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Content Strategy

Content strategy, listening and empathy

Robert Mills • 7 minutes

This video is the eleventh in our Content Strategy Advent Calendar series.

Listening and empathy are two integral parts of the work we do as content professionals. In our latest video, Margot Bloomstein talks about a framework for more engaged listening.

#ContentStrategyAdvent Day 11: Content strategy, listening and empathy, by @mbloomstein

Video transcript

Hello friends. I’m your next square on the content strategy advent calendar. I’m Margot Bloomstein and I know some of the other speakers have called out the fact that usually advent calendars are all about opening up the boxes and finding little things like chocolate, and they’re apologising because they’re not bringing you chocolate.

Well, I want to rectify that. We have Mensch on the Bench chocolate for my fellow Jews that are celebrating. I have some leftover Easter candy here, oh, even a little bunny that I’ve stashed away in the content strategy chocolate stash. Some Halloween candy too that I’m still working on, and of course also, some of the other yummy stuff that’s local to me. And some nice yummy Christmas candy as well. So whatever you have near-by, I would suggest getting it. You’re going to want something sweet. I’m a big fan of these chocolate discs too.

So if you have chocolate, go get it. Sorry, maybe eating wasn’t the best idea, but I want us to have a shared experience (hey, Kevin Smith fans!).

So in 2016 i apparently ate a lot of chocolate, stashed a lot of chocolate, I also launched BrandSort. It’s kind of a packaged little toolkit for helping you develop the communication goals of your client and the organisation with whom you work and to eventually establish a message architecture.

And what I heard is people wanted some kind of packaged deck kind of tool. Something that they could work with with their clients and in their internal marketing groups, to help them establish a message architecture. They were saying things like I want a process that I can easily pull from my toolkit to help facilitate this kind of research, this sort of discussion.

BrandSort is a tool that can really help you do that. I don’t want to make this a commercial for it, but I want to get at some of the underlying issues there. So it’s a tool to help you facilitate a discussion that then leads to creating better understanding around the message architecture. A message architecture in turn is simply a hierarchy of communication goals. It reflects a common vocabulary within your organisation, or within the organisation with whom your partnering. It helps to answer the question, what’s most important to communicate. And then what and then what after that. BrandSort is a framework for more engaged listening and conversation.

Now, let’s unpack that, the engaged listening and conversation. And if you’re cracking into a bar, now is probably the time you move onto another square. So, we all know how to listen, right. But as this year’s political discourse demonstrated, we don’t always hear what people are saying. Here in the US we had a lot of issues where maybe, we weren’t hearing what our fellow citizens were saying about what was most important to them. And if we didn’t hear them, we couldn’t understand them, so we couldn’t exercise empathy and maybe take turns educating each other to arrive at a solution that was good for everyone.

So we don’t always hear what people are saying, or we only hear a subset that fits with our existing mental models. That’s only human. That’s how we learn. We fit new information to what we already believe and then we throw out the rest. Some people call this confirmation bias, but again, this is really the best and the only way that humans learn. We take new information and map it to what we’ve already laid down. And we can’t blame politics, or sexism, or racism, or classism for that problem, because those aren’t causes. Rather, they are outcomes of our listening problems, especially recently.

Now you’ve probably encountered this before, because before we encountered it in a political realm, you might have faced this problem like say in a classroom. Like if you think back to high school or junior high, or maybe you had a tough time wrapping your head around a concept, maybe new concepts being presented in a chemistry lab. Or history seminar. Or maybe in trigonometry classes. Or you might have encountered this issue maybe with talking with friends, with family members, with experiences that are vastly different to your own. That happens. And whether we’re sitting in classrooms or across the dining room table, we all face that problem of listening and hearing, and engaging with new information that doesn’t really fit our existing mental models. We actually say, I have a tough time wrapping my head around that.

Now that’s not just metaphorical because we’re talking about the neural pathways and the literal folds, maybe not in our heads, but in our brains. And if we lack the foundation of existing knowledge, we can’t build our understanding of geometry and trigonometry on top of our understanding of algebra. Well, we lack the ability to learn. If we lack the foundation of existing knowledge, there’s no place for new information then to go. And if it somehow doesn’t fit with our lived experiences, it just plain doesn’t fit.

