How to Teach Content Strategy
Whether you’re sharing a new concept with coworkers or presenting at a conference, the ability to teach content strategy is a valuable skill worth honing.
If you are working in content strategy, there is a good chance you already think of yourself as a student. (Let’s face it, we’re a bunch of curious nerds.) But how often do you think of yourself as a teacher? There are lots of reasons you may find yourself in a teaching role: training a new staff member, coaching different skills among colleagues, educating a client, or presenting at a professional conference. Understanding how to pass along your knowledge is incredibly beneficial.
In my role producing Confab’s content strategy conferences, I’ve read feedback from approximately 7,000 attendees at 20 events. I’ve learned a lot about what works well in an educational setting—and what doesn’t. No matter how you find yourself in this role, the best content strategy teachers have success when they focus on a few key things.
Pinpoint your subject
As you narrow in on what you can (and should!) teach other people, ask yourself these questions:
- What is something that was really hard for me to learn, but now it feels easy?
- When and why do colleagues seek me out for help?
- What do the people around me want to understand better?
- What have I gotten really good at explaining over and over again?
- What could I get excited about imparting to someone else?
By narrowing your focus this way, you not only set your students up for success, but you also find a niche where your unique knowledge can really shine.
As for specific topics: “content strategy” spans a huge amount of information. Just as we might break mathematics into different conceptual areas (geometry, algebra, calculus, etc.), we can break content strategy into sub-topics:
- Accessibility and inclusivity
- Analytics and measurement
- Conversation design
- Content design
- Content management
- Content modeling
- Research and analysis
- Teams and stakeholders
- Usability and testing
- User journeys and personas
- UX/UI writing
- Workflow and processes
You wouldn’t teach someone to cook by bringing them into a kitchen and hoping for the best. Instead, you would think of specific techniques, skills, or recipes to help them get started. On the flip side, you wouldn’t try to educate a professional chef on how to crack an egg—but you could certainly teach her your family’s secret recipe for carnitas.
Teaching is really about introducing something new and helping your students achieve different skills or a higher level of knowledge. Whether you are coaching an individual colleague or leading a large workshop, the key is to figure out where the specific gap is, and how you can help people along their own path toward understanding.
Offer the right tools and templates
It’s one thing to stand in front of a room full of people and pontificate about all the things you know, but remember that they’ll want to take these ideas away with them. That’s where tools and templates come in.
You’ll hear lots of content strategists joke about their collective penchant for spreadsheets, but what makes for a good spreadsheet? How do you tailor the structure to track the most useful details? How do you format it to make it as useful and accessible as possible? These may seem like minor things if you’re an experienced strategist, but when you are trying to get somebody else up to speed, it’s nearly always more helpful to show than tell.
Don’t get too hung up on words like “tools” and “templates.” If it’s easier to think in terms of “takeaways,” think broadly about how your students will apply your ideas beyond the time you spend together:
- Each time you mention a technique, show what it looks like. Use screenshots, photos, or handouts, or share links to make your examples available.
- When you’re identifying a list of questions to ask, create a checklist to indicate the sequence or the hierarchy of importance.
- When you’re sharing a tool or example from a previous project, boil it down to its essential components. For example, students may not need to absorb your entire style guide, but they need to understand how the structure and content support your work.
Remember, you aren’t teaching only to attract the rapt attention of curious content strategists—you are sending them back into the world a little smarter and more equipped to face new challenges.
Make it memorable
Even though I’ve now programmed somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 talks, I can still think of a handful that really stand out in my mind. (I’m looking at you, LeVar Burton.) Some were funny, some were useful, and some were just plain smart.
As I think through the most memorable ones, here are some things those people did:
- Create emotional impact. Years later, I can still remember the anger in Gerry McGovern’s voice the first time I heard him say, “Most bad decisions are made by five executives in a room drinking lattes.”
- Include a simple phrase or motto. Marchaé Grair’s Confab 2018 lightning talk (11:26) about inclusivity included the reminder, “Nothing about us without us.”
- Think of a metaphor or a visual gag to help the idea stick. This helps people remember a concept even when they don’t remember your exact words. (Strategy bear FTW!)
- Tell a story. Whether it’s about a success or a pitfall, a real-life scenario is often the best way to illustrate a point. (Watch Mai-Ling Garcia as she frames her work with government content strategy in connection with her own childhood.)
All the methodology in the world won’t make a lesson stick. Tools and templates are the things that help students feel equipped, but it’s the metaphors, stories, and emotional touchstones that help us understand, remember, and apply those lessons.
Ready, set, TEACH!
As content strategy continues to grow, the discipline changes all the time. One minute we’re debating industry definitions, and the next minute we’re tackling conversational design for kitchen appliances. The changing nature of our work makes it essential that we continue to learn from each other.
As you think through your work and what you have to offer, don’t be afraid to position yourself as a content strategy expert. Think about how your colleagues—both within your company and in the content strategy community at large—might benefit from your knowledge. Home in on the subjects you’ve mastered, polish up your shiniest tools and templates, and tell your content strategy story—because that’s how we continue to learn and keep this discipline growing.
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.