Waving not drowning: or how I gave in and learned to love the content strategy flood.


Here’s a sobering admission. If the body of knowledge of content strategy is an ocean, I’m currently about ten foot out from the shore – probably with a dorky inflatable ring around my middle and certainly nowhere near enough sunscreen. The comforting bank of sand under my feet is suddenly and rapidly sliding away, leaving me somewhere near to out of my depth. I’m not sure that anyone has realized I might be out of my depth and I’m not sure I want anyone to notice. That would be awkward. I’m meant to be a good swimmer, I mean, content strategist.

I had a Skype conversation with the (insanely adorable) Erin Kissane earlier this week. It started with me flapping my hands and wailing “Do you ever feel like suddenly there is SO MUCH BEING SAID about content strategy that it has now reached a point where it is IMPOSSIBLE to take it all in?!!”. I was very relieved to find she replied in the affirmative. I was beginning to wonder if it was just me.

Not all that long ago, as Kristina Halvorson said at Confab this year, it was a simple enough ask to keep up with the chatter on the #contentstrategy hashtag on Twitter and the occasional Google alerts that came in. Now it is probably next to impossible and also likely very foolish to attempt this. I mean, we’re content strategists. We crank stuff out every minute of every day. Put simply, the CS community doesn’t shut the fuck up so I am never going to catch up. It’s almost liberating to know this, in a demotivational poster kind of way.*

I have found a trend, though, where I go into client meetings with a rough outline of what I think we should do, which is met with a range of nods but then followed up by someone asking ‘What do you think about our $%£$%^ ^*&(&*&&&^!@££’. And what I mean by that is the words they say might as well be in Swahili. Oh, God, I think, another area of CS I don’t know. And then it gets awkward as they all look at me expectantly. I mean, I am a content strategist. Apparently.

I don’t know anywhere near everything there is to know about content strategy but here is something I do know: it takes a lot of confidence to say those words out loud, to a client, in a meeting.The difficulty is that content strategy is so big and covers so many aspects that I think we will have to get better at saying it. Before long we might increasingly need to band together in small mercenary tribes to cover the range of skills within CS, especially for larger projects. (You can imagine it, can’t you? One burly agency lead, a stats nerd, a library scientist with an eye for digital services and a rogue content writer – Left 4 Dead: CS edition.) But for now we need to accept that we can’t know all that there is to know that CS touches, we can’t read everything and hear everything or take part in everything spilling out of the CS community, and to practise saying ‘I’m not sure but I will look into it and get back to you as soon as I have a good answer.’ (Which isn’t, by the way, an admission of weakness. It’s just how big CS is.)

As for me, I’m still a long way out from the beach but now I’m happy to lie back in my rubber ring and enjoy the sun (dammit, still not enough sunscreen). There’s a whole ocean out there to discover but as little old me only has a rubber ring I’ve made do running a big rope back to shore. Anytime I feel I’m drifting too far out I can ask to be towed back in safely. Once back on dry land I can charter a ship and set sail for any promising new lands like a true sailor. I mean, content strategist.


Diary of a conference talk: the wrap-up.

Yesterday I gave the talk I’d been planning for the last few months. So, on reflection, how did it go? The slides weren’t finished until super late the night before, which was totally my fault, but I ran through a few times in the morning so it wasn’t too much of an issue as I’d already finished the talk a good few days before. It did mean that I was more reliant on my presenter notes than usual but it was the sort of talk that had a ton of names and dates so I probably would have been a bit tied to the podium (and my screen) regardless.The reception was generally good, and some people tweeted that they were thinking about the implications of it afterwards which I take as a good thing.

Some people, like I predicted, didn’t like the heavy history content (although it was an unfortunate coincidence that I was the third person to talk about ancient civilizations that day – what are the chances at a web conference?!!) but I think this long zoom is perhaps indicative of what is happening on the web today. Outside of the business stuff, and marketing, and realities of life as an agency employee, I find myself increasingly thinking about what the web is and could be. Only be learning about ‘other’ networks and industries can we see our place in this.

