni who have similar interests and overcame obstacles to get to their shared goals. When prospective students can imagine themselves in the story, that will make them more likely to enroll at your institution.


Be Concise 

Attention spans are in short supply these days, so you have to be sure your story is quick to the point. You don’t have the entire duration of a movie to convince someone of something, because they’ve likely tuned out after the first couple of minutes. If you’re creating videos for students, get to your point as soon as possible and focus on one story at a time. 


Authenticity is a Must

In many cases, the person you’re communicating with is choosing between two or more schools. Storytelling can be your advantage in recruiting, but you can’t over-deliver in your narrative. Be upfront with students about obstaclesthey may face, or if your institution might not be a perfect fit. Emphasize on what separates your school apart from the rest.

If you paint a picture of perfection, students will have unrealistic expectations. The more students who attend your college and come away disappointed, the worse your reputation will become and negative reviews are difficult to overcome.  Be a trustworthy source of information, otherwise the story is fiction.


Make the Story About Them, Not You

You and your colleagues have much to be proud of, and your institution has helped countless people accomplish major life goals. However, when telling stories to attract students to your school, it’s important to make the student the emphasis. People tend to tune others out when they talk about themselves too much. The same goes for how much you talk about your institution, versus the student at your school.

It’s okay to establish credentials and demonstrate value, but the key to good storytelling is allowing your audience to see themselves in the narrative, to fit their lives into your backdrop.

To illustrate this point, take a look at these two brief blurbs about a fictitious student who attended a hypothetical institution and consider which story would make a greater impact:

“At Mongoose University, we have always offered flexible class times to help you manage a busy schedule and our job placement rate is among the best in the nation! We’ve helped many students further their careers.”

“Suzie knew she wanted to advance in her career, but she kept getting passed over for promotions. With two kids and a hectic home life, she found going back to school to be a difficult decision. When Suzie pursued her dream at Mongoose University and finally got that promotion, it was one of the proudest moments of her life.”

A post traditional student who is on the fence about continuing their education is more likely to relate to the second blurb. Suzie’s story could inspire.


Recognize Your Objective

If your goal as a higher ed staff member is to guide students through the lifecycle, there are many ways to accomplish it. To truly make a difference and connect with your audience, focus on inspiring them.

Neal put it best when he said, “Students are not a water bottle to be filled up, they’re torches to be lit.” 

A story that someone can relate to is the beginning of a conversation. That conversation can lead to a valuable relationship, for students and staff alike.


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