way-too-many years in higher ed communications, I’ve been asked
to provide a few “tips” at this CASE conference. Never
one to miss a chance to play to an audience, I’ve agreed. While
most of these maxims will display less a mastery of the craft than
an obviously recent and serious brain injury, the more impressionable
among you may find them useful. To experienced communications pros
I would say “You already know these things or you’d be,
say, a lawyer.” And to new faces on the way up I would say “Save
yourself! Stop reading this right now and go talk to someone who actually
has some skills—like Brian Doyle at University of Portland.”
So, in no particular order…
Do everything you can not to buy into the somnolence.
Faculty, deans, administrators, presidents—with precious few
exceptions these talented, intelligent and well-meaning folks are
possessed of a conservative nature so deadly boring that it could
be used in chemical warfare. On every project, pretty much, they will
want you to do what’s been done before. Or do what they are
comfortable with. Unless your audience is composed of exactly these
same people, your publication, video, CD, whatever, will fail. If
you are trying to excite people, raise money—anything other
than administer general anesthesia—do not let them force you
to be boring!
Remember, always, that no one out there really cares.
I know you’re good. I know the project is good. I know the message
is important. But trust me, nobody out there really gives a lab animal’s
hind end. You’re competing with TV, books, sports, movies—everything
that wants their attention and interest. And most of that stuff has
naked people going for it. If you want a shot, your work has to take
them by the top two buttons and demand to be read, watched, whatever.
Give it energy, motion, weirdness—whatever makes it work in
the world. If it don’t tweak, it don’t speak.
Aint no light at the end of tunnel vision.
They know what they mean. You know what they mean. Would people who
watch reality TV? Would your Aunt Edna? When you talk to university
folks about a project, remember that the truths they hold to be self-evident
usually aren’t. And the assumptions about their departments
they know to be written in stone are complete ca-ca about 40 percent
of the time. Do research! Check everything out! Especially if you
are doing student recruitment or fund-raising. You may be surprised.
The corollary to this is:
Remember the 5 “W”s—Why, Why, Why, Why,
In your smiling, earnest, jes’ doin’ my job, boss, sort
of way—question everything. We need 4-color…why? We need
motion video instead of stills…why? We need a basic folder with
pockets…why? It has to be a standard size…why? It can’t
possibly be printed on old grocery sacks…why not? Trust me:
They’ll give you the We-didn’t-bring-you-here-to-cause-problems-we-brought-you-here-to-do-our-bidding
look. But stick to your guns if you can. Maybe some particular thing
really is needed—but if it isn’t justified, dump it. A
perfect example is something I’m asked to do about every other
month: shoot a color brochure in a lab. You’ve got three colors
in there, max: white, Pyrex and steel. Maybe a little blue where the
deadly bacteria live. Shoot it cool in black-and-white. Duotone it
If everybody loves you, you’ve blown it.
I’ve never done a piece of work that was any good that didn’t
piss somebody off. If you haven’t made some faculty person or
administrator nervous, if you don’t get a couple disgruntled
letters from people in the audience, you’ve been too careful—and
the public will ignore you like a four-hour documentary on Bulgarian
potato farming. The trick, of course, is not to piss off so many people
that you wind up living in a refrigerator carton. But don’t
sweat a few complaints—if the work is good, and (most important
of all) the work is working, you’ll be okay. But always take
pains to answer every complaint from someone important! Don’t
let them steam—show them you’re pretending to listen!
Once in while, they’re right.
I hate it when that happens. But they aren’t all mouth-breathers—I’ve
learned some important things from folks who think very differently
about communications than I do. So really do listen.
First the Big Idea, then the money.
Don’t go into something thinking about the budget. Now obviously
you can’t go totally nuts—but come up with the Big Idea,
the idea that will make the thing dance and sing, then figure out
how to do it with whatever pitiful scrap of moola you’ve got.
Getting the most out of what there is works—if it didn’t,
how would someone like me ever get a date? And sometimes—sometimes—if
the idea is big enough, they’ll give you more budget. Yeah,
It’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.
If something is good—you know down deep it’s good—and
you know that they’ll poop all over it if you ask…don’t
ask. That’s why you’re creative and they are molecular
geneticists. But, remember, be damn sure it’s going to be worth
the grovelling. Which leads us to:
Forget modern ethics…Take responsibility!
Computer error. It’s the printer’s fault. The mail house
screwed up. I thought the post-production guys were going to do it.
Cut the crap. I’m so tired of everybody passing the buck, I
could cry. Just shut up, move ahead, fix it. Besides, I’ve always
found that nothing derails somebody who wants my head on a platter
faster than getting right in their face and admitting that you blew
it and here’s what you’re doing to fix it. They’ll
deflate faster than a balloon at a porcupines’ picnic. And don’t
risk covering up—let people know there’s a problem before
they find out there’s a problem. With apologies to my more gentle
listeners: The ass you save will be your own.
Hire people that will stretch you, then get limber.
When you hire designers, shooters, producers, whatever, get the people
who are the best—and who are a little bit “out there.”
Give them your vision for the thing, then back off. Sure, you’re
probably going to have to rein them in at some point—but let
them go till you get really scared! Don’t be a control freak
until the very end. If you have a bad feeling about some idea, if
you’re afraid that it might offend the audience or won’t
do what the project is supposed to do, don’t use it. But if
you’re just worried that it’s too edgy for ((insert your
school’s name here)), get real. Edgy for a university is what
was happening about two lifetimes ago in the real world. Watch a little
MTV, then you’ll feel better.
Well, yeah, but…
Okay, okay. On the flip side: The exception to the rule, in my mind,
is readability. Don’t make your type so hip no one but 16-year-old
snowboarders can read it. And don’t be edgy just to be edgy—there
has to be a reason for it that makes sense with the message. Geez…I
hate being an adult.
Always try to make it good—at least once.
Do what you think is right, right off the bat. Never get careful because
you’re dealing with someone you know to be the most conservative
person in your particular solar system. Then, if they dump all over
it, at least you tried to make it good. And don’t take yourself
too seriously—just think, 1.4 billion Chinese people don’t
give a damn. And, well, it is the client’s money, I guess. Bummer.
Last but no way least (and at the risk of sounding like a
self-help book): Be yourself.
Factor it all in: your audience, your colleagues, your bosses. Know
which side of the bread has the butter on it. Schmooze or lose. But
down in the subbasement on the very bottom line, write for yourself
or design for yourself or manage for yourself. Make it work for your
audience. Make it dance for you. You’re still a winning lottery
ticket away from never having to compromise, but if you don’t
believe the work is good in some way it aint worth the heartbeats
(not to mention the trees). Put your own mask on first, then help
the others, if you catch my drift. Please yourself. If that makes
your projects work, you’ll be a happy little cubby. If it doesn’t…where
do they print those want ads?
When all else fails, remember these immortal words of wisdom:
“No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough
to keep up.” —Lily Tomlin