This week on the Boagworld Show we are joined by Ellen De Vries to talk about effectively collaborating with others on your content.
Paul: Hello and welcome to Boagworld the podcast about all aspects of digital design, development and strategy. My name is Paul Boag joining me on this week’s show is Marcus Lillington and the very wonderful Ellen De …
Marcus: So do I have to jump in at this point do the pronunciation thing?
Paul: No, I just figured as I screwed up Ellen’s first name at the beginning I thought I ought to screw it up again on the actual show.
Marcus: Don’t feel hurt in any way, he does this to everybody.
Paul: It’s my tradition. What’s really funny is that I literally just recorded the pre-roll, the bit that we say before the music plays and I said your surname perfectly adequately with no problem at all. I get this stage fright with people that I’m going to massacre their name and then I freeze up. And I’ve got a cold, everybody be nice to me, I’ve got a cold.… Nothing.
Marcus: Ah, poor Paul.
Paul: No sympathy.
Marcus: You can tell how sincere this is. Poor Paul, ahh.
Paul: I’ve not got any sympathy from anyone over this cold.
Marcus: That’s because you are always poorly! There’s always something wrong with you.
Paul: That’s because I work hard unlike you. You just sit on a big pile of money.
Marcus: Of cash. Yes, That’s me! I have a beanbag full of cash. I am currently lazing on it as we speak.
Paul: Well, yeah. It’s all leftover from your popstar days and you just sit around on this big pile of cash and never expose yourself to… I lost my voice running a whole day workshop, it was very sad. I could only whisper. (Laughter)
Marcus: That’s just so funny. I wonder… I’m going to be really rude now, I wonder if they were relieved at that point Paul!
Paul: They might well have been, actually.
Marcus: Were you telling them off? Were you?
Paul: No, I wasn’t. The workshops don’t have the same tone as my speaking. Ellen, I got a bit of a reputation as someone who tells people off from the stage. But I am working on it!
Ellen: I’ve heard that, I’ve heard that, yeah.
Paul: I knew it, yeah.
Marcus: Your reputation goes before you Paul.
Paul: Exactly. So Ellen do you ever… You must have to do workshops and stuff with people. It’s knackering isn’t it?
Ellen: It is, it is absolutely knackering. I did one yesterday and it was lots of fun but I think it’s like, if you work in the theatre you dance around on stage for sort of two hours or at the most whereas when you are running workshops you are dancing around all day and you have to actually be interactive with people as well and make sure that everyone is all right and yeah, I think it takes a lot out of me by the end of it.
Paul: I think you hit the key thing there. It’s having to deal with people! It’s just knackering, people are. (Laughter) They are hard work.
Marcus: I tend not to dance around in the workshops I do though.
Paul: That’s because you’re not doing the right then Marcus!
Ellen: I was going to say, you need to get some moves going.
Paul: I love that idea. Yeah, just breaking out in dance in the middle. I’m going to express this next CSS technique in the form of dance.
Ellen: Oh, that would make CSS so much more exciting.
Paul: Oh, it really would wouldn’t it!
Marcus: I’m with you there. I seem to wave my arms a lot, is that okay?
Ellen: Oh yeah, waving arms is really good. Yeah. It shows enthusiasm I think.
Marcus: I’ll stick with that.
Paul: So what was the workshop you were doing yesterday Ellen, just as a matter of interest. Not too was it with, necessarily, but what was it on?
Ellen: Yes, it was a client of Clearleft and we were trying to work out… They got a new product so they are like a pre-existing brand to do with property. So they have a new product and it was trying to get everyone together to articulate what the proposition is. So working out sort of the pains and gains of the users and thinking about the actual language that users might have. So the problems they might have when they come to use something like this. So yes, it was a really fun workshop actually, there was lots of laughter and joviality and yeah, I think we went off piste a few times talking about bees and lots of strange things but somehow my workshops tend to turn out like that anyway!
Paul: I think you’ve got to have a bit of that otherwise it gets very intense. Especially if it is a whole day, people end up exhausted at the end if you don’t have a bit of fun while you are doing it.
Ellen: Yes, we had a very big supply of chocolate as well.
Paul: That always helps. Another really good tip if you ever run workshop. Have really good snacks.
Marcus: I’ve got a thing on that. Because Ellen, I don’t know if you know that I tend to do mostly sales type stuff and I’m out pitching for new working that kind of thing. When I am talking about our approach to workshops and that kind of thing I always have a photograph that has biscuits in it.
Paul: Oh yeah, good biscuits.
Marcus: (Laughter) which I have been told by one client that it was a plus point.
Paul: What, they saw the biscuits?
Ellen: Well, hang on, it’s a photograph of biscuits rather than real biscuits.
Marcus: Yeah, it’s like, “This is what you will get if you work with Headscape”
Ellen: oh, I see. Okay, all right. I thought it was some weird way of like, I don’t know…
Marcus: Yes, subliminal message there. Although I think I actually said look, biscuits!
