How to write a strong syllabus

There are two main purposes for a syllabus. The first purpose is to guide students and the teacher through the course. The syllabus should show what the course is about, what things will happen, when things will happen, and how to succeed. This first purpose focuses on the future. The second purpose of a syllabus is to be a contract:  attendance policy, determining grades, penalty for late work. This second purpose usually focuses on the past because the syllabus is often looked at when there is a dispute after grades are distributed.

Writing a syllabus for the first time is a challenge. Where to start? Start at the top of the page and work down one line at a time.

Writing a syllabus for the first time is a challenge. Where to start? Start at the top of the page and work down one line at a time.

There are four short questions that will help you write a good syllabus.

The first question is “Why?”  Start off the syllabus by showing the reader why your course matters. Keep this to one or two sentences.
Example:  Everyone in the ad business needs to know how to think strategically, how to think creatively, and how to write wonderfully. It all starts in this course called Story (MASC-201).

Next, focus on the “What?” Specify what you want students to learn (these are called “learning objectives”). Try to have three (or less) learning objectives because they will keep you and the students focused on what’s important. Write them to show the things that you hope students will learn (not what you will teach). A good way to write them is to say, “I hope you will learn… (and continue the list).” Be specific. These are the broad strokes of your course.
Example 1:  The primary goal for this course is for you to learn to engage consumers through writing. The hope is that you will learn to inspire people to change their opinions (and their behavior!) while following the strategic direction of the brand.
Example 2:  In this course we hope: 1) You learn more about your creativity. 2) You learn how to generate ideas. 3) You learn how to evaluate ideas. 4) You learn to present your ideas in multiple media.
Example 3: In this course we hope you gain a working knowledge of InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator. The secondary goal is for you to learn the basics of layout design.

The third question is “How?” Start flushing out the learning objectives. Describe how students will learn the things specified in the learning objectives. This can be in a narrative or just a list of bullets. Things to include:
– Books, movies, online videos, and other resources.
– Projects, papers, and other assignments.
– The number of tests and quizzes.
Someone once said, “There is no learning when there is no assessment.” So, in this section describe how the grades will be determined. Include information on these three aspects:
1) Indicate the value of each assignment or test toward the final grade (Example: “Each test accounts for 20% of your final grade.”).
2) Describe how work will be judged. Describe what A-level work is like (“Exceptional”), what B-level work is like (“Real good”), and C-level work (“Average”)… and so on.
3) Include your grading scale. I use a ten-point scale for simplicity (100-90 is an A, 89-80 is a B, and so on).

The last question is “When?” In this section, show the schedule for the class. Indicate the topics covered in each class. Highlight the test days and the due dates for projects. To help students determine if they are on the right pace, breakdown large assignments into smaller stages. Example:  If the first test is on the first half of a book, give weekly reading assignments of a chapter or so.

What’s left to do? By answering these four questions, you’ll have the basic structure for a good syllabus. To make a great syllabus, follow these tips:

