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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.

Better Transcriptions, Grumpy Alumni, And Video Quick Hits

We’ve had a busy summer here at Capstone HQ, but we took some time to put together an update with what we’ve been up to. Enjoy!

First, here are a few stories the Capstone team has worked on:

I also take on a few projects each quarter. Here’s a sample:

  • Do you want to hear my opinion on politics? OF COURSE YOU DON’T. You want to hear the opinions of Harvard Law professors who weigh in on the history of presidential power grabs.

  • It’s a business truism that you never want to be the smartest person in the room. When you’re interviewing a bunch of Phi Beta Kappa members for a story about the prestigious, brainy organization, you can pretty much guarantee that you’re the dummy in the equation. I was! It was delightful. My story for Albion here.

  • Many women (and a lot of men) have had to think about whether to change their names at marriage. Does it matter what we call ourselves? This story for Smith Alumnae Quarterly will make you appreciate the complexity of this process — and why, as a culture, we seem to care so much.

Now, on to a few other things we think you’ll love:

  • Check out our video series. Over the past few months, we’ve put together a bunch of short videos to improve your communications. We’ve shared ideas on headlines, covers, sources, and interviews. Missed any? Visit our YouTube channel here.

  • Does your magazine make your alumni feel bad? Find out why your magazine may be alienating your alumni — and the simple tweaks you can make to draw them back in.

  • Could this Twitter account be the inspiration for your next story? Not long ago, I started following an irreverent Twitter account, @justsaysinmice. Its aim was simple: post all those breathless media stories about scientific research touting “new treatment” or “miracle food” with the caveat that few noted within the stories: the research had been conducted only in mice.

    In other words: all those tantalizing headlines weren’t a reflection of what was actually going on — not by a long shot.

    The account itself is making a big impact, but it also made me think of the work our schools do to promote faculty research. Could you do a story that explains the actual process of research? How does a smart idea go from lab bench to bedside? Why does it take so long? A story I did for Purdue awhile ago, Eureka!, gets at this topic.

Should you pony up for buck-a-minute transcription? I’ve made no secret of my love for Rev, a knockout transcription service service that does lightning-fast transcription for $1/minute. (Capstone is categorized as a “highly active user” of Rev’s service.)

Still, I often hear from folks who want to know how I feel about AI transcription for about 10¢/minute. Here is how I feel: THUMBS DOWN.

Recently, Rev’s AI division proved me right. In what seems to me an inappropriately braggy blog post, they shared that their AI transcription service got 14 out of every 100 words WRONG.

bar graph showing accuracy of different AI transcription services
AI transcription is terrible. The end.

Yeah, Rev AI was modestly better than the other terrible options, BUT THEY’RE ALL CRUMMY. Invest in good transcription! You’ll save yourself a *ton* of time that will allow you to do more important things than…well, transcription.

As always, we love to hear what you think about these ideas. Hit reply and let us know what you agree with and what you disagree with!

The 5x approach to campus news

Are your campus news stories starting to feel a little stale? Does telling one more exactly-the-same story on that new dean, award-winning student, or updated program ranking make you die a little inside?

Check out this short video on how to improve your campus news stories with a simple rule of thumb.

Let me know what you think!

The “five-year value” of your print alumni magazine

One of my all-time favorite podcasts is Longform, which features in-depth interviews with narrative nonfiction writers.

Recently, the podcast featured Casey Cep, the author of the white-hot national bestseller about Harper Lee called The Furious Hours.

In the interview, Cep mentioned that when she was a college student she got a fellowship that allowed her to write for her alumni magazine (Harvard, natch).

The two continue to talk about alumni magazines for a moment, and then the host, Aaron Lammer, says something very interesting about his experience with his own alumni magazine:

Black text on a white background with a quote from Longform podcast host Aaron Lammer that says,  "I bought myself five years of my parents not thinking I was a failure because the Wesleyan alumni magazine mentioned Longform [podcast] once.

Yes, this was just a few fleeting moments in a much longer podcast about something totally different. Lammer wasn’t dead serious about the exact value of that alumni magazine story.

But do you see what’s going on there, directionally?

Being featured in a print magazine gave his work credibility to other people.

Lammer didn’t have to hope that the people he knew would check out his alma mater’s website. He didn’t have to self-promotionally send out a thing on Facebook or Instagram or email. The print magazine is is literally being sent to people’s homes.

You can probably imagine that his podcast’s appearance in the magazine was noted by fellow classmates. You might imagine his parents keeping a copy of that magazine on their coffee table, which they might point to when their friends were over.

I actually emailed Lammer about this after I heard it; he said the Wesleyan magazine is one of the few magazines he still gets in print. And if you listen to his work, you’ll realize reading magazines is a huge part of his job! Wesleyan’s magazine still stands out to him, in part, because it is in print. (You can read more about my many thoughts about this in my case for print alumni magazines — with real numbers.)