Paul: Ahh, no you need to flash them up for milliseconds between every slide. That’s what you do. And do it as subliminal. Hey, they can’t be any biscuits either they’ve got to be M&S biscuits.
Ellen: Absolutely, yes.
Marcus: Yeah we normally buy those. Yeah.
Ellen: Are we sponsored by M&S?
Marcus: We should be!
Paul: No, we’re not sponsored by… Yeah. We should, yeah, the amount of time we mention them on the show. So what does your job kind of entail Ellen other than running workshops?
Ellen: Okay, so I… Well, I am known as a content strategist but that can be, that can result in a lot of different types of work but mainly what I do is help organisations find the best words, the best sort of language to articulate what it is that they are doing for their users. So, in that case yesterday I was helping a team of people coming from all sorts of different parts of the organisation, helping them come together and work out what the best language is to articulate the thing that they are trying to create. But my job also results in helping people with micro copy and then helping people with wider sort of brand language, so the sort of mission statements and purpose and vision and all of that stuff. Then also thinking about the strategy behind the language that you choose to put on a site or an app or wherever you choose, or on a billboard perhaps. So it’s thinking about creating a sort of story that feeds into all the different aspects of a brand and how it manifests in the world. That sounds very grand.
Paul: It does, it sounds amazing. It sounds like you are the god of all things content related to now. That’s what I’ve got in my head.
Ellen: That I am! (Laughter)
Paul: You’re happy with that title, yes.
Marcus: God of all things.
Ellen: I think I’m going to change my title on the website, on Clearleft. I got access to the CMS so might just go and put that in!
Paul: Well Jeremy is well known for randomly changing his job title so why not you?
Ellen: Yeah, what is he at the moment? Yes, he’s been all sorts of things like chief of, I don’t know, something about meat last time!
Marcus: Yeah, Lord of some kind of weird tribe. I’m looking.
Ellen: That’s true, yes.
Paul: It’s just, yeah, he’s got too much time on his hands that man.
Play Featured Posts at: 8:39
Paul: Right, so today… The idea of today’s show is that we want to talk a little bit about, well, really content marketing and promotion generally but specifically a bit about working with others when it comes to content. Which is very appropriate considering you were doing your workshop yesterday. So, there’s kind of different areas we want to get into. With these shows, Ellen, we kind of have a bit of a chat in the middle and I ask you a few questions about this kind of stuff but we also look at some apps that maybe help you out a little bit when it comes to collaborative content and then some reading suggestions as well. So, I think because between the two of us we’ve got quite carried away in potential reading material, I think we ought to jump straight into that because we’ve got quite a lot haven’t we. So, the first one that I always immediately think of when we talk about reading material is “Content strategy for the web” by Christina Halvorson. Which I know Marcus, you are a fan of that one are you not?
Marcus: Yes, I’m quite guilty of buying books related to our industry and not reading them but that is one of the few I have actually read and yes, it was great. It is quite old now isn’t it? I mean, when did that come out, it must be 5, 6, 7 years ago?
Paul: Yeah. You might be horribly out of date.
Ellen: They have done a another addition as well so there was an update at some point but that may also been a while ago. I don’t know when the most recent one was that came out.
Marcus: Is it still relevant?
Ellen: Yes, totally.
Marcus: You know, in… Okay.
Ellen: Yeah, I use it quite a lot.
Marcus: Good, I’m glad!
Ellen: Yeah! If anyone ever comes in to the office and says “What’s contact strategy?” I just sort of pass the book, got a little stack of them and I pass them over. It’s a really good little book for… It’s got good sort of checklists for all the things that you need to think about in relation to content. So people often think about content, obviously as the substance and the words that appear on the page but then behind-the-scenes as you know, there’s all the work to be done around how the CMS fits together or how… Who the people are that are going to be working on the content. So the book gives you a really good overview of the things you might not realise are part of the content production process.
Paul: So another one that you included in your list when you sent your list through to me and I absolutely love it is Abby Covert’s book “How to make sense of any mess”. That’s more… I was about to say it’s more of an information architecture book but if you say that it’s an information architecture book it immediately sounds incredibly dull and you don’t want to read it but it is absolutely superb isn’t it? It is a lot more than maybe your normal perception of what IA is. It is talking about language and mental models and all kinds of really interesting things. It’s a good one. I like that one.
Ellen: The mental models are a really big thing in content at the moment. Thinking about just breaking the language down into its smallest component parts and thinking about what words actually mean. Because as organisations are so used to sort of getting wrapped up in their own terminology and as soon as you go in, either as a freelancer or if you’re coming in from an agency point of view, like I am, then it’s like trying to understand that language is really difficult sometimes. So Abby’s book has got some really nice little models for teasing out that language and getting really specific about what that language actually means.
Paul: Yeah. And another one that you put in that I recognised which is brilliant for the kind of collaborative elements that we are going to be covering today is “Game storming” by Dave Gray. I must confess, I never completely finished that book because it is more of a dip in and out kind of book, isn’t it?
