Clarifying our Vocabulary: The Words We Use

When I joined my first YMCA youth basketball team, I might as well have joined the French army.

Every word was foreign. I was seven years old, and I though I had been a basketball fan for as long as I could comprehend sports, I was completely lost when it came to the rules and strategies of the sport.

I didn’t know what a full-court press was. I had no idea there was a three second rule. I didn’t even know what it meant to “scrimmage.”

This article is the first in a series of thoughts on content strategy for the small business. Read others in this category.

That first year was a disaster. I was lost – not because I didn’t know what I was doing, but because I didn’t understand what they were asking me to do. And when I see the deer in the headlights look from a new client after I’ve rattled off an initial assessment of their website, I completely understand what they’re going through.

Industry Terms and The Things We Say

Let’s make this clear: clients are not dumb. The chasm of understanding between consultant and client – or between content person and marketing team, or whatever your situation might be – isn’t as wide or deep as we might think. But it’s there, and our job as content experts is to understand that, despite the promises and assurances we make in terms of a client’s content, our own explanations and processes are tangled, weirdly worded and sometimes impossible to decipher.

Take, for example, the concept of post-launch governance. We’ve been working hard on a conference that focuses on the post-launch web experience – updating and maintaining content to both keep up appearances and adapt for new challenges. The first few drafts of conference content spoke exclusively of site governance and post-launch content strategy with the assumption that everyone’s already read Kristina and Melissa’s book and are intimately involved with the full process.

But you know what? People don’t use the word “governance.” They say “updating the website” or “writing new copy” or “calling my boss and asking for his new CEO letter because he’s always late for the deadline.”

Erin Kissane wrote a few years back about the struggle to find non-abrasive and silly words for our industry. Her post focused on the term consuming content, but her thoughts touched on all of the jargon we use in our every day life. She says:

There’s always a risk that our focus on high-level systems and categories will obscure the attention to the specific, often messy details that make our work genuinely useful to real human beings.

These details include the words we use. We are an industry of weasley sounding words. Cognitive models. Responsive web design. Web experience management. We use these words because they are accurate – they describe at the base level exactly what we’re proposing – but using accurate language does not always equate to using clear language.

So when we walk into a client’s office, or when we bring a new idea to our boss, we need to understand a basic truth: real comprehension is only made through real language.

Unsuck the Content Strategy Process

As Elizabeth McGuane said a few years back – “Content strategy is just content planning.” There’s no need to make it sound fancy – there’s only a need to sell the process and results to the people who need them.

Thankfully, in the past two years we’re starting to move past the obsessive focus on job titles and are now diving into the effective communication of what we do. As the clients we serve – and as the companies we work for – get smaller and smaller, we’re constantly reminded that, while none of this is brand new material, it’s all foreign to a point.

Hopefully there’s no need for me to remind you about Unsuck It, a wonderful project from Mule Design that helps us remember the real definitions of the stupid words we use. The lessons therein aren’t meant to be incendiary. On the contrary – UNSUCKIT provides us a sounding board for the words we should steer away from – the words we often use to sound smart in the face of a trusting client or co-worker.

Truth is, content strategy is an issue of communication, and that communication often only goes as far as what we can offer as deliverables or site changes. There’s another level of communication – an internal one, that saves the ship more often than any copy change ever could.

The words we use are important. It’s up to us to be clear, to work with empathy and the understanding that everyone understands the terms and techniques we’re proposing.

Melissa Rach of Dialog Studios said this for an article I wrote about empathy last year:

“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.”

Get everyone on the same page. Then, adjust your message to fit their needs. Discard the words. Small businesses need clarity, not scholarship.

An Experiment: The Two-Column Glossary

I’m still in awe of the simplicity of 500px’s Terms page, where legal content is paired with simple, “here’s why you should pay attention” explanations. It’s such an obvious answer – a mesh of detail and clarity presented in a way that the two don’t step all over each other – that it’s surprising more companies haven’t stolen it.

Well, at Blend, we have.

When possible, our deliverables and presentations include a basic glossary of industry terms. We do this to align the words we use across the project chasm.

In the past, these glossaries took shape the way you’d expect: heading, explanation, relevance. They looked something like this:

A normal glossary in one column

But here’s where the change has come: we’ve recently broken away from this model and have developed a 500px-esque two-column glossary and explanation of terms that gives detail without sacrificing clarity:

Our new glossary in two columns

This is a simple example, but it’s one method toward making things clear, especially for those one- or two-person marketing teams who are already juggling three or four jobs worth of terminology and users guides. Our position as content strategists – ahem – content planners, writers and/or architects is to make things easier for those who will take over the site once we’ve moved on.

Muddying the issue doesn’t help anyone.

Be Clear. Be Cool.

It’s easy to see this as a call to question the terms we use, or to fight for mass change in the industry’s taxonomy. It’s not. There’s no need to abandon the words we use – there’s just a need to understand when those words are confusing. This isn’t a call for change – it’s a call for education and clarification.

Changing the glossary is only one way to clarify our process. Taking our existing methodology and adapting it to fit the needs and background of the current client or boss is a crucial part in making content strategy accessible and commonplace. Getting buy-in is important, as is providing our clients and co-workers with copies of our research – the books we read, the posts we send to Pocket, and the thoughts we have on tweaks within our own ecosystems.

We don’t need to change our methods or our terminology. But we do need to make them easier to understand.

We’re here to help. Let’s do what we can to make it sound that way.