In today’s world, print feels fundamentally more valuable than online. It is a thing people can hold in their hands, a thing that says: “We invested real money to bring this story to you. It’s worth the paper, the staples, the printing, and the mailing.”

GUYS, THESE THINGS MATTER.

It’s why I get so furious when magazine editors talk cavalierly about ditching their print magazine’s class notes sections or putting them behind a password-protected wall on a website. I get frustrated when schools decide to cut pages or cut issues because of the cost savings, without realizing the value they’re destroying in the process.

It’s not just information that people are after. It’s the validity and credibility that print provides that makes a difference.

How many people keep a magazine around their house for months because they’re in it? How many people tear out that tiny callout you wrote about the alumni author in the class notes? How many people tuck a story about themselves from your publication into a folder that they keep for their whole lives?

For many people, their appearance in the class notes, in a tiny blurb up front, or in the authors section, may be the biggest-deal recognition they ever get for their work. And it was their alma mater that cared enough to feature them! That’s a good look for your institution.

Even tiny stories might be worth a full five years of parental pride.

Find ways to do more of that, not less.

It’s not just those starting-out stories that matter. A few years ago, I wrote a story about a billionaire (yep, billionaire with a “b”) who owns dozens and dozens of television and radio stations across the country. This guy knows media inside and out! He controls it! And when that story about him appeared in the alumni magazine, his administrative assistant emailed me about three seconds after it was published to ask if her boss could get 10 copies, pronto. (I passed the note along to the editor and suggested she charge $1 million per issue, but I think she mailed them out for free. Nobody takes my good advice.)

I don’t want to take too much credit for the fact that he later went on to give millions of dollars to the school WHICH IS NOW NAMED AFTER HIM, but you can probably imagine that the story didn’t hurt.

Your print magazine matters. Feature lots of people at all stages of their success, and in lots of ways, whether you give them 20 words or 200 words or 2,000 words.

They may never tell you that it means a lot to them. But it absolutely does.

Do you need more exclamation marks in your writing? Yes! Here’s why.

Here are a few things my team and I have found lately that we think are worth your time.

Struggling with a roundup? Roundup stories are a great way to profile a series of alumni or faculty in a similar field, but how do you make that story reader-friendly? Here are a few suggestions.

Everyone can appreciate some dumb grammar jokes, right? Here’s the rest of the list from above.

And speaking of punctuation… Many of us spent our formative years learning to excise exclamation marks from our writing. But in some cases, we might want to use more, not fewer. If you spend a lot of time emailing — connecting with sources, writers, editors and others — read the argument for adding in a few more exclamation marks into your messages.

An intriguing oral history. I like just about any story about colleges that appears in mainstream magazines, so of course I loved this oral history about Bennington’s freshman class of 1982, which included literary heavyweights Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Letham, and Donna Tartt. I especially appreciated how they integrated meaningful ideas from Donna Tartt, even though she wasn’t interviewed for the story. If you’re considering doing an oral history of some part of your institution’s past but don’t have access to an important source, this is a worthwhile template to consider.

Thanks for reading!

Erin

How many sources do you need for a feature story?

When you’re mapping out that big feature story, how many sources should you have?

Check out the video below to learn the rule of thumb that we use to help every story feel robust and well-reported.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

Ugh, how do I tell this story?

Let’s set the scene: you’re planning out the next issue of your magazine, and you have that story to do.

And you don’t want to deal with it.

That story looks different for everyone.

  • Maybe it’s an annual update of the story you did last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.
  • Maybe it’s that strategic priority story that doesn’t seem to have a lot of “there” there.
  • Maybe it’s that series of VIP donor profiles your president has been nagging you to write. But you can’t imagine writing more than 10 words about any of them.
  • Maybe it’s a really cool story — a topic you’ve been dying to cover — but now that it’s official, you’re panicking that you can’t make it as good as you imagined.

I’ve been there with you: the retiring faculty feature package, the campaign story, the roundup of alumni in XYZ field.

So how do you tackle it? How do you make it something that your audience actually wants to read?

This is an issue I struggled with for years. I’d procrastinate. I’d complain about it to friends. I’d do a cursory search of the web or post a message on one of the writers’ groups I belonged to in search of a brilliant idea.

And then I mostly just did what I’d done before.

But this started to change a few years ago — and now I rarely feel stuck.

It’s not magic! I’m sharing my exact process below.

Build your “good idea database”

A few years ago, I was having lunch with an editor who always seemed to have creative story ideas and knew just how to package them. Surely, I asked him, he had some sort of go-to list or editor encyclopedia that he could consult to figure out the best way to tell any story?
He said he didn’t have any specific resource that he consulted — but if I was so curious about it, maybe I should just build my own “good idea database.”