–  Inspire and engage. After reading the syllabus, students should feel inspired to want to take your class and want to learn. Pique their interest. Show your passion for the subject. Make your syllabus engaging.
–  Don’t say “don’t” (or “no” or “never”) too much. Try to spin things around to the positive side (or at least to the non-negative side). Focus on what everyone should do (instead of focusing on what everyone should not do).  Example 1:  “No hats in class” could be written as “To promote blood flow to your brain, please remove your hats before class.” Example 2:  This is positive: “Meet all deadlines and you’ll earn a 5% bonus at the end of the semester.” This is negative: “Do not miss deadlines; late work will suffer from a 25% penalty.”
–  Will you take attendance? It is up to you. You might believe that students are paying for the right to take the class or to skip it. So you aren’t going to require students to attend the class. Or, you might believe that your mission is to help people learn, and people learn more when they come to class. So you will take roll and include attendance as part of the course grade. It is up to you. If attendance will be graded, make it clear. Is there a penalty for coming late to class? Every day?
–  Can you measure participation? We want students to participate in the classroom. I find it hard to accurately assess class participation. Consider these two examples:  Student 1)  Mildred participates by coming to every class fully prepared, being a strong teammate, turning in great work, and keeping up with all work. She is a quiet, contemplative student who doesn’t voluntarily share lots of thoughts in class. Mildred doesn’t smile very often because she is self-conscious about her missing front tooth. But she is a great writer and thinker. In many ways, her class participation grade might be a 50%.  Student 2) Brittany participates by always sharing her thoughts in class (even when her ideas aren’t fully baked). She can be counted on to share a funny story. Her wonderful mojo wakes up the class. She makes class interesting. Brittany often flashes her bright eyes and gleaming smile. But, she is a below-average writer and thinker, and a mediocre partner. In many ways, her class participation grade might be a 100%.
–  Tell your career stories. Students will enjoy learning about your day-to-day professional life, your learning experiences, your passions, and your avocations. Tell about the career journey you took. How did you get your first job and your first promotion? Tell the story of when you were fired.
–  Give advice for succeeding in the course. Most courses aren’t only about showing up for class and turning in the assigned work. What little things will add up to make a difference?
–  More about the work. How should work be turned in (typed, mounted, bound, hard copies or email submissions)? What about late work? What about extra credit?
– Write the syllabus in a way that shows you respect students. Talk with them instead of talking down to them.
–  Set high standards. Inspire students to reach past their potential, and you will be impressed. It’s easy to reduce the rigor in mid-semester if it was initially set too high. It’s hard to turn a cakewalk into a rich learning experience.
–  Inspire. I like this quote, “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud” (Alex Osborn). I strive to be rigorous and inspiring.
–  Phone a friend:  Please let me know how I can help you with the syllabus and with the rest of the course. Post your questions in the comments section (below), and I’ll get back with you.

That’s it. Four short questions plus some other things to consider. Keep it simple. Focus on what you want students to learn.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”  (William Arthur Ward)


How do I make a portfolio?

Q: I hear that I should have a portfolio, but I have no idea where to start. I just started on the Strategic Ad track at VCU, and I don’t know what should go into a portfolio or what one should look like. I was wondering if you can just offer some insight where I should start or what are some pieces of work I should include.

There are many books that show how to build a good ad portfolio. Most (if not all) are focused on creating a portfolio for a creative position. They are worth reading for strategists because the same thinking goes into portfolios for strategists.

A:  Most people won’t expect you to have much of a portfolio if you’re still in college. Especially since you’re not a senior yet. But, any ad student (Creative and Strategic) who wants to secure a wild internship or an exciting job, should have an interesting body of work. It will help to sell you.

Simplify your thinking of a portfolio. It is just a collection of work — stuff you’ve done. To make a portfolio, first make it easy. Then make it better. And better.

First, just begin with a WordPress blog or any free place to collect your work. Put 10 things up there, and you’ll have a portfolio!! Then make it better.

Listed below are things you should show in a portfolio. I have listed them in the order of importance:

1- Show passion. A deep interest in anything. Really anything. And I mean a deep interest. That means that you go further than most people. People with deep interests are interesting people. Successful ad people are interesting people interested in things. In advertising passion trumps skills all of the time.
2- Show creation. Make stuff and share it. It doesn’t matter what you make, just make stuff. Stand up comedy, spoken-word poetry, write hip-hop licks, design a laser-light show, write music, redesign album artwork, make strawberry shortcakes, write stories, brew beer, design houses, or knit sweaters.
And share it. Put it out there for others to enjoy, criticize, steal, and get pissed about. Because creation without sharing or publishing might be OK for fine artists with issues, but it doesn’t work in advertising.

3- Show you’re willing to try, and suck, and try until you get better. That’s another big part of advertising. Ad folks are always presented with new problems every day. Every client wants something really new (never tried before). So there’s going to be things that don’t work out as planned. Trying hard and failing is a big part of the ad game, and so is trying again, and trying again… and eventually winning. Yippee!

