Sticky presentations require a great story

Syracuse squeezed itself out of the competition for Tyler

My son Tyler has narrowed his college choices to two.   How he got there gets to the heart of the importance of “sticky” presentations and why a two-day trip to two schools put one on the finalist list and took one pretty much off his radar. 

We started at Syracuse on a chilly October morning.  This part sticks with me because the presenter tried to make light of the weather from the moment we hit our seats.  Maybe it’s just me (and keep in mind, I actually went to the school and grew up in Buffalo) but cold weather should not be on the list of key selling points.

The presentation was dry, and the presenter was not particularly dynamic (although she seemed very nice).  She started with a video featuring famous and semi-famous alumni and appeared to have been made by an advertising firm that didn’t realize it was talking to teenagers.  Did Admissions forget that its communications schools is a selling point and that it has not one but two solid film schools?  Why not have a student film competition to highlight the school’s strengths. 

The rest of the presentation was more informative than memorable, with no real sales focus (I seem to remember a lot of bullets).  The worst part came as she dismissed the crowd by school for individual sessions.  She’d call out the name of the school (e.g., Newhouse) and then start highlighting the merits of the program as her target audience struggled to their feet, grabbed their bags, and headed out the door.

The tour wasn’t much better and I honestly think Tyler would have crossed Syracuse off his list then and there, had I not been along to talk about concerts on the Quad, Dance Marathon, games at the Dome, and late-night snack runs to Marshall Street.

So we left Syracuse and headed to D.C. and our tour of American University.

Things were different there.  A 20-something admissions person (and alum) talked about her experiences.  Trick or treating at embassies.  She illustrated her point about the high percentage of international students by talking about political science classes on Middle Eastern politics with students who lived through bombings and fighting in the streets.  She actually made the pursuit of dual majors interesting.   Last week — yes, five months later — I asked Tyler what he remembered and the kid who can’t remember to turn off his lights or stop texting while doing homework rattled off a number of memories from the presentation.

American has been the leader in the clubhouse since that visit.  A recent visit to Drexel made it a two-horse race for a similar reason: The head of the film department sat down with Tyler to talk about her vision for the program, talking about her ability to “see beyond the curve” of the road.  Once again, passion carried the day.  She also had a great story — no deck, but a great ability to communicate the path — and that, combined with outstanding facilities and equipment and the willingness to put a camera in his hands from Day One, means it’s now a two-horse race.

I’ve posted here before about a story-driven, bullet-light approach to PowerPoints.  Dan Heath is in Fast Company magazine this month talking about “sticky” presentations and has some great resources on his website (links are in the FC article).  And both Nancy Duarte (slide:ology) and Garr Reynolds (Presentation Zen) have great presentation-centered blogs and are passionate advocates of storytelling.

I suspect many of you have had similar college-admissions experiences.  Take some time to think about your story, your audience, and your message.  What will you do differently the next time you have a presentation that’s designed to capture someone’s imagination or ignite their passion?

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3 thoughts on “Sticky presentations require a great story

  1. Pete, I’m sorry your son didn’t see the ultimate, long-term value of studying at Newhouse. Granted, the SU presentation could have been a lot better, and the weather in CNY is, in fact, terrible.
    That having been said, I am still immensely proud to be a Newhouse alum (It helped me achieve my lifelong career goal fairly quickly.) and I wouldn’t trade my college experience for anything. I wish your son great luck and success. DC is a great city and I’m sure he’ll love American!

    1. Duke, Thanks for the comment. Like you, I’m also a Newhouse alum and love the school so I know the University had the value proposition covered, even if it was through a passionate third party. (BTW, I’m from Buffalo, so the weather didn’t bother me at the time).

      That said, it is the University’s responsibility to demonstrate what makes it special and why it’s the best option…No company should rely purely on passion and loyalty in selling a product.

      As you might have seen in a later post, there were other factors that led to his decision — some of them due to a surprising level of arrogance and process breakdown on the part of the school as it related to financial aid (and I’ve run into at least six other parents with similar experiences who either read my post or were attending Orientation at American with Tyler.

      I wouldn’t trade my time at Syracuse for anything either. But I’m not sure it’s the same place it was back in the late 1970s. I’m proud of Tyler who made his decision for the right reasons — American was the right place at the right time for him…and they understood how to highlight what made them different.

      Again, thanks for your comment.

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