So I did! It took some real trial and error. But I consider it one of the most powerful tools in the Capstone arsenal. My team and I add to the database every single month. Here’s just a tiny slice of that database:

A snapshot of the database Capstone uses weekly—if not daily—for client projects.

We use this database to develop and refine story ideas, to serve as a launching pad for talks we give to higher ed communicators across the country, and to write this newsletter. It’s hugely important to us.

Here’s exactly how we did it:

1. Start with as much “data” as possible. Get as many magazines as your budget will allow. I subscribe to more than 20. My current favorites are The Hollywood Reporter, Fast Company, Bon Appetit, and New York. (Not a magazine editor? Do the same for the media you work in most frequently, and adjust the instructions that follow accordingly!)

2. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Spend a few minutes flipping through the magazines each week, and when you find something that looks interesting — especially if it’s a story that you wouldn’t normally be interested in, but something about the approach drew you in — snap an image of it with your phone.

3. Enter the story into your database. Use a tool like Airtable to store your images.

4. Categorize wisely. Make sure you categorize it in a few different ways so you can find when you need it. I often remember things by the headline and the publication it appeared in, but I also try to note various categories I think I might use it for in the future — a roundup, a story likely to lead to reader feedback, a story that focuses on pairings.

5. Keep it simple. One of the things I tried to do initially was to include a million different categorizations – bylines, dates, notes. But over time, I found that this was more of an annoying obstacle than a useful tool. I wanted to be able to add things to my database quickly, and if I had to spend 10 minutes laboring over each entry, I simply wouldn’t do it. In the words famously attributed to Einstein, “Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

6. Use it! Yes, it sounds ridiculous. But make sure you’re carving out time at each part of your story process to review what you’ve collected. Sometimes, a single entry at the right moment can help unlock a story in a useful way. It’s easy to start building these resources and then let them collect dust. Don’t let that be you.
We use our database constantly. While the published story might only look a bit like the template that launched it, you can almost always see its DNA.

For example, when Purdue Alumnus wanted to do a big feature on its “Take Giant Leaps” 150th anniversary, Capstone used this New York magazine story from our idea database to create the Giant Leaps Academy feature package.

We used this Creative People feature as the launching point for Kenyon Alumni Bulletin’s How I Got Into Politics.

Yes, it takes time to build this database, and you have to be consistent. But the long-term payoff is huge.

Do you use any tools like this? Let me know.

Before & After: A magazine cover makeover

What do you do if you have a mediocre cover?

Check out this 82-second video to see the before and after images of the most recent Medicine at Michigan cover — including the exact process editor Katie Vloet took to transform the cover from so-so to spectacular.

Send me an email to let me know what you think!

Are You Maximizing The “Prestige of Print”?

A few months ago, I was chatting with a young alum about a story I had been asked to write about her. She asked where the piece was going to appear, and I explained that it would be both online and in the print magazine.

She got very excited. “Oh, I didn’t know it was going to be real, too!” she said, asking me to mail her a copy once it was published.

More valuable than you think.

On the face of it, it was a strange comment. Yet I knew immediately what she meant. You probably do, too.

Seeing a story in a print magazine — a beautiful physical object — felt more “real” than the exact same story online. Even if that online story had the potential to reach a larger group of people. Even if it could be shared with her friends and family with the click of a link.

I’ve always thought that print offers something that digital can’t, but I’m not sure I fully grasped the contrast until I read that the New York brand published a new story online every six minutes. (Note that grim dek that accompanies it: “…and ‘the editing process is zero, pretty much.’ “)

In the time it took the outlet to publish a single print publication, more than 3,000 stories were published online.

The print publication, by contrast, includes an average of just 30 stories in each issue. In other words, just 1 percent of its stories made it to print.

The prestige of print

You might not have the same ratio of print stories to online stories at your institution, but it’s probably directionally similar. Maybe your institution has 10 or 20 or 50 times as many stories online as in print.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that we unconsciously value the stories in print publications more than online ones.

If you’re going to take the trouble to print a tiny percent of the stories your institution produces, people will value that content differently. They will see those stories as more prestigious than the significantly greater amount of content that people can find on your website.

The internet feels infinite. Anyone can post almost anything at any time.

But you can’t put everything in a print magazine. You have to make judgments. You have to decide what is worth creating, editing, designing, printing, and mailing.

Not everything is going to make the cut.

Think about the content you’re putting in your magazine right now. Are you using that space wisely? How could you make it even better?

A headline trend worth copying

A good headline can mean the difference between a story’s success and failure.

So how do you write one that works?

Here’s a recent trend I’ve noticed — and loved — in headlines.

This 90-second video shares plenty of examples that you can use as templates for your own work — and it’s ideal for that profile headline you can’t quite crack.

(Want to know how to write a scroll-worthy profile? Check out this video.)

Like these? Loathe them? Take the survey here to help shape the next topics Capstone covers!

Erin