The Grammar of Content Strategy

by , Senior Content Strategist, Centerline Digital

The first class I ever took on generative and transformational grammar was led by a man who taught himself English as a teenager in India. He earned advanced degrees in linguistics from universities on three different continents before coming to San Francisco to teach hordes of disaffected undergraduates like me about the deep structures of common language and the cognitive complexity of metaphor.

He sauntered around our foggy campus like a determined ghost, arms folded behind his back in the contemplative mode of Oxbridge fellows, visibly inseparable from his thoughts. He told us that we could count the great poets on our fingertips, that we lived in a world which was senseless and evil, and that our languages reflected this fact. I always loved his specificity, because how else would you count poets but with the tips of your fingers?

In class, we would use the syntactical frameworks of Noam Chomsky’s government and binding theory to parse our professor’s cruel and troubling sentences. When he asked us to analyze “The man you and John fired hanged himself today,” we had to diagram in formal terms why himself referred to “the man you and John fired,” and not to “you” or “John,” or even just “the man.”

We were asked to explain why it made sense to construct a sentence in one way, and not in some other way — such as, “the man who hanged himself today was fired by you and John,”  which implies something entirely different. In the first example, the man hanged himself because you and John fired him. In the second example, it was probably just a coincidence.  

The reflections of language in strategy

Those of us who weren’t trained formally in our disciplines often employ analogies from our former lives to frame our current work. For me, generative grammar is a convenient model to understand the work I am tasked with in the realm of content strategy, particularly where it intersects with information architecture.

But comparing content strategy and IA to syntactical structures is more than just convenient. That very practice is built into the way we as content strategists do our work — even in the simplest linguistic output of a parsed sentence. A common tool of our discipline is the content strategy statement: a guiding principle with nested sub-statements from which the entire strategy or specific elements of that strategy emerge.

As in syntactic theory, the content strategy statement is built from a common head phrase, which governs and binds its constituent phrases. In content strategy, we define a core purpose, and the definitions of each part of that core purpose represent the facets of our strategy, which themselves serve as heads of an even more granular articulation. Eventually we arrive at surface structures, the tactics and activities that allow us to actually begin doing.

A great example of a content strategy statement comes from Meghan Casey’s book The Content Strategy Toolkit, a chapter of which you can find excerpted in A List Apart. At the center of what she terms the “Content Strategy Compass,” is a parsed sentence: a core strategy statement divided not by its phrase structure but by its thematic parts. Instead of prepositional and inflexive phrases, she identifies business goal, content product, audience, and user needs.

Nonetheless, it is a grammatical function which governs through its form — as the expression of a strategy necessarily does. Content strategy is essentially a grammar for communication. And just like grammar it can be prescriptive, limiting, and persnickety. But it can also guide us to the deep roots of how we represent ourselves and communicate with our users in effective and sometimes even profound ways.

Translation & transliteration

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us two definitions of the word “gramarye,” an Early Modern antecedent of the word “grammar”:

1. Grammar, learning in general

2. Occult learning, magic, necromancy

Citation: “gramarye, n.”. OED Online. June 2015. Oxford University Press. (accessed August 18, 2015).

In my experience, content strategy sits somewhere between the two. Shelly Bowen can confirm that, along with research and learning, content strategy requires a little bit of magic to actually bring to life.  

Content strategy is a method for learning about the deep structures in our organizations that already exist — an approach to translating abstract ideas of how a business should operate into clear, interconnected directives to execute that vision, one that people of various backgrounds, knowledge levels, and objectives can rally around and understand.

Organizations that operate without a content strategy often struggle because their strategies are simply transliterations of known business structures and communication processes — that is, literal representations of them without regard to grammar. They promote sameness and repetition — reflecting through their content the problems inherent in the organization.

The role of the content strategist is to create a grammar that allows organizational structures to emerge within the context of the people and processes with which they are enmeshed. Most of content strategy, particularly in the auditing stage, involves untangling and shining a light on those entities. Through content modeling and governance we weave them back together.

A thought to be rehearsed all day

Much of our work as content strategists is built on the act of defining the discipline of content strategy itself. It draws to mind a line from the poet Wallace Stevens, in which he describes the persistent activity of the mind as “a speech / Of the self that must sustain itself on speech.”

