Context matters (you can set the stage for success).

Getting feedback from senior administrators or committees is part of working in higher ed. Communication projects (e.g., brochures, websites, social media, and video) are typically previewed to campus execs and stakeholders prior to release, right? We’ve all been there: project request made, brainstorming complete, piece produced, final deadline looming but still doable. The scary part is asking others to look at what you’ve done and collect their feedback. There’s always the chance the review phase will stall or derail your efforts.

In my judgment, viewing this feedback phase as part of the equation can make the end product even better. Along the way, as you brainstorm, eliminate options, and make design and content decisions, you should have in mind the questions, comments and suggestions of those who will ultimately preview your work. I suggest that being ready for the questions and suggestions when others review the results should be part of the project. Having to explain why and why not is actually a good test of your own decisions.

Early in my career, I learned this from a boss who coached me on presentations. I was a compensation analyst at the time and was prepping monthly for meetings of senior HR executives. Each month, I presented cases for pay increases for individuals and/or groups of employees based on salary survey and benchmark data. The goal was to get their approval of my recommendations. My boss and I would practice the day before – I’d run through the case with her as the audience. In the first few months, she had a lot of suggestions and they made me better at conveying the context of my recommendations. By the end of my time there, we had sort of made a game out of it. My goal was to get through the practice session without her thinking of something I hadn’t thought of including. She was good and I’m grateful.

Times have changed and so much of what we present for feedback now takes the form of a link that we include in an email message. Sure, it’s efficient – no weeks of delay getting everyone in the same room for a presentation. But the risk of this approach is you’re not there to share the context. In my experience, the link in the message often sets off a storm of reply-all email responses. Some questions and unworkable suggestions can be avoided with a little set up. Remember that a subset of the individuals you sent the message to will actually see the questions and concerns of others before they see your product. Essentially, this means that, if you don’t, other feedback providers will get the chance to set the context for your work. Not good.

To help things along, I put some effort into a well-crafted email message that offers context for a product I’m sending out for review. Here’s what I include:

  • Reminders
    Set the stage by reminding everyone of the goals and parameters. If you’re lucky, that will prevent any rehashing of a decision made before you started the project.
  • Decisions
    Describe choices you made about content, design, medium, etc. Whenever possible, ground those decisions in data, research, and best practices. Address even the sticky wickets head on.
  • Promotional Text
    You are making a case and it should be compelling. Include language that is persuasive and confident. A positive approach to your work inspires confidence from others.
  • The Link
    Yes, the whole point of the message is to offer the link but not at the top of the message. The link to a preview of your work should be placed below the context. Most will read your preamble and this will influence their mindset once they click on the link.

My team recently produced a 30-second promotional spot to be used during televised athletic events and here is the email message that I sent to senior leadership at William & Mary.

Good morning all,

As you know, Creative Services has been working on a new institutional spot for William & Mary. This 30-second “commercial” will be used during televised athletic events. Yesterday, we previewed the spot with Taylor and Jim with a follow up plan for sending the link to all of you.

Here is a bit of background that I hope you’ll read before viewing the spot. While producing this, we analyzed 1) what we wanted this to be, 2) who the audience is, and 3) what ultimately makes this spot special.

What we wanted this to be:

  • visually compelling
    (This spot has to stand up between a Bud Lite ad and a Geico commercial.)
  • simple, simple, simple
    (We only have 30 seconds! You may recall that I mentioned a recommended 60-80 words for a 30-second spot; we landed on a count of just 25 words.)
  • elegant and sophisticated
    (Simple and elegant have worked for us in the past; e.g., the 2010 Wren drawing holiday greeting.)
  • a demonstration of W&M’s special place in the history of the nation
    (This is an unassailable claim for us and it’s powerfully important for the W&M brand.)
  • different than the spots that most schools create
    (Many spots are simply photo slideshows of campus and students that don’t say much and aren’t visually compelling; they all tend to run together during viewing.)

Who the audience is:

  • people at a live athletic event or people who are watching college sports on TV
  • individuals who have never heard of William & Mary
  • not alumni
    (Yes, those who know us will see this but they already have an impression. To influence those who don’t know us, we could not rely on an emotional response to visual elements and language that we know our alumni relate to when thinking of W&M.)

What makes this piece special:

  • it’s all true
    (To quote what Taylor yesterday, “That means a lot.”)
  • the elements were created by William & Mary people
    (W&M Speech Professor Michelle King recorded the voiceover. The music is original; it was composed and recorded by Creative Services’ Justin Schoonmaker ’09. The art direction was provided by a current W&M student, Creative Services’ Joel Pattison. Technical and production expertise was offered by Creative Services’ Andrew Bauserman ’91.)

You can preview the 30-second TV spot using this link.

Go Tribe!

Susan T. Evans
Director of Creative Services


Author: susantevans

Susan T. Evans is director of corporate and foundations relations at the College of William & Mary. She is a proven strategic leader with deep expertise in advancement, communications, brand management, marketing, digital strategy, technology, administration and organizational development. She is known for creative and strategic approaches to challenges within higher education, nonprofits and business.

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