Ellen: It is, yes. I only came across it when I joined Clearleft and David Gray, literally, I think it was in the second week I joined he was there doing a workshop. I got really excited because his book is good at getting all that stuff out on paper. So it is very visual. Sometimes when we are talking about language unless you get it down on paper it’s really difficult to see the wood for the trees and Dave Gray is kind of models they are kind of like games really. I think it gives you a thing you might draw out it on paper and then get the entire group in a workshop to stick Post-it notes on different aspects of it to help you organise your thinking. There’s a bit of a theme I suppose with the books in that the books, like Abbys book as well, they just help you organise your thinking with groups of people.
Paul: Yeah. Now, there was one in this list that I thought, absolutely superb book, one of my all-time favourite books, but I was quite surprised when you put it in here was “Creativity Inc”. What was your thinking about including that one in the list?
Ellen: Well, I absolutely love the book. (Laughter) So I have to get it in every book list ever, ever.
Paul: Yeah, so you crowbar it in! Yeah.
Ellen: So, Creativity Inc is the story of how the sort of internal workings of Pixar and Disney and looking at how they bring big teams of people… Because when you are working on an animation you’ve got, obviously, you got animators, you’ve got scriptwriters, you’ve got I don’t know who you’ve got but you’ve got all sorts of different people, even like scientists have to be brought in to look at the kind of mechanics of how a ball bounces. So you’ve got lots of groups of people coming together that all have very different kind of languages. So a scientist might speak very differently from how an animator might speak. What is really inspiring to me is how when you get all those people in a room what are the kind of models that you can use to get people to all point in the same direction and have the same vision to be able to create an animation eventually. So yes, I think that book is full of lovely quotes about, well, things that we come along quite a lot in the digital industry like about failing fast and about feedback, how you run critiques. It’s just packed with lots of collaborative information that is very juicy.
Paul: It’s just such a good book. And it’s a really enjoyable read as well. Because it’s not… You know, it’s almost an autobiography as well as being this kind of business book at the same time. It’s a really interesting combination. There’s one on your list, I’ve got to ask about. “Nonviolent communication”? What the hell is that?!
Ellen: Yeah, it’s possibly the worst book title for a very good book ever.
Ellen: Because as soon as you think about nonviolence you think like, “What! Violent communication?” You get images of people like punching each other and stuff! Which it absolutely is not. So, again at Clearleft we did a lot of work around inter-team communication and about being really specific about the language that you use. So it’s about… It’s a really good book for helping you work out good ways to give people feedback. So in our creative world of design and content there’s lots of people that have to critique each other’s work very frequently. So it’s a really good way of sort of separating out your language into a non-judgemental kind of language. So rather than saying “I hate that piece of writing you’ve just done.” You’d say “Well, that piece of writing… I feel this is about that piece of writing.” So it’s about establishing healthy patterns of communication.
Paul: What about the one “Start with why”. Is that based on that kind of five whys which is a principle I talk about all the time, the idea you keep asking why until you get to the root problem or the root issue that you are dealing with? Is it that kind of principle? Or is it something else?
Ellen: No, that’s basically it really. It’s a really simple book and that is pretty much the basic. So maybe you don’t even need to read it now!
Paul: There you go.
Ellen: You’ve done it. So yeah, just keep… So if there’s one thing you can learn from that book it is just keep asking your clients why, why, why, why, why? The more you ask it the more authentic their language becomes. So the more you get to the root motivation for that thing being sort of put into the world.
Paul: Yeah, I mean that, I use that technique all the time. I call it the toddler approach. Because, you know, toddlers constantly ask why don’t they. So one that you added in last minute, sorry this is a long list people but it’s a really good list, was Sarah Richards’ “Content design”. That’s when you’re reading at the moment isn’t it?
Ellen: Yes it is, it’s literally just come out and I’ve already bought my second copy because somebody in the office has stolen the first one. And I need to buy a third one because I just gave one to my client yesterday. So I thought maybe I should put this one on the list too. It’s packed with really good techniques for getting the right language out of users. So it’s a bit about research, and a little bit about looking at the sort of data driven content design and it’s just got loads of really useful little techniques. Sarah Richards originally worked at GDS and she was behind, you know, the big transformation as well. I went to one of her workshops earlier this year, “Agile content” in London and it was really useful way. So one of the techniques she gave us was looking at forums as a way of researching the authentic language that users might have. So It was using the context of a medical… piece of content around a medical problem problem. For example asthma. Then you look asthma in forums and people say like “I can’t breathe, what am I going to do?” Rather than typing “asthma ailment” into the Google finder. So it’s looking at that real language.
Paul: Yes, I like that. That’s a clever little approach actually. Just that tip in its own is worth knowing isn’t it. So I mean, obviously you’th’ve been… The reason we’ve got you on the show is because the people at Gathercontent said you were doing some work with them and you’ve written a book yourself haven’t you about collaborative content creation? Tell us a little bit about that one.
Ellen: I have, yeah. So, I wrote… It’s a short book and it’s free and you can just going and get it. I’m allowed to… Yeah, it’s free so…
Paul: Yeah, yeah. Of course you are.
