Put the Work Before the Words

Don’t let vocabulary or office politics get you down. Your content strategy work is relevant, no matter what words are tied to it.

Put the Work Before the Words

In the long history of people working together to make things, content strategy is basically a newborn—and a newborn on a planet changed by technology every few years, no less. We’ve had to steal, adapt, and remix thought technologies from design, project management, information architecture, and more. These disciplines themselves have borrowed much of their language from fields like construction and sociology.

So it’s no surprise we struggle with the words we use to describe content strategy.

Incompatibilities can range from minor annoyances within our project teams to full-blown identity crises. Based on many discussions I’ve had over coffee and cake at conferences, I’ve learned it can be a tough, even emotional subject.

I’ve come to think of these vocabulary conflicts as falling into one of two main areas:

  • Methodology—how we describe our tools, techniques, deliverables, processes, etc.
  • Identity—how we describe ourselves (such as job titles) and our communities of practice

Let’s talk about each type.

The content strategy police are not coming to get you.

Methodology language conflicts are annoying, to be sure, but they are manageable. If stakeholders are confused by a term like “content audit”—maybe auditing makes them tense up with thoughts of the IRS or SEC—just call it something else. Call it a content review. Call it a website analysis. Call it voice QA. Call it Steven. (OK, maybe not that last one.)

My general recommendation is to call things whatever you need to call them to get the work done. Later, when the project goes into your portfolio, you can go right ahead and use the more commonly accepted term, and even have a nice little story to tell about how you navigated office politics to get it done.

Using words that work is more important than using words that some outside authority considers correct. It would be awful for an organization to lose out on the benefits of doing content strategy work because office politics of the English language make it impossible to use the “right” term for this work. The content strategy police are not coming to get you.

“I’m not really a content strategist.”

Identity issues are stressful, too. These are just a few of the things I’ve heard:

  • “Our team is doing content strategy, but we can’t call it content strategy because [some other group] already thinks they’re doing content strategy.”
  • “My boss is making me keep copywriter in my job title, even though I’m not doing much writing.”
  • “Content is our product, so everyone gets confused if we call it content strategy.”
  • “The executives aren’t comfortable with anyone else having strategy in their job title. They see strategy as their responsibility.”

Issues of identity—even professional identity—stir the emotions. It’s exciting to see someone’s eyes light up when they hear about content strategy or user-centered design for the very first time. And it’s heartbreaking to see someone feeling alienated from our community when strong opinions about language make them feel like they don’t belong.

So if you’ve ever felt like an impostor among other content strategists, and have asked yourself, “How do I fix it?” well … you don’t. And if you’ve been made to feel like you should, I think our community has done you a disservice.

If you care about the words, I don’t care what your job title is. Content strategy is a community of practice, not a labor union. If even one person has walked away from an opportunity to do good work on the web because they felt like they didn’t belong, we’re all worse off for it.

Put the work before the words.

As a community of practice, we need to be cautious about the optics of public conversations about what to call things. Insisting that there should be universally agreed upon terminology for any given tool or technique seems comical when you consider that so many of our shared strategy tools were invented on the spot to serve a tactical need in an individual’s own practice. Seek first to understand the way someone uses a particular term, rather than correct their usage, and you might just learn something new.

Ultimately, “correctness” is secondary to utility. Put the work before the words.

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Scott Kubie is the lead content strategist here at Brain Traffic and the author of Writing for Designers from A Book Apart. Scott has focused on the content side of digital experiences since 2009, and was the first UX content strategist at Wolfram Research. He grew up in rural Nebraska, and studied electronic media and journalism at Drake University.

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