I’ll admit it: I slept later than usual Wednesday morning. So instead of giving you a run-down of morning writing, I’ll say a few words about tech industry nomenclature.
When I first started working with startups and software companies, I hated the emphasis on “product.” I associated the term with fluorescent supermarkets, disposable plastic objects, and insidious marketing campaigns, like those commercials for cleaning products that always feature a woman kvetching about domestic chores in her sunlit home, clearly in the middle of the day. Oddly, I’m now on a product team, and I understand the term to mean a complex project that is presented to the world and, often, is constantly evolving.
Similarly, it’s not entirely intuitive how “content” relates to language, that slippery, impossible, radiant thing that pushes so many of us to become wordsmiths of one sort or another. Content includes language, but it’s not just words: content is, to adopt Erin Kissane’s utilitarian definition, “in the web industry, anything that conveys meaningful information to humans.” Dealing with content means engaging with user research and refining user flows, establishing and maintaining a consistent ethos across a product or website. It means, in short, having your hand in a lot of different things related to voice and communication, which I do believe is the theme for the week.
The term “storytelling”—I encountered it for the first time about a year ago but now bandy it about—is a fine example of identifying an industry phenomenon and giving it a name. To be a storyteller is to be a content strategist, a copywriter, a communications guru, a writer of long-form materials that serve a hybrid marketing/PR function. Storytellers tell the story of a company to itself and its users, and formulating that narrative often involves touching the product. The term follows the function, which is messier and less contained than traditional roles that would cordon off the various domains that contribute to yarn-spinning. And that, to expand upon the theme, is why it’s fun.
This Wednesday, like most days, my work involved all of these terms in one form or another.
First (if you needed a reminder that content is not always sexy, here you go) I reviewed the ByCommittee help documentation drafted by a contract technical writer before we got on video chat to exchange notes. The draft was organized around user roles, and we discussed re-orienting it around tasks and producing screen capture videos to augment the help articles. When I was onsite at Interfolio in Washington, D.C. last week, I had a long meeting with the Accounts team in which I asked them to rattle off their most frequently received questions from ByCommittee users at the institutional level. I wrote these notes up and sent them off to the technical writer as a starting point for restructuring the documentation.
Like the Accounts team and the tech writer, I need to know the product—you cannot tell its story otherwise. In my first few weeks at Interfolio, I combed through their most recent user surveys, pulling language that indicated patterns of messaging failures and successes. I lurked virtually on the Zendesk dashboard, perusing help tickets. I lurked physically in D.C. headquarters, sitting over by the four-person Customer Support team and listening to them field phone calls from users. I worked my way through every user flow in the product. I took notes on all of it, distilling them down to a messaging overview and drafting a nascent style guide. We’re working with an outside PR team on a few press and messaging initiatives, so I spent some time organizing all of this material into documents that would be useful and legible to them.
Around 6:00 p.m., I headed downtown to meet Jonathan Rosenfeld, the Head of Leadership and Change Strategy at Medium. I’m working with Jonathan on a talk that he’s giving at Wisdom 2.0 and a series of spin-off articles, on the subject of mindfulness in the workspace. I love these sessions, which are all about pulling writing apart to get at the most elegant but accessible iteration of the argument. We spend a lot of time on whiteboards.
It was a long and varied day, which tends to be the state of things. Tomorrow I hope to convey additional meaningful information to all of you humans, but I also hope to leave you with a broader sense of the challenges and rewards of this transition that seems to exist in the perpetual present.