Ellen: So, it’s collaboratebook.com is the URL that takes you to the sort of Gathercontent area where you can download it. So yes, I wrote that because I’m a little bit obsessed with collaboration techniques. So the book isn’t even specifically about content. It’s more about bringing digital teams together and the techniques that you can use to get people sort of comfortable working together. Because in a lot of the really big organisations that I go into you’ve got sort of marketing on one floor and developers on another floor somewhere far away, you’ve got digital team somewhere else and so people rarely speak to each other. I find when you do bring them into a room together people have very different mental models of what it is that they are actually building. There’s a funny thing about content in that, when it comes to writing content or when it comes to creating the content, it sort of has a funny way of reflecting what lies beneath the surface. So it’s like if the team is really fragmented and everybody has got a different language then you are going to have inconsistencies on the surface. You might have a slightly different kind of tone of voice going on on your Facebook and your Twitter profile might be entirely different and then your website will have a different tone of voice as well. So, it sort of creeps up to the surface. So I’m really determined to try and work out ways of bringing people together to create content even when they are not competent specialists.
Paul: Sounds really good. Looking forward to checking that one out. Okay, so there’s just a few books for people to get on with! Okay, what would you pick out of… You can’t pick your own, that’s cheating… If you were going to point people to read one first which one would it be?
Ellen: So, is the likely desert island of content strategy books.
Paul: yes. You can take one book away with you which one?
Ellen: Ooo, so, I think I would take the Christina Halverson one. It hasn’t got quite enough pictures in it, so maybe if I’m allowed a sort of, like a coffee table magazine as well, just to have pictures on my desert island. Then that would be good.
Paul: Okay, all right. So, that’s brilliant, we’ve got a good list of books there they’ve all got their unique characteristics to it and definitely worth checking out. Now, I want to quickly talk about our first sponsor before we get into some discussion. So our first sponsor today is ResourceGuru who have come back and joined us again on the show after a little break. Hopefully by now, in this point within the season you are already full of ideas and enthusiasms of various content marketing approaches that you can use but of course you got to try and find time to do all of that stuff amongst your crowded project schedule. So, does your team have any spare capacity each month to work on these content marketing ideas that we have discussed. Do you have any people to do video or audio production? Do you have the right skills available, are you going to need to take on some freelancers in order to give yourself time to do all of this kind of stuff? Of course, all of that is about project planning and organising your resources and that’s where something like ResourceGuru comes in. You know, the truth is the kind of spreadsheets and crappy old legacy systems that we have been using aren’t particularly suited to this kind of thing and scheduling is a difficult thing so that is where I would encourage you to check out ResourceGuru. It gives you kind of up to date, accurate view of the big picture of what is going on, who is working on what, how busy they are, who’s available, who’s away from work, all those kinds of things. And when things change, which they inevitably do, you can just easily update ResourceGuru just by dragging and dropping. It’s all very simple and straightforward and intuitive to use. You can be a lot more confident that your projects are on track and that you have got the right people to do them. ResourceGuru is becoming a kind of industry standard in some ways. There are some amazing companies that use it from Apple to Uber to Ogilvy, NASA and even Headscape! So you can start a free trial by going to resourceguru.io/boagworld. When you are ready to subscribe simply use the coupon code Boag2017 and that will get you 20% of the lifetime of the account so it is definitely one worth doing. Cool, so thank you ResourceGuru for supporting the show it is much appreciated.
Discussion with Ellen de Vries
Play Discussion at: 24:48
Right, discussion time. There are a couple of questions there are that I thought would be nice to run through with you Ellen and get your perspective on things. The first one that I had in my head is that one of the big problems that I always see, right, is whether you are talking about content marketing or whether you are talking about creating content for a website is that often the people that are writing the content aren’t necessarily the experts in the subject that you are writing on. So, for example in your case you work with a lot of different clients in a lot of different fields and you are obviously not going to be an expert on all of those fields. How do you go about creating content where you don’t fully understand the subject that you are creating content for?
Ellen: Yeah, that’s a really good question because… Well, Once upon a time I had to write content for an anaesthetics drug, this is when I was a freelancer, before a joined Clearleft. So this was like a case like that where I have absolutely no idea about anaesthetics. So, how it works is, this was in the days where I did quite a lot of e-learning stuff and in e-learning it’s really clear that the subject matter experts are the person who knows the stuff about the anaesthetics, for example, is not the writer. And that is the thing that is coming more and more into the world of digital content writing, is accepting this fact that the people who write the content are not necessarily the experts and they never have to be. They are the experts at writing. So, it is about finding… So if you’ve got like a complex subject and you are facing is and you’re thinking “Oh my god, how am I going to write about this!” Then you need to find the expert. I mean it might be that you are suffering from an extreme case of inner critic and actually somewhere deep down you do know what that subject is about and you can do quite a lot with sort of desk research, like Sarah Richards tip about going on forums and harvesting the information from the Internet. So, sometimes you can and if that is your only option it’s just about getting past your inner critic, but in much bigger organisations and bigger projects then it is really about finding that subject matter expert and getting them on board and getting them to work with you collaboratively. So, well, when I was freelancing, in that case, I had to find the anaesthetics experts and talk to them. But they weren’t necessarily the best people for writing it because they have a lot of kind of scientific language and their knowledge of structuring language for the Web isn’t probably as advanced as mine is. So between us we managed.
