Thursday, August 29, 2013

Storytelling, audience connections key for communicators, ESPN exec says

Norby Williamson believes the College of Charleston is a “kick-ass place,” and that’s a pretty good endorsement coming from a senior executive at ESPN.

But the executive vice president of the world’s largest sports television network reminded a room of communication majors Thursday not to worry about whether they chose the right path, the right school or the right major.

“Don’t second-guess yourself, but if the path you’re on is not the right one, take a different one,” Williamson said. “That was the lesson early on at ESPN – figure it out as you go along, put the work in and you’ll succeed. You have to have the concept of being able to evolve yourself.”

Williamson knows a few things about evolving.

Starting as a production assistant 28 years ago at ESPN when it was a fledgling cable sports network, Williamson worked his way through the ranks to his current position where he has been since 2007.

Along the way, Williamson produced “SportsCenter,” “ESPNEWS,”  “Baseball Tonight” and “NFL Gameday.” Prior to taking on management duties alongside production work in 1999, Williamson earned five awards, including Sports Emmy Awards for “SportsCenter” and “NFL Gameday.”

He also was responsible for major programming such as Monday Night Football, College Game Day, NASCAR, college basketball and football, plus on-site coverage of major sporting events like the Super Bowl, BCS national championship, Men’s and Women’s Final Four and the MLB All-Star game.

“There’s nothing impressive about me. I was in the right place at the right time, working my ass off,” said the 1985 graduate of Southern Connecticut State University, adding that students should be comforted that he made it at ESPN. “You can succeed by being tactical, taking strategic risks and working hard.”

Williamson acknowledged today’s students have a tougher environment to navigate for a job, but that isn’t always a disadvantage.

“It’s a mess out there,” he said, “which is good news for you.”

With the explosion of digital content and social media, ESPN and other networks are hungry for grads with storytelling skills, not necessarily technical expertise.

“Storytelling, writing, making a connection with the audience….that’s a lot more important,” Williamson said. “We hire smart people. We think we can teach you what you need about production, but we want creative, smart people who like things the way they are but are open to doing it different.”

In a social media-dominant world where athletes can control their own messages, and immediate still isn’t fast enough, Williamson said resonating with the audience is still the most important goal – whether it’s in a reality TV show or a 140-character tweet.

“It’s crazy. The greatest thing about social media is immediate feedback; the worst thing is immediate feedback,” Williamson said, admonishing students not to lose focus on what will connect with their audience. “A good story is always most important.”

Among his sage advice for the soon-to-be grads, Williamson reminded students to do what they are passionate about, always be decent to people and to stay curious.

“Ask yourself if you’re going anywhere,” he said. “Now is the time to take risks.”

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