4- Show you are a student of the ad business. Do you read at least one of these on a regular basis:  AdAge, AdWeek, CommArts, or If you did, I’m sure you could show the ad knowledge that you have gained.

5- Show your ad chops. I know you have had Curiousness. Have you had Empathy, Awareness, Imagination, or Perspicuousness? How about Story? Did you have projects in those classes that you could share to show your ad skills? If your work wasn’t exceptional, you have two choices:  1) forget showing the work to anyone, or 2) rework it until it’s exceptional (see item #3 above). I suggest reworking those assignments until they are exceptional.

And you could do one thing that covers all of the 5 sections above. Here’s an example: Create a blog. Then get a list of the companies in the Fortune 100. For the next 100 days, write a one-hour brand analysis every day. Start at company #100 and work your way up to company #1. This project would show a passion for brands (#1). This project is a creation that’s shared (#2). This project would show that you kept up on your trying and learning about brand analyses (#3). This project would show you have a deep interest in the ad business (#4). And if your work is good, this project would show you know about branding.

Designers could start with the same list of 100 companies and redesign each company’s logo. Writers could write engaging answering machine messages for each company’s phone system. Have fun with your portfolio!

Recently some advertising hiring executives visited VCU to talk with students. A student asked William Manfredi, Executive VP – Global Human Resources for Wunderman, what he looked for in undergrad’s portfolios.  Manfredi said that Wunderman is so large that there isn’t one thing, but he looked for a fit in personality and in culture. Then he listed two specifics, “Energy and passion.” Susan Lim, also in Global Human Resources with Wunderman, nodded her head in agreement.

You can see that there is no one way to make a portfolio. There is no concrete list of things that should go into a portfolio. Tell the story of what you have done.

One last thing:  Include you in your portfolio. People want to see the person behind the collection of work. Tell your story. Stories are compelling (hey, that’s one more last thing).

Get your portfolio together and you’ll have some life-changing experiences. Best of luck!!

Checklists make work better and learning richer

Self-assessment is when students evaluate their own work. Self-assessment helps students learn and do better work (advice from “McKeachie’s Teaching Tips”). The trick is to get students to be critical at the appropriate level. One problem with many self-assessment exercises is that many students say that their work is better than it is.

One of the benefits of checklists is that they create gaps in students' knowledge, and that makes teaching easier.

To facilitate self-assessment, I’m trying to create checklists for all assignments. For example, one assignment in Judgment (a portfolio course for senior-level ad strategy students) is to make a strong resume. The specifics of the assignment include the checklist. Students use the checklist to make sure they thought of everything to make their work as strong as it can be. The checklist must be turned in along with their resume. And I use the same checklist to evaluate their resume and to determine their grade.

The checklist helps students realize what’s important on an assignment. And if a student doesn’t know how to address one of the elements on the checklist, he/she usually contacts me at that point instead of skipping over that element of the assignment. Some students turn in work with items not checked off of the checklist (often with a note or a question mark next to the check box). I like this because we can have a conversation about something that they already realize is a problem with their work. They are eager to learn what they know they don’t know. In “Made To Stick,” Chip and Dan Heath say that when there are “gaps in people’s knowledge” they are eager to know more. The checklist makes students curious (and interested), and that makes teaching easier. The self-assessment is working.

I have not figured out how to make a detailed and objective checklist for all projects, but I’m getting better at it. The key is to be specific and add guidance to the student how to improve their work on the specific criteria. Try to make each check item objective, measurable and quantitative (rather than subjective).

I have always included a rubric with each assignment… a list of 4 – 8 criteria on which the work would be evaluated. By turning the rubric into a checklist with 20 – 30 specific items (along with specific guidance), it becomes a tool that students use to create better work and engage deeper in the learning. Give it a try.

Here’s the checklist for making a good resume: ResumeChecklist

Am I creative or am I strategic?