I understand the cry of ‘but what for us in the trenches?!!’. I’m there too. But, as far as I know, I’m not at war so I climb out of them sometimes to survey the fields beyond. So yes, I’m in the trenches but because I’m digging foundations not because there’s firing on all sides.
That said, I was at pains to ensure there was plenty of good concepts for all content (not just mobile). It was just on a macro level, not my usual ‘write like this’, ‘make buttons like this’, ‘plan this form to be like this’. What can I say? I like a little variety. (Also, one of the chief detractors on Twitter later very graciously came to apologise and admit that she realised she hadn’t read the talk description. It takes courage to do that and I really appreciated it.)

Plus, I scored a bonus point from Jeremy for referencing the Space Elevator. I’m making a note here: ‘Huge Success’.

Diary of a conference talk pt6: Into the home stretch.

I have been an unspeakably cruel, nay wicked, wife. I have dumped about 150 slides on my poor husband and sodded off to a hotel in London. They are looking very stylish, the slides I mean.

The night before talk is always an odd one. I should do another run through but I’m kind of hungry and tired so I’m going to go and scavage some snacks and then give it a go when I’m in bed.

I want to tweak more but I know if I do, I’ll get myself even more muddled up onstage. To be honest, there is so much to this talk that I hope sheer willpower and adrenaline keep me going through. That’s what we all do though. I know there are about half-a-dozen conference speakers right now all sat in their rooms, tweaking at slides. So now you know too.

Fuck Yeah High Octane Book History!

Diary of a conference talk: pt.5. The long slow death of creativity.

Today The Husband and I went through what my slides would be. I think there will be 150 of them and some are quite complex. He has been working on them for the last few hours.

Every so often he curses me, and all like me, and shuffles a bit in his chair as he continues to make my ramblings look good in Fireworks. Once done we will transplant to Keynote and I’ll add presenter notes. Tomorrow is going to be a long day and then I will be going to London in the evening.

I hope I’m still married come Thursday.

Diary of a conference talk: pt.4 Now it’s a something.

by DrewM on flickr

Today I think I finally got it all down. I don’t usually write the entire talk down but in this case there are so many names, dates and locations I completely need to have it down pat to transfer into the presenter notes.

For those interested, I tend to have keynote setup on the presenter display with a split screen showing me the current slide, the next slide, time remaining (or elapsed) and then presenter notes right at the top overlapping. The only downside I have found to my 11″ MBA is that it can be more of a squeeze than on the 13″ MBP I had but as I don’t need to see more than a bit of any of the slides, it’s usually okay.

So, a day later then scheduled (yes, thankyou throat infection and migraine) I have it written. I’m still concerned that it’s quite leftfield but it does match the description in the programme so people will have selected it over the other option(s) so that cheers me a little. It’s very fast-paced and there’s a ton in it, but I hope people learn a little something from it too.

Tomorrow, I do the Keynote tangle. I have some fun ideas for a few visual jokes so hopefully they’ll keep it light too.

I feel tired but relieved. Even if I had no slides, and no-one minded me reading from a screen, at this point I could give this talk. Two days to practice and get it good.

Diary of a conference talk, pt.3: here comes the Fear!

And so, I find myself mere minutes before midnight, on the day that really I like to have committed to a ‘storyline’ so I can make my slides, writing and rewriting.

Just did my first run through (very rough) with The Husband and it was only okay. Not great, just okay. I like to aim for really rather good so I am somewhat short of my benchmark. I have one section that I really like but doesn’t truly fit; my historical examples don’t tie back clearly enough to my main message yet; the jokes aren’t funny enough and the facts aren’t clear enough.

Perhaps part of my trouble is I find all the meandering offtopic so interesting that I’m struggling to stay focused on the main message. I want everyone to love this topic, essentially a historical romp with bells on, as much as I do but I am aware that will probably be people stuck in the room tweeting ‘What the fuck is she going on about?’. Do I accept this and carry on regardless and hope that they pick up the rhythm and see the connections or do I spell out every link and risk insulting others?

