Storytelling insights from the Education Design Lab’s community college partnersBy Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle, Education Design Lab Communications Director
Before we get into it, I need to say up front: Thank you.
Thank you for being an innovator.
Only innovators – the curious intrapreneurs, the courageous change agents – would read a story like this one.
I know how hard and messy innovation can be at a community college, because I’ve been there.
No matter my job, I’ve always tried to lead through ideas … to use creativity for the greater good. Which is why we wrote a grant that brought Education Design Lab to Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke, Va. I considered our work with the Lab as a professional development opportunity, so we could practice design thinking together – and keep students at the heart of our decisions.
In 2019, the Lab led us through a design challenge focused on stackable credentials in healthcare. I was the grant specialist who coordinated the work between our college and the Lab. I helped with the on-site logistics for each design session – (critically including lunch!) – but my most important role was communicating to the rest of the college. No one asked me to tell our story as it was happening. I was just excited to share our adventure because I believed so much in its potential.
Looking back three years later – now as the Lab’s communications director – I see how essential storytelling is to change of any kind. This is how we learn … how we connect. Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University (and one of my favorite higher ed innovators), believes we lead through storytelling. In his latest book, Broken, LeBlanc writes:
“Stories – the ones we tell and the ones we collect– are the single most powerful tool we have as leaders. Stories are how we think. They do not come after the work; they are the work.”
YOU can lead and influence through storytelling, too.
Layering communications: ‘Multiple times, multiple ways’
During two Lab convenings this past year, I asked some 30 community college innovators this question: How do you share information internally at the college? What is most effective?
In true Lab fashion, our partners shared their answers through colorful, anonymous sticky notes.
Almost all of the answers clustered into the categories below. But one of the most insightful responses came from a BRIDGES Rural partner during our gathering in Finger Lakes, N.Y. The sticky note simply said, “Multiple times, multiple ways.”
Emails might get ignored. Someone could miss a key meeting. Instead of choosing just one method or event to share your change initiative, consider layering your communications, like a lasagna.
Multiple times, multiple ways.
Here’s where to start:
Layer #1: Share stories through a blog … or at least by email.
In my study of innovation over the years, I’ve learned both organizations and individuals have a greater chance for success if they build from their strengths. My 15-year career at a daily newspaper made writing natural, so with encouragement from my manager, I documented our design journey through blog posts. I started with an enthusiastic introduction where I ranked my excitement level at “Buddy the Elf.” I wrote in first person, which helps make updates more conversational and story-like — a departure from so many official communications. Most importantly, I shared blog links in the college’s weekly email to all employees. I wanted my posts to get seen on a regular basis.
Yes, blogging can be a major investment of time, but consider some big benefits:
- A blog not only helps you reflect on learnings as you go, but it also involves everyone who might be curious. This is key to culture change – and can help the ideas radiate beyond the core design team. I made sure my blog posts included ways readers could get involved, even if it was just to ask questions.
- Visibility = trust. The more frequently your colleagues see and hear about your design journey – challenges and all – the more likely they will help it succeed. Transparency and visibility helps build trust … and makes you more approachable.
- Staff changes have become common on many community-college design teams – a blog could help document your progress so new team members can get up to speed.
- If your blog is public, then the Lab can amplify through our national communications channels. We would love to feature your journey on our website and in our email newsletter … just email me! This is how our Innovator Network learns together.
An alternative to blogging? A few partners mentioned their president’s email updates as an effective communication method, so consider providing senior leadership a monthly summary of your progress. Our partners recommend using photos, infographics, and/or surprising data points to help tell the story.
Layer #2: Make the work visible in college meetings.
The most frequent response about effective internal communications? Our partners said: Meetings. Specifically: Department meetings, committee meetings, and “role alike” meetings.
While a blog or newsletter may help introduce your work, meetings are where the ideas can really spread. This is one of my regrets. I wish I had encouraged our design team members to share regular updates in their departmental and governance meetings – or designated a team member with public speaking superpowers to go on tour (remember: build on your strengths!). College-wide convenings are also prime opportunities to make your work visible … and to open up the conversation. For example, I organized a session inspired by an idea that emerged in our design process. When a dean was shocked she didn’t know students could get free bus passes, she suggested the college showcase all of the learner resources available during in-service. (So we did just that).
Layer #3: Don’t forget the power of 1:1 conversations.
Some final insights from our partners: “Make phone calls (instead of emails)” … or even “direct emails” to individuals. Also: A few folks emphasized “personal relationships” as an effective way to communicate. For a former newspaper editor trained in one-way mass communications, this is easy for me to forget: Every interaction is an opportunity to lead change. This takes me back to my college’s very first design session with the Lab. Small groups of faculty and staff interviewed eight learners, face-to-face, about their favorite experiences and how they were making decisions. Over and over again, the students talked about the personal relationships they developed along their college journeys. Relationship-building is also one of the most long-lasting impacts of our work with the Lab. Our design challenge created time and space to work with colleagues across departments – and that alone was transformative. One longtime advisor at the college was so moved we took the time to interview her as part of the “understand” phase, she surprised me with a small jack-o-lantern decoration to show her gratitude. (She knew Halloween was my favorite holiday.) That thoughtful gift stays on my desk as a reminder of the power of this work.
If I were still at the college, I would focus more energy on developing one-on-one relationships with the deans. Why the deans? Before leaving, I helped lead a governance group tasked with interviewing employees as part of our strategic planning process. One of the questions we asked was some version of, “What communications from the college do you pay attention to?” It became clear that faculty, especially, were overloaded by email … but they made sure to pay attention to emails from their deans. I couldn’t get to know every faculty member, but occasional coffee chats with the deans might have created more understanding about their needs – and more effective communications across the college. I would have probably blogged about that, too.
So to recap:
- We learn, connect, and lead change through storytelling.
- Build from your strengths: What are your communications superpowers? Writing? Photography? Public speaking? Start there.
- Layer your communications like a lasagna: Multiple times, multiple ways.
- Layer #1: Share project updates through a first-person blog … or at least by email.
- Layer #2: Make the work visible in college meetings.
- Layer #3: Don’t forget the power of 1:1 conversations.
We’ll ask you the same questions: How do you share information internally at the college? What is most effective? And also: How have you shared your work with the Lab? We’d love to highlight your ideas and blog posts in a future story. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle, the Lab’s communications director, combines her experience with daily journalism, design thinking, and community colleges to tell the story of the Lab and its innovative partners.