Allison Epstein

How to Find Your Voice in Higher Ed

Being recognizable and setting yourself apart.

“No first person.” “No incomplete sentences.” “No personal opinions.” “Whatever you do, don’t make jokes.” We’ve all heard these rules of formal writing, back from our earliest elementary school writing. By the time we got to college, we were expected to master the academic voice: the impersonal, relentlessly logical style of the term paper.

That kind of writing might get you an A in freshman English. It might even get your article into a prestigious academic journal. But if you want students—current or future—to pay attention to your university’s marketing content, those age-old rules have got to go.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you embrace grammatical anarchy, verbing all your nouns or going wild with emojis. A certain level of professionalism and credibility is required in higher ed. And that’s as it should be: you’re selling knowledge, not a new pair of shoes. But “professional and credible” doesn’t have to mean “formal, staid, bland, and boring.”

Let Your Personality Pop

Developing an institutional voice can feel like an abstract, even intimidating task if it’s not something you’re used to. But there’s another way to think about it, and that’s in terms of personality.

Let’s say your university is a person at a cocktail party. If they came up to chat over hors d’oeuvres, what would you think about them? Would they be just another face in the crowd, talking in the Queen’s English about “small class sizes” and “individualized attention”? Or would they communicate in a way that feels authentic and instantly recognizable? Unsurprisingly, your students are more likely to gravitate toward the second one.

It can be tough to dig deep and find your university’s true personality. But once you do it, you’ll have a distinct and honest voice that communicates what you stand for—from your very first words. And that’s an asset money can’t buy.

To Start, Ask Yourself…

  • Do you want to skew formal or approachable?
  • What adjective best describes your university? Helpful? Friendly? Clever? Daring?
  • Does humor feel natural or forced?
  • How would current students or alumni describe your university’s personality? (Hint: ask them!)
  • What strengths do you want to emphasize?
  • What styles or tactics feel inauthentic, awkward, or misleading?
  • What language or turns of phrase feel distinctly “you”?
  • And countless other questions!

As you’re thinking, remember that “distinctive” doesn’t have to mean loud. A caring and knowledgeable voice can be just as effective as one that’s flashy and casual. The most important thing is that the voice you settle on feels genuine. After all, your end goal is for your audience to connect with the real you. If your voice doesn’t match who you are on the ground, that bait-and-switch won’t help anyone.

The Importance of Being a Person

No matter how prestigious your university is or how informative your marketing materials, your institutional voice shouldn’t sound like an all-knowing voice imparting wisdom from on high. Students don’t want to engage with a faceless institution that speaks like a term paper—no one does. People want to talk to other people. That’s just how we’re wired.

So drop the institution-speak when you can get away with it. Spend some time finessing a voice that feels authentic and engaging for your university. And do some testing with the types of people you’ll actually be communicating with. You might just find that being yourself is the most effective thing you could be.

If you want to hear more about ways your institution can stand out, email us at info@lipmanhearne.com.

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