Think about that for a second and take another bite.

Because if we dig in so deep and we find out that there’s nothing there, maybe we’re eating really cheap chocolate and we discover there’s not a lot of substance to this, well that’s where we need to come to terms with our empathy. In our industry I believe we are called to act on empathy. To realise that ok, things can have worth and have value, even if they’re new to us. Just because you haven’t tried a particular chocolate bar in the past does not mean that is is bad, and just because it’s inexpensive or not at the typical price point where you typically buy it, does not mean that it is worthless.

Let’s go back to empathy. That’s where I was focusing. If we don’t have empathy, our own experiences from which we can extrapolate, then we have to muster up sympathy and basically fake it till we make it. We say, ok, I can relate to you even if we haven’t shared your same experiences. Let me think back to something that is at least similar, so I can muster up the appropriate kind of emotions, so I can relate to what you’re saying and for what’s important to you.

We create tools and frameworks from that empathy. We structure interviews to work really hard to hear the needs of our audiences and then develop personas from that kind of research. We outline interviews with the content creators and then conduct user testing on the instructional guidance within a CMS, to better support the author experience. BrandSort in turn gives us a structure for sympathising with, and framing and understanding the needs of our clients. In each case, those frameworks, those structures, help us listen better. They help us frame our questions better so that we can be more engaged and therefore develop more empathy. So that we can truly hear what people across the table, what people across the aisle, what people across the country are saying and what’s most important to them. So that we can than relate to their experiences in a better way.

Now of course that happens a lot in our industry and I would say that as content strategists we’re called to do that. But all of us are more than just content strategists. We’re also fellow citizens of the world sharing this big blue marble together.

As we move into 2017, I’m curious. If we believe that our communities grow stronger when we better understand each other, when we can build from that understanding and cultivate appreciation and move forward through empathy, well how will you create tools and structures that really help you listen better outside of work.

If you lack experiences and mental models into which you can fit new and challenging perspectives, how will you overcome that? How will you teach the people around you to overcome that as well, because we know listening we take in information, but the best conversations and the best communities build from the give and take of information.

As I’ve partnered with clients that are vastly different from me in industries far from my world, I’ve come to realise it’s those structures that help me listen better. Even if they’re working in some arcane area of high finance or the insurance industry, or maybe apparel or footwear, I’m able to better relate to their needs when I can listen to them better. When I can be a more engaged participant in understanding their goals.

Now from listening comes sympathy, from sympathy comes empathy and then I can better help them. We can more effectively work together and create better experiences for their users, their authors, sometimes for the people sitting across from us, whether that’s in a conference room or across the dinner table. When we listen we forge stronger communities.

So thank you and actually, hold on, those were chocolately fingers. That was a shared experience. I hope the rest of 2016 winds down for you sweetly, however you celebrate, whatever chocolate you’re moving through in your candy stash and here’s to a happier 2017 that’s marked by our renewed commitment to ourselves and our communities. Have a good one.

About Margot


Margot Bloomstein is the principal of Appropriate, Inc., a brand and content strategy consultancy based in Boston. She partners with retailers, universities, and other organizations to create brand-appropriate user experiences that engage their target audiences and project key messages with consistency and clarity through both traditional and social media.

Advertising and interactive agencies as well as large corporations turn to Margot to help grow their content strategy practices. Over the past decade, she’s had a hand in shaping corporate social responsibility efforts at Timberland, content for alumni relations at Tufts University, and strategy for cultural tourism in the state of Nevada. The rogues’ gallery also includes Sallie Mae, Scholastic, ECCO Shoes, Fidelity, Liberty Mutual, Philips, Lindt and Sprüngli, Furman University, Harvard University, and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

A participant in the inaugural Content Strategy Consortium and featured speaker at SXSW, Margot is a popular speaker at conferences around the world. Recent engagements include CS Forum, Confab, and Web 2.0. She also produces BrandSort, a tool embraced by consultancies of all sizes to clarify communication goals. She is the author of Content Strategy at Work: Real-World Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Engagement and writes shorter missives on Twitter at @mbloomstein.

#ContentStrategyAdvent Day 11: Content strategy, listening and empathy, by @mbloomstein

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