How to Move Ahead When Content Strategy Gets Complicated

What happens when content strategy requires something too time consuming, too expensive, or just too much?

Content strategy is still an evolving discipline, and many of us are handed the mantle before we really feel like we know what we're doing. Or maybe we know exactly what we’re doing, but because we’re the “content expert” in the room, we’re being asked to carry far more than we have time or resources for. (We hear about this a lot from our content-loving colleagues.)

So how do we conquer the things that are towering in front of us in one way or another? I’d like to say we can just hide in bed binge watching Schitt’s Creek, but it turns out there are more specific tactics for navigating our way through complex or overwhelming challenges.

Define the hangup

When we feel the urge to procrastinate or avoid something, we often fail to interrogate this impulse. We internalize it as a personal failing, or maybe we blame others for saddling us with this challenge in the first place. Very rarely do we ask, “Where is this misery coming from?”  

If you take a moment to tease apart the situation, you may discover a factor that will help you tackle the problem. Here are several ways I’ve found myself stuck in past content strategy dilemmas:

  • I don’t have enough knowledge or training to do good work.
  • Time is so limited that success is impossible.
  • We don’t have the money to invest in tools that will simplify it.
  • I’ve had so much interpersonal tension with a colleague that it’s making a project seem larger than it is.
  • The stakes are so high for my employer or my client that I feel paralyzed.
  • I just really, really, REALLY need to spend some time outside in the sunshine before I can concentrate (see also: writing this blog post).

As it turns out, none of these root causes actually translates to “I suck.” More importantly, these are vastly different causes that require vastly different responses. And sitting at your desk staring balefully at your laptop is unlikely to help.

Once you understand what’s behind the roadblock, you can respond accordingly.

Adhere to the space–time continuum

If you have determined that you do not have the time or resources necessary to achieve something, don’t try to outsmart what you know to be mathematically true. If you don’t have enough, you don’t have enough.

That answer may not satisfy a boss, your colleagues, or your clients, of course. If you are struggling to quantify the problem, consider these approaches:

  • Begin documenting your earliest efforts. Rather than saying, “I don’t have enough time,” it can be more compelling to say, “I’ve already spent X hours on this and I’m observing that our assumptions about the time we needed are incorrect.” Evidence is more convincing than complaining.
  • Get detailed with your calculations. If you know an expensive software subscription would solve some of the problem, demonstrate the number of human hours and related salary you’ll save. Or better yet, describe the more important work you’ll get done with all that extra time.
  • Negotiate reasonable expectations. Sometimes we simply can’t change the time and resources available. If a project needs to stay on schedule and under budget, discuss ways to make deliverables more possible. Find out if you can limit the number of stakeholder interviews, collaborate on work-in-progress documents, or change the scope of the final product. This may not always be ideal, but shared expectations can go a long way in making a project more successful.

Educate yourself

Sometimes you may find that you have the opposite problem: All the time and money in the world won’t help you if you don’t know what you’re doing. Maybe you aren’t up-to-date on best practices in accessibility or you’re working on an AI project unlike anything you’ve seen before. Whether you are conquering something genuinely new or something new to you, it’s important to recognize your limitations.

If you’ve identified that you are missing the necessary knowledge or training to proceed, make time to bolster your skills. There are several different ways to fill gaps in your abilities:

  • Read books and articles to ground yourself in fundamentals.
  • Pose questions in social channels to seek opinions, reading material, or other resources.
  • Attend a webinar or meetup related to a specific topic.
  • Attend workshops or sessions at a conference to learn more broadly from folks who know what they’re doing. (I am admittedly partial to Confab.)
  • Enlist the expertise of a colleague, a couple of reviewers, or even a consultant or an advisory board.

The point here is that sometimes “too hard” really means that you are just one person, and one person cannot possibly know everything. Whether you seek education on your own or lean on the knowledge of others, it’s OK to admit that you need to learn something.

Have hard conversations

Oof, this one is tough. Sometimes content strategists have people problems. You may have a subject matter expert who always misses deadlines, a client expecting the moon and stars, or a colleague who seems intent on pooping in your Cheerios at every opportunity. Whatever the issue, people are, well ... they are people.

If you are feeling stymied by an interpersonal challenge, it might be time to have a difficult conversation. These conversations can take many shapes:

  • Tell the truth. When something feels “too hard,” it might mean you are about to disappoint someone, frustrate them, or even make them angry. As much as it stinks to feel this kind of conflict, the truth is often your best friend. Keeping hard feelings in your head will make you feel stuck, but saying them out loud may set you free.
  • Expect answers. If you can overcome the dread necessary to have a hard conversation, take the opportunity to stand by what you need. Ask for the promises and accountability that will help your work succeed. Be collaborative, of course, but also try to be as direct as possible about what’s important and what comes next.
  • Be vulnerable. Every therapist I know will coach you to use “I feel” statements instead of “you are the worst” statements, but this can still feel scary in a professional setting. After 20+ years as an employed adult, I can promise you this: Human compassion is everywhere. When you extend a bit of your trust and humility, even your harshest critic may surprise you with solutions you didn’t anticipate.
  • Let people help. Sometimes a problem isn’t something you can solve alone. Asking others for help can feel like a weakness, but it’s OK to be in over your head. The people around you may surprise you with their resources.

Remember the stakes

This seems to be one of the hardest challenges for content strategists. Because so many of us aim for perfectionism, we sometimes lose sight of the big picture.

When you feel as if something is too hard, ask yourself these questions:

  • How does this work impact the daily lives of human beings?
  • What does this project say about me and my values?
  • How does this effort affect the world?

These may sound like lofty questions, but they are so helpful when we need to ground ourselves in a daunting task.

Allow yourself the space to think broadly about what your work means. Yes, sometimes we make an important or even monumental contribution to the field of content strategy. Other times, we need to earn money for groceries—and that’s OK.

We may find that we and our colleagues and stakeholders are carrying stress that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Considering the stakes can free us up to set priorities and do better work.

Don’t give up!

Content strategy is messy, fun, aggravating work. There is no recipe for doing it well, which is both motivating and irritating.

If you are facing down the reality of a job or a project and thinking, “This is too hard,” I hope you will find your own ways to move forward. You are smart, capable, and wise. I won’t tell you that it’s not too hard, but I will tell you that you were made for these challenges.

Tenessa Gemelke is the director of education and events at Brain Traffic. She runs the show at Confab  an annual content strategy conference that happens in Minneapolis each spring. Tenessa is always looking for ways for folks to share knowledge and support each other’s work in content strategy and user experience. When she is not hosting educational events, she is probably eating cheese.

Confab: The Content Strategy Conference

Registration is now open for Confab 2020! Make plans to join us in Minneapolis, May 17–20. Hone your content strategy skills, make friends, and eat cake.

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