The Power of Narrative Thinking: 6 Tips for Effective Storytelling in Higher Ed Marketing

Joey Schmit, AVP of global marketing and communications at NYU, outlines how he directed his team to forego rigid strategies for the fluidity and flexibility of storytelling.

4 minutes
By: Joey Schmit

“Narrative thinking means being aware of the sea we swim in. It means understanding that stories comprise a distinct mode of thought, one that’s every bit as valid and important to understand as logic and reasoning—and that comes far more naturally to us.” -Frank Rose

With Generation Z fading into the world of work and Gen Alpha still being defined, it’s become imperative for higher ed to find new ways to engage students who have been deeply impacted by the pandemic. Moreover, the looming enrollment cliff only adds to the pressure on marketers to adapt to the changing landscape. In this new era of marketing, flexibility and distinctiveness are key, and marketers must be willing to abandon rigid marketing plans in favor of more fluid strategies. However, amidst all these challenges, one thing remains constant: the power of storytelling. 

By listening to and telling stories, marketers can forge deeper connections with their audiences and navigate these uncertain times with greater ease. According to Frank Rose’s most recent book, “The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World” (now required reading for my team), humans think in stories, and they are crucial in making sense of the world. Rose states that narrative thinking is “the difference between sending out a press release and viewing everything your organization does as part of an ongoing narrative.”

At NYU, our enrollment marketing and student communications team partners with our global campuses, schools, and offices across the university to use evidence-based storytelling to support the full student lifecycle: recruit, retain and graduate. In other words, our responsibility is to both communicate and deliver on the brand promise—the distinct narrative that guides our efforts.

Narrative thinking is an iterative process that involves active listening and ongoing testing. Here are six tips to help you tell your story effectively and authentically.

1. Use evidence to inform your storytelling strategy.

Storytelling in the digital age requires a marriage of art and science. To increase empathy and better understand the nuanced needs of our students, we need to listen to them and observe how they respond to our content. 

To start, an analysis of Google Analytics and social media listening data can provide valuable insights into our students’ interests, pain points and preferences, which can then inform stories and content that meet their needs. As a result, each audience member can stitch together our stories and craft a narrative that serves their needs as an audience of one.

2. Representation matters: Pass the mic. 

To create a sense of belonging, we need to represent our community both authentically and aspirationally, and that often means giving individuals the platform to tell their personal stories. Stories have the power to break down stereotypes, remove barriers to access and amplify the experiences of traditionally underrepresented students. 

Diversify your stories by proactively advertising opportunities for students and faculty to “opt-in” to being featured in your communications. You may be surprised by how many people want to help others be seen by sharing their relatable stories.

3. Use every interaction as a way to shape narratives.

Every single touchpoint with a prospective or current student is an opportunity to weave a compelling story. However, college seekers today crave more than just broadcasted brand narratives and one-sided conversations; they desire meaningful dialogues

So as they step into our virtual or physical spaces, it is crucial to consider what messages we want to convey about our institution through visuals, messaging, and our people. How can we spark an engaging conversation that will leave a lasting impression? How can we tap into the human experience of our students through the narratives that we build? Students should come across stories that speak to their identities and spur connections. 

4. Think of your creative team as a media organization. 

In the age of Netflix and AI-recommended engines, universities need to adapt their content strategies to meet the evolving needs and media consumption habits of our students. For creative teams, this means thinking like a media organization and recognizing the importance of being mobile-first in digital storytelling. Strive for content that can be consumed in bite-sized portions and across multiple platforms. 

Recognizing the importance of adapting to changing audience preferences, in 2015, we launched MeetNYU, a social media initiative aimed at engaging prospects while also demystifying the admissions process. Since its inception, MeetNYU has evolved into a multi-platform storytelling ecosystem with numerous integrated channels designed to deliver “just in time” content that appeals to their current needs and values.

5. Celebrate the story inside.

Find opportunities to rally your community around your institutional story, and you may be surprised by the talent and creativity in your backyard. At NYU, we host an annual Storytelling Summit that brings together marketers, designers, writers, media-makers, creative talent and leaders from across our community to explore how we tell our stories. There is nothing better than learning from our colleagues and their approaches to the narrative.

6. Use stories to inspire action that supports student success.

Stories are powerful tools for driving emotions and inspiring action, especially when it comes to student success. While quantitative assessment might alert you to a challenge or an opportunity, the narrative understanding around the data insight is what will inform direction and rally people to action. 

A story about a student from low-income circumstances who was able to attend college thanks to a scholarship can inspire donors to contribute to similar initiatives. Furthermore, stories can help to highlight the unique experiences of marginalized student populations, such as first-generation students, women in STEM fields or students with disabilities, and can inform the development of more inclusive policies and support systems.

As we navigate the challenges ahead, narrative thinking is a powerful tool for higher education marketers. By embracing evidence-based storytelling and celebrating the diverse identities and unique narratives within our community, we can drive success for our institutions, and support and inspire the aspirations of our student body.

Joey Schmit

Joey Schmit


With a background in marketing strategy and brand management, Joey Schmit’s career spans several industries including higher education, arts and media. Joey oversees global enrollment marketing across NYU’s degree-granting campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Previously, Schmit led a marketing team at BRIC, a driving force behind several of Brooklyn’s most widely renowned arts and media programs. Earlier in his career, he held marketing and communications roles at NYU’s Stern School of Business and Disney’s Buena Vista Pictures Marketing. Schmit earned his BA from Arizona State University and his MA from NYU.

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