Empathy and Content Strategy: on Teaching, Listening and Affecting Change

The first lesson you learn as a student teacher is that a lot of good can come from listening to a student.

That’s all fine and good, sure. The problem is that the opportunities to listen are so hard to come by. In a given day, at the middle school level, I would see up to 160 students across five classes. All of them needed attention. All of them needed guidance.

There was one kid who, during my few weeks in class, struggled so mightily with understanding the nitrogen cycle that he’d slam his hand down in frustration. He was a bright kid, but with this subject things just never stuck. Until one day, in the midst of a struggle, I tried one last time to help him.

I looked him in the eye and asked him questions. I listened. I found the sticking point, and rephrased the concept. His eyes lit up, and the nitrogen cycle was vanquished – at least, for that day.

In teaching, they call it an “aha moment.” Later, at the bar, I explained the power of his eyes when it finally clicked, the rush of adrenaline, the sudden understanding of why teachers do what they do.

That kid finally understood. Not because he learned a new method, but because he was able to relate to it in his own way. Because instead of a series of facts barreling toward him BAM BAM BAM one after another, someone stopped and listened and figured out the hitch. I took a little time to be empathetic with his thoughts, and things just clicked.

The Situation

Content strategy isn’t the nitrogen cycle. I’m not a middle school teacher, and our clients are certainly not struggling children. But that empathy part? That’s where the analogy takes life.

Content strategy practitioners – and, really, the entire UX umbrella – serve a unique role in the life of a web property, in that we act as an advocate for people we may never know. These are people who will encounter a site or read an article or follow our company on Twitter, and while we surely develop personas based on real-life interviews and we plan strategy based on best practices and deep research, we’ll still never meet a vast majority of the people who we’re attempting to represent.

Our goal: provide a level of empathy for these strangers. Guide content, design and functionality for an audience of John and Jane Does. Give answers to questions that probably haven’t been asked yet.

Reams of imaginary internet paper have been written about the need for empathy for users – for a basic understanding of who we’re serving and their needs and their problems. That’s our job, and the best do it well. But there’s another element of this process that can often be overlooked, and it’s the audience we know and understand and work with on a daily basis.

The client.

Substitue “the client” for something that best fits your situation. If you work in house at a large organization, it might be “my team,” or “my co-worker” or “my boss.” If you work for a newspaper, it might be “my editors.” If you work as a consultant, it might be “everyone I encounter.”

We’re in a unique position, sure. But it’s probably not the one we imagine we’re in. Content strategy and UX are dedicated to enriching the experience and understanding of the people who will come in contact with our web properties, but those web properties are run by professionals who are deeply affected by the changes and shifts we put in place.

Our job is to help make useful, usable web things. Our job is also to ensure that the passion is passed along to the next in line – that we provide some level of empathy and empowerment for the people who will work the content long after we’re gone.

Getting Inside Their Heads

There’s a lot about content work that feels like amateur psychology, where we push through problems under the guise of one question: “What do our users really want?” That same psychology comes into play in a consultant/client relationship, thanks to our position as relative outsiders.

When I walk into a new client discovery session, I am there to ask questions about audiences and perceived outcomes and company mission and current content channels.

I’m also there to listen. To listen to workflow issues that have become so common at the company that they’re ignored. To listen for cues as to who is going to spearhead this project. To listen for politics, for under-the-breath backbiting, to the people who are clearly afraid they’re going to feel the brunt of the added workload. And they’ll say this out loud because I am non-threatening and because I’m listening.

There are questions you can ask to get these answers:

  • How does content flow through your company?
  • Who edits content before it’s live?
  • Who will be taking on this duty after the new site is launched?
  • What issues come up with content creation or archiving?

But for the most part, you won’t need to ask a thing. The issues will come up. Because they’re there. Because someone needs to take on these duties, but no one has done it yet.

We can’t do this alone – one person can’t take on the entire behemoth of a company website. So who are the content creators? Who will handle things when we can’t?

Who are the copywriters? Who are the editors? Who are the marketing managers? Who are the flag bearers, the stakeholders, and the cheerleaders? Chances are, no one. Because this is hard work, and no one feels they’re ready to take it on. As Sara Wachter-Boettcher said in her great Contents Magazine article, “New Forms, Old Places,” we need to “start spending time empowering more people to become agents of change within organizations.”

Content strategy is not a singular discipline, in which only those who have a license can participate. A content strategy is the combination of a handful of disciplines which are adapted for the current situation in order to create better, more readable, more nimble and certainly more effective content. I am a content strategist in that this is my title. But everyone who works on a website, who works with words, who works with communication or journalism or public relations is, in essence, also a content strategist at some point in their career.

