As communicators at Virginia Tech, we elevate the university, inform the campus community, and encourage readers to engage with and give to the university. We do this by telling stories that demonstrate how Hokies are a force for positive change and how the university positively impacts the lives of others. Storytelling and messaging should be done with a view of supporting university priorities and fitting within the brand strategy. It should be done holistically with visuals in mind to tell the story in the best way, which may include photos and video.
Here are several principles to keep in mind when crafting brand communications for Virginia Tech:
Know your audience
There’s a world of difference between the interests of a transfer student and an alumnus, and what’s important to an international student is different still. Write to the reader’s experience and expectations and your story will resonate more strongly.
Speak to one person at a time
Imagine you’re writing a letter to a friend or a loved one. It will naturally focus your message and keep you honest in every sense.
Say one thing well
People are busy. Attention spans are short (and getting shorter). Determine your one essential message and stick to it. Mixed messages are rarely effective.
Make headlines count
An effective headline is as much an invitation as it is a declaration. Make an undeniable appeal to the reader that goes far beyond labeling the content below it.
Make copy sing
Play off your headline, get to the point, support it well, and finish strong. The goal is to get your readers all the way to the end. Reward them for their time.
Make data matter
Statistics, rankings, totals, and rates of success aren’t the story; they exist to help make your case to the reader. The numbers can add to your message, but they’ll never take the place of it.
Avoid clichés and jargon
We are an institution like no other, and our work has meaning. Our language should never feel expected, and readers needn’t be insiders to identify with our story.
After writing any communication, you’ll want to gut-check it. Here is a list of considerations. If you can’t say yes to each question below, revisit your work and revise it.
The Gut Check
- Does it support our value proposition?
- Does it align with our creative narrative?
- Does it lead with a benefit defined in our messaging strategy?
- Does it pair a corresponding benefit and attribute?
- Does it sound like something a person with our brand’s personality traits would say?
- Does it sound even better when you read it out loud?
- Does it include at least one of our key messages?
- Is it appropriate for the intended audience?
- Does it get to the point, without burying the key message?
- Do the headlines convey our voice, instead of simply labeling the content?
- Does it move beyond simply stating the facts to reveal something bigger about Virginia Tech, our mission, and our place in the world?
Follow the principles of Smart Brevity to guide your writing and make it accessible to your audiences.
If you have a specific need for messaging on an existing or upcoming university initiative, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Aligning Top-Level Messaging
Outlines how the top-level things we emphasize are interrelated. You can sing from the same song sheet as you talk about the Beyond Boundaries vision, the strategic plan, the campaign, the brand, the current Advancement work plan (the goals that drive our storytelling), why give, and why engage.
Content Strategy and Goals
As communicators at Virginia Tech, we elevate the university, inform the campus community, and encourage readers to engage with and give to the university. We do this by creating and publishing content that shows how Hokies are a force for positive change and how the university positively impacts the lives of others.
The Campaign, Why Give, Why Engage
A one-pager to help you develop talking points for a script or boilerplate for a written story.
Points of Pride
A list of things that make Virginia Tech great. You’re welcome to borrow from this for your own needs, for example, a document that weaves together some of these items and specific items that pertain to your college or unit.
About Virginia Tech (enrollment numbers, annual research expenditures, founded in 1872, and more.)
The University Style Guide is our standard for writing and editing.
Our style guide notes specific rules and usages to be followed by university communicators. It contains exceptions to both the “Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.” Where conflicts exist between this guide and other guides, our style guide takes precedence.
“The Chicago Manual of Style” is used specifically for books, proceedings, papers, and articles for professional journals. The “Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual” is used specifically for the Virginia Tech Magazine, Virginia Tech News articles, and most documents targeting a general audience.
For more detail, or when the “Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual” does not address a topic, use “The Chicago Manual of Style.”
Language plays a critical role in ensuring that Virginia Tech offers a welcoming, affirming, safe, and accessible campus climate. As communicators, our job is to ensure that the language we use — whether spoken, written, or visual — helps build a stronger Hokie Nation and reflects the university’s Principles of Community. Communications and Marketing follows the Associated Press Stylebook, which offers robust and timely guidance on inclusive storytelling. If you’re looking for alternative sources of information, one recommendation is the Conscious Style Guide, which includes links to guides for various identity groups. No matter the complexities of using inclusive language across a diverse audience, our primary task is simple: When people trust you with how they want to be identified — use that identity.