See, this is the part where I start to second guess myself and the value of my knowledge – if you can call it that. I think that people will question the value if they aren’t given a ‘top 5 things to do to your site when you leave this room’, but in this case I want to stretch people’s imagination a little.

It’s scary. I don’t want to get up on stage and bore 500 people to death. I want them to learn something from me and go away thinking “I enjoyed that. It made sense. I want to learn more.”

And so I shall continue working on this outline.

If you ever think that people who speak at conferences are 100% confident about how their stuff will be received when they get up on stage, go back and read this post again. Feeling the fear and Keynoting it anyway.

Diary of a conference talk – pt.2

What is it they say about the best laid plains of mice and men? So, I have gone and got myself a throat infection and a migraine yesterday to boot. Progress has consequently been a little slower than I’d like but at least I’ve had a lot of time shivering and sweating in bed to think about the content of my talk.

I’ve now laid out in bullet points most of my talk. The conclusion is still a bit wibbly wobbly – but I tend to revise that once I’ve got the rest down – and my grizzly murder opening has now moved to the middle and the opening is now an allegorical tale about gardening.

Next, I will find images to represent the ideas in these bullet points. I usually go for one or two images per bullet point and spring through them at rapid speed. I’ve toyed with the idea of using Prezi for this but I think it’s going to be Keynote and a quick clicker to the rescue as I’ve lost too much time to this horrible lurgy.

Right, more tablets, then lunch, then trying to get some of the timeline in the middle a bit straighter in my head. Don’t want to confuse my Abyssianians with Mespotomiaiaiananianans. Thursday cometh in but 4 days.

Diary of a conference presentation: Day one.

Roller coaster at night
Roller coaster at night

by Arty Smokes

I often get asked about how I put together, and remember, my slightly illogical and mostly rambling talks for conferences. The thing is I often get asked this right after I’m done at which point the answer is always ‘Gosh, I don’t know really. And I want a pint.’

Next Thursday (the 26th of May), I’m giving a new talk at Web Directions @Media, in London, related to mobile content. This will be my third new presentation in as many weeks and so I feel confident enough now with my own (ridiculous) methodology (HA!) to share it and hopefully give confidence to people that think ‘I’d love to present somewhere but I have no idea how to start’.

So, what’s the deal with the presentation? I have 55 minutes (including time for questions from the audience – and more on that at a later date) to present on the topic Mobile Content Through The Ages, or as I dubbed it in my usual motormouth grandiose style The Vaudeville Rollercoaster Tour of Mobile Content Through The Ages. Rollercoaster because it’s going to be fast. Vaudeville because it is going to have some theatrics and Mobile Content Through The Ages because … well, that would give it all away right?

And how far have I got? With a week to go, it would be easy to assume that I have now got a slick and well-rehearsed presentation of many detailed slides and studies with a few minor tweaks left. Er, no. And I know I’m not alone in being a person who lets ideas ferment until pretty much the last possible moment before pulling together all these ideas with some words and pictures in Keynote (or Powerpoint or whatever else is your weapon of choice in these matters) and a smattering of presenter notes. (Actually, I rarely present with notes purely because I bounce around the stage like a lunatic out of the asylum and I’d have to keep running back to see what I wrote. Useful for specific facts and figures though.)

So, where have I go to? I’ve been making notes on and off about this presentation for the last six months but it keeps shifting about as I learn new things. The comedian Bill Bailey has a routine about creating a joke by thinking about what the audience sound like when they laugh and working back from there. I guess I think ‘what do I want people to get out of sitting through me for an hour and what do I need to tell them for them to appreciate that?’

In the case of this talk, perhaps it was some sort of convoluted work of the gods that brought me here because I’m talking about stuff I learnt in primary school, senior school, sixth form, undergraduate studies and things I happened upon only last week. I have a ton of source material for this. I now need to organise it.

Today and tomorrow I am going to lay out, in a sort of structured mind map, the start, middle and endpoints of my talk and how I’m going to illustrate them with examples. I am opening with a grizzly murder, the middle will probably have a long timeline and the end is as yet undecided. I have a stack of books and articles to pull references from, such as A Companion to the History of the Book , The Printing Press as an Agent of Change and A History of Reading but the clock is ticking. Time to pull this stuff together.

