Advice to Young Extension Professionals


“I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Stickiness.”

Okay, I’m a huge fan of The Graduate.

But there is a reason for this rather cryptic remark. I’m approaching 50 and entering the last stretch of my Extension career.

A quarter century ago, I never thought I would be one of those old codgers compelled to offer unsolicited advice to younger professionals about how to make the most of their careers.

Now I can’t resist the urge.   I’m like the cryptic, slightly daffy middle-aged guy who confronts Benjamin Braddock.

I’ve even felt compelled a time or two to prepare a list.  At the top of that list — if I ever get around to it — would be a word or two about the importance of mastering the science of stickiness.  By stickiness, I mean the importance of learning how to present messages in ways that distinguish them from the thousands of other messages that bombard  our clients day after day after day — that stick in their minds, in other words.

That’s why I heartily recommend writing instructor Andy Selsberg’s March 19 op-ed. With the explosion of social media firmly in mind, he’s foregoing standard essays and assigning his freshman comp students more mundane tasks, such as writing two-liners to market eBay merchandise or  posting “coherent and original comments for youtube videos, quickly telling us why surprised kittens or unconventional wedding dances resonate with millions.”

Writers of the future, Selsberg says, should learn to set their “sights not lower, but shorter.”

I don’t expect all my graduates to go on to Twitter-based careers, but learning how to write concisely, to express one key detail succinctly and eloquently, is an incredibly useful skill, and more in tune with most students’ daily chatter, as well as the world’s conversation. The photo caption has never been more vital.

Of course, as I’ve said time and again, there will be far more to a successful Extension career than concise writing.  But Selsberg is onto something: the need to package messages successfully.

To borrow a memorable phrase from Howard Beale, Extension professionals are living, working and competing in what has become the “most awesome g*****n force in the whole godless world”: the global knowledge economy.

Concise writing is only the beginning of a massive intellectual retooling effort in the ways we conceive, design and deliver Extension educational products to ensure that every item is readily distinguishable from the countless other knowledge products.

Back to that word again — stickiness. Everything we do really relates to that concept. We’ve got to ensure that all our products connect with our users.  And by securing stickiness, we better ensure that our products remain competitive.

Granted, the preceding paragraph is not exactly an example of concise writing, but believe me when I say it comes from the heart.

Are you listening? Stickiness.


3 responses to “Advice to Young Extension Professionals

  1. One codger to another–great topic, Jim!

    The Heath brothers (Chip and Dan) in their fun-to-read book Made to Stick offer up a simple acronym (SUCCES) to help remember the rules of thumb for creating sticky messages:

    * Simple — find the core of any idea
    * Unexpected — grab people’s attention by surprising them
    * Concrete — make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later
    * Credible — give an idea believability
    * Emotional — help people see the importance of an idea
    * Stories — empower people to use an idea through narrative

    We often represent our work as research-based, so we should attend to the growing body of research suggesting that all the empirical data and “research-based information” you bring to bear on a topic rarely motivates much behavior change (if data and information are all you bring).

    Yup, you do need the most recent science as your backdrop. But to create messages that stick and that foster change, educator-communicators need to create deep emotional connections and tell good stories.

    As organizational storytelling consultant Andy Goodman famously said, Numbers numb, jargon jars, and nobody ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart.

    • MissionExtension

      Heck, Peg, I wish I had said all this – great stuff and a GREAT complement to my blog.

      Honestly, I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about “research-based.” The biggest challenge facing us is not so much the research-based aspect as it is ensuring that our messages connect with the mental hooks of our clients.

      Incidentally, love the last quote – a keeper, if there ever was one.

      Best, Jim

  2. Hey, Jim-

    Can you fix my post by closing the italics after my first “research-based.” Thanks! (Keep the italics around Andy Goodman’s quotation.) I think the ital. followed me over into your post, too. Weird!

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