This is a non-exclusive practice that often seems foreign and inaccessible to our clients, co-workers and bosses. So we have a task: find the reasons for inaccessibility and break them. Break them until they’re gone.

Margot Bloomstein recently reminded us of this – we always think our job is user-centered. But it’s not. It’s client-centered.

The Psychology of Change

There are three things that I’ve learned in empathizing with clients and working with them toward a self-sustaining model of content awesomeness:

  • Change is hard
  • Writing is ego
  • Failure is certain, unavoidable, and necessary

Change Is Hard

Damn straight it is. If it wasn’t hard, there wouldn’t be a reason to do it. Change is hard to the point that we resist it even if we know it’s beneficial.

Your job isn’t to make the change happen – only your client can do that. Your job is to present the change, understand the issues that will serve as barriers to that change, and walk a bit in their shoes. This will be weird – those shoes might not fit and they might have sweaty feet and seriously can’t we all just get a pair of Dr. Scholl’s inserts up in here? – but you’ll learn more about their needs than you’d have ever picked up by doing a competitive analysis of other websites.

Daniel Eizans says that, when working through a difficult adjustment in company beliefs or process, discovery and research can help make the case for large-scale change.

“I believe (and have seen) content strategy totally change an organizations belief system, marketing platform and customer service model. Working through it is really difficult, but when you can uncover differences and prove out problems via research and big data you’re not only doing sound content strategy, but you’re providing business analysis that they may be lacking.”

Writing Is Ego

Few things require such a surrender to personal thought than writing. That this is at the heart of content strategy and that content strategy can often be a difficult pill to swallow is no coincidence. Writing is filled with booby traps – traps like self-awareness, lack of ability, self-doubt, arrogance, defensiveness and ego. These cannot be overcome in one sitting. For some, they’ll never be overcome.

And it’s our job to make this work.

(Oh, did I mention fear of failure, too? There’s always that fear of failure.)

Failure is Certain, Unavoidable and Necessary

If we go into a project afraid to fail, the project will never begin. Thus is the freezing power of fear, in which we’re too afraid of results so we never strive.

Failure is certain. Nothing is perfect, especially web copy. If we can teach our clients and partners that, yes, some day we will fail at this content business and we’ll have to try something else, we can begin to move toward a more current and relevant web.

This is scary for us, too. Admitting that failure is necessary and unavoidable means that we, too, could fail, and that is a pretty difficult thing to admit to someone who is cutting checks for our work.

Truth is, it’s not that bad. Clients, co-workers, bosses – they all appreciate honesty, trust and a willingness to admit when something needs to be changed. Empathy means showing the kinks in your armor.

How We Can Help

Empowerment doesn’t happen overnight, but it doesn’t happen at all without some kind of catalyst. Thankfully for us, that catalyst is often found in the passive act of listening.

This means really listening. To people. Understanding what they’re saying. Making changes. Providing answers.

Be Clear and Deliberate

There’s nothing more overlooked in the industry than the assumption that our clients know exactly what we’re talking about. And, to be honest, why should we expect them to?

This goes back to the classic IA argument about domain knowledge – should you go into a project with a full understanding of the client’s industry, or are you there to rely on them for knowledge and apply your own information architecture skills? The same can be said with the tables turned – are we really going to expect Martin’s Vacuum Supply or Small Town University or even Multinational Important Corporation to climb on board with every single fine detail of our work?

Without some kind of shared understanding, though, the relationship suffers. There’s mistrust. There’s skepticism. There MUST be alignment.

All members of the project must understand each other’s expectations from the beginning. All goals must be clarified from the beginning. And all stakeholders must have some kind of input in the planning stage – even if that input is general conversation and casual venting about how horrible content practices have become. Melissa Rach suggests even going as deep as clarifying and defining the shared vocabulary.

“During the first conversation I have with a client, I go over vocabulary. I ask the client things like: What does ‘content’ mean to you? What does ‘strategy’ mean? I share my definitions, too. Then, we work together to define what key terms mean for the purpose of this engagement.

Then, I go through the project plan as clearly as I can and explain everyone’s roles and responsibilities for each stage of the project. This is another time for feedback and flexibility. When the client feels like they have some input during the project planning stage, they are more likely to enjoy the ride.”

In other words, consistency across all parties promotes trust. And, it promotes buy-in, which is what we’re ultimately aiming for in the first stage of the content relationship.

Put Everything On the Table

At Blend, make an effort in our content documents to include an anonymous account of any content-driven issues within the company, whether they relate to a lack of funding, a need for a better approval process or the simple need for better correspondance between departments.

