Category: Content Strategy

February 28th, 2013

Before last year, the first and only time I ever felt comfortable in front of a crowd was at my grandfather’s memorial service.

Barely lucid in his final days, I watched him slowly lose track of the corporeal and succumb to lung cancer. He was my first hero, and here he was, human, weak, no longer able to teach me about building character and Charles Bronson films. I did my best impression of an emotionally secure human and stood in front of my family and his friends and, out of nowhere, eulogized a man who helped shape my life.

And then, I gave up. Speaking wasn’t my gig. I’d just be a writer and write in the security of my introversion.

Enter The Internet

Except, that’s not what happened. Instead, I became a part of the internet, where the playing field is leveled out if you’re willing to overcome your own insecurities.

So last year, I made a change. I decided that my introversion was a crutch. I used it to stay quiet. To be safe. To keep from failing.

I pitched for speaking gigs. And then I got one. I spent what felt like months on my slide deck. I practiced once a day for two weeks leading up, and twice a day in the few days before I’d go live. I tweaked. I ferreted out the details and made them right. I picked out a shirt ahead of time and kept it hidden and clean. I gave a damn about everything.

I had never been more frightened of a crowd in my whole life.

I went through with that speaking gig, and I didn’t shit myself or ball up on the floor, crying for mercy. Instead, I stood tall. I understood the situation. I realized I couldn’t do anything about the butterflies or the room size – all I could do is be who I was and stop giving a fuck if I failed.

Karen McGrane took this entire process and summarized it perfectly in her column for A List Apart, “Give a crap. Don’t give a fuck.”. There are two competing forces when we jump into public speaking: the need for everything to be perfect, and the understanding that we can’t always be perfect. But it’s that definition of “perfect” that holds us back. Are we being perfect for appearances? Or are we being perfect because that’s what is perfect for us?

McGrane says:

“Care deeply about your personal values and live them fully in this world. Don’t get caught up in worrying about other people’s checklists to tell you what good work means to you.”

In other words, there’s a need to focus on every detail, but there’s an even greater need to focus on the details that make better things. Your shirt might not be ironed correctly, but at least your heart is on your sleeve.

My Three Rules

Over the month between preparing for my first talk to the week after, a decade of fear faded to calmness. I attribute this to three things – the three things that are most important to public speaking, and the three things Karen expertly laid out in her article.

  1. I learned to prepare. This was taught to me by Deane Barker – if you haven’t practiced your talk at least ten times, you’re already behind. The power of this preparation not only helps you for the current talk, but it also prepares you for future talks.
  2. I cared about my audience. I’ve sat through boring speakers. I didn’t want my audience to be bored. I hated that someone might call me out on being too dull. So I fought to stay interesting, relevant and, most of all, connected to the situation.
  3. I knew enough to open myself up. I’m not perfect. I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve learned from those mistakes. So instead of focusing on other companies and the ways they’ve screwed up, I talked about my own screw ups. I talked about how I learned things. I didn’t care about how it made me look, because I knew it made me look genuine.

McGrane says,

“What elevates someone’s work from ‘technically excellent’ to ‘truly great’ is the extent to which you feel like you’re seeing them live their truth, be fully themselves.”

This takes more than just a bunch of preparation. It takes a lowering of defenses, in which we stop worrying about our mistakes and start learning – no – teaching from them. It takes understanding that there’s a fine line between giving a crap and not giving a fuck, and that finding the balance between the two can open ourselves up to the rarest of combinations: being both impressive and believable in our convictions.

October 29th, 2012

I feel like I’ve been gone for a month. Here are some lists.

Airports I Visited or Landed In During This Trip

  • Sioux Falls Regional Airport (FSD)
  • Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport (MSP)
  • Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)
  • Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport (DKR)
  • OR Tambo International Airport (JNB)
  • Cape Town International Airport (CPT)

Films Watched On My Washington DC/Johannesburg Flights (In Order Of Enjoyability)

  • Brave
  • Moonrise Kingdom
  • Gosford Park
  • Quantum of Solace
  • Rock of Ages
  • Batman Begins (unfinished)
  • Men In Black 3
  • We Bought A Zoo (unfinished)
  • The Amazing Spider-man (unfinished)
  • American Wedding

Things I Did While In Stellenbosch, South Africa

Total Hours Travelled By Day (Central Time)

  • October 22, 2012 – 13:56 (9:56 by air, 4:00 by car)
  • October 23, 2012 – 12:10 (11:45 by air, 0:25 by car)
  • October 24, 2012 – 0:45 by bike
  • October 27, 2012 – 14:35 (14:10 by air, 0:25 by car)
  • October 28, 2012 – 12:11 (7:11 by air, 4:00 by car)

Animals I Touched

  • Cheetah

February 27th, 2012

Hitting “publish” is the modern version of seeing an article hit the newsstands, or the advertiser’s tradition of the “big reveal,” where anticipation is built up and then BLAMMO there it is read it or save it for later but please oh god please just LOVE IT. Just accept it.