“I hope so.”

The VCU ad program (undergrad) is split into two majors:  Creative and Strategy. Many first- and second-year ad students ask the same question:  “Am I creative or am I strategic?”

This should not be an either/or question. It should be a yes-or-no question. Advertising is a business for people who can think creatively and strategically to solve business problems through communications.

People who lack creative thinking skills will not do well in advertising (the ad business or the VCU ad program). The ad business is a creative business. Everyone in advertising needs to find new ways to solve problems. And each client problem is different from all previous problems. There are no cookie-cutter solutions for writers, for account planners, for art directors, for media planners, or for account managers. Everyone is expected to engineer new solutions. To be creative.

Check out this little video (from the Effie Awards) to see the story behind the strategy of an ad campaign... and to see the creative execution of the strategy. The link is at the bottom of the article.

People who lack the ability to think strategically will not do well in advertising. Solving a business problem with new ideas requires a full understanding of the problem. It also requires an understanding of business in general so that competing ideas can be evaluated against each other. Critical thinking abilities are required from account planners as well as from art directors.

Work Communications (a creative talent agency in the UK) talks about the connection between creative thinking and strategic thinking:  “Commercial creativity is all about using original thinking to solve difficult problems in the real world. By definition, innovation takes you into the unknown; any action that is truly pioneering has an element of risk to it. So if you are going to do something that is genuinely new and different, you’d better know why you’re doing it and what you hope to gain from the exercise.”

There are plenty of under-inspired people working in creative departments. And there are plenty of scatterbrains working in account services or planning departments. These people are not the leaders; they are the followers. Most of the ones I’ve known tend to be happier after they leave the ad business.

So, back to the question, “Am I creative or am I strategic?”  The best answer is “I hope so.”  If the answer is “yes,” then I can help you pick a track. If the answer is “no,” then I can help you pick another major.

Let’s assume you’re creative and strategic. Then which advertising track is best for you? Are you a writer? Do you love to write? Really love it? Stephen King says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

If you’re not a writer, are you an art director?  Mark Fenske says, “If you come up with good ideas but they all look bad, you’re a copywriter.” From Mark’s wisdom, we might assume:  If you come up with good ideas and they look good, you’re an art director.

Or, is the Strategic track best for you?  Grab a drink and some popcorn, and watch “The Persuaders,” a Frontline documentary from PBS. It’s about the strategic side of brand communications (advertising). It shows how companies and organizations figure out how to persuade you and me to buy their products. If you get excited from the documentary, you’ll like the strategic side of advertising. Watch the film here (click on “Watch the Full Program Online” – a link on the right side of that page).

Some final advice from Helayne Spivak: “Exciting ads come from excited people with incredibly diverse backgrounds and interests. And while most creative advertising people have a healthy interest in their field, they have an even healthier interest in the world around them. In other words, the single-minded study of advertising and advertising alone will not make you a better writer or art director. In fact, the best advice I’ve ever heard for aspiring young creatives is something my mother said to me years ago: ‘Turn off the damned television and go outside and play.’”

Here’s the link to the Canadian Club video (from the photo above).

A job at The Martin Agency

Marty Thompkins is a recruiter from The Martin Agency who recently spoke at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). She shared some great insights about getting a job and answered a lot of questions from VCU ad students.

She said many things that connected with me. I really liked Marty’s list of the six things that they look for when hiring a new employee at Martin:

1) Excellent communication skills. That means no typos and all of that obvious stuff. But the important point was that Marty wants job candidates to tell their story so that their personality shows. This means no cookie-cutter cover letters and no just-the-facts resumes. This means to write more than just listings of stuff like day-to-day tasks.

Barely There Billboard

Everyone knows The Martin Agency's work with GEICO and Walmart. Here's an example their lesser-known (but still award-winning) work.

