The secret to effective content strategy is listening

3 minute read

Listening is the core, underlying skill of content design (a term I’ve previously defined and discussed in relation to editorial). In this post I’m going to outline who we should be listening to and present an example scenario of how effective listening facilitates better collaboration.

We listen to our users

The content design approach involves user research, data, evidence and analytics to find user mental models, priorities and vocabulary. We listen to our users and design to what they say.

We listen to our community

We have an engaged, supportive community. Twitter, Facebook, forums, conferences - we share our knowledge and help each other. We listen to each other and we learn from each other.

We listen to other disciplines

I run crits with developers, designers and researchers. We all have a different perspective on the same thing and we often get to a solution a lot faster if we work together.

We listen to the people in our organisation

Sometimes. Mainly the people who work like we do.How many times have you said you are going to talk to someone who is blocking you? Now count how many times have you said you are going to listen to someone who is blocking you?When we have someone in our organisation who disagrees with us, we go to see if we can convince someone that our way of thinking, our way of doing things, is the best way of doing it.

Take this scenario:

You want a page of concise, user-centred, jargon-free content. Your organisation’s lawyers want certain sentences so you are legally correct.

Paragraphs of legal text

As content designers, we have a lot of experience of eye tracking studies or lab research where we see users get to legal text, and:

  • skip or skim over the content as quickly as possible
  • totally ignore it
  • get bored and go back to Google
  • read it but do not understand it

All of which puts our users off interacting with us.Some people do read legalese and jargon. Of course. But even those people would prefer it to be in plain English.

The meeting

You go to this meeting armed with research. Sometimes this works just fine. Sometimes, the person on the other side of the table sees it, but won’t agree with you. We work in evidence. But what we see as evidence, an open-and-shut case, isn’t necessarily what others see.If you are talking to someone and their mental model of how the world works is different from yours, you are not going to convince them by putting evidence in front of them. In fact, you risk putting them in a defensive position. You’ll say ‘this is the evidence of a different way of working. I have proof there’s a better way of doing this. We will do better this way.’ They will probably hear: ‘you are rubbish, your work is rubbish, you are totally wrong and I have a stack of evidence to prove it, so it’s not just me saying you are rubbish at your job.’Not an ideal way to start a conversation, is it?If their mental model of the world is one way and yours is another, trying to shove one of you into another universe isn’t always going to work. So find a new mental model together.

The problem

You want text people will understand. The lawyer wants something that covers you in court.

The solution

Define the goal you are both trying to get to. What do we both want the user to actually do?The answer is probably that you don’t want people to break the law or take your organisation to court. You both want that. You are both working towards the same goal. So how are you, together, going to get to your actual goal?

Understand what the actual problem is.

Keep going until you are bordering embarrassing.Understand their world. Explain yours. But most importantly, keep on track to the ultimate goal. Don’t just repeat your position. Don’t let them just repeat their position, politely call it out. “I hear your concern about x, you have heard mine, how are we going to get to the end goal though?" Share the responsibility. It’s not just about you compromising. From the start, walk into the meeting as an equal.

Don’t let go of being the user advocate. They won’t let go of being a lawyer but if you agree to get to the goal - which is for the user to understand what is going on, you might make some headway. It might take a lot longer. You may have to let go of some of your preferred ways of doing things. But remember, you are both one step closer than you were and you are sharing your expertise.


Stakeholder Interview Matrix

A template for a stakeholder matrix, with some handy starter questions to help you get going.

About the author

Sarah Richards

Founder of the content design movement, Sarah pioneered the standards during her 10-year career with the UK government.

As head of content design for the Government Digital Service (GDS), Sarah created and implemented the content strategy for the GOV.UK website.

After leaving GDS, Sarah took her knowledge and wrote the respected and highly popular Content Design – a book for anyone creating user-centred content.

She also launched Content Design London to provide training and consultation in content strategy and content design for governments, charities and organisations in the UK and worldwide.

Sarah is also a respected and in-demand speaker and shares her expertise to audiences at conferences, meet-ups and events globally.

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