Find your people

Here I am, yet again, asking my co-workers a question that could come off as confrontational. I do this constantly during meetings, usually without realizing it. 

"Doesn't that feel misleading?" I ask the group, with some conviction. We were discussing interface copy for a new piece of software.

They take a moment to consider my perspective, and that moment feels pretty lonely. Speaking up at times like this isn't easy, but it's important.

What did I feel was misleading? The words. I care about words quite a bit. Thankfully, throughout my career so far, team members usually come to appreciate this sensitivity. We build better stuff as a result.

Apps, websites, and other digital products, mainly communicate using words. Words have the power to encourage, hurt, educate, sell, persuade, insult, inform, and more. Every team designing and building digital experiences should care about the words. Hopefully, they hire someone to care about the words professionally. For most of my career, that someone has been me.

No matter the job title, I feel like Iā€™m always doing the same thing: I help people figure out what they want to say, then find a way to say it. Sure, sometimes I say it with images, video, or audio, but most of the time I use words.

The content conversation

The people who dedicate their careers to caring about the words are my people. When I first started doing this work, most of these people were calling themselves content strategists. I began to follow them on Twitter, read their books, share their articles, and learn from them as much as I could. Without the work of people like Kristina Halvorson, Nicole Fenton, Erin Kissane, and Tiffani Jones-Brown, I wouldn't have been able to get into this field at all.

In Spring of 2014, I attended Confab, the content strategy conference. Before the conference, they put out a call for speakers to give 5-minute lightning talks, and I wrote up a proposal. To my surprise, they invited me to give one. Afterward, so many kind people talked to me about my ideas and encouraged me to keep sharing them.

Here I am at Confab, talking about how to comfort stakeholders during a project.

Here I am at Confab, talking about how to comfort stakeholders during a project.

That's when I became aware of just how wonderful it can be to have a two-way conversation with someone who gets your work. Someone who's been where you've been. Someone who cares about the words just as much as you do.

Since that first Confab I've spoken at more conferences and I've met a lot more people, but I keep coming back to the content conversation and those who take part in it. I've found my people, and I want to keep learning from them.

As a white male from the Midwest, the content conversation has helped me learn from the perspectives of those who don't share that background. I'm so grateful for the people who've helped me see the challenges they face. Challenges that, before talking with them, I wasn't even aware of or sensitive to.

I've also found so much value in connecting with people who have different opinions about content work. Whether we're talking about word choice or methodology, it's invaluable to hear from someone who doesn't see it my way. It's not always fun or enjoyable to have these conversations, but my work has gotten better as a result.

The diversity of our field is a strength, not a weakness. However, the latest job titles and buzzwords in our industry push us toward a false feeling of separation.

While we may use different titles to describe our work, titles say very little about what we're interested in or passionate about. A content strategist might really need to have the word "content" in her title because she needs people to know she doesn't just care about words, but images and video as well. I need "user experience" in my current title because I need to be involved in projects early as a member of the design team.

Better content experiences

Since our work is so varied and unique for each person, what's our identity?

Regardless of the titles, the thing that pulls us all together is a belief that communication should be human, that language should build trust, and that we can use words to build better experiences and ultimately a better world.

While these ideals resonate with me, there's friction when I talk with someone who doesn't quite see it this way. They may be interested in harnessing the power of language, but their terms betray their motives. They plot "campaigns" and they've identified certain "targets" they'd like to "blast." If you find yourself captured by this type of content on the web, you're not imprisoned, but you'll have a hard time finding your way out.

However, the people who create misleading and unfriendly content aren't monsters. They need our help. We need to go beyond pointing out how awful it is. We can show how putting more effort into the content of that newsletter and making it worth the reader's time will actually result in a more loyal, engaged audience. Doing this is hard, but it's also worthwhile.

Jonathon Colman gave a great keynote at Confab Central this year. He talked about the wicked problems our world faces, and how it's hard for humans to deal with them. These problems are so wicked they seem impossible to solve.

He also left us with inspiration: We can use our skills and abilities to solve real problems. We can improve life for the people around us. We can make an impact on our world. I'm thankful for Jonathon and other members of this community who've helped me see that.

Community and encouragement

Content work is often thankless. It can be frustrating. It can feel like no one around you shares your ideals or thinks they're worth working toward. But that's what makes community so important.

So far, I've been shying away from calling the work we do "content strategy," because I think and hope this conversation is bigger than a single term or job title. The content conversation is about how people experience content, whether it's an error message in an app or a series of articles on an enterprise website. We need to realize that when we use words to build better experiences, we're all working toward the same thing.

At Confab Central this year, I met a lot of people who were doing content work with software just like me. I started a group on Slack so we could keep learning from each other. It's a small group so far, but it's been a great way to keep the conversation going. Here are few of the things we've discussed recently:

  • How to test content for usability

  • Writing humane Privacy Policies and Terms of Use

  • Portfolios for content professionals

We'd love to see it grow beyond the software focus it has right now, to include anyone who's interested in the user experience of content.

So how about it? Want to join the conversation?

Whether you join the Slack group or not, I encourage you to find your people and connect with a community. The work we do gets so much better when we help each other.

Thanks to Megan Whalin for her help editing this article.