A good story has characters that the reader can relate to. The job candidate should be the hero of their story. A good story is a sequence of events. A good story includes a conflict or a problem that the lead character will face. And, there should be a resolution to the conflict or problem. A good story needs to be interesting… give the reader a gift for spending time with the story.

Under excellent communication skills, Marty talked about the need to be articulate in person and on the phone. Practice what you will say on the phone when you call an agency. Practice what you will say if the agency calls you.

An important aspect of advertising is to take a ton of information and to be able to cut it down into a succinct, digestible message for the audience. Resumes need to show that the candidate has this ability. A one-page resume is a good example of this skill.

Excellent communication skills cannot ignore the power of visual communications. Marty said that all resumes should have a “design element.” Granted that media planners don’t need a resume that shows the graphic finesse of an art director, but media folks better show that they are aware of visual communications.

2) Passion. This one was simple. Marty said that job candidates must show their passions. It is not important how the passions are presented. And, it is not important what things people are passionate about. Just have passion and show it.

I recently watched a nice, short TED talk about the eight keys to success. Richard St. John says that passion was one of the eight “secrets of success.” In fact, he says that passion is the first key to success. Watch the video here.

3) Opinions about advertising. Have a point of view about the ad business or an aspect of it. Be able to tell someone what your favorite ad campaign is. Be able to comment on current ads that are getting attention in the marketplace.

4) Be tenacious about getting a job. Other people are working hard to get the good jobs. Anyone who wants a good job will need to work for it. Good jobs don’t just fall out of the sky.

This means to scrutinize your resume, cover letter, and portfolio. Customize everything for each job applied for. This means to follow up on applications… BUT do not become a stalker!  The Martin Agency gets back with every application they receive. Allow two weeks for the recruiter to get back with you before following up.

5) Show that you’re willing to work. The Martin Agency expects people to pay their dues to secure a good job. Entry-level job candidates should not dismiss starting at the bottom because Martin hires from within.

6) Fit into the agency’s culture. The best employees are the ones that fit into the culture of the company (the people, the process, the mission, and the personality). No company has the culture that would be perfect for all employees. Likewise, no job candidates have the personality that would be perfect for all companies.

The Martin Agency looks for people who 1) collaborate well, 2) have integrity, 3) have a sense of humor, and 4) are down to earth. Marty forgot to mention that The Martin Agency also looks for people who know a lot about advertising (or at least a lot about a part of advertising).

At the top of The Martin Agency’s website, there are four links next to the company logo. The first link is “Culture.” It’s important.

Marty Thompkins is a fantastic ambassador for The Martin Agency. She shared her time and her expertise willingly. She was personable. She showed passion for her work and for the ad business. And she was down to earth. The Martin Agency receives around 300 resumes every week — tough odds for any job candidate. Focus on these six elements and the odds will get better.

Remarkable work is easier than average work

Fringe benefits come from creating exceptional work. I was reminded of that idea recently at a presentation by two of the founders of Posh Tots.

Posh Tots is an interesting company that sells extremely high-end home furnishings for kids’ rooms. We’re talking about beds for kids that cost over $20,000 each (but they are pretty cool). Andrea Edmunds and Pam O’Hallaron, founders of Posh Tots, shared thoughts about their company at a recent Friday Forum (presented by the VCU Brandcenter).

A few of the important things I took away from the presentation were:

The things that these two kids stand for can help students learn to advertise smarter. The kids can also teach students how to get a job.

1. Being remarkable generates buzz automatically. To make a splash when they were just starting out, Posh Tots created a few remarkable things like a Cinderella carriage bed ($47,000) and a pirate ship bed ($4,000). They pushed those remarkable things out via nice photography to select magazine editors, and let their remarkable work create the buzz.
Looking at this same concept on the other side, it will say something like this: “Being average takes a lot of extra work to be noticed.”

2. Find solutions not excuses. The company began in 2000. Within two years of launching this new luxury brand, the US economy was in the tank deep. It was a terrible time to start a company. It was a super-terrible time to try to sell high-end luxury children’s furnishings. They had plenty of excuses to fold or to accept poor results, but they didn’t.