These are anonymous by our own accord, but they need not be – when issues are brought up, they’re not secrets. Usually, they’re small annoyances that have been festering for years, ignored because of a lack of budget or resources, or simply things that no one knew how to fix.

Clients, co-workers, department stakeholders – even bosses! – will offer these things up. You won’t have to pry. People are driven to release negative energy, and there’s nothing more negative than the constant annoyance of bottlenecked content or an impossible workflow.

Use Politics as Leverage

Understanding the politics, position and expectations of the client helps appropriate attention to the content issues that can be most effective.

A lot of it depends on what you know about the people you’re working with. For example, if physicians want fresh content, but they’re not willing to do it themselves, ask if hiring that writing out is okay. You’ll quickly learn if the issue is with time (the physicians are perfectly okay with the work being hired out, and see the benefit) or if the issue is with laziness (the physicians suddenly decide outside writing is not okay, and begin submitting their own content.)

Matthew Grocki had a similar view, which focused on finding the most resistant people and spending the most time with them.

“Maybe they are a marketing professional who fears a new “content strategy” is just code for reorg and I am there to take their job away. In that instance I spend the extra time with that person to find out what they like to do. … Or maybe they are the office gossip. EVEN BETTER. They would probably love monitoring the corporate brand on social media and either commenting or letting the powers that be know.

The key is to find the resistors, identify their strengths and show how your content strategy will empower them and help them do more of what they love to do at work.”

Provide Clear Tools

Because we often work with larger companies that either have an internal marketing staff or agree to hire a dedicated web content manager to handle the site post-launch, we’re often out of the picture once the keys to the site have been handed over. But we’re not gone forever – it’s part of our drive toward a successful site to provide some kind of guidance post-launch, whether that’s in person or though various tools.

We’ve all heard about these tools, and you can find a billion great places to read about them. We’re talking editorial calendars and style guides and “writing for the web” workshops. These are great, but they can be impersonal.

For example, at Blend we provide copies of my favorite “writing for the web” books – Ginny Redish’s Letting Go of the Words and Colleen Jones’ Clout – upon completion of any content strategy project. I do this in person so I can then explain which parts are most effective for me, and which notes I still use today.

I’m also empathetic in regards to what these tools mean to a client’s existing workflow. The work we propose is often wrapped in “best case scenario.” It’s rarely perfected for an individual, because content doesn’t belong to one person. So our goal should be to provide guidance on how best to manage time, juggle priorities, and rely on co-workers or other personnel to get a few shortcuts out of the deal.

Ultimately, as Erin Kissane says, our role is to help the client look like “a badass within the organization.”

“It’s vital to do great work, but the soft stuff ā€” helping the client communicate to other stakeholders, preparing them to answer questions and deal with resistance ā€” is really important as well.”

It’s worth remembering that no one person works like another. We’re all different. We can only provide an approximation of a methodology – we must also understand that mileage may vary, and empower our clients to adapt and change at will.

Don’t Try to Win Every Battle

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that trying to win every battle is not only maddening – it’s down right destructive.

It’s okay if someone doesn’t have the staffing for your strategy to work effectively. Help them prioritize. Then, help them figure out ways to add to the project at a later time.

It’s okay if someone doesn’t have the confidence to write for the web. Show them that it’s really not as hard as it seems. Help them understand that failing is okay – it’s the web, you can change the words! – and that there may be someone else who can help.

It’s okay if someone has too much on their plate. We all do. Help them learn to delegate. Give them the tools to better organize their workload. Talk to their higher up about the crucial need for added resources.

The issue then shifts from “what can we do to change” to “how much change can we handle,” and that’s exactly what it should be. Reorganizing the delicate ecosystem of staff, content, workflow and resources is not something that can be done on paper. It can only be done through relationships, empathy and time.

Organizational change doesn’t flow through a company like water out of a faucet – it’s typically more like a hose with a thousand kinks, where each release just creates more backup further down the line. People don’t like being told what to do, except when they do. Companies don’t like outsiders dictating change, except when they ask for it.

There are no rules, and often the only thing you can do to diffuse it is tell a story or relate it to a past project or research. If it doesn’t connect, you may have to just give up for a bit. You can’t win them all. So stop trying and hope for the best.

And yes. It’s okay to hope for the best.

That’s part of what makes empathy so effective.

Post Script

Further Reading/Viewing

Also: Thanks To:

A huge, giant thank you to the people who let me pester their inboxes for this article, including Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Matthew Grocki, Mike Montiero, Erin Kissane, Katie Del Angel, Daniel Eizans, Clinton Forry. Margot Bloomstein and Melissa Rach. Y’all rule, yo.