Telling Stories

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swensonInnovation and collaboration don’t happen in a vacuum.

That’s what Rebecca Swenson tells her agricultural communication students. “I’m driven by the notion of connection and community, and collaboration,” she says. “I’m interested in the practical application of research, and how specific campaigns or icons make people feel connected. So if you like Apple products and I like Apple products … maybe that means we care about some of the same larger issues. “

Before joining CFANS as an assistant professor in agricultural education, she worked in corporate and non-profit public relations. “I learned a lot from my clients, and I became fascinated by the questions about why some stories have the elements that appeal to us and others don’t. I wanted to ask those questions in a bigger way, which is what led me to graduate school. I kept asking those questions about how people think about the world around us, and eventually I got to start unleashing those questions with students.”

Today, she conducts research and teaches in the newly renamed and refocused agricultural communication and marketing major. “Students definitely keep you on your toes; research is exciting, and teaching is fun. Sometimes people come into the classroom and maybe don’t feel like they fit in. We talk about how we might all come together—that’s where it gets to be fun.”

Part of her message to students is that regardless of their own viewpoints, to communicate effectively they need to understand their audiences. “It’s not necessarily what’s in your heart and mind that’s important, but in your audience’s hearts and minds. You can’t be shouting, to communicate, but you have to listen and understand. See what you have in common. But it’s also important to participate in the conversation—if you’re not telling a story, then you’re not contributing.”

Social media is a prime example, she says. “I tell students it’s like you’re entering a cocktail party; you wouldn’t just barge into a room shouting, you’d look around and see what people are talking about and what you can add to their conversations.”

Interest in the agricultural communication major is growing fast, she says, and employers want graduates who know how to communicate effectively and how to use the tools of modern communication. Keeping up with fast-changing communications technology is a challenge, “like emptying the ocean with a bucket,” she says. “You have to be in the mindset of always listening and learning, and embracing change.”

- Becky Beyers