• Issue #16

Collaboration FTW

A group of horses gathers around a fire in the woods.

And now, here’s part two of Kristin’s series on developing your institution’s voice.

Thanks for being here.

Collaborating on your Institution’s Voice

Last week I wrote the first part of a two-part series (a diptych? dilogy?). It was titled “Developing your institution’s voice,” but much of it was about developing YOUR voice.

Here’s why we need part two: you’re not the solitary writer for your institution, and if you are, where are you getting your coffee?

So, you’ve done all the things. You’ve written a lot of content. You’ve started thinking about writing (in books, articles, podcasts, movies, and TV shows) in that meta way where you pay attention to the creators’ voices. You’ve even started reading your own writing out loud to catch and develop your flow.

How do you translate this practice into something that makes collaborative writing stronger and more consistent?

It depends a little on your level in your institution and if you have responsibilities for hiring and managing others. So, I’m going to break these recommendations into two categories: collaborative voice development for managers and collaborative voice development for single contributors.

Collaborative voice development for managers

One - Go to bat for your writers.

Every institution of higher education has some subject matter experts who get really hung up on how their website’s writing represents their department and their work. But, faculty and administrators have many audiences, including their own disciplinary peers and their own readers. When your website hosts profiles of experts, the context of those profiles matters a lot to them.

As a manager, be willing to advocate for and protect your writers and their own expertise. They have their own audiences they are writing for, and they are stewarding the institutional brand.

Two - Ask people how they work on developing their skill in writing.

Whether you are interviewing candidates for a writing position or meeting with your writers in regular one-on-ones, ask your writers how they work on their own writing craft and how they know they are getting better. Listen to what they tell you, and make a note of it so you can return to this process and help your writer refine it.

You see, you want to convey that this is a priority for you as a manager and that you care about the quality of their work and their own fulfilling journeys. Coach them on seeking ways to improve their skills, especially if they intend to pursue writing-heavy careers.

Three - Earmark professional development funds for writing development.

Professional development doesn’t always have to come in the form of expensive conferences and certificates. Buy your team of writers great books on writing. Host brown bag lunches with faculty from your journalism program. Partner with your writing programs and solicit student critiques and feedback.

And, if you have the resources, by all means, send your writing staff to a few of the dozens of conferences about content strategy, content design, storytelling, and UX writing.

Four - Get your writers together and on the same page.

For a consistent writing product, you must explicitly articulate your brand personality. This means agreeing to be the right place for some students and the wrong place for others.

Own your value proposition and convey it through your style. If you don’t have a clear position in the higher ed market, you can’t write something so specific that a prospective student thinks, “This feels like it’s meant for me.”

Five - Create a community of practice.

As a leader, this is your responsibility to cultivate. You set the criteria for success for your writers, and you set the incentives.

Incentivize a culture of learning through critique. Reward the writers who improve through community participation and deliberate practice. Develop a pathway to career advancement through teaching and learning from colleagues. Collaboration, humility, curiosity, and generosity are highly promotable skills. The people who practice these values will make extraordinary mentors and managers.

Collaborative voice development for single contributors

One - Collectively write for one.

Identify a single student worker you all know and like. We all have at least one, right? Now everybody, write for that student. If you’re all on the same page about the type of student you want to attract, find the tangible epitome of that student.

Writing to a specific person gives you a clearer sense of their needs, what they are likely to find confusing when they are likely to tune out or experience frustrations, and what causes them to feel seen and understood. And the fun part is that if you are still unsure because you’ve picked a specific student, you can actually ask them for their opinions and reactions. Additionally, it will help your team synthesize your respective writings.

Two - Imitate, imitate, imitate.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery… and the path to consistent writing across teams. When you write, imagine a specific person reading every word to your target audience.  Consider how that person would explain a process or persuade a student to read further down the page.

If you’re all writing for the same person and from the same person, you’re all writing like each other. There will be consistency and a flow between your content.

Three - Read each other’s writing.

If you work on a team of writers, get together to read each other’s work and discuss it. This serves multiple purposes. First, you get to know the messages each person is trying to convey.  Second, you recognize when your program and department content sounds too similar for readers to discern the essential differences.

Here’s an example: Say you have programs in both social work and counseling. You could write very similar content for each page without noticing. Which is this content written for? “Lead in a helping profession. Learn from experienced and compassionate faculty.  Gain a strong foundation in theory and research while inspiring positive transformations in the people you serve.” Reading each others’ work helps everyone to generate specific and meaningful content in service of the reader.

Four - Edit across multiple dimensions.

When someone asks for a second set of eyes, they’re typically looking for someone to catch basic spelling and grammar mistakes. But you can get into the practice of both asking for editing along different criteria. Try reading someone else’s work with a single-minded focus on clarity. How can you make this sentence clearer? How about the next one? How about this paragraph, how it’s organized, and how it fits into the broader goals of the writing?

Take that same sentence-by-sentence practice to other dimensions of your content. Try editing for usability (is this content actionable?), for helpfulness (would the reader quickly learn things they want or need to know?), and through dimensions of your brand (would the reader infer ‘innovation’ from this writing? How about sincerity?).

Five - Share what you learn.

When you learn a new technique, find a helpful tool, or up your game in some way, share your experience with others on your writing team so that they can produce the same results as you.

The more you’re willing to share your trade secrets, the more likely your team will benefit. And think about it. This is a great way to maximize professional development resources while demonstrating their value.

In closing…

The critical thing to remember is that high-quality writing is something that can be nurtured, but it takes buy-in and thoughtful investment.

Focusing on a consistent and unique institutional voice may seem like a nice to-do on a long list of many nice-to-dos when we have time. But in terms of which nice-to-dos produce results, your institutional voice is near the top of the list. The clearer you are about WHO you are, the more memorable you’ll be to your audiences.

Kristin Van Dorn