3.2: Storytelling & Communications Overview

This chapter is an integral part of Rebus’ collaborative open publishing approach, and also a key juncture for you and your teams to think about creating inclusive and equitable OER. It is designed to help you think through the process of getting your resource in front of the people who want it, whether for adoption or adaptation, reading or research. It is about using the tools and strategies of storytelling and communications to reach those users, but also about the ways in which publicity, promotion, messaging, and outreach tend to differ when the “product” is an OER. Like everything related to publishing OER, these processes often happen on variable schedules, and collaboration is always key to make them successful. In many ways, the storytelling and communications of Rebus-supported projects start right at the conception of the work, running through to release as well as far beyond! Thinking deeply about the story you want to tell as content creators and team support members, may sound like a lot of effort, but we know from experience with past cohorts how well those efforts play out in the longer term. We strongly believe that you should do what you can with what you have throughout the course of the project.

In what follows, we take you through what you need to know when telling your project’s story and helping it find its audiences. Read through the sections below, and consider our perspectives as suggestions that you can adapt to suit your own unique needs. Building storytelling and communications into different stages in the publishing process is incredibly useful because you’re going about creating your OER with a bit more thought – deliberately and carefully looking at ways to really make sure the end resource is as useful as it can be. So as you start scoping out your project, and at every other phase along the way, keep storytelling and communications in mind. If they run in parallel to the writing, editing, and production phases of creating your resource, everything should go more smoothly when it comes to the big release. Note, there is an element of marketing involved in publishing new content and sharing it with the world, and we’ll talk more about this type of communication and promotion later on in the guide, as you ‘release and market’ your OER.

Remember that this part of the Guide, like the others, is a summary of what we have learned in working with you. What makes your OER project unique, however, also makes it distinctive when it comes to marketing. That means that queries will arise and clarifications will be needed, and we eagerly welcome them! Post your responses to this material in the Rebus Community forum, including questions and concerns that have come up for you. This document will continue to evolve, based on our experience managing OER projects and your feedback.

Special thanks to Elizabeth Mays, (former) marketing manager for Rebus; former director of sales and marketing for Pressbooks and adjunct faculty at Arizona State University; and author and editor of two open textbooks (Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship and A Guide to Making Open Textbooks With Students) for contributing to this overview!

Importance of storytelling

Before diving into tips and suggestions, we want to explain our philosophy, approach, and the importance of storytelling. Late Ojibwe (Wabaseemoong First Nation) author, Richard Wagamese, explains how narrative shapes our world:

“All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time.”

As you’re seeing here, storytelling comes into play as an important aspect of creating or adapting OER. Our approach to storytelling is to start communicating right at the beginning of the project, always with the goal of reaching potential adopters. Starting this early means you have a head start once your resource is released, so marketing should be as much a part of the creation process as project scoping and building your team. If you limit your marketing and communications efforts to the time immediately surrounding the release and launch, you may not be as successful in gathering the widest group of readers and adopters around your OER.

Storytelling is a meaningful tool to help you communicate the people, purpose, and vision of your work. We subscribe to the idea that stories are a series of connections. In most cases, these connections are between people and projects, where Rebus’ target audiences are collaborators and communities. Storytelling can enable your team to communicate more effectively the motivations and the drivers for doing this work to one another, and this can translate into the OER being created.

Guiding communications principles

Our goal with OER projects has always been to create a valuable resource for others to use, and to build a vibrant community around it. Over time, we have landed on a set of principles that are at the core of our overall approach, shared below.

For us, storytelling & communications starts at day one, or better yet, day zero. We see communications as a way of creating and telling a story about your project and the resource you (and others) are working to build. The story includes not only the reasons for creating the resource, but also the people who you hope will read, adopt, and adapt it. That means thinking about how your team is formed, who those people are, and what they bring to the project. Simultaneously, as you scope out the chapters and sections and subsections, bring in the story of what the book will include – and what it won’t (and why). Making your work, and your story, public is part of the philosophy that underlies open – transparency is a best practice. Keep the communications flowing. Document your decisions and share them with the team, so that they become not just part of the story, but the storytellers themselves. Get the word out early and often, about what you’re doing and why, as well as who is helping you do it. It can be through word of mouth, social media, association listservs, a blog site, or other channels (we’ll dive in to this in more detail later).