What is a gender-neutral pronoun? A pronoun that does not associate a gender with the individual being referenced.
In many instances, we use “he/his” when referring to a generic individual in the third person. But the dichotomy of “he and she” in English does not leave room for other gender identities, which is a source of frustration for some people, including some members of the transgender and genderqueer communities.
What is a personal gender pronoun? The pronoun a person uses.
- If Xena’s personal pronouns are she, her, and hers, you could say, “Xena ate her food because she was hungry.”
- If Xena’s personal pronouns are they, them, theirs, you would say, “Xena ate their food because they were hungry.”
There are other pronouns in use as well. Here are a few you might hear:
- Other pronouns such as "ze" or "hir." (Xena ate hir food because ze was hungry.) Ze is pronounced like “zee” and can also be spelled zie or xe and replaces she/he/they. Hir is pronounced like “here” and replaces her/hers/him/his/they/theirs.
- "Just my name, please!" (Xena ate Xena’s food because Xena was hungry.) Some people prefer not to use pronouns at all, using their name as a pronoun instead.
The Associated Press Stylebook offers good writing advice in the “pronouns” entry: “Try to honor both your readers and your story subjects. As in all news writing, clarity is paramount. Often a sentence can be sensitively and smoothly written with no pronoun. For example: Hendricks said the new job is a thrill (instead of Hendricks said Hendricks is thrilled about the new job or Hendricks said they are thrilled about the new job).”
When drafting stories for use in university publications, always ask people how they identify themselves. Start with pronouns. Move on to other personal descriptors if those things are important to or provide context to your writing — including the the way people describe their race, nationality, disabilities, etc. Then use the language they use, and especially use their pronouns.
To ensure that you use the pronouns accurately, make it a point to ask as a part of your writing process. For example, you might introduce yourself and include your pronouns then say, “Before we begin, would you share the correct spelling of your name, your (role/title/class year), and your pronouns?”
We understand that, for some members of the university community, this may seem like an unusual, or even offensive, question. If you schedule an interview with someone you think might fall into this group, use your reporting skills to seek out others who might have knowledge they can share. If you know the individual or have knowledge that assures you of their pronouns before an interview, it is acceptable to write the story using the pronouns based on your background research.
The best practice, however, is to ask.
Virginia Tech News is the hub for digital Virginia Tech storytelling and the university’s news and record. Readers can dive deep into written and visual stories of academics, campus experience, culture, impact, and research to get a sense of how Hokies are a force for positive change in the world. University colleges and units can tap into their area-specific tags to create syndicated newsfeeds for their own websites and promotions.
How to use this guide: Virginia Tech writers should approach stories with filters to find the audience-centric point of a story. Similar to Kwame Alexander’s recollection of Nikki Giovanni telling him, “Kwame, I can teach you how to write, but I can’t teach you how to be interesting,” this guide is about the art of finding the best path toward engaging readers on any given topic.
At Virginia Tech, the term “story” encompasses different mediums and meets different needs. A great first step when someone tells you they need a story is to learn as much as you can about the specific need. You can begin by asking some key questions:
- Do you need to bring attention/recognition to a person or effort?
- Do you need to promote an event to drive attendance?
- Do you need to introduce a single person to the campus community?
- Do you need to highlight a series of achievements?
- Do you need to share an overarching message, effort, or spirit?
- Do you want digital audience participation and engagement?
- Is this the right time to tell this story, or can it hold for a better time or opportunity to optimize its impact?
Understanding the actual need can help you begin to determine the best mode of communication, identify how many resources are justified, and establish how to measure success. This information also will help you begin to think of what other partners you’ll need in this effort, i.e., visual storytellers, graphic designers, social media, etc.
There are different forms a story can take, depending on the goal of the story:
- Profile: to share a person’s story and role within the Virginia Tech community.
- Advancer: to inform the community about an event they can attend.
