Humans, Not Heroes

The other day, I was listening to an interview podcast on a run, and the guest said something that literally stopped me in my tracks. She was talking about her background, and she paused over her college education. Here’s what she said:

“I think I got a pretty nice education at [my university]. It wasn’t as good a school then as it is now, and I’m not sure I would’ve gotten into it now! I can see how competitive it is.”

The person who said this — the person who is not quite sure she would have the chops to get into her alma mater — was ELIZABETH GILBERT. You probably know her as the person who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, or maybe you know the movie of the same name starring Julia Roberts, or maybe you know her as one of Oprah’s BFFs.

I laughed when I heard it. It wasn’t because I thought that Elizabeth Gilbert was correct in her assessment. (I MEAN, COME ON.) I laughed because I’d heard a version of that comment from a million other alumni who had attended a million other schools. It was always some version of “I don’t know if I’d even get into [my alma mater] these days if I had to apply now.”

It’s easy to see why. In their alumni magazines, they’ve seen the announcements of their institution’s rise in the U.S. News rankings. They’ve seen the awards that the students are getting, the grants that faculty are landing, and the incredible work that everyone connected to the institution is doing.

If our jobs are to showcase our schools in the best possible light, it turns out that we might be doing those jobs a little TOO well.

Of course we want our alumni to feel proud of the work our schools our doing!

But we also want them to feel something else when they read about fellow alumni, current students, and even faculty. We want them to think to themselves: “These are my people.”

So how do we do that? To my mind, that doesn’t mean we scrap all the news about the incredible work our school’s people are doing. It just means that we should add in a few elements of humanity and humor into the mix.

gif of incredibles characters huggingMake your alumni superheroes lovable.

Here are three ways I think about doing that:

  • Ask the people you’re profiling about the elements that humanize them. Yes, that CEO/nonprofit leader/successful research scientist may have rocketed to the top of their field in relatively short order. But one thing you can do in your interviewing (and even give them a heads up in advance, so they can think about it), is to ask them a version of this question: “What was a significant failure you faced, and how did you overcome it?” The question still allows them to be the hero of the story! But it also requires them to share something that has humbled them.

  • Include a section devoted to non-braggy feedback. One of my favorite sections in my own alma mater’s alumni magazine is “Prompted” in which the editor asks a questions designed to get responses from…well, just about anyone.

    One example: “Write a memoir in six words, no more, no less.” Responses were funny, thoughtful, and humble. (Sample: “Resolved to make mistakes. Mostly successful.”) I could definitely see myself among this lovable pack of nerds and weirdos. Add a little section to your class notes if you can’t devote a whole page to something like this.

  • Restructure your feature concepts. Some of my favorite stories to report and read are ones that are more human by design. For example, years ago, I did a story for Macalester called “The Thing that Changed My Mind.” The very premise demands that people start at a point in which they were wrong!” Plus, the trajectory of the story is really what an education is all about: expanding our mind to open ourselves up to new ideas, empathize with other points of view, and seeing new ways of understanding the world we live in.

If you’ve got a little more leeway with your publication, you might even consider a story explicitly about failure! (This is hard! But it can be done.)

Your publications for your alumni should showcase the very best of your school. But they should also make your alumni feel that your school is a place they can still recognize, even as it improves and evolves.

Reach out to tell me how you’ve tried to humanize your own publications — or the struggles you face while trying to do this.