Monthly Archives: October 2017

New position and role: making stories happen

Charles Kuralt on his typewriter

Back around elementary school, as I watched Charles Kuralt wrap up one of his magnificent “On the Road” segments, I decided that I wanted to tell stories for a living. And I now have a new role, new title and new responsibilities at work that makes this more of a reality.

I’m taking on a new title as director of news and media services, although if such a thing was possible, I’d like to think of it as the director of storytelling. I now head a four-person professional team that includes writer Jeff Rea, videographer Jim Kearns and photographer Jim Russell, plus a squad of great student storytellers as always, with our main goal of telling the stories of SUNY Oswego, and why the college is a special community.

Maybe that comes in the form of a news story (once known as a press release), maybe it’s a video (although topping the Oz Chicken Patty’s virality will be a challenge), a photo that transmits a thousand words, a narrative Facebook post, a tweet, a ‘gram, a Snap or a blog post. It’s rather exciting to think of stories taking so many potential forms, and working with a talented team that can help bring these tales of awesome people doing amazing things to life.

The main challenge will be trying to figure out how to make our resources meet the possibilities, as every member of the Oswego family is a hero with an interesting story (or two or nine) that we could tell, but whether it’s a Campus Update Spotlight, a video about student research or a Friday #oswegram, our job is to work together to bring this content to the world.

And while it’s not traveling around America in an RV telling the extraordinary tales of ordinary people, it’s still pretty cool.

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‘Heaven is a better place today’: RIP Gordon Downie

Gordon Downie performs live

“Heaven is a better place today
But the world is just not the same.”
— “Heaven is a Better Place Today,” The Tragically Hip

There may have never been, and may never be, a better frontman in a rock band than Gordon Downie. That’s a high mark, to be sure, but if you’ve ever seen The Tragically Hip live, you know that he belongs among the greats for his vocals, his sense of flair and drama, his showmanship and connection with the fans.

That’s why I was so saddened to learn that he has succumbed to the brain cancer that robbed us of one of the great songwriters and minds in rock and roll.

The first time I saw The Hip live, he wound up on the floor shouting “let me out!” during “Locked in the Trunk of a Car.” I can’t explain it other than to say it was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen live.

When I saw the band live at Highland Park in Rochester, a rainstorm moved in and scattered most fans, but Gord wanted to keep playing despite the not-so-safe conditions because he had that kind of connection with the audience. The band came back and played to a much smaller crowd after the rain passed and the stage cleaned up, but he put forth the effort as if he was playing to a packed stadium.

I mapped a visit to the Pacific Northwest around the time the band played in Vancouver and my friend Laura somehow scored us second-row seats. I’d seen The Hip a few times in the States but to see Gord up close in his home and native land, where he was revered and among the most beloved statesman, was to see a performer in all his glory.

Throughout the years, he had so many small and entertaining running bits, almost blending pantomime with performing. He would do crazy antics with a handkerchief, scuffle with a microphone stand and generally make the smallest things entertaining.

But even as he improvised bits, he also improvised songs on the stage that later became tracks on records. His extemporaneous brilliance was awe-inspiring.

And when the band made its last tour last year, despite the circumstances of his illness, it was a kind of victory tour: Venues sold out, fans packed every stadium, ovations were loud and moving, and Gord and the boys kept their emotions in check (mostly) to return the love letter to the fans. I cried then.

I’m fighting back tears now. I knew this day would come and I thought I could write something profound. But my heart hurts for his family, his friends, his fans. This man meant so much to me, so much to those who loved him — and maybe more to his native Canada then any entertainer.

You were ahead by a century, Gordie. Your music will continue to be a treasure. We’re all richer for hearing you.

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A successful conference that discussed failure.

Keynote presenter Felicia Day with the incomparable HighEdWeb President Colleen Brennan-Barry.

Keynote presenter Felicia Day with the incomparable HighEdWeb President Colleen Brennan-Barry.

Don’t be afraid to fail.

Intended or not, that was a major message coming through for HighEdWeb 2017 (#heweb17) that rocked and inspired hundreds of attendees in Hartford. The conference itself was a tremendous success — and one that, perhaps paradoxically — addressed the idea of failure, and why it’s part of the process, more than any other gathering I can recall.

A moving and magnificent keynote by actor, author and content creator Felicia Day especially drove the point home. Day — who pioneered successful crowdfunding for entertainment and has brought the enjoyment of a fun nerdy character to everything from her project “The Guild” to “Supernatural” to “Dr. Horrible’s Singalong” to the “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” reboot — was honest in how many times she took the wrong path on the way to an amazing career.

“Mistakes are rewarding,” she said at one point. “They are the best thing you can do.” She added that people are more successful when they risk failure instead of moving cautiously toward what they consider guaranteed success.

Day added we should treat ourselves as our own research projects — the key is to discover ourselves, as “the greatest tragedy is to not be who you are.” She has coped with anxiety and a desire to be perfect, and learned along the way there should be no shame to reach out for help, whether via a support group or counseling or anything that can bolster our mental health.

She said her own daughter serves as a kind of inspiration: We all have some joy in our lives we wouldn’t have if not for mistakes. Lose the regret, Day advised, and instead of dwelling in negativity, live a good and kind life that shows that being different, even being nerdy, is cool.

I had the honor of asking a question in the resulting audience Q&A, which essentially said that, yes, this really inspired us, but how can we bring the similar attitude — mistakes are OK and fuel success — back to the sometimes risk-averse atmosphere of higher education? While acknowledging that Hollywood was very risk-averse, which is why she independently funded so many wonderful projects, Day noted the idea of doing pilots the way the TV industry does is a great solution. Doing a pilot project, no matter how small, that shows something can be done is a useful first step to larger projects that can help our students, our colleges and our world.

One thing is certain: Bringing the honest, intelligent and engaging Felicia Day as a keynote speaker was by no means a mistake.

Theme warning

Presentation slide: Get permission to fail

Unfortunately, I don’t even realize which presentation featured the slide Amy Wolf shared about getting permission to fail, but it perfectly encompasses something that came up a few times.

In her session that won the Best of Conference award, “The Art and Science of Collaboration,” Day Kibilds of Western University discussed using lessons learned and avoiding past mistakes can develop collaboration and drive winning projects. All with a “Game of Thrones” theme, I should add. In short, she encouraged us that if think about worst-case scenarios (like zombie White Walkers overrunning the Seven Kingdoms) to motivate stakeholders to work together, if we have the right players to have honest and healthy discussions, and if we acknowledge institutional mistakes and/or inconveniences, projects can be turned around if treated as an opportunity for learning.

Unknowingly, I joined the trend as I presented “7 Habit[at]s of Social Media Storytelling.” (Thank you to Donna Talarico for the marvelous recap!) And I’m not just saying out of realization as I developed the presentation I had taken the wrong approach — don’t base it on channels but on content and process instead — and had to practically rewrite the whole thing, nor because I goofed in thinking I could get it completed in just 45 minutes (sorry).

Nope. I’m happy that the presentation included a slide that read:

You will fail sometimes, but that’s OK.

The only people who never fail are people who never try.

And this #heweb17 wonderfully encouraged us to try, fail and try again. It’s really the only road to success.

 

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