- Feature: to help readers better understand an event, effort, or topic from multiple perspectives using a variety of assets.
- Lists: to convey a wide variety of brief information with a collective theme.
- Blurbs: to highlight multiple voices on a singular topic without providing connective context between each.
- Oral histories: a collection of memories woven together to create a narrative that shares experiences and perspectives with the readers.
Written content may vary in length, style, use, and purpose. But the content almost always shares three goals — to be read, remembered, and repeated.
- Read: We want people to spend time with our stories.
- Remembered: We want to present compelling information effectively so that people remember our stories.
- Repeated: We want readers to find our stories interesting and important enough that they are motivated to share them with others.
At Virginia Tech, story concepts are typically generated one of two ways – something happened/is happening or a specific audience needs to hear specific information. The most effective stories include both. Whether your starting point is an event or a message, you’ll want to include the other component in your story.
Below are some guiding questions to help navigate from your starting point to an end result.
- Something happened/is happening/is going to happen: Includes hires, discoveries, classes, and events. If it's a traditional event that people can attend, write the story to advance it. That’ll be more beneficial to the reader than reading about an experience that they missed.
- Has this happened before? If so, how often? Researching what's been published on your topic at Virginia Tech, as well as other stories generated by news organizations, is a key first step in the reporting process. Fact-check using reputable internet sources, and utilize the University Libraries and other researchers on campus as great resources to create your base knowledge. If you find previously published stories, you should contact the writers to see what else you might learn.
- Who was involved? Research the people involved with your story's topic, too. Sometimes a seemingly ordinary event may reveal a person with a much more extraordinary story to share. Sometimes that person may become the main subject of your original story, or they may lead you to a future story.
- What change came, or will come, as a result? Use the word “impact” if you must, but think about how “what happened Monday makes Tuesday a little better for the reader?” And who can speak to that?
- What other efforts might this be connected to? During the research stage of your reporting, you’ll likely find other similar efforts of university partners and alumni. Most readers view the units of the university as a single entity, so making those connections for them can be really helpful for the story and might also add another interesting layer, making the story more usable in the future. As a bonus, you can have the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues across campus!
- How was it funded? Ask where the money came from to fund your story’s subject matter. This could lead you to an effort or donor deserving of a mention or even their own story.
- How does this fit into your department/college’s priorities? Ask the person leading the event how they see it fitting into the bigger picture of strategic priorities. This event might very well serve to elevate a specific need, so ask your source.
- How does this fit into the overall mission of the university as a land-grant institution that seeks to live out Ut Prosim? This question helps with strategic priorities, too, and it’s also a great place to lift up a higher-ranked administrator without it seeming too forced.
- How can readers get involved? Will there be future events? Is there funding and/or volunteer need? Are there websites that can provide more information? This is where you can provide folks with a call-to-action to keep them engaged.
- What’s the next story? Is there a follow-up story worth your time, a future event, or a person connected who is deserving of a profile? Does this story fit into a series of content related to a specific topic or is it related to the connected efforts and other partners you discovered earlier?
Something needs to be said, heard, and felt
Using storytelling for specific, strategic messaging can be tricky because it sometimes presents a less natural narrative. You should ask the question if this might be better positioned as a statement. The answer to that question will refine the request. Stories often have the power to break through the noise and become more memorable than simple messages.
Here are some guiding questions for story hunting:
- What’s the goal of this message? Why does this story need to be told? Is it proactive or reactive? Is it to bring something new to light or answer an existing question? Ask your story’s subjects what they most want readers to know about the topic.
- When does this need to be said? What’s both the urgency and the duration behind this message? This will help determine deadlines and distribution dates.
- What does this message look like visually? Don’t overthink this. If the message is, “Virginia Tech is a great value for students,” ponder the first few images that popped into your head when you read that. You should reach out to visual content creators for brainstorming and collaborate with them to create new imagery if necessary. Consult the photography guide for information.
- Who will be or who has been helped by the central message of this story? Can that person speak to past positive changes or potential future ones? If you can locate this voice, see if you can make the story about them. Set them up as the hero and use your message as the hero’s helper. This method works for both long and short copy. Here are some examples from popular advertising campaigns.
