The Campus Green

Tips for Higher Ed Sustainability Stories

If you’re leading sustainability efforts at a university or other campus, you know that you have a need for constant storytelling to drive engagement, interest, and your finances. Here are ten tips for getting a strong Sustainability Communications program in place:

1. Set strategic communications goals
You probably know you should be telling better stories if you’re reading this. Start your work by answering why you need better stories. Early options might be things like increase sustainability budget, or build new advocates for our work. Turn these into specific goals related to communications.

2. Identify and segment your audiences
Your stakeholders in your work have different needs. What are they? What do they want from your storytelling? Write all your audiences on a whiteboard, pick the top three or four, and write down their top three pain points that your storytelling can solve. For example: Students — want to feel like they can make a difference.

3. Develop internal partner-publishers
A key way to build a distribution plan is to connect with new internal partner-publishers (remember, we are all publishers now). These are other individuals, departments, schools, and stakeholders who also have an interest in telling better stories. Work together to build a content plan that you can strategically co-amplify.

4. Develop external partner-publishers
Your external partners and stakeholders are also wanting to tell better stories. Work with them to build a content and distribution plan around shared objectives. it doesn’t even need to be linked to program. A humorous set of posts about bad actors can go a very long way in terms of engagement.

5. Create an annual content calendar
Here’s the magic layer. Translating strategic goals into a content program will require some fun, creative idea sessions. It is essential if you are going to create breakthrough communications that you think beyond “tell people we did this”. The Content Calendar workshop is a big opportunity to challenge the entire team to be creative.

6. Plan for 3–4 tentpoles
Every movie studio has tentpoles — big splashy efforts that they hope will carry the entire slate of that year’s films. You need tentpoles, too — a few really good-looking elements to your annual plan. Find a designer or creative partner and work on a few key initiatives that are standout good-looking and smart. Infographics, animated videos, humorous projects — there are many options.

7. Be where your audiences are
Ask your stakeholders — where do you get information? And build a plan that thinks towards their answers. That can include a long-tail, hosted environment for your stories (i.e., your website). But it is a fallacy to assume that your good story will find its audience. Over a very long time, that can be true. But it will not bring short term results. So make sure to go where your audiences are.

8. Focus on the elements of telling better stories
One of the most challenging aspects of building a sustainability communications program is that good stories have some key elements. Memorable characters, emotional change over time, strong visual settings, the use of humor as a means of building empathy, well-framed antagonists — these are the kinds of things that make stories truly memorable. Journalists, playwrights, filmmakers — all can help bring these elements to your stories and may want to help if you give them the chance.

9. Challenge your wordy interior
It is fun to write, and there’s so much to say. But few of your stakeholders are deep readers, which means your best chance at success is going to be leaning into images and video and graphics to help illustrate your core story. This can be hard, but it’s worth solving early. Students can be a resource.

10. Capitalize on the passion of student storytellers
Students, in fact, can be a resource for lots of this effort. They will not be experts in the work, but they are experts in their audience. Giving students a voice to amplify on your channels can help you keep your content calendar in motion and build community engagement. Art students care. Journalism students care. Find them.

And remember why storytelling matters
The best stories move us. They do this by using a wide range of narrative tools that have existed for millennia. The best stories build empathy, teach us about ourselves, and make us think differently. They have a deep consideration of the experience of the reader. So stay nimble and be demanding of yourself: would I care about this? What would make me care about this?

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