We publish because we want to be seen. And there’s a fear in that. For isntance, my routine is pretty standard: I write a blog post or an article, I hit “publish,” and I run for cover. I release my thoughts and, within seconds, wonder what I’ve left out of place. We all do this, I suspect. If you’re a writer and you don’t have these moments of doom, I don’t trust you. You’re obviously a robot.

We’re afraid we might be wrong – that we’ve forgotten something, or that we’ve completely missed the point. Writing is fear, and that’s what fuels the rush of hitting “publish”.

But, what if?

What if that dread was gone, if we wrote like we build, one step at a time, publishing our final drafts and then adapting those final drafts as new . What if the “final draft” was no longer a THING, and we only worked with “deployment.” What if the fear of getting things wrong was diluted by the understanding that, yes, we can change this thing we just wrote and, yes, that is completely okay with the world?

Mandy Brown writes in her most recent Contents follow-up, “Deploy”:

“How many times have you written something, published it, and then realized in retrospect that what you thought you said was not in fact what came through? (Even if you’ve never done this yourself, you’ve certainly witnessed it in others.) What if you could revise a work after publishing it, and release it again, making clear the relationship between the first version and the new one. What if you could publish iteratively, bit by bit, at each step gathering feedback from your readers and refining the text. Would our writing be better?”

This is the second time this week I’ve read about our insistance in a final draft – in the great reveal – and how it’s being overtaken by the idea of gradual deployment. I first caught it in Robin Sloan’s 2009 essay from The New Liberal Arts, “Iteration,” which says,

“Making things is a circle. You start the arc with an idea about the world: an observation or hunch. Then you sprint around the track, getting to a prototype — a breadboard, a rough draft, a run-through—as fast as you can. Your goal isn’t to finish the thing. It’s to expose it, no matter how rough or ragged, to the real world. You do that, and you learn: Which of your ideas were right? Which were wrong? What surprised you? What did other people think? Then you plow those findings back into an improved prototype. Around the circle again. Run!”

I write for two reasons these days: I write for myself as some sort of leisure, where I explore the things that are interesting to me, and I write for my job, where I help others develop the processes they’ll need to be successful on the web.

When I write for myself, I slam it out and post it. There is one iteration: the final one.

When I write for my job, I employ a process. There is no end. There is only “what’s next.” When I hand the project off to the client, my work doesn’t end – it’s designed to keep moving forward, even after I’ve stopped actually writing words and speaking to the client.

There are iterations, and the client is expected to keep the documents and theories alive.

I still write for a finished product, because that’s what I was taught. But the technology I have access to allows me to move toward something less concrete – and, ultimately, more in line with language itself: shifting, adapting and changing, all while keeping honest the history of the words.

There’s draft and there’s published. We should fight to be somewhere in between. The question is if the method to reaching that hazy middle-ground forces us to abandon the biggest thrill of publication: the rush of the big reveal.

Or maybe that’s just it; maybe, just maybe, the big reveal is already dead.

January 13th, 2012

My daughter is four years old. The other day, as I was leaving the house, she asked me why I needed to go to work. “Why can’t you stay home?” she said.

My simple answer was, “Dear, you see, I need to go to work so I can make money, so we can have nice things and eat nice meals.” She accepted that answer as truth.

What I didn’t say was that I enjoy going to work. That there are days when going to work is a break from the kids, as much as I love them, and that while I would certainly rather spend the day with her and her brother, there are times when I need to get out and think at an adult level.

I didn’t mention that I don’t work for the money, but for the challenge – for the drive, for the thrill of making things, for the rush that comes with collaborating with other people.

I just said I was going to make money. It was the easy answer. Because I didn’t have the time – nor did she have the attention – for me to tell her truth: that it’s much much more complicated than that.

Deforestation

If there’s one thing that fuels today’s grab for pageviews, it’s opinions. Hard ones. This or that. Nothing in between. Nothing that veers into the hazy grey field of compromise.

“Summarize that,” they say. “Give me the bullet point version,” they demand. Time is of essence. Boil it down so it no longer needs thought.