- What other areas of the university shares similar traits? And what stories are they sharing to elevate this message? Who are the people doing that work? What events/activities are taking place? You can use this information to tie in related content and draw inspiration on how to write your own story.
- How are other writers covering this topic or conveying this message? Look beyond our peers in higher education. What stories are companies telling to elevate similar messages? How are traditional and social media talking about this topic?
The most critical filter for any story is to honestly ask why it’s worth your reader’s precious, limited time. You should ensure that the second a reader spends with your story is worth it.
- Lead with the people: A real person’s story can draw readers in and possibly change their world.
- Ask how people would like to be identified: When drafting stories for use in university publications, always use the pronouns requested by the subject being interviewed. See the Inclusive Language guide above for more information.
- Be punchy at the top: Avoid lengthy titles, college names, majors, classes, long building names, acronyms, or quotes at the top of the story. If a title is needed for comprehension, use the briefest one possible and expand on it throughout the story. Consider the inverted pyramid style of news writing.
- Use a nut graf: Succinctly explain the entire point of the story within the first few paragraphs of the story. Most readers only scan the first few paragraphs, so this is your chance to tell them what the key takeaways are.
- Use quotable quotes: Use quotes strategically, as complex details of any topic should be written in a clear, concise manner rather than relying on a quote from the subject to explain it. Use your subject’s most relevant and memorable quotes to enhance the story. Avoid using multiple sources saying the same thing.
- Seek the best sources: Find the person with the deepest knowledge of your subject.
- Ask sources to be descriptive: Ask folks to walk you through what they did or do. Ask open-ended questions related to their senses as well, such as what they saw, heard, smelled, and felt.
- Ask about specific moments: What was the moment the coach knew the game was in hand, the student realized they would finally graduate, or they first felt seen as a professional in their profession? Sometimes asking these types of questions can unearth rich details.
- Let the sources offer subjectivity: Rather than the writer stating that something is “awesome” or “the best ever,” ask questions that provide opportunities for sources to state that through quotes. This can be especially powerful if the person making a positive statement about the university doesn’t have a previous relationship with it, which could show the stated opinion is unbiased and from a position of authenticity.
- Showing can be better than telling: Especially when it comes to impact, describing the resulting changes, or having the subject of the story describe them, often makes for a better story than simply stating an impact was made.
- Avoid assumptions of knowledge with experts in the text: If you’re going to use an “everybody knows” type of statement, back it up with an expert or statistic. Example: Everyone knows college is expensive. In fact, the average tuition rate rose X percent during the past decade, according to (insert publication name.)
- Get the dog’s name: If there’s a pet, name it and get its age and breed. If a room is hot, find the thermostat and write down how hot. If a person drove a long distance, figure out the mileage. These types of details help paint the setting in the reader's mind, allowing them to experience your story rather than just read it.
- Be aware of and localize national or global issues or events: Consider if there is anything going on in the world that connects to your story, or that may overlay sensitivities onto your story. Sometimes delaying a story for a specific time of year or day of the year can be a beneficial hook for the content, or you may need to do it in times of tragedy or unrest.
- Examples: A story about makeup and costumes may play better in September than November, while a story about space might benefit from being shared during the next big rocket launch. An upbeat profile of an Afghan refugee student may be less appropriate to run during a regime change, but if the tone is adjusted, could be used as a comfort piece to the others in the student’s community. Likewise, a global event, such as the Olympics, might provide an opportunity to highlight students who compete and have insight into traditionally less popular sports. Media Relations has advisories and reporter tip sheets to assist.
- Seek a connection to the broader story of Virginia Tech: Stories aren’t best told in a vacuum, but in ways that help readers understand the broader context in which they are taking place. At Virginia Tech, this might include connecting a story to an ongoing campus effort, a departmental goal, or the university’s original land-grant mission. A good general practice is to ask sources how they see whatever is happening uplifting and/or reflecting one or all of those areas. Examples: Ask extension agents how they see their work related to Ut Prosim. Ask employees leading a wellness activity what role they see it playing in the mission of Hokie Wellness. Ask students how they hope their service projects impact the campus culture.