3. Appeal to a few passionate people. Posh Tots markets to the super wealthy with young children. That’s a puny market by anyone’s standards. They didn’t want to appeal to lots of consumers because that’s not what they are about. Focusing on the niche means that there was little or no competition, and that’s always good. With a narrow focus, Posh Tots is able to become experts at what they do… and that reduces the likelihood of legitimate competition. These passionate clients told their friends, and the buzz spread (see point #1 above).

4. When someone becomes an expert at a particular thing, other people will think that he/she is an expert at other things. Posh Tots began in the business of remarkable furnishings for kids. And that’s still their core focus. However, clients are coming to them to create furnisings for grownups, for interior design, and for many other things outside of their core focus. Can you imagine going to the person who sells living-room recliners at Sears and asking that person to design an office? No, because most recliner sales people are not creating remarkable things.

Posh tots does exceptional, remarkable work; they don’t accept failure, and they focus on their specialty niche.

Let’s relate the concepts from Posh Tots to teaching advertising. When presenting an ad assignment, discuss how students can create good work easier:
1) Find a focus; don’t try to appeal to everyone. Everyone will NOT buy your client’s stuff. Everyone will NOT love your ads. Branding is ALWAYS easier when trying to appeal to a narrow, well-defined target audience (rather than a broad, blurry audience).
2) Don’t give up. Branding that works is really hard, but it’s not rocket science. Everyone can make pretty good branding by keeping focused on the objective, keep trying, and thinking deep.
3) Make people talk. Create work that is going to generate attention on its own. Students often have difficulty evaluating the creative merits of their own work. I have found that students can easily answer this question: “Will that ad make people call to their friend in the other room and say, ‘Come look at this!’?”

When students create a portfolio, a resume, a cover letter, etc., they often want to try to be a jack of all trades. They don’t want to position themselves too narrowly for the fear that they might be typecast and excluded for many jobs. As Posh Tots shows, job seekers should focus on becoming exceptional in one area, and other people will assume that they are exceptional in other areas, too.

If students take the Posh Tots advice, in a few years they can afford a Chuckwagon Toddler Bed ($14, 918). Sweet dreams.

Design it like Jimi Hendrix

Today I received an interesting question:

Scott, how do you feel about the thought of “stealing” ideas and designs? [One of my professors] told me to look at ads that won awards (like in Communication Arts magazine), and to copy them, but change the image, copy, brand, and concept. I like the idea because it helps me to see how things should look, but I’ve hit an ethical boundary. And, am I learning less if I take other people’s designs? What are your thoughts?

My reply: James, it all depends on the amount that you take from the original ad (from the magazine).  If you copy everything except change the brand name and the logo, you are not being creative… you are stealing. If you are inspired by the other work, and you apply your own thoughts to it, you’re being creative.

Everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) influences everyone’s work. There has never been a totally original good thought that was not based on anything before it.

Another POV is that you are in the VCU ad program to learn advertising. Studying the work of successful ad people is a great way to learn how to do good work yourself. Can you imagine a music major who never listens to The Beatles, Bach, Mozart, Oscar Peterson, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Wonder?  And when she hears how Jimi Hendrix took the classic blues tunes and added his flare to it… don’t you think Jimi might influence how she composes her own music? For sure.  Is she copying Jimi Hendrix?  Maybe in some part, but not really.  And the reality is that Jimi copied many of the old-time blues musicians and the rock-n-roll trailblazers of the early 60s.

I cannot imagine any legitimate music experts saying that Jimi Hendrix crossed over ethical boundaries and was really a fake. I know for a fact that he used other musician’s licks… but his music is his. Jimi Hendrix is an original.

So, James… when you are working on your next project, design it like Jimi Hendrix plays the guitar. And I bet you’ll be proud of the results. I hope that helps.  — Scott

What are your thoughts on this issue? Please add a comment to let me know.