Paul: So, how did that working relationship operate? Did they write an initial draft and then you revised it or did you interview them? What was the process?
Ellen: So, I usually take lots of different tactics with organisations because sometimes the stuff exists anyway, like they might have in their desk drawers. I worked with a great British university institution once and I found all their content in their desk drawer in a folder, like printed out!
Ellen: So I didn’t have to, you know, spend hours and days interviewing anybody. But then other times I might actually sit down and work with them. So if I have already got something of a prototype or a design then we will sit together and we will look at how the sort of raw content might be put into that design. Or, if we haven’t got any design or any prototypes or wireframes or anything and we are right at the beginning the process then a lot of it is through interviewing and giving them sort of headings or trying to work out what the crucial headings might be. Abbys book is really good at that. Helping you sort of work out what approach to take into the content.
Paul: So what about the process that you use to kind of manage and create all of this content. Because sometimes it can be quite a large amount of content that you are creating and I just wondered how you go about doing that. How do you manage that kind of process?
Ellen: Yes. So it really depends on the piece of work and how big the organisation is and how much content they have. I did a little site crawl for a new client last week and they had like 1500 pages of content already. So the task is really to try and work out what needs to stay and what needs to go. But you can come at these projects from lots of different angles. So there’s a really great… I think especially Christina Halveson, and there’s like this content strategy pie! Imagine a pie, it’s a pie chart sort of thing and it’s divided into four quarters. So each of those quarters has a different aspect to them. So the first quarter of the pie is about what you see on the surface, so sometimes the job is just to look at what appears. So the micro copy, the language that you see on the interface on screen. So fixing that up, and that’s often a copywriter might do that kind of stuff. But if you want to go a little bit deeper then, so the other quarter of the pie is looking at the structure, the architecture. Then with this example of 1500 pages it was looking at how you might sort of chunk up those pages into sensible categories and how well each of those pages fulfils the task of each of those categories. So you might often hear of content strategists doing audits and inventories. So the inventory is just a basic download of what have they got already and an audit is assessing how well it fulfils the task of getting the message across and telling the story for the organisation. So, that’s one half of the pie, substance and architecture. And then the other half of the pie is a lot about what goes on beneath the surface. So it’s thinking about the people you need to create content and the things, the documents and structures and tools that you are going to need to keep that content flowing. Because some organisations like charities for example, they’ve got ongoing campaigns at all times so it’s almost like they are running through a content strategy cycle like every two months. Or they might have six campaigns running at the same time so it gets incredibly complex so you need to make sure that everybody is operating like a small smooth moving football team. Like, you know you’re in the wing so you are ready to receive the content and edit it when it comes in and then pass it onto the next person. So it is making sure that you have got the kind of strategies and structures in place in order to support what eventually appears on the screen. And then you’ve got all the different channels as well, so you’ve got social media and billboards and newspapers and whatever else. So it is looking after that whole kind of ecosystem. But the projects that we get coming in always comes in at very different levels so it’s about assessing what process is going to work for what clients. It depends on what things they are suffering from, I guess. It’s a bit like being a doctor, for content!
Marcus: Ellen, I think you lost Paul at the football analogy!
Paul: Oh, ha, ha, ha. Go on then Marcus, you wanted to ask a question. You can go next if you’re going to be rude about me.
Marcus: Well no, you’ve never claimed to be a football fan.
Paul: No, that is very true.
Ellen: I’m not either, I’m really not at all, I’ve never used that analogy before, I don’t know where it came from.
Marcus: (Laughter) It was quite refreshing to hear a sports -related analogy. My question was, it kind of more business-related and its relates to kind of our experience of receiving requests for proposals that say “We are interested in content strategy.” Probably about five years ago or so we kind of toyed with the idea of bringing somebody on board so that we could offer that, so we could offer content strategy to our clients and that didn’t work out for a number of reasons. But, it just occurred to me when I was thinking about the fact that we were speaking to you today that I’m not really seeing any more kind of requests for that. You would have thought that kind of with the advent of Christina Halvorson’s book and the many other books that we discussed earlier, that I would be seeing more of that. And I just wondered if it’s just that… Is content strategy, in your opinion, something that is growing and I’m just not seeing it or is it just it hasn’t hit the mainstream yet, maybe?
