03 Feb News: A Conversation with Storyteller Extraordinaire Rachel Coker, Director of Research Advancement, Binghamton University
Creative and compelling storytelling is an important tool for today’s higher education professionals as they try to make meaningful connections with key audiences such as prospective students, donors and alumni. Solid writing skills, a nimbleness with various topics — some of which can be pretty heady, to say the least — and a clear understanding of your institution’s messaging goals and priorities are essential components of effective storytelling. Not an easy task to be sure, but Binghamton University’s Rachel Coker has some suggestions for how you can up your game.
A former journalist, Rachel has been with Binghamton for over 10 years, providing communications leadership, expertise, perspective and services to advance an understanding of and appreciation for university research and scholarship. Her duties include editorial responsibilities to support the divisional Web presence, the research magazine and e-newsletter and other materials. Working with the Office of Communications and Marketing, Rachel supports media relations and manages the development of internal and external marketing and communications strategies.
Thank you for taking the time to share your ideas with SUNYCUAD members, Rachel. Tell us what your day-to-day job entails?
Rachel: My job is to get people, both on and off campus, excited about the research we do at Binghamton. I do speechwriting for the vice president. I do a lot of publication editing and writing. I do some things that would fit into a traditional public relations role and also event planning. I’ll come back and speak in a residence hall at 9:30 at night if a group of undergrads wants a speaker to talk about how to get started in research. I’m like a ninja. I’m always trying to get our message into places it hasn’t been before.
What makes a good writer?
Rachel: I’ve taught Intro to Journalism here at Binghamton and also at SUNY Broome so I’ve thought about that a lot. When I was a younger editor, I really valued good writing ability, especially spelling and grammar. As I’ve progressed in my career, I think the quality that you can’t necessarily give to another person and something that is hard to improve late in the process of a story being written is curiosity. If you don’t have it in you to be curious about things and you’re not someone who can naturally come up with a thousand questions for any new person you meet, this is going to be a tough, tough gig.
How do you approach a writing assignment about a topic that is highly technical or specialized, for instance scientific research?
Rachel: People who’ve only known me in the last five or 10 years often assume that I have a background in science, but I do not. I was an English major. I studied French. I’ve read all of the books that the Brontës ever wrote. And so I come to this topic myself as an outsider. It’s not that I have some natural connection with scientists that allows me to walk into a physics lab and be perfectly at home — I don’t. But what I do have is a decade of experience working in newspapers, where every day you have to do something you’ve never done before and you don’t get to be precious about it. You just have to do it. The first time you go to the scene of a house fire, that’s foreign to you, right? No matter what your human experiences leading up to your first day as a reporter, you can’t possibly be prepared for all the things that happen to you. So, you go to the scene of a house fire. You go to a school board meeting. You go to a court hearing. In all of those locations, there are people with very specialized vocabulary, different kinds of roles and ideas about your behavior and their behavior and what’s right and what’s not. When I came to campus I thought, well, a chemistry lab is not really different than that. If I can make sense of what’s happening at a house fire, I can make sense of what’s happening in this lab. You have to have confidence in your ability to tell a story and you have to go in with a good faith effort. You can’t just sit back and expect the faculty member to do all the work and explain things to you. You have to be a partner in that.
I definitely try to do some research before an interview, some homework that helps me ask intelligent questions. For example, if I’m going to speak with someone who’s studying genetics it benefits me to take a moment to brush up on some of the terms that may come up. I might look at some very basic stuff online so when he or she starts talking about mitosis or some other scientific concept, I don’t have to have the faculty member walk me back to seventh grade biology. That doesn’t inspire confidence and it doesn’t allow us to spend time where we really need to focus our efforts.
Turning a complex research topic into a compelling story is challenging. How do you make the subject interesting and accessible for your readers?