Alphagov – in which we remove potential threats of leopards.

“But the plans were on display …”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a flashlight.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

Arthur Dent and the building officer, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I think we have all experienced moments like this when searching for information online. My current project, Alphagov (the alpha / prototype / cardboard-washing-up-liquid-bottle-stickybacked-plastic test of a Government Single Domain) taken from a user experience point of view, is about ensuring citizens’ interactions with Government (and that’s pretty much all of us at one point or another, what with Passports, Driving Licenses, Pensions, Car Tax and Income Tax) are as painless as possible. Less ‘Beware of the Leopard’.

My role in this, as content strategist, is to dig for the rich treasures from current Government sites to demonstrate what good content can do if allowed to operate without the restrictions previously in place (like a dead cutoff of 750 words for an article?!!).
The content we are adapting from Directgov and Business Link for our demonstration is, on the whole, well-written but trapped in an awkward information architecture propped up by a miserable system for managing the content (note, I don’t say CMS). I sincerely feel for *every* one of the writers and editors that had to work around these site’s horrible constraints.

There are also currently several layers of fluff around many of the need-to know topics that only Government can (should) tell you straight, partly because of the structure above. Alphagov has a single-minded focus of ‘who is using this and why?’, which allows me to give a three sentence answer to a particular question that search analysis has shown to be, ahem, frequently asked and not have to sink it into an article on a related topic and hope people can find it. We are more than happy that Google is our home page and we want people to be able to ask questions, in their own words, and find the answer they are looking for – either via a tool, or specific, lean content.

So, some further information for those interested.

What do you mean ‘Alpha’?
We are trying an idea out, that of a single domain Government website that could potentially encompass everything Government needs to do with and inform its citizens, businesses’, lobbyists etc, but we aren’t making anything that we expect to be used ‘properly’. It’s certainly not replacing anything.

So, what is happening to it then?
Unusually for an alpha, it will go live so people can poke and prod and point out our mistakes, but this is like the first iteration – the ideas we would put forward for a first round of testing are going to be tested by live people with an interest. Anything beyond that is out of scope for this project. It may be pushed forward to a beta where things are created, tested, trialled and so on for real but that isn’t anything I know anything about and I wouldn’t necessarily be involved.

Why is this project special?
I guess that depends on your background. If you come from the web agency world, then it’s pretty much standard agile development stuff and we’ve had the usual hiccups of getting content and design in at the right point of a sprint, some sprints have gone better than others, it’s easier for Paul and I now we have established our ground rules for the content and design elements, our project manager is a saint and our development team are geniuses. Just that it’s for, you know, for the UK Government.

If you’re from a Government digital services background then you’ll be aware of Martha Lane Fox’s report on which our work is based. You’ll know the word radical was used. And so it is, in the scheme of Government work. Leaving aside the ‘how is it developed’ and ‘what technology are you using’ questions (which become part of the problem and explanation), the frustrating part is plenty of people before Alphagov could see the problems and probably a good few of the solutions too. They were not able to act on them (and many have privately told us of their struggles). And they probably feel like, well, like how everyone feels when the consultants waltz in and say exactly what you’ve been saying for the last however many months. We have been given the utopian blank slate that others have only dreamed was possible. To those people, I can only say this: we aren’t wasting the opportunity.

What’s your point?
Alright, alright, hold onto your knickers. I’m getting there.

We will cock up, royally, over bits and pieces and we look forward to the constructive criticism that will follow our Early May release. As an example, I’ve been simplifying language as far as possible wherever I can but I almost certainly haven’t been consistent over the last five weeks, I’ve probably lost sight of a few humdinger typos (the hallmark of my blogging too, *sigh*) and my calls-to-action are nowhere near as refined as I’d like, but that’s okay.

Why is it okay? Because this project is so interesting – it’s the start of something but it doesn’t pretend to be even remotely near the finish. Of course it also has the potential to be the start of something incredible in Government’s interactions with people, putting the individual citizen’s needs above everything else, but that’s for the future. Right now we are building a prototype that shows, if anything, how many of the people before us were on to a good idea.