Ellen: Yeah, I am seeing a lot of it. Actually it’s an interesting question because I think clients, because we work with a lot of big organisations like big British retailers and publishers like Penguin and things like that. So the bigger the organisation the more aware they are I think of content strategy because a lot of those organisations have got their own internal design teams and UX teams and they are quite savvy, I guess because they go to conferences and things and there’s lots of talks about content strategy infiltrating UX-y conferences and design conferences. But it is true, the thing is that people don’t recognise their problem as content strategy. So they don’t sort of sit in the meeting and think “Oh yeah, what we’re suffering from here is a problem with content strategy.” The problems look very different. I think with user experience it’s an easier win because it’s like the users aren’t getting the experience that they are needing. So in a way content strategy is a kind of user experience because it is what the users see on the surface. And it often, I mean, my work at Clearleft often means, like this afternoon even, we are going into a big airline company and I am going to be working really closely, inseparably, with the UX team because you can’t separate out user experience from content. But you do need… User experience experts aren’t always experts in the language, like a very precise language, finding the best words and the best order and how the visual language ties in to the greater story. So it is about helping the UX team to craft that story, really.
Paul: So are you… Sorry Marcus. Are you effectively saying that people don’t necessarily come to you saying we want content strategy but they come to you with the problem of which content strategy is part of the solution. Do you see what I mean?
Ellen: Yeah. Exactly. They will recognise that there is an inconsistency in their language or they will recognise that like, a lot of the things that we get are to do with customer services and customers prefer, for airlines for example, like not being able to find the answers that they need when they do a search online. Although they are ringing up, the call centre is overloaded and actually a lot of that stuff could be digitised. Then a lot of the stuff is quite information architecture related as well, just not being able to find the information quickly is often the problem. And then there is, well, there’s so many different aspects to it but there’s like things about searchability and nowadays with all of these kind of developments in voice user interfaces and the sophistication of the technology is showing up holes in the content. A lot of it is to do with behind-the-scenes stuff like meta data and how that content has been categorised. Because at the moment a lot of organisations have just had content thrown at their systems. You know, people have just go “Oh, we need a page for that.” And put it in and don’t do the meta data which means that it is really hard to categorise and organise that information like a librarian might need to organise it. So that is the kind of complexities I am coming across. It is never that people go “Oh, we need a content strategist for this.” I’m usually, just sticking my finger into the pies of the UX-ers are.
Paul: You just interfere in other people’s projects don’t you, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Marcus: It’s interesting though because I think we do… We still do some of what you do but on a much lower level, and my conclusion from all this is that we would probably be helped out by having a content specialist like yourself.
Ellen: Well, that’s a result isn’t it! I’m flying the flag for content strategy.
Paul: So, I mean the truth is, mind, that the majority of organisations that the people that end up creating content or being responsible for content are not really necessarily experts in that. So is there kind of any advice that you give those poor souls that get lumbered with the job of overseeing and creating content for their websites. You know, what should they… Where should they start in improving their skill set?
Ellen: Okay. So what kind of people might these be. People who have a sort of another job but then somebody has come to them and said “Could you just sort out content?”
Paul: Well, yeah. I mean the things that always spring to mind, I mean you mentioned working with a University earlier and I know within universities, for example, there’s always somebody… Usually an admin person or possibly a marketing person within one of the schools that kind of gets handed content to put online from various academics and people across the institution and they have kind of got to sort it out. Or, even in some larger charities, you know, there’s nobody actually that officially oversees content across the whole charity. Instead what it is is that it is the digital team, many of which which are jacks of all trades that are kind of expected to wrangle the content into shape despite the fact that they have got no real authority over it. Does that make sense?
Ellen: Yes, it does and it happens all the time. So the best thing to do is… So, first of all it’s really important to look at roles and responsibilities. So, roles being really different from responsibilities. It needs to be clear to that person what their responsibility is in relation to content. It might be part of another role that they are doing so they might be a developer and somebody is just asked them to do the content. So being clear on what their remit is because content is a never ending task. Is it just write a blog post a week or finding out what their role in the whole sort of content system is is point 1. Then the second thing is to look at who else is involved in that team because no man should have to be an island when it comes to creating content, or woman, I should say! No man or woman should be an island and so finding people that can support you in doing that task. Because even if you write a blog post a week it’s really helpful to have, you know, someone to bounce ideas off or someone to help you edit it because it is difficult to… If you are not experienced with writing content it’s really difficult to see whether what you have written makes any sense or not. So we’ve got a really nice system at Clearleft of content buddying.
Paul: Oh, okay.
Ellen: So it’s a role, sorry, it’s a responsibility rather than a role so people can kind of be content buddies at different times. Jeremy is our most excellent content buddy and he helps people when they are writing talks and things. Because talks, after all, are content as well. Yes, then we have different people that are content buddies for blog post writing and case study writing. So I’m a content body for anyone who is writing a case study. So it means I don’t have to worry about it being a big part you know, taking up a big part of my day. And then we have also got like sharing sessions as well where people bring any kind of content problems into a room. At Clearleft we’ve got the UX laundromat, got the front end powwow. So these are when like groups meet and sort of buddy with each other around a subject. We’ve got the content deli. (Laughter) So the content deli is where people bring content problems that they have got together and share and try and sort of help each other with, you know, writing blog posts and getting ideas. So that’s, yeah, I’m trying to think of if there is anything else. Asking for training as well is a really good thing because it doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people so training can really help just organise your thoughts and think about how you might plan content. So, I do training with the Clearleft team, I recently did it on the case studies and the first part of that training was just to mind map of all the things that you would be excited to writing about. So even though it’s a case study that might on the surface seem like a really boring thing to have to do but when people start to mind map it then they can kind of see which areas they might be most interested in writing about because that enthusiasm, after all, comes to the surface when you read a case study. You don’t want to, you know, read the case study that is kind of like “Then we did this, and then we did that.” You want to hear about the personal story and about how they achieved something. So yes, I think that’s…
Paul: Yeah, I think that’s good advice.
