Vital Signs: the enduring imperative of “let’s do lunch” (despite the internets)

[originally published in the Vital Signs column of the Communication Leadership Fall 2016 Alumni Newsletter]

“Atmospheric disturbance
The feverish flux
Of human interface
And interchange”

It began, over lunch.

It had been a while since Brian Marr and I had connected. As one of our Comm Lead marketing faculty and a strategist at Smashing Ideas, he had been instrumental in advising our way forward over the years – including when we added our second degree track in Communities & Networks and became the “Communication Leadership” master’s program.

As we finished up our meal, Brian mentioned a conference he had attended in Los Angeles. It had been largely business-as-usual, until he decided to join a session in Virtual Reality (VR). Unlike the rest of the conference, Brian said the room was packed — especially with Hollywood executives. It was clear to him that this technology was about to hit critical mass, and it would have an impact on the kind of storytelling Comm Lead champions. I realized then that we had to figure out a way to engage as a program with VR.

A couple of weeks later, my student Zac Murphy met me at the same spot for lunch. He had just returned from Cambodia where he had been documenting a groundbreaking program in landmine detection, using highly-trained rats. Zac had reached out to me to pick my brain about next steps, emerging platforms, and funding. I recounted my conversation with Brian, and that maybe Zac might investigate VR on our behalf. He told me that was exactly the kind of direction he was looking for.

“An ounce of perception
A pound of obscure
Process information
At half-speed”


Post-lunch photo in front of some vital signs at Facebook HQ with former students Kathy Matosich and Cheryl Lowry (who both work there now as content strategists)

Meanwhile, I had been exploring ways to support my alumni Andrea Zeller and Cheryl Lowry as they aspired to chart the future of Content Strategy. Four years ago, we hired Andrea to teach the program’s first Content Strategy class because we knew there was interest in this burgeoning discipline — which was making a transition from web-based text to mobile, the Internet of Things (IoT), and yes, VR. In addition to shoring up the Comm Lead curriculum, UW Professional & Continuing Education suggested that we create an online certificate program that mirrored the graduate one. So I leveraged the conversations I was having with Andrea and Cheryl and used this as an opportunity to design a Certificate in Storytelling and Content Strategy. Through these two efforts, we could create a west coast school of thought that they could lead.

It all came together this summer. Now both at Facebook, Cheryl and Andrea invited Comm Lead Community Advancement Officer Molly Schachter and me to meet with the company’s head of VR design in Menlo Park (right after our free company-provided Silicon Valley lunch). We realized then that together, we could design a “master class” for our Comm Lead learning community that would explore the future of content strategy and story, with a particular focus on VR and IoT. We were now ready to step through the door that Brian had brought to our attention. Along with our alumni and current students, Zac Murphy would also participate in what proved to be one of our most successful attempts at “public scholarship.”

As VR and the IoT technologies emerge, a world of content “beyond the screen” is here. Content strategists and storytellers need to understand the evolution of how people will engage in these new immersive and spatial experiences. Thinking through what role empathy has in VR design and how to apply new contextual tools will be key to successful and engaging experiences.

Now we move into fall and welcome the newest students drawn from our largest applicant pool ever. Associate Director Anita Verna Crofts and I continue to build our curriculum, adding muscle to content strategy, UX, analytics, and as always, storytelling. We’re developing our next steps with Cheryl and Andrea, even as Zac rolls out his inaugural “CPR Saves” VR program for a regional fire department, including “Comm Lead” branded Google Cardboard viewers. He tackled this project during an independent study this summer with his faculty supervisor of choice, Scott Macklin. We plan to collaborate on transforming it into a national storytelling campaign over the coming months.

Those are the “Vital Signs” of the graduate program I direct (with a nod to the closing track of one of the first records I ever bought — which would forever shape my own direction): always listening, always connecting, always…emerging. And more often than not its inspiration originates from the power of the most classic form of “human interface and interchange:” lunch.

“Everybody got mixed feelings
About the function and the form
Everybody got to elevate
From the norm”

(Vital Signs lyrics by Neil Peart, from the 1981 Rush album Moving Pictures)