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September 6, 2017

How to Engage Alumni with Story

By Caitlin Scarano

Caitlin@aluminateus.com

7 minutes

Engaging alumni can be a real challenge. We know there are a plethora of solutions out there, but have you considered storytelling as a way of reaching alumni?

What does storytelling have to do with raising alumni engagement and philanthropy levels? A lot, actually!

How alumni identify with their alma mater in the institution’s broader story after they graduate will greatly influence their willingness to engage and give.

Recently, I sat down with ALUMinate co-founder Esther Choy to discuss her just-released book Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success to learn the secrets of how to engage alumni with storytelling. ​

A bit about Esther—she is an international speaker, author, and a sought-after trainer in leadership storytelling.

Esther is actively involved with her own alma mater, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and is a board member of the school’s Alumni Council. She is also a director of the Chicago Public Library Foundation and a partner in Social Venture Partners. A serial entrepreneur based in Chicago, Esther lectures in Kellogg’s Executive Education Programs and the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

*Note: This interview is part of our larger initiative and new research topic: “Engaging Alumni with Story.”

Esther Choy, author and ALUMinate co-founder

Caitlin Scarano, Interviewer: What do you see as the most pressing challenge in the field of alumni relations and advancement, and how do you think story might be able to help address that issue?

Esther Choy, Author: It is hard to think of a profession that deals with an audience that is as diverse in every possible way as the audi

ence that the alumni affairs and advancement field serves. How do you identify and hone strategies that allow you to reach this whole, vast range of people and somehow make something stick in their minds? You can’t be all things to all people, yet, alumni relations and advancement professionals have to be all things to all people—at least on some levels.
The beauty of story is that when you find one that really works, a story that really resonates, different people take what they want or need from it. In this field, you can use story to build an open platform where people see a reflection of who they are in the story.

CS: In the introduction, you wrote, “We are all in a perpetual ‘competitive admissions’ game.” Can you talk more about this?

EC: When I worked in university admissions, I realized we are all trying to persuade people all the time.  It isn’t just situations like applying to an elite college where we are competing. In so many situations in life, we are competing to be a part of something with a limited number of seats or space. It is hard to just get one foot in the door!

When it comes to working with alumni, we often talk about wanting the “3 Ts” from them: Time, Talent, and Treasure. But alumni have their own personal priorities, and all of those things—their time, talent, or treasure—could be given to someone or something else. Your institution is competing for those things, so how do you persuade the alumni to give this to you? Why do they need you in particular?

CS: How can we incentivize alumni and other stakeholders to tell us their stories? What do we do with those stories once they’ve been shared with us? 

EC: I would divide alumni into three main groups…

1) On the left: alumni that are just waiting to tell their story, and are intrinsically motivated to do so. You just have to ask and give them the platform.

2) On the right: those who are hesitant to share their stories. Their hesitation could be for a number of real or perceived reasons—they are busy, they don’t think they have a good story to share, they don’t understand what you want to use it for, etc.

3) In the center: Alumni who fall into both of these groups—deep down they want to tell you their story, but they are unsure how or why to do so. All they need is for you to give them a good extrinsic reason to share!

I’d advise our colleagues in alumni affairs and advancement to make sure there is always a clear purpose when you ask alumni to tell their stories. For example, if you ask young alumni, “What are the most important career lessons you’ve learned so far that you wish we’d talked to you about when you were a student?” you then explain that you are going to share this information with current college juniors and seniors, so the alumni can see the usefulness in sharing lessons they’ve learned.

Purposes can be endless; you have to give them one.

Then the next question is, how do you record their stories? You need a channel or platform for them. Purpose can influence the channel or platform. Then consider—how and where do you distribute these stories?

CS: Why is the hook so important in a story? How do you find the right hook when telling stories to alumni and other stakeholders?

EC: As I explain in the book, you need to have a conflict, contrast, or contradiction to hook your reader, but this doesn’t have to be extreme. For example, at an event in Chicago hosted by one of my alma maters, Texas A&M, the university foundation president gave a talk about the state of the university. As an audience member, he hooked me when he said, “In the 1980s, 80% of university funding came from the state, now perhaps a third or less of the funding comes from the state.”

I’m recalling this from memory, so the quote or percentage may not be exactly right, but you can see the huge contrast he articulated. It made me wonder, if Texas A&M educates so many students, especially low-income students, and the state is cutting funding to the university, where will that money come from? How will those students get a college education? The president had my attention with this contrast.

CS: Data analytics, prospect management, CRMs…these are all integral to present-day alumni relations and advancement. How does data relate to story?

EC: Remember, data is a means in a story, not an end. As you can see in the graphic on page 68 in the book, you can use data to help your audience understand the issue, explain it to them, and persuade them to act.

 *Graphic from Let the Story Do the Work (68). 

This can be challenging because your audience may interpret the data differently than you. And, even if your audience agrees with you about the implications of the data, that doesn’t mean they will act. As people, what we understand about something doesn’t always align with how we act. Story needs to lead to action. We are telling stories because we are trying to influence change.

CS: What next steps can our readers take to become stronger story-tellers?

EC: Watch my website for “Story Club,” a four-week guide to crafting brief and brilliant stories. It’s a companion guide to Let the Story Do the Work and meant to be used by a small team of friends and colleagues who can support each other.

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