How the Tippie College of Business did its high stakes story right
Sometimes, you’ve got a story so important that you can’t afford for it to be anything other than perfect.
Here’s case study of a story I did with Rebekah Tilley at Tippie Magazine, the publication for the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business: a feature on the new dean, Amy Kristof-Brown.
First, take a look at this fantastic opening spread.
High stakes stories like this — new leadership, a big campaign, a notable anniversary for your institution — are stories you might do just once a decade. You get one shot. And you’ve got to do it right.
I want to share not just the results of this work, but some of the important principles that I use to guide my process.
1. Understand your big goals from the start.
When Rebekah contacted me initially, she already had a gorgeous magazine and she’s an excellent writer. She could have easily taken on this project herself.
But for this project, she knew she wanted to bring in some extra firepower.
Here’s what she told me about why she made that decision.
“There’s so much riding on these leadership launch stories – for both myself and my dean – and very early in our planning I decided that this is the moment to invest in a high caliber writer who is external to our organization.
My dean has been with our college for her whole career and has many strong connections with our alumni. I was concerned we were making an assumption that everyone ‘knew’ our dean and our capable internal writers would unconsciously angle the story in that direction. I wanted fresh eyes and a fresh approach for this high stakes moment.”
From my perspective, after additional conversations with Rebekah, we had to accomplish a few things with this story:
- We needed to give a worthy introduction to the school’s new dean
- We needed to show readers her clear and compelling vision for the future of the school
- We needed to show the significant support she had garnered with all the major constituencies of the college in ways that would help readers feel confident in her leadership
- We needed to show people that she was a real and relatable human being
It was a lot! But Rebekah and I were both on the same page from the outset. And I knew once we locked in the right approach, the rest of the process would go smoothly.
At least 80 percent of what makes a story successful is done in these early stages: positioning, packaging, and focusing on the handful of necessary components that will make a story leap off the page for the reader — while accomplishing critical institutional goals.
2. Match your goal with the right story packaging.
A good story is dependent not just on the story itself, but the way it’s told.
We could have chosen a traditional narrative, a list, an as-told-to, or a thousand other approaches.
But for a story in which we wanted to give readers the clearest possible look at the new leader, a Q&A was a perfect fit.
A Q&A allows readers to hear directly from the subject of the story in their own words. We knew we would add a sidebar so that others within the college and the larger community could share their perspectives on Kristof-Brown.
To help Rebekah and her designers see what I was envisioning, I pulled examples of similar approaches from business-minded publications including Fortune and the Wall Street Journal.
We ultimately decided to pursue a story packaged much like a job interview: Kristof-Brown would answer a handful of questions from the magazine, and we’d have her “references” packaged up in a sidebar, sharing their own experiences with the new dean.
We annotated the interview with stats that could highlight additional important details.
Here’s what Rebekah said about it:
“The best part of the process by far was how you laid out three strong approaches to this story for me to consider before you’d interviewed a single person. That blew me away and made the rest of the process so much easier to execute than any other experiences I’ve had working with freelance writers.
Also my dean was onboard with the narrative approach early in the process, which resulted in zero unpleasant surprise “change orders” late in the creative process.
I was drawn to the approach we ultimately went with because it allowed my dean to speak in her own voice to our alumni audience.
Using the “interview” narrative device was so clever, given that she was hired after going through a major international job search, and it allowed us to bring in the voices of others as “references.”
I also adore the “Read between the lines” device because it gave the reader these little Easter eggs without disrupting the narrative flow of the larger story. My designer loved it too, and it added tremendously to the layout of the story.”
3. Make the most of your opportunities.
Sometimes a story is not just a story!
It’s a project that can help you strengthen your credibility with your internal and external audiences.
Do the important stories right and you’ll be more likely to get the green light when you want to try new, ambitious, and creative things down the line.
You will have earned others’ confidence in your abilities.
This was the case for Rebekah:
“My dean was extremely happy with how the whole package turned out, which is always what you want when you’re working to build trust with new leadership!
I have a strong background in writing myself but having you do the heavy lifting on the story freed me up to spend more time working with my design team on the other parts of the package – like the cover and interior photography.
Early collaboration and planning allowed us to knock this one out of the park.”
Last but not least: here’s some advice from Rebekah on those high-stakes stories that you might have coming up:
“This is the moment to invest your resources in high caliber writing, photography, and design. It’s worth every penny.”
When the time is right, you can pull in experienced pros, learn from their expertise, reap the benefits, and then take everything from that experience and use it in your own work going forward.