A work in progress

One of my favorite moments from a client stakeholder meeting over the past year came during a discussion with a group of undergraduate students. We were talking about the kinds of stories they looked for on their institution’s website, both as current and prospective students.

One student volunteered a perspective that made a lot of sense but I had never specifically heard articulated before. She said she wanted to see not just the stories of alumni who became incredibly successful- heads of companies or directors of national institutes - but those who were early in their career and still figuring it out, or even those who had gone through some kind of adversity.

In short, she didn’t want just the perfect stories, but the imperfect ones. She wasn’t just interested in the happy-ever-afters; she wanted to see the works-in-progress.

I recalled this exchange when The New York Times published this exceptional, must-read article in July, talking about how suicides on college campuses are influenced, in part, by the pressure to live up to the seemingly perfect lives that you see depicted via social media and other digital channels. When exposed to so many filtered, context-free snapshots of lives, some can’t help but draw comparisons to their own lives and feel at a loss.

I’ve been working in or with higher ed for more than a decade now, and I’ve seen (and told) a lot of stories. The most interesting have inevitably been the ones acknowledging that we walk complex, circuitous paths, like this 2013 feature from the University of Missouri about a transgender student’s experience.

We talk a lot about this idea of “authentic content,” and when you’re thinking about the stories we tell in support of our key messages, it makes sense to select stories that are real and relatable. But we’re still sometimes hesitant to paint an accurate picture of reality. Because reality means things don’t always work out like we planned. It means experiencing doubt, failure, or crisis. It means making a decision you regret, or changing your mind. It means that your ignorance precedes your enlightenment. It means being vulnerable and honest in ways that aren’t always easy. It means that people knock you down along the way. The outcome may be worthwhile, but the path is rarely perfect or easy.

I think about the student from that stakeholder meeting a lot. That Times article has also stayed fresh in mind, somewhat hauntingly. Because a lot of my job these days is thinking through how to use stories within a content strategy to communicate about an institution. And while I want those stories to inform, enlighten, and persuade, I don’t want them to alienate, disempower, or mislead. I don’t just want them to support a call-to-action; I want them to help people understand that, hey, amazing things are within your reach, but you don’t have to be perfect to get there -- because none of us are.

We are all imperfect works-in-progress. And that needs to be okay. We have a responsibility in our work to make that be okay.

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