So when we talk about whether the New York Times should be more vigilant in their fact checking, or whether yoga will cause you irreparable harm, we’re predisposed to boil it down to the most simple argument. I know I do this. We all do, in some ways.

Maybe it’s not our fault. Maybe we’ve been taught to believe that the ability to create concise descriptions of complicated things is a sign of success when. Really, it’s the opposite. You’ve succeeded when you can explain a complex subject without losing the nuance. I know: that’s hard to do. So we summarize. So we cut corners. We ignore the complexity.

It’s not a matter of missing the forest for the trees – it’s that we’re cutting down all of the trees and wondering where the forest went.

On Argument

A year and a half ago, during the 2010 South Dakota Festival of Books, I watched Michael Hart – the late founder of Project Gutenberg – and Michael Dirda – Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic – present a panel on “Reading in the Digital Age.”

As one might expect, Hart spoke at length about how the printed book was dead, that all writing should be done digitally for the benefit of mass consumption and for those who may not be able to afford a printed tome. Dirda, on the other hand, spoke about the necessity of aesthetics, of the tactile nature of holding a book in your hand, of the feeling of being that you cannot recreate in an e-reader.

Both made some good points. But the title of the panel is misleading. This presentation was no more about reading in the digital age than it was about koala mating habits. Where we expected some sort of solid discourse on where print vs. digital may eventually compromise, we instead received a kind of ribald sniping. It was a battle between two opposing viewpoints, both refusing to admit middle ground, incapable of giving an inch.

While the answer lie somewhere in the middle of the pitch, these two men fought over which side of the field to enter.

Respecting Complexity

If a single idea has followed me around this year, from politics to art and work to friendships, it’s been this one: “it’s more complicated than that.”

It’s centrally important to seek simplicity, and especially to avoid making things hard to use or understand. But if we want to make things that are usefully simple without being truncated or simplistic, we have to recognize and respect complexity — both in the design problems we address, and in the way we do our work.

Erin Kissane, “What I Learned About the Web in 2011″ via A List Apart

My experience at the South Dakota Festival of Books is no different than any experience one might find watching cable television, or at a political debate, or when discussing which Led Zeppelin album is the best. We’ve been trained to take a side and dig in for battle.

When we go to battle intellectually, we find comfort in absolutes. They afford us a bit of security. There are no holes to be poked in our theories.

Part of the challenge of art and science and rhetoric is in finding the nuances; there is no topic worth discussing that doesn’t hold some grey area, and there is no grey area that is worth ignoring. But grey areas? They’re hard. So we ignore them. And that’s how misinterpretation seeps into our lives.

Naming Things

Take, for example, the industry in which I work: web design, development and strategy. For the past several years, people have tried to put together a simple, concise description of content strategy – what is it, and how do we quickly explain it to our bosses? We understand that there’s a need for that description in a business sense, but our answer is often lacking in nuance. We trade length for clarity; we discard the messy details to gain a certain level of buzzworthiness.

Truth is, content strategy means different things to different people. What’s more, THAT’S OKAY. Just as “web development” means different things to different people, we still have freedom to interpret our work in a way that makes sense to us.

So we stick with “content strategy” – an awkward word that barely captures the extent of what we do. But we’re not alone in this: language is hard, and though we struggle to assign simple words to complex arrangements, and though they may seem trite and inaccurate, oftentimes it’s the best we can do.

Communication isn’t perfect. Again: THAT’S OKAY.

This is not an industry-specific thing, either. Ask someone to explain the scientific method. Depending on their field of expertise, you may hear several variations of the base process. Ask someone to explain something with a clear purpose and structured set of rules – baseball, for instance. Ask a baseball fan. Ask a baseball historian. Ask someone with no connection to the game. To some, it’s a game. To others, it’s a past-time. To the haters, it’s a distraction.

Black. White.

Words allow us to communicate. But they also fail us, in that we’re driven to compress theories that should, in fact, become more robust. We’re taught to say more with less, to edit and edit until there’s nothing left to chance, to push things into a smaller box. So we cut the non-crucial elements. And we lose the nuance. And we wonder why this seemingly complicated theory has been boiled down to a Cliff’s Notes version – all solution, no reasoning.

Sure, most things should be said in fewer words. But there are a lot of things that should be said in more.

We’re challenged to understand the future in as complete a way as possible. To shy away from absolutes, and to embrace the grey area, charging in full speed and making sense of the fray. There are discoveries there. There is truth. There is completeness.

We can’t take one side or the other – not in good faith – without understanding that, regardless of the subject, it’s often more complicated than that.

War is good. War is bad. It’s more complicated than that.

