News came last week that the original Law and Order television series is being cancelled. It no longer will be telling stories “ripped from the headlines.” The show, coined “The Mothership,” spawned a number of other L&O series, and became a syndication juggernaut. It had quite a run tying Gunsmoke for the longest running television series in history (20 years).
Unfortunately, its once successful formula just doesn’t work today. Law and Order had been declining in the ratings for years, struggling to adapt to a changing media landscape geared more to right brain character-driven storytelling than left brain plot-driven storytelling.
Television programming–now more than ever–must create compelling characters and character relationships. The audience wants to get involved in character lives, whether it be scripted drama or reality television. Can you say, NCIS and Jersey Shore?
Even television advertising has had to adjust. Take Progressive Insurance. Years ago, it pushed its award-winning website that allowed for comparison shopping. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clip. But the ads were all about technology. They felt cold and distant. An actor on a set with green screen graphics behind him communicating the facts.
Next, they brought in a celebrity host, showing Progressive’s “office.” Still cold, although subtle humor is introduced.
Warming up, they evolved further with a “real life” situation. The voiceover at the end is now female.
Then they hit pay dirt. A mythical insurance store with a sassy hostess, Flo.
There are pages upon pages in Google search about these commercials and the character, Flo. They have hit a nerve. Progressive now successfully gets across its information through characters we get to know.
Character-driven storytelling. What are the implications for education and non-profits?
1. We’re essentially in the transformation business. Education and non-profits change the trajectory of lives. Tell those stories. It’s not that you shouldn’t communicate the facts. Just try representing them with real people. Use these stories to create moments that break up the communication of information in your publications.
Case in point: Take a look at the work of branding consultant and writer, Andrea Jarrell, for the Yale University Science and Engineering viewbook. Note how Andrea has personalized both students and faculty throughout the publication, how she used student thumbnails to break up the content, and how she creatively followed the paths of students from high school to Ph.D.
2. Use a storytelling voice. Way too many websites and alumni magazines report on how lives have been changed instead of telling stories. Shift from stiff journalistic writing to storytelling.
Case in point: Note story by writer, Joel Kilpatrick, for Vanguard University on alumnus Larry Mantle of Southern California Public Radio’s AirTalk with Larry Mantle.
3. Be real. Be lighthearted. Take your mission seriously, but not your institution. Show some personality. These will be the stories that students, alumni and donors will remember. And if done correctly, they’ll represent your brand culture.
In today’s media environment, it’s about people. The great news is that character-driven and mission-driven are made for each other. You don’t have to make up the stories!