Ellen: Yeah, a team to bolster you in some way, in whatever way you can.
Paul: Yeah. Talking mind, of the training element… This is probably the last question will have time for but the trouble is, sometimes I find is people think that they can write for the web when they really can’t. Because they are good writers in other fields, you know, they think they are good writers. How do you gently dissuade them of that?
Ellen: I think, what I often do in writing workshops is show people a good range of writing as a kind of… I’m trying to think of, not like a mood board but just a really good selection of examples of good writing. Then people are drawn to the things that they like and then you use the things that people like reading as an example of how you might structure something. So, if you printed out 10 blog posts and people picked the ones that they liked the best then you can use that as a good starting point for analysing why it is that you.. do you like that blog post, because it is short because the paragraphs are nice and succinct because there are subheadings in it? It’s helping people understand that there is a really strong difference between the plumbing of a piece of writing and how it kind of hangs together behind-the-scenes. So how it is structured and held together. So the difference between that plumbing framework and then the language that you use on top. So, I think people don’t often place emphasis on the structure because maybe at school we were taught to write essays. You know, you just start at the top of the page and you keep writing until you are at the end. Rather than… Yeah. Although some people do write like that and that is perfectly fine to.
Paul: I find that a really good piece of advice that whole thing about… You are effectively what you are doing there is you are allowing them to discover what good writing is themselves rather than being all lecture-y and saying “Oh no, you’re doing it all wrong.” By showing them good writing, discussing why it is good, you know, they kind of come to that realisation themselves which is always a much better way of working with people than ramming your superiority down their throats which just alienates doesn’t it.
Marcus: Nonviolent communication Paul.
Paul: Yeah, nonviolent communication. Yes, of course! See? It was there all along.
Play Featured Apps at: 46:39
Paul: Okay, so let’s quickly talk about our second sponsor who I have got a huge thanks because without our second sponsor we wouldn’t have had Ellen on the show which is great because Gathercontent have been doing some work with Ellen so that’s how I found out about her which is brilliant. So, Gathercontent, lovely team of people that help people manage and get the content they need for their websites, apps, social media, whatever really. Any time you want to organise and gather your content these are the people you want to go to. It’s about bringing it all together into one place. One of the best things about Gathercontent really is that once you’ve kind of got all your content together you can easily migrate it across to your content management system, right? Which obviously has a stack load of benefits for you. It is going to save time by automating the migration process, you’re never going to have to go through that endless copy and paste that you have to do moving content from one CMS to another. You are going to reduce the amount of human errors during your migration and you are going to make it really easy to push content to your staging server ready for review. And there’s all kinds of… They provide lots of expert help to make sure that integration and that migration goes really well. They integrate with all kinds of content management systems including WordPress, Drupal, Adobe, experience manager, site corps, expression engine, Umbrico, craft, hubspot, and also their integration is open source and customisable and extendable so there is so much that you can do there. The other thing that I just want to briefly mention about Gathercontent from earlier when we were talking about reading suggestions is that they have actually got an incredible set of resources that you might want to check out at gathercontent.com/resources. And in that they have got lots of different blog posts, materials and articles and e-books and all kinds of things that you can get your hands on. You can get a 30 day free trial no credit card required by going to Gathercontent.com/boagworld. Okay, so that is Gathercontent. And I do, because this is really kind of awkward because the next section that I wanted to just touch on before we wrap up today’s show was some related apps, so some apps that you can use to help manage your content. And I’ve just had a sponsor for Gathercontent. You can’t really do better than that. I have to mention that I would have mentioned them anyway as a tool to use for this kind of stuff. Ellen, what do you use for your writing and organising yourself? Are you a spreadsheet girl or do have some special tool that you use?
Ellen: I dabble with lots of different tools because I think I’m a bit of tool explorer. Which could also be a bit of an unhealthy addiction! Often I use notepad, you know, just text files but spreadsheets happen too. Yeah, it’s such a vast variety because of the various… I often just ask the client what they are used to using because there is often quite a lot of restrictions on what they can and can’t use. So it very much depends on what they are used to. For communications we try and use slack most of the time. But the content stuff, yes, Gathercontent. It is absolutely brilliant and I definitely would not have written the book if it… As in I absolutely advocate the work that they have done because it used to be that when I was gathering these 1500 pages it had to go in a spreadsheet and I would have to maintain that spreadsheet. That was like, it was such a headache. I had this thing called “The big tracker” and then 10 of the content people had to go in and update big tracker and oh, it was just, yeah, it was hairy scary. So life is a lot better now, I sound like I am continuing the sponsorship! But…
Paul: No, no. It’s fine. If it’s a good tool it’s a good tool, I think people listening to the show understand that so that’s fine. Do you ever use Trello for content management and organisation. Is that something you have dabbled with?