Every time I copy a well-constructed paragraph or bang-on clear sentence from an article I think “This author really knew their stuff!” and then I’m pleased that little piece of expertise will get a fresh home. Every time I try out one of our tools I think “This is seriously cool.” and, biased though I am, every time I see some of the design come together I think “This looks lovely.”

There is massive potential for this structure – editorially, development-wise, the sense of people working for people. That’s when I wish our project ‘has legs’ but because it will make the work of the people who serve the public easier, so they in turn can do the job they set out to do.

We are trying to keep the user, that is the citizen, at the forefront of everything. This is not radical. This is simple user experience creating. Fundamentally, what we are doing is being sensible. There will be nothing upon our release that will shake the web creation industry to its very core. What it might do to Government digital services I can’t predict. But I am excited. After all, I am a citizen too.

(zOMG! totally forgot. You can keep up to date with the team via twitter @alphagov or the hashtag #alphagov for general discussion)

Another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, procrastination.

Noisy neighbours

You know how it is. You have a book to write and so you put yourself in a small cottage in a village somewhere miles from home. And then you discover the neighbours of said cottage are actually pretty bloody noisy and when they are in, you doing any writing is out.
Noisy neighbours

Still, there is an internet connection so you pootle about online, casually checking Twitter (not that you are addicted, obviously. You can stop at any time. It was just a good place to mention the neighbours), catching up on podcasts and then remember that Comic Relief’s charity auctions are coming to an end.

You’ll just take a look. See what there is and how much crazy people are prepared to giveaway for some exper …. WAIT. WOAH. There’s a chance of taking a spin in a rather funky Tesla sports car with Robert Llewellyn? And appear in an episode of Carpool? That is gonna go for a ton of money. Still, you never know right? Won’t hurt to put in a bid. And so you do.

Pondering bidding

An hour passes and no-one has outbid you. You continue to work and not compulsively check the auction every two minutes. Eventually the writing bug takes over and a couple of hours pass unnoticed.

With an hour to go, you go to check again fully expecting to have been outbid. This has not happened. You grip your mug of tea and start wondering if you might actually win this thing, which would be awesome but also … YOU ARE A CONTENT STRATEGIST. PEOPLE’S EYES GLAZE OVER WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU DO. This would be bad. So, that would leave what … why you get so annoyed at crappy error messages? How you become known as Tentacle Porn Girl* (that will not look good in the search terms logs)? Your hair colour and spacehelmet combo?

Mild peril

No, No. It’s fine. No-one ever wins an ebay auction from an hour out. There will be last minute sniping. You will be fine and no-one will ever know about your narcissistic momentary hope of being internet famous for 15 minutes and wanting to ride round London in a sports car with a fellow nerd.

There is three minutes remaining. Two. One. Thirty seconds. This where those sniping things kick in. You will lose.
You vaguely ponder putting in more than the maximum bid and then you remember that you are just doing this for charity and you are happy if the charity makes more money than you can offer. Even if you don’t get to be in the lovely car, with the lovely comedian on the lovely internet. You refresh.

Ten seconds.

Any moment now. Brace yourself for the disappointment.



Rawk horns

And that’s how you end up getting a slot on Carpool.

I am actually really looking forward to it. We film next week, around Central London and the lovely Mr.L says he already has some questions for me (probably the same questions as the taxi driver I had yesterday “People pay you to think about what should be on their websites?!!”). I think I might even have some questions for him. As a content person, I’m always delighted to learn exactly how much time and effort it takes to create any form of online stuff so I shall be sure to find out more about that.

Also, zOMG totally takin an epic ride in mah epic car with mah epic new internet best friend @bobbyllew !!11eleven1one!

(If you’d like to find out how I get on, the best place is to watch me blather on twitter. I’m @RellyAB. I will totally live tweet my carpooling.)

*This a long story, involving doujinshi, Bar Camp Brighton, IP infringement, and Andy Budd going to Japan. I will tell it one day.