We should be liberal. We should be conservative. It’s more complicated than that.

We should fight to stay neutral, and we should always look at all angles of a subject, and we should stop trying to sum up incredibly complex processes and concepts and feelings into simple, single-serving soundbites. We should run to the middle and be implicit in our embrace.

Except, let’s be honest.

It’s more complicated than that.

December 7th, 2011

If you’re into nerdy things like work methodologies and the nature of the content industry, you’d TOTALLY be into the article I wrote for Contents Magazine, a publication about all things content.

From “A Content Methodology Primer”:

It’s romantic to think that content work is an art, all brandy, pipes, and wood grain. But it’s not. It’s a process. A messy, sticky, multi-disciplinary process that begs for structure, consistency, and guidance.

That’s a daunting task. Content wants to be messy. It wants to roll around in the mud. It wants to be gross. Our job is to pull it together—to take the guesswork out of creating and curating it—and to treat content work as something closer to a science.

And, if you’re NOT into that, you might enjoy this video of a mullet/mustache combo whistling “Georgia on My Mind.”

November 7th, 2011

There was a time when I was convinced I was writing for myself and myself only. This blog is an ongoing example of that: a subjectless ramble of personal thoughts, few of which are constructed for anyone but me.

So I just wrote. I didn’t proof. I rarely edited. I threw missives out like candy at a parade, and I watched as some of them slid under the curb. When so many things are tossed out without regard to audience, they tend to be easy to miss. I wondered why people didn’t comment, and I wondered how long I’d be willing to do this, and I ultimately decided it didn’t matter. This blog is for me. I’m the audience. Screw you people.

The real answer: this blog allows me to be lazy.

Quite the opposite of its intention, which was to be my canvas for practicing the art of writing. Just write, damn it. Just keep in practice – a post-a-day calendar for a non-writer looking to break into the business. Truth is, I’m long past that, and while my skills have improved slightly, my work habits have not. I am a lazy writer. I don’t do drafts. I’m a one-take-and-it’s-done guy.

When I write posts for Eating Elephant, I take great care in writing something worth reading. I write for an audience. I don’t have an editor, but I do have an internal scribe yelling at me to be better do better write better just be better aargh. And, now that I’m trying to get something together for the upcoming Contents Magazine, I finding that scribe is yelling even louder, this time backed up by a Real Life Editor Who Offers Suggestions.

(The Real Life Editor is much nicer than the internal voice, thankfully.)

So, yeah. Writing for others? It’s hard.

For nearly seven years, I’ve misunderstand what I was supposed to be practicing with this blog. I wasn’t supposed to write for quantity, but for quality – to develop some kind of writing methodology that could force its way through writer’s block and insecurity and all of the other crap that we as writers deal with every single day. Now, with a deadline looming and an audience waiting, I find myself wishing I’d have been a more focused student.

I really wish I’d have gotten the syllabus in the first place.

Time to learn focus, I guess. Time to stop being lazy.

June 24th, 2011

There are two distinct ways of dealing with cross-company industry collaboration – specifically, the collaboration of ideas. You either accept it with open arms, gleefully sharing insights and blog posts and other industry-furthering information, or you hold it to your chest, using it as intellectual leverage.

When I worked in the traditional advertising agency world, we held everything to our chest. We couldn’t post extensive portfolios because we didn’t want our competitors to discover the companies we worked with. We were vague in our methodologies because we didn’t want to give up our tricks. We treated industry colleagues with a measure of wariness.

That’s the old way.

The new way is one of collaboration, understanding that as others make breakthroughs and discover new tricks, we are allowed to follow those breakthroughs and discover our own.

I recently threw an email out to content strategists around the nation. Some of them are big-time. Some of them have written books. And I asked for an important chunk of their time in the form of a deep question about one of the discipline’s core tasks.

I asked for a lot and expected a few terse one-line responses.

On the contrary. Nearly everyone responded within hours, each with an intense, thoughtful and impassioned response. Lots of words. Lots of wonderful nuggets of information. Lots of awesome.

There was no shielding of competitive knowledge, no insistence upon vetting the question, no ego, no NOTHING; just great information from great people who want to further the field.

It’s not just in content strategy, either. You see it in small design shops. You see it at un-conferences. Web is an industry fueled by constant change, which makes the ability to share ideas and use those ideas to make cool things one of the most important skills a professional can have.

I’m still amazed at how open things are. The egos are smaller. The ideas are fresher. The cross-pollination is natural and welcome.

We all stand on the backs of those who came before us. The real difference is whether we use this height to pull others up, or if we’re content with kicking them back down.