Commencement is a special time of year for us, and we aim to treat it as such. #CSUSocial takes commencement planning seriously because it’s a big, big deal. Emotions run rampant and we have the opportunity to connect with each of our primary target audiences in unique, meaningful ways. Commencement is about that moment of walking across the stage and leaving years of hard work behind you, having finally reached the end of the journey.
This is important to prospective students who want to someday feel that feeling.
This is important to current students who have forgotten how close they are to the finish line.
This is important to alumni who haven’t reminisced lately.
And this is really important to the parents who have been there for their children every step of the way.
So this year, our goal was to create an emotional piece that could resonate with each particular audience segment in some form. We asked parents of graduating students to write a letter to their child. The result was authentic, raw, & more meaningful than we ever dreamed it would be.
Here’s five things we learned during the process.
1. Go Out On Limbs
I’m not a fan of heights. I’m especially not a fan of climbing out on limbs when the gusts are blustery and the branches rickety. In other words, I don’t like being in vulnerable places where I’m likely to fall and make a fool of myself. But then again, out on the limbs is where the best fruit hangs.
I was self conscious about this concept and wasn’t even sure it was worth pitching. There was a lot of things that could go wrong and we didn’t have much time to make it happen. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get in touch with the parents — not to mention the possibility that the letters might not even show up at all. A handwritten letter is intimate, and I’m personally not sure I’d be willing to have that type of thing shared in a public venue. With those vulnerabilities in mind, we reached a point when we decided that this was either going to happen the right way or not going to happen at all. This type of concept was uncharted territory for us, and we were prepared to pull the plug and not put out any final product at all if the tone didn’t strike the right chords. The branch was fragile and, knowing how little time we had to make this happen, the wind was strong, but we climbed out on that branch nonetheless. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
2. Relationships Matter
We work with good people — I mean, really good people. Right before filming, we realized that we had yet to order the missing piece to our mic set. Thankfully, the video department came to our rescue and let us borrow theirs.
Coordinating interviews with students during finals week while also reaching out to the parents and somehow getting them to keep this project a secret from their child was a logistical nightmare. Thankfully, the public relations team came through and helped connect us to students within their respective colleges.
The rest was working out, but we still needed a place to film. Thankfully, the photo team opened up their portrait studio and stuck around to help get the equipment set up.
3. The Beauty Is In The Details
I’m learning that video production is about crafting ingredients together in such a way that the various tiny details are overlooked. It’s about the things you don’t want people to see. Lost in the moment is exactly where you want your viewers to be, and the moment the details become visible (e.g., poor lighting, bad audio, wrong song choice) is the moment you’ve lost them.
I had a moment of sheer panic when I realized that I had forgotten to somehow find an old school desk to use as a prop — and filming was the next day. I contemplated using the chair that was already in the studio, but it wasn’t comfy and there was no place for the students to put their letters. Plus, an old school desk would really set the right tone. This project was about the journey of education and life, from the point of being a child to this moment of receiving a college diploma, and many, many hours in an old, uncomfortable desk were part of this journey for these graduates. So I needed that desk. A little bit of searching online and a whole lot of panic turned up a wonderful old desk with a lot of character — it was definitely used and had certainly been learned in. It was perfect. And the seller even turned out to be a CSU alum. Small world!
A big aspect of my growth in video production has been learning what to use and what to let go. I set up one camera on a stand, facing the subject, and moved around with another DSLR for some dynamic shots to mix in. I ended up with a lot of footage and really liked how it looked. But something didn’t feel right while editing. These other angles were breaking the intimacy between camera and subject, and I, as the viewer, was losing my emotional attachment to the piece. I consulted with friend & video expert Christian Herrmann who helped me come to terms with the notion that it was indeed time to let go of that footage. Looking back, that was definitely the right decision.
4. Emotion Works
One of the many things I learned from Jonah Berger’s book Contagious is that “When we care, we share.” High arousal emotions drive people to share stories with those around them. The thing with ‘Dear Ram’ is that each viewer could project some aspect of their own self identity into the film either as parent or child. And these graduates overcame hardships that we can all relate to somehow.
5. In Jazz, There Is No Wrong Note
… it all depends on which note you play next. I knew a guy who was a local pool shark, and I’d go watch him run the tables for hours on weekend evenings in Old Town. Between turns, he’d come sit down by me and explain that pool isn’t always about your current shot. It’s about the next one. And if you can’t get a ball in the pocket this time, make darn sure that you set the next guy up for a tough shot, too. I should try to make some poignant statement about how this advice relates to social media. But really it’s more than that. This concept of playing a wrong note or being faced with a poor shot position on the pool table is all about life. To me, that’s really the beauty of this project. I walked away from this project wishing I had befriended more international students during my time in college, because I never realized how lonely that feeling was for them. I walked away realizing how much I had taken for granted throughout my journey. And I walked away with a fresh perspective of the realization that life will absolutely throw us curve balls and we will have bad days, but what matters in the end is how we pick ourselves up for tomorrow.