Inclusive Storytelling in Higher Education

How can we create relatable content that’s filled with empathy?

Anne Stefanyk, CEO and Founder of Kanopi Studios, joined the Enrollment Growth University  podcast to talk about the concept of inclusive storytelling and using language that helps ensure our students can picture themselves in our institution’s story.

Anne Stefanyk Quote
“The power of speaking with is to acknowledge the human and their points of view and really bring them into the conversation.” – Anne Stefanyk

What Is Inclusive Content?

What’s the difference between speaking with versus speaking at an audience?

Verna Myers, author of Moving Diversity Forward, says, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” That’s a powerful thought because when you’re speaking with an audience, you’re showing the way instead of showing off. 

Let’s say you have a zoologist program, and your website says, “You will be studying with us to be a zoologist. Here are the courses and professors.” That’s a totally different approach than asking questions such as,”Do you see yourself working with animals or studying animals? If so, we can provide the pathway for you.”

Keys to Inclusive Communication

Inclusive communication involves positioning your user as the hero and you as the guide. You’re helping your users see themselves in your communication. 

Key 1: Avoid using specific terms unless absolutely needed. 

For example, if you’re offering a women’s studies course, you usually want to promote the female aspects of the story, but you can leave it out if it’s not needed.

Key 2: Omit needless pronouns. 

Or if you are going to include pronouns, then make sure that you include he, she, they, and them. Do you ask for demographic information on your application form? You may want to be careful about how much you ask because you could turn off your user. 

Key 3: Acknowledge that people have a variety of backstories. 

Make sure the form filters on your application form make your users feel included. Some forms just ask: “single or married,?” But some people don’t like that. Instead, you may want to say: “married, in partnership, or single?” 

Anne Stefanyk Quote
“Inclusivity makes sure that your individuals can really relate to your content, and if it’s not accessible, it’s not relatable.”

Having an Accessibility-first Mindset

People need to relate to your content. If your content is not accessible, it’s not relatable. 

Let’s say your website uses a low-contrast text. People who are visually impaired can’t perceive that. Or maybe you put the social sharing links above the content. Screen raiders won’t be able to share the content without going back to the beginning of the article. Take care of those accessibility items, to make sure that your content is inclusive for social sharing across. 

Here’s another example: you may have an administrative video that shows beautiful tours, but if you don’t have captions on them, you’re not telling the story to everybody. As a reminder here, not all folks have perceived disabilities, but they may still use accessibility tools. A busy mother looking after three children on the bus who still wants to find something on the internet, for instance, may rely on captions. Closed captioning allows all people in all situations to digest your content.

Besides captions, you can increase inclusivity by using color contrasts, appropriate link spacing, and video autoplay.  If you have videos, make sure the user has the ability to pause and play. Also, you want to be mindful about vague calls to action such as “read more” or “learn more.” It’s better to say “read more about…” or “learn more about….”

From a visual angle, if you’re working within a content management system that doesn’t allow you to write over the buttons, you can do something with programming tools to have non-visual content cues. 

Even little things can make a big difference. Add alt tags to all your images or try navigating your site with a screen reader to find out what’s really accessible. Starbucks does a wonderful job of making sure that their website is accessible. You can just check out a Starbucks’ website and compare it to your website. You’ll automatically see some of the differences.

Anne Stefanky Quote
“People want to be able to see themselves within their content.” – Anne Stefanyk

Next Steps for Moving Closer to Inclusive Storytelling

Once you think you’ve got it, go out and test it. Talk to your community. Do the people around you see and feel themselves as part of your communication strategy? 

Whether you’re a department, a larger university, or a community college, you actually have to get to know your users to be able to represent them. Doing strategic user research helps build that into the story. Then, you build it into your culture a little bit more. 

Remember that you’re trying to help people solve their problems. Does a student want to find out what programs are available, for instance? You could create a small transactional CTA such as a little quiz on what types of things interest them. In the end, help them decide on some program options, collect their email address, and follow up to guide them to the next step. 

When they’re ready, have that direct CTA make it really easy for them to click on the “apply now” button.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Anne Stefanyk from Kanopi Studios. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.

Kanopi Studio’s Accessible Media Presentation

Kanopi Studio’s Inclusive Content Strategy Presentation

Kanopi Studio’s Blog: Accessibility Tools