It’s easy to take dictionaries for granted. When Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, England actually lacked a standard dictionary. While even Samuel Johnson acknowledged in the dictionary’s preface that language is too fluid to pin down, his attempt to standardize English helped give it a common reference point and model upon which to build.
This vocabulary dilemma eventually not only faces all languages but also all professions, including content strategy. Scott Abel and Rahel Bailie recognized this problem through their many Content Strategy Workshops when they notice participants really wanted to know what terms such as “content audit” or “transclusion” meant. With the release of their new book, The Language of Content Strategy, curated standard definitions of many terms that content strategists and marketers use (or misuse!). Among the contributors is our own Colleen Jones, who defined the term content strategy brief.
In this interview, we talk with Scott and Rahel about what inspired their book and the challenges of curating definitions of content strategy terms. Their insights will help you understand why you need a baseline understanding of all aspects of content strategy, even if you specialize in a particular area.
What inspired the idea for this book?
RB: Scott and I conduct 1-day “Content Strategy in a Day” workshops and we talk to participants about different deliverables. I recalled that UX practitioners use practice cards to help them learn things such as UX methods, and I thought a similar idea might work for content strategy to remind participants about deliverables they create.
So, we handed out a 12-card deck with definitions at a conference presentation. Later, we expanded the deck to 24 cards to account for terms related to global content strategy. Many people saw Scott’s business cards on our table and eagerly said, “Are these the trading cards from that talk about content strategy?”
At that point, we saw a thirst for these definitions. We perform audits, and someone else calls them analyses. But an audit is an audit, and an analysis is an analysis. By not defining terms well, we’re potentially misleading clients. If you’re calling something an inventory, but you’re actually performing an inventory, audit, and analysis, then your client will wonder why you charge so much.
As a result, we saw an opportunity, decided to create a larger deck of cards, and expanded these cards into a book and a website.
SA: We also wanted to expand the conversation and make information available from content professionals who have been doing amazing work crafting innovative content solutions for the past decade or more. These professionals operate under the radar. They’re in the trenches solving complex content challenges, often without a spotlight shining on them. We wanted to showcase their expertise, make it available to others, and shine our light on them so that their wisdom could become part of our discipline.
The importance of leveraging content standards, tools, and techniques designed to flawlessly orchestrate the movement of content from its source to its destination (regardless of language, culture, law, device type, or other challenges) is critical to moving our discipline forward. To be taken seriously by business, content strategists need to understand the full range of content topics that may be brought before them when meeting with team members from other areas. The business of content (and therefore, content strategy) is about far more than understanding how to write well or to design websites that fit on smartphones and tablets.
In the Preface, you quote S. I. Hayakawa who says, “The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a law-giver.”
Yet, definitions in a book such as yours need to be precise and definitive. How did you balance the craft of creating specific definitions for terms that might also be fluid or under debate?
SA: The terms in our book are specific and well-defined outside the content strategy arena. The challenge was to help content strategy professionals learn from those who came before them instead of creating an entirely new vernacular. That’s why we sought out people who cover a wide variety of jobs such as academics, entrepreneurs, consultants, captive workers, analysts, and others with expertise in the term they defined.
RB: We also expected debate about terms. For example, in the technical communication world we see someone use a term and then watch a 300-email thread emerge about the term. The debate will happen, so where’s the best place for it? We don’t want it scattered across 25 different content strategy Google and LinkedIn groups, so we decided to create a companion website to host the debate. We think of this book as a starter kit. If people debate a term, then the entire profession moves forward. When we come out with the second version of our book, we can reflect advances in the conversation.
A challenge of creating one precise definition is that terms sometimes mean different things to different people. It’s important to make some distinctions when terms actually do mean different things in different areas. But if you’ve ever worked in retail or a factory, you know what an inventory means. It means to take account of what you have on hand. So why wouldn’t that also mean inventory in our profession? Or with an audit, people think of the IRS. In that context, everyone knows what an audit means. And so we took some of those concepts and transposed them into content strategy to align our profession more around common terms.
The breadth and depth of the various terms in your book clearly show that content strategy has branched into areas of specialization. Is it possible anymore to be a general content strategist? Do content strategists need to specialize?
SA: Today, a content strategist must understand a little about a lot of things. Specialization is part of every profession such as law, medicine, or sports. It’s no different with content strategy. But it’s important to note that specialists still have to understand all of the basics. Students studying as medical specialists go to medical school first, and then they learn to specialize. They need a firm grasp of how the human body works before they start focusing on a certain specialty. Unfortunately, far too many content professionals haven’t realized this yet. That’s why we’re creating a base set of vocabulary to give content strategists a firm foundation upon which to build their area of specialty.
RB: In content strategy, lots of specialists exist but they don’t emerge from the same background. Copywriters, journalists, technical writers, project managers, and many other people share different perspectives but their baseline knowledge is very different. But even if you work within a specialty, you need to know how to refer people to the right person. Ironically, to know your limitations, you need to understand what you don’t understand. But when copywriters rebrand themselves as content strategists, they often don’t know how to refer clients to the right specialist because they don’t even know what’s wrong. For example, too many copywriters fail to realize they need metadata and tagging to help users find content. As content strategists, we need to come to the point where we all have a common set of knowledge so when copywriters turned content strategists don’t know something, they know they don’t know it and understand when they need to refer their client to a specialist.
The Language of Content Strategy is a positive step forward, like Johnson’s dictionary, to solidify key terms. While some terms might be debated and evolve, we have no doubt this book will help you communicate better about content strategy.
To get Scott and Rahel’s book and discuss these terms with the content strategy community, visit The Language of Content Strategy.