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The Art of the Tale: St. Kate’s business course on storytelling

Adjunct professor Sara Kerr blogs frequently and teaches her students how blogging is akin to storytelling — a key to successful marketing.
Adjunct professor Sara Kerr blogs frequently and teaches her students how blogging is akin to storytelling — a key to successful marketing.
Photo by Pauline Oo.

The business world isn’t a good fit for storytellers. Or at least that’s what most people think.

Sara Kerr, St. Catherine University adjunct professor of business administration, would like to turn that idea around. In her popular class “Integrated Marketing Communications,” she teaches students that in many circumstances, business success comes down to effectively telling a tale. When told right, Kerr explains, clear and direct stories drive customers to a product or service.

"Storytelling is paramount to successful marketing,” she says. “It humanizes the product or service being promoted.”

With an eye to practical application, Kerr takes her students beyond simply crafting a story — to communicating with as many potential customers as possible through the powerful realm of social media: “In my class, students blog their thoughts on marketing in an effort to learn social media theory, master technology and tell the evocative story,” she explains.  

Kerr has been teaching “Integrated Marketing Communications” for two years. Her students range from traditional-age/Day students with little or no business experience to more seasoned Evening, Weekend and Online Program students, many of whom have already spent years in the workforce — or even own their own businesses.

No matter their backgrounds, Kerr says, nearly all of her students have benefitted from brushing up on storytelling basics. It’s a simple concept, but execution doesn’t always come easily. Customers need to understand who you are, what you are selling and why. 

"In business, storytelling is the most difficult,” explains the 20-year marketing veteran. “Even though I blog frequently, looking at an empty page intimidates me. However, I know my stories capture my readers’ attention far more than a recitation of facts. Teaching storytelling is as much an art as actually telling a story. Thankfully, I know a lot of raconteurs."

Telling their stories

To that end, Kerr invites guest speakers to her class, successful businesspeople who understand how to use storytelling to draw potential customers. In one recent class, St. Paul blogger, media analyst and writer Erik Hare shared his expertise. In another, Realtor and St. Catherine alumna Teresa Boardman ’82, outlined how she learned that blogging helps sell houses.

“Many years ago, I read an article about blogging and real estate,” Boardman recalls. “I thought, ‘What if I started writing about real estate and what it’s really like to sell a home? With the right optimization and the right stories, I might draw more customers.’ I tried it out and now I’m writing a new post it every day. It works very well for me.”

Recent graduate K.T. Bernhagen ’11 says the class appealed to her because, as a small-business owner, she was interested in learning about innovative ways to promote her company — a manufacturer, installer and distributor of storm water abatement systems — to potential customers.

“The class was very beneficial,” Bernhagen says. “Sara taught us lots of practical skills that we could use to combine effective storytelling with technology. For instance, I didn’t have blog before I took the class and now I have one. I created it for my business website, and now we use it all the time to get the word out about what we do and the products and services we offer. It’s a great way to draw customers to our main site.”

As part of the class, Kerr expects students to create and maintain a personal blog. The idea is that once students are conversant in the technology they’ll be able to start thinking about how they can harness its power to promote a business.

“They have to design the visual interface and provide the written work,” Kerr says. Students are required to post a specific number of weekly posts, all the length of a short term paper. They are also required to comment on other student’s blogs. “They have to master the technology and figure out innovative ways to use the platform.”

Virtual tools and real clients

AnnaMary Gualdoni ’11 was attracted to “Integrated Marketing Communications” because she wanted to learn more about how social media tools can be used in marketing. Like many students, Gualdoni had grown up with Facebook and Twitter, but she didn’t understand how the platforms could be used to effectively market a business.

“Sara really worked with us individually to make sure that we were seeing how marketing has an impact on society, especially through the use of the Internet and social media,” Gualdoni says. “We studied older advertising strategies and really focused on how they have changed throughout the years. She showed us how many companies need to use social media to reach a broader client base since everything is done online now.” 

The course also requires students to work with local businesses to create an original 10-part marketing-communications plan, based on a template Kerr created. It’s a perfect opportunity, she believes, for students to blend real-world experience with the academic and technical skills they’ve learned in her class.

At the end of the class, business owners are invited to attend the seminar to see students present their completed plans.

“This experience takes it to the next level,” Kerr says, “which is perfecting the art of communication.”

Gualdoni couldn’t agree more. After graduating from St. Kate’s, she landed a job where the skills she learned in Kerr’s class were in high demand.

“I work for a small financial firm,” Gualdoni says. “Marketing is a challenge right now. Most of the employees here shy away from social media. They have put me in charge of coming up with new marketing ideas. I have been using storytelling to pitch my ideas to the executives, and together we are coming up with new social-media marketing strategies that will benefit the company.”

Now, that’s a good story: Katie helps rescue a struggling firm.

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March 5, 2012 by Andy Steiner

See also: Alumnae/i, Business, Faculty, Liberal Arts, Students