Rachel: Part of it is just reading a lot. I read a lot of fiction. I read a lot of nonfiction. Think back on your beginning literature classes. What are those archetypal stories like? There’s man versus nature, man versus man… And think about how the narrative of the piece you’re pursuing fits into one of those. A lot of stories can be told that way. It’s often a researcher in a race against time trying to find a solution to a problem. It could be a lab in a race against other labs trying to come up with the best way to do something.
Sometimes there’s a personal story that makes sense. If we have somebody who’s studying Parkinson’s and it turns out his quest was inspired by watching his grandfather slowly lose his quality of life because he was suffering from the disease, then that makes sense as a motivation for the work and it makes sense to mention that in the course of the reporting. Not every story is like that, though. I also always ask how people got started in a line of inquiry because that can be interesting as well.
There’s a great, very short book that came out years ago by the New York newspaperman Pete Hamill. The title of the book is News Is a Verb. That really has to be part of your thinking. What is the verb here? The verb isn’t facts or figures. Is the verb discovered, improved, etc.? You have to figure that out. That’s part of it.
We had a communications consultant in a few years ago. I’ve been trying to sharpen not just the pieces we write but also the way that our people present and speak. One of the things the consultant talked about was the need to think about the human experience and how we’re all wired to hear stories going back to the oral tradition. What makes those stories successful is not just that they’re entertaining. You can listen to a story around a campfire, be entertained and remember it and go back to your “tribe” — whether that’s your office, department or campus — and repeat it. What makes the Three Little Pigs a story that any of us could tell later? How is it that you can remember the details of a narrative like that and what can we do to make our stories that portable? That’s really success. So, we tell you something about Binghamton. It makes you feel a little smarter and more interesting and you’re able to pass that along to the next person.
Another really important tool is to think about the future. What will be different 10 years from now as a result of the work you’re describing? How is the future different if your ideas are proven true or if you are able to solve this puzzle that you’re working on? And so, when you talk with people about the actual impact of their work, or even the potential impact of their work — when it’s something significant — that’s something very tangible.
How do you select the stories you’ll be writing?
Rachel: Some stories are very obvious and it’s just a matter of how to tell them across the different platforms. Given our research portfolio, I would say anyone who’s funded at a million dollars or higher, we’re going to write about. If you’re at Harvard that threshold might be higher, but there’s still going to be a threshold. There’s a number. I know that we’re going to write about people who receive grants that are significant. That’s important to us. It’s important to the institution’s success. We want those people to feel appreciated and recognized. That’s the first thing. Another thing is publication. If a Binghamton faculty member is published in Science or Nature, I’m going to write about it. It doesn’t matter how esoteric the topic is or whether the faculty member is the third author, we’re going to write something. Again, it’s a mark of excellence and it happens infrequently enough that it’s a big deal.
Beyond funding and prestige journals, there’s a huge amount of discretion. I look for lines of research that are just intensely interesting from a human perspective. Are there lines of research that connect with topics that are already something in the culture? New books, especially books that are intended for a mass audience, are important. I try to keep an eye on this and also remind people that I work with that when we say “research” we mean research and scholarly activities. Scholarly activities for somebody in our English Department can mean writing a novel. That’s no less relevant to the division and university than someone who is researching superconductivity.
The other thing for me is to tell a diversity of stories. For instance, has it been a long time since we heard from the nursing school? Let’s go and find a story there. Does it look like the last four students we wrote about were men? Let’s make sure the next story is about a woman. I want the stories we tell to represent the institution as a whole.
Sounds like you really enjoy your job. What’s the best thing about working at Binghamton U?
Rachel: It’s fun to be somewhere that’s growing. There’s something about the notion of the mission of access and affordability married with high-quality education that is so important and worthwhile. The work that I do is the best possible continuing education. Every day you’re meeting with people who are deeply, deeply knowledgeable, and you’re talking with them about the things they’re most passionate about. That’s truly a pleasure.
Rachel Coker is passionate about professional development. She happily invites fellow SUNYCUAD members to contact her with questions or comments on Twitter at @rmcoker or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.