Content strategy, like formal linguistics, is a way of joining deep structures like product taxonomy and organizational hierarchy with the surface components that express those concepts. When we arrive at an output that is merely a transliteration, it is often because we have closed ourselves off to new ideas. We operate introspectively and bask in politics.

We’ve all seen the sitemap that only reflects product hierarchy, or the top nav that looks like a company’s org chart. These types of structures are completed without the context of the goals, needs, and limitations of the people that use a website. They represent all of the politics of grammar without the practicality of communal expression.

Content strategy asks that information be presented using parallel term sets, but the information that emerges naturally in organizations is resistant to this notion. Items that fall easily into categories are often inward-looking: products, services, and features — which is why they tend to wind up as top-level navigation items. They’re easy to identify, and just as easy to ignore.

An elegant information architecture is invisible. But when it is not, we see non-parallel term sets mashed into a single taxonomy. We are asked to manually sort columns of metadata. We see that the reason a site looked so clean and organized was because everything that didn’t fit into the core framework was shoved into an FAQ page in the “resources” section.

When we own information

Sitemaps are easy for people to understand, which means that everyone feels comfortable sharing an opinion about them. The other tools we use to organize information, like content models, taxonomies, and metadata structures are as abstract as the tree structures of generative grammar, and often tend to get ignored by stakeholders.

But if we’re doing our work right, a sitemap is often just cosmetic. The real movement and flow of content on a site tends to happen through the elegance of its metadata. Content is governed and easy to find. It moves around the site seamlessly. The sitemap represents a single view, but a governed site unfolds and surfaces content based on implicit and explicit user signals. It listens.

In a site redesign, information architecture is the stage in which people who typically don’t care about what the web team does start taking notice. This is because the information architecture phase — even before wireframes or prototypes — is the first glimpse at what the website might actually look like, at least from an information standpoint. But also because it is a hierarchy of information, and we live in a culture that prizes information ownership as a form of major social currency.

When we say to a content owner, “I see this as more of a subnav item, rather than a topnav item,” it may sound like, “your work and therefore your value is less important than that of someone else.” A traditional sitemap is essentially a ranking mechanism for people and their ideas.

Sincerity in experience

Imposed relational systems like information architecture turn flat objects into faceted objects. We imagine the conversation we would have with our users before it happens, and impose upon them an experience.

Our users pretend not to notice the unnatural crispness around the edges of objects revealing each as a flat stanley, as they do with the 3D T-Rex that cranes its neck into the audience, betraying more and more the further it stretches toward them that actually it cannot, that actually they are being deceived.

There are many ways that, with the best intentions, we try to deceive our users. Most conversational microcopy (e.g. Thanks for signing up [name] — you’re the bomb!)  feels false and insincere because it is not actually a representation of a conversation, but rather just a brand turning its baseball cap backwards. A messaging architecture that is conversational must establish faculties for listening. Not through analytics, but through actual conversations with the people that use our websites.

As a content strategist, you don’t necessarily need to be having these conversations — but someone certainly does. And they probably already are. For instance, customer service representatives can tell you a lot about what your customers are looking for. For instance, what are they calling about that they can’t find on the website?

Once, after spending half a day in a boardroom with a client’s executive team, I got to spend some time on their massive sales floor. After only a few hours of listening to calls, talking to customer service reps, and hearing about what frustrated their users, I was able to return to the executives as an advocate for specific user needs. Not all of them, but at least a few of them.

When we engage with clients, we embark on a search for truth within their organization. We must be both skeptical of what we are given, and respectful of the work that came before us. By challenging assumptions and searching for new sources of information, we can begin to chisel away at the job of translating user needs and business goals into an actual strategy. As the translator who sits before a scroll of obscure glyphs, we must find a guiding symbol, one known truth which allows us to identify the barriers of understanding between us and our users, between our goals and our actions, and the constructs that enable us to change.

About the Author

Senior Content Strategist, Centerline Digital

Devin is a Senior Content Strategist at Centerline Digital, where he is currently developing a content strategy for a leading academic research organization. He also hosts In the Making, a podcast exploring the origin stories of people who work in web design. Follow him on Twitter for more thoughts on content strategy, information architecture, and (occasionally) hockey.

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