What’s Changing? Creative Briefs and Using Story Arcs in Pitch Presentations

It’s that time of year. The tradition must continue! It is time, of course, for my ‘What’s Changing’ blog post to start off the semester. I’ve been writing these posts for years as a way to highlight key changes I have in mind for the semester ahead. For example, here’s last semester’s post.

So, without further ado, here are a few things that are changing, new, or worth noting for the semester ahead. Specifically, this post is going to focus on my COMM 470 Strategic Campaigns [see the syllabus] class as there a few things small changes that I have in mind which I think will have a big impact on student learning.

COMM 470 Strategic Campaigns

This year my campaigns class will be taking on Adopets, a startup based in Boston that is building a new way to connect animal lovers and rescues to improve the pet adoption process. I am thrilled about this opportunity as we’ll be taking on Adopets during an exciting time for the company. Working with startups is an incredible opportunity for the students. They get to witness firsthand the entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and hard work that must go into building a successful venture. It also creates a powerful opportunity to for students to have a real impact.

A focus for me this semester in the campaigns class is trying to help students ideate more effectively when brainstorming their ideas for their campaign. I’ve noted that in the past, students tend to get stuck ‘in the weeds,’ lost in the minutia of goals, objectives, strategies and tactics. They are so concerned with correctly creating and formatting these steps that they appear to get stuck when it comes to seeing the big picture and creating powerful ideas that will drive their campaign. It is akin to having writer’s block because one is too concerned about what nouns and verbs are and is thus unable to focus on the idea one wants to convey. In other words, I’ve noticed that students seem to struggle to come up with creative ideas because they are so concerned about writing their campaign plan. So this semester I am trying to recenter the focus on the ideas. I am telling the students that writing up their strategies and tactics will flow from that. One way I’m doing that is by focusing on the creative brief.

Last semester, students in my social media class had the eye-opening opportunity to have Keith Stoeckeler (Twitter | LinkedIn) Skype in.  Keith has been an advocate for helping better prepare college students for careers in digital and has graciously donated his time to talking to many professor’s classes. Keith also shared a copy of the creative brief document he uses to develop campaign ideas.

This got me to take a twist on my approach. One thing I work on in the campaigns class is having students deconstruct other campaigns. So I redesigned my approach, developing a creative brief document inspired in part by Keith’s. While students have written strategic briefs in the social media class, they are a bit loaded down with questions and requirements (to get the students doing a lot of things I want them to learn). Said another way, those briefs weren’t super, well, brief. In my campaigns class now, the briefs are…  you guessed it, much briefer, and thus more focused.

This semester I’m having my students reverse engineer the campaigns they explore via in class activities by completing a creative brief about those campaigns, as if they were crafting them from scratch to be pitched. Later, I’m going to have the students use the creative brief handout when building out their own campaign ideas. My hope is that by keeping the students focused on this one single document  the students will feel closer to the process of creating a brief because they will have practiced it through reverse engineering. This is a different tact than I used in the past. In the past when students were deconstructing real campaigns, I would give them worksheets that I created with questions tailored to that day’s topic, such as formative research or target audience.

In the end, I am hoping that by keeping the students focused on this brief they will better be able to brainstorm their campaign ideas and then they will do a better job of extrapolating from those ideas into the necessary, organized components of the campaign. A big thank you to Keith for the inspiration!

Another change I am making in my campaigns class has to do with teaching students to pitch to a potential client via a pitch presentation.

In my campaigns class, students pitch their campaigns to the client. Each team is competing with one another. Teaching students how to pitch can be a challenge. I’ve been teaching it in both my PR Principles and my Strategic Campaigns classes for years and I am always looking for ways to improve. It just seems that students struggle with translating the ideas in their campaign document into a presentation.

Recently, I came across a great post by Keith Quesenberry about teaching students to use a dramatic storytelling arc when pitching. Definitely check it out if you haven’t read it yet. Keith’s work is fantastic and the content he creates is always inspiring to me because he offers a clear and fresh perspective with an emphasis on the actionable.  In the post, Professor Quesenberry provides a great graphic demonstrating the dramatic arc and how it corresponds to the stages of the pitch.

I’m showing Quesenberry’s dramatic arc graphic to my students this semester. Further, Keith’s post got me to update the slides I use to teach pitching to my students. I also created a handout to give my students to help them format their presentations, based on my experience teaching public speaking way, way, way back in graduate school.

Keith’s post also got me thinking about how I could better structure my class to help students prepare for their pitch.  So, I re-organized the class schedule in an attempt to address this.

In the past, I had students pitch their campaign proposals about midway through the class. These pitches were just to myself and the other students. Then, at the end of the semester, each team pitched the client on their finished campaign. I did this because I thought the practice would pay off. Yet, what I found is, the proposal presentation was actually hampering the students’ final presentations of their campaigns. Rather than refocusing their presentations when creating their final presentations, students tended to try and add on additional information to their already long proposal presentations. Thus, the final presentation was like a Frankenstein version of their proposal presentation and not a smooth, flowing, focused pitch. Said another way, I think the way I was doing things was inadvertently leading students to produce a long, boring, unfocused presentation.

If you look at the spring 2019 syllabus, you’ll see that I dropped the proposal presentation. In its place, I took the newly-gained day of class and put it towards a student presentation walk through. In the past, I have had students do a practice run of their complete presentation to my class prior to presenting it to the client. We are still going to do that. But the added walk through ate is a time where student teams are meeting just with me to go slide by slide through their presentation to offer feedback. After that, they will do their practice run in front of class, and their final run in front of the client.

I am hopeful that this new approach will help students stay focused on telling the story of their pitch, a la Quesenberry’s arc discussed above. In so doing, I hope that it will help the students focus on sharing relevant details in their pitch at strategically chosen times, rather than getting bogged down in the distracting details.

I am excited to see how my campaigns class goes this semester. I’ve got a good bunch of students, students who are bringing energy and enthusiasm to this project.

Cheers!

– Matt

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