Describing the story of your project helps inform the narrative of your OER and prioritize your work. Every stage of the OER publishing process can be leveraged to help the book reach its potential adopters, and there are ways to ensure that communication is smoothly built into what you do. For instance, collaborative authorship creates opportunities for buy-in and allows for a native network of ambassadors for the book to form. Project updates (through the channels noted above) keep the creation process on the radar of your colleagues and community, including those who aren’t directly involved or interested (yet!) The classroom and peer-review phases not only provide invaluable feedback on the book’s content, they also help establish groups of future users and readers around the book. Think of these people as a community of interest and practice that naturally forms (and belongs) around the book. In fact, an underlying goal for every stage of OER development should be community building and engagement. As long as you are open about your processes and communicate them directly, you can always consider storytelling and communications as part of any phase of publishing.

In our experience so far, providing “value” to a community of potential users or collaborators is one way to help make a book meaningful and visible to them. For instance, one easy way to create value is to turn parts of the OER’s story into usable, engaging, and even teachable chunks. You could do this by providing content updates as your team members write and edit their chapters. You can also share success stories of things that go well in the process, which not only communicates how open publishing works, but also gives others the incentive to try it out themselves.

When sharing your stories, try to showcase the team members behind the work. People like to hear about the personal aspects of publishing, not just the facts and figures. Putting a human face or voice to the project helps make it more compelling, and more relatable for those who aren’t involved. Besides, the people who are mentioned will naturally help promote those stories themselves! One way to showcase individual voices is by soliciting and sharing quotes from the team. Ask people both from within and outside the project leadership to talk about their experiences. Beyond the insights you gather on what works (or doesn’t) about a given chapter or section, it keeps the process open and adds energy to the community around the book. At the end of the day, the project is made up of you and the team involved, so don’t hide behind the scenes!

Another approach to telling the story of your project is to share how your handling or presentation of a particular subject or topic makes your resource unique. This might be in the tone of the text, the pedagogical approach, what areas you choose to cover (or not cover!), etc. Another great way in which your text might be unique is that it demonstrates greater inclusivity and a wider variety of perspectives and participation, both in the content itself and the teams creating the content. One of the most important principles of publishing openly is that it creates opportunities for more inclusive approaches to content creation, so if you commit to and enact these principles in your project, be clear about the choices you’re making and why you’re making them. Keep up the messaging about your work as related to accessibility, diversity, and equity, from the project scoping phase through content creation, peer review, and release.

As your project rolls along and you reach different milestones, keep asking yourself whether you’ve remembered to spread the word lately. With communicating the story of your OER, it’s important to maintain momentum as you are building interest. While your major goal is to complete your book, resource, or ancillary material, the people around you might be focused on other things. So even as you work to build up a community around the project, they need to keep being engaged with new ideas, updates, and stories. Be honest and visible, upfront about your decisions, and attentive to the comments and suggestions you receive in response.

Finally, storytelling and communications are just as much about listening as they are about broadcasting. Make sure to give your community accessible pathways to get back to you and stay on top of those communications channels. Respond quickly and enthusiastically, and it will reinforce that you are listening and care about what they have to say. If you note any eagerness that seems to go beyond standard interest, you might have a potential team member on your hands! Give them individualized attention and the chance to learn more about your project or participate in it. Especially once there is more than the initial team talking about the project, make sure that there are places to engage people in conversation and then give them opportunities to do more than just talk (see our engagement guide for more ideas). Provide avenues to participate and, as always, be inviting and welcoming!

Storytelling & communications in your OER

When you begin thinking about communications within this framework of storytelling, there’s no limit to the types of tactics you can employ. Below is a short list of ways to promote your project, all along the road to release. Some of these are likely familiar, and some might be new, but either way, think about how they can be undertaken within a philosophy of openness and collaboration. Remember to keep providing value, so that these processes always offer a way for someone to get involved and do more. If people have something they can use (e.g.: investigate further, teach about, tweet), it will resonate with them more deeply, and inspire them to become part of the process.

  • blog posts (with clear links to more content that is useful to your audience)
  • milestone announcements (providing information on what someone can do next, like contribute, review, or adopt)
  • social media (either from your accounts or a dedicated project account, sharing updates and other relevant content)
  • discoverability (so readers, adopters, and adapters can get their hands on the OER when they want it), meaning:
    • maintaining a public listing for project
    • submitting completed content to repositories
    • ensuring metadata is comprehensive and accurate
  • listserv discussions (so you can become an engaged participant in a community, naturally directing people to your resource)
  • email signatures (which can keep the project front of mind as you interact with people)
  • community calls (to share updates, gather feedback, and reinforce community building)
  • conferences (as opportunities to present, be challenged, make connections, and reconsider what you think you “know” about your project and how to make it better in a future release)
  • promotional materials (that not only reinforce the value that your resource brings, but do so in quick and friendly formats), including:
    • slide decks
    • blurbs or review quotes
    • pamphlets
  • print copies of the book, for potential adopters (to put a physical presence on their desk – front of view, front of mind!)
  • project mailing list (for more frequent and detailed updates, and from which you also allow people to opt-out!)