Ellen: Yes, we do. A lot of the work we do is looking at user stories and how different pages or pieces of content support user stories so it’s a really good collaborative tool. So it wouldn’t just be me using it as a board to keep track of my content. It would be like me with the Dev and the project manager and the designer and whoever else wants to be involved. And the client as well, so they can see what is in progress and it is kind of like the “To do,” “Doing,” and “Done” kinds of columns. That’s how we use it most often. Yes, and I’ve started using this other thing, Realtime board, which is basically like a huge whiteboard sticky note wall so you can kind of organise sticky notes. I’ve only used it a couple of times but I have found it very useful. It is the equivalent of having a sticky note wall on your computer.
Paul: Yeah, which is quite good when you’ve got, you know, remote team or you’re trying to work with a client remotely, I can imagine that’s quite good.
Ellen: A lot of the time we are sort of just using that kind of thing to wrangle concepts and do kind of associative stuff. So if you’ve got 1500 pages of content so you can start to group things by categories and the affinity. So it’s nice to be able to move things around on the screen.
Paul: What about things where you do information architecture type stuff, if you do that kind of thing. Are there any particular sort of tools used for card sorting or for creating site structures that kind of stuff.
Ellen: So site structure. There is omnigraffle is the main one for that and then for card sorting, thats… Trello is okay for card sorting. I mean most of the time I try as much as I physically can to go to client’s offices and do all of that stuff on the wall. And then basically just keep it in images. But, yes, omnigraffle is good for the output of that.
Paul: Yeah, you are right. It is far better to do it, you know, pen and paper in many ways. I’m a huge fan of cool tools to play with and I love my different bits of software but there are some things that are just better doing it in person.
Paul: Yeah, absolutely.
Ellen: Sharpies and paper, that’s it.
Paul: Sorry, I missed that?
Ellen: Sharpies and paper, for my desert island. I’ll just have sharpie’s and paper and that’s it.
Paul: Absolutely, Sharpies and paper, the best app that you can get.
Paul: Okay, that’s cool. So where can people find out more about you Ellen. Do you blog, do you write, do you run public workshops or speak at conferences or are you on Twitter? What goes on in your world.
Ellen: Yes, so mainly Twitter is the good place to see what it is that I am writing. I write in all sorts of different places so on medium, I write on the Clearleft blog as well. I don’t really… I do have my own website but don’t tell anybody about it!
Paul: Good idea!
Ellen: What’s that phrase? Cobblers shoes? Is it Cobblers shoes? When you advocate something and don’t do it yourself.
Paul: Oh yes, absolutely! I don’t know what the phrase is but I know the principal.
Ellen: Children’s shoes, because the point is that the children don’t have the choose. So that’s what it is. Anyway, so yes, Twitter is the best place to find out what I am up to and then there’s obviously the book which is kind of a representation of all the work that I have been doing over the last few years.
Paul: So what is your Twitter ID then?
Ellen: It’s @eldevri. So that’s E L D E V R I. Nope, there’s no more letters to that.
Paul: Cool, that’s good. Yes, you said the books URL earlier and I have forgotten it already. Is that collaboratebook.com?
Paul: Okay, that’s superb. All right, that’s great so I think that about wraps it up for this show. Next week we will have Mike Kus where we will be talking about grabbing users attention with use of powerful imagery. But before we go we have to… Ellen, you don’t know this horrendous thing about the podcast, I dunno, maybe you’ve listened to it before but we have to endure a joke from Marcus at the end. Please laugh politely at the appropriate moment.
Ellen: Okay, noted.
Marcus: This is a good one because it’s a Bruce Lawson joke. So it might actually make you laugh, you never know. Anyway, here we go. Owls never mate when it is raining. It’s too wet to woo. (Laughter)
Paul: Oh dear. That’s great, well done! Well done Bruce, thank you. All right, that wraps this up for this week. Thank you Ellen, that was absolutely superb, really enjoyed it thank you for coming and joining us it is so much appreciated.
Ellen: Thank you very much for having me. There’s been a great pleasure.
Paul: And thank you everybody for listening. We will be back again next week but until then goodbye.
Links mentioned in the show
- Content strategy for the web by Christina Halvorson
- How to make sense of any mess by Abby Covert
- Game storming by Dave Gray and Sunni Brown and James Macanufo
- Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull
- Nonviolent communication by Marshal B.Rosenberg
- Start with why by Simon Sinek
- Content design by Sarah Richards
- GDS – Government Digital Design
- Collaboratebook.com by Ellen de Vries
- Realtime board