Storytelling For Success

PR, storytelling

Amanda Holdsworth interviewing a student during a brand research phase

Soft stories during the Olympics are my jam. You know, the backstory NBC produces to show before a star athlete is about to compete: interviews with family, friends and coaches; photos and videos of the athlete practicing and competing growing up; and finally, a chat with the athlete who vividly details what an Olympic victory would mean to him or her.

The picture has been painted. The stage has been set.

I get sucked in. Every. Time.

I remember watching my fellow Canadian, Alex Bilodeau, talk about the admiration he had for his brother, Frederic before the 2014 Winter Olympics and I just had to root for him.

Using testimonials as tactics

My most successful branding, PR and marketing campaigns have told stories; they’ve put a face and name to a school or organization.

A private school alum who credited the school for his success as an entrepreneur. A top university faculty researcher promoting the use of an internal unit’s services. A teacher who retired from his business, got his teaching certification and headed to the classroom to train the next generation of machinists and welders.

This is an example of an Instagram post my agency, Holdsworth Communications, created for AmTech Career Academy.

Combine these stories with compelling photos and/or videos, and you’ve told a story. And, most likely, at little to no production cost.

A word of caution

A word of caution when attempting to use storytelling as a tactic: be sure you know your audience and what motivates them to further (or continue to) engage with you.

Don’t just focus on selling your school or programs. Give people an experience so they will want to come back to learn more and pay attention to what they’re commenting on and what they’re saying. Compare your social media or click-through rates and check engagement levels. It’s not always about the hard sales push.

Components of effective storytelling

In storytelling, we’re looking for stories that can be told in multiple ways: social media, newsletters, websites/blogs and, potentially, marketing and admissions campaigns.

Also think of how you can tell the story: is it through words? Photographs? Videos? Design? A combination? Oftentimes, this isn’t clear until you’ve done the research.


Yes, storytelling starts with research. Figure out what your goal is (i.e. brand awareness vs. increase in admissions?) and start listening for interesting stories of your students, teachers, staff, alumni and families that align with your goal.

Then seek out and talk to those people. Set up face-to-face meetings either (safely) in-person or over video, as it helps to actually see their body language, and they can see yours. By showing genuine interest in their stories, you’ll establish at least initial trust, empowering them to open up.

Dr. Amanda Holdsworth interviewing a teacher for brand research
When I interview students, parents and teachers face-to-face, I can hone in on subtle body language cues–even with masks on (the eyes tell great stories)–to know when to probe deeper or when to back off.

During the interview, be sure to capture some key quotes, but try to let the conversation flow as much as possible. See what they have to say and don’t put words in their mouths.

Once your conversation is done, be sure you know how to get in touch with them if you have follow-up questions or need clarification. Then, transcribe your notes as quickly as you can; you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can forget the little details of interviews, particularly if you’re doing them back-to-back like I typically do for clients of Holdsworth Communications. I often only have a day or two to interview dozens of people during campus visits, and conversations start to blend together, so it’s very important I wrap up my notes quickly.

Storytelling analysis challenge

To begin developing your storytelling chops, you have to start with research.

So, here’s a challenge for you: check out your favorite brands, stores, services or products from a storytelling standpoint. I mean REALLY analyze them, their audiences and their messages.

How and why are they pulling you in? Are they truly demonstrating examples of how your life will be impacted by using their services or products? What is so compelling about their service or product? Can you relate to the story they’re telling?

Now, do the same for your school. Look at your messaging, your materials, your website, your engagement numbers. What methods are drawing the most attention? What stories are you telling and who is attracted to them?

Next, take a look at your competitors or like-institutions. You don’t have to do a deep-dive analysis of their materials; instead, do a quick run-through and take a note of your first impressions.

Do you understand who they are just by looking at their website and social channels? What are they communicating to you? What story are they telling? How does that align with what you already know about them?

Final note

As I’ve been telling school leaders for years–and especially during the pandemic–if you don’t tell you story, someone else will and you may not like the narrative.

So, take the bull by the horns. Determine what you want to communicate and how. Keep it consistent; don’t try to be all things to all people.

And, if you need some inspiration or a helping hand, check out the School Comms Lab membership options. We provide hundreds of templates and resources, along with trainings to help you tell your story with clarity and creativity.

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