For us, storytelling and communications are mainly ways to connect communities and collaborators with your book. At Rebus, what drives our work is the idea that we’re building books to build communities, and building communities to build books. We strongly believe in the power of groups of people to come together around a particular project, and doing so in ways that help everybody benefit.

It’s with this goal in mind that we’ve outlined the principles and strategies above, and we want to remind you to keep tapping into your biggest resource as you go about marketing your book – you and your team’s network of contacts! Reach out to these people, whether they are in your professional or personal circles, and remember to listen to their insights about your book.

Positive recommendations about the book from people in the community around it are the most valuable pieces of communications you can ‘create.’ Word of mouth is immensely powerful in the OER space, so be sure to leverage any endorsements about your book – even traditional publishers will tell you that there’s no paid tactic that has the same impact as someone vouching for the quality of your resource. This type of handselling can only happen if you engage with the community right from the very beginning of your project, so that they are as invested in the resource as you are, even if they were not directly involved in the production. Collaborate and create, and you’ll see the community grow along the way. For us, that’s what open publishing is all about!

Storywork for equitable OER

Storytelling also plays a key role in the creation of your OER. It is important to think about what you want to convey in your resource, and be intentional about this work because of the OER’s power to transform education. Open Education provides us with opportunities to implement social justice in unique ways, as you create OER to better support students. We are certain that your work can and will address the status quo/ structural issues standing in the way of accessibility and equity for all.

In discussing how OER creation can be transformative, we wanted to offer a few specific ways you all can commit to making an equitable OER. These are some simple, but concrete action items that you could incorporate into your practises immediately.

First, we suggest that you don’t just turn toward a makeshift solution at the end, but start out with the right priorities that guide you in thinking beyond diversity just as race, but also as worldviews, knowledges, economic privilege, class, gender, sexuality, body size and shape, language, nationalities, abilities, age, employment statues, etc. Make sure your project timelines allow adequate room to make revisions to content with these lenses. Returning back to the Learning Objectives you articulated in project scoping can help you think about the context in which the OER will be used and reimagine the possibilities of the discipline in which the OER will be used.

You can also critically re-evaluate the materials that you are adapting and analyse whether they include key figures or new scholarship, and help you build your OER in ways that tell the depths of the stories you wish to convey. Telling the full story of your disciplines is a simple but very important way to make your OER more equitable. You could include the full narrative of the context around a key figure, especially if they were perpetuating oppressive systems. Don’t isolate figures or shy away from noting the broader story around them.

An example of this is American psychologist Abraham Maslow, most famous for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While his theory is taught in a variety of disciplines, context behind it is often excluded. Maslow spent a few weeks at Siksika (Blackfoot Reserve) in Southern Alberta, Canada. Ryan Heavy Head and Narcisse Blood discuss the Blackfoot worldview and its influence on Maslow in their research: How First Nations Helped Develop a Keystone of Modern Psychology. Adding context like this throughout your pedagogy not only gives credit to the original source of knowledge, but also provides both you and your learners opportunity to expand your frame of reference.

Lastly, it’s also important to be mindful of who gets to communicate and who does not. Remember, we are not trying to gatekeep knowledge. It’s important to allow individuals to speak their own stories, so if it is application, you can bring in more people to contribute to your OER. Think of historically excluded voices, industry experts (whose knowledge is often not validated in academia), student voices, and more. You have the opportunity to grant a lot of agency in the OER you are building!

We hope this chapter has shown the importance of taking the time to reflect on your intentions and desired impact of your resource. Thinking deeply about your OER’s story and communications plan may sound like a lot of effort, but we know from experience how well those efforts play out in the long term. Building storytelling and communications into your processes is incredibly useful because you’re going about creating your OER with a bit more thought, deliberation, and care as you look at ways to really make sure the end resource is as useful as it can be!


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The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far) Copyright © 2019 by Apurva Ashok; Zoe Wake Hyde; and Kaitlin Schilling is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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