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Content strategy versus wicked ambiguity (stc14)

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2014, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. Where feasible, I’ll take notes from the sessions I attend, and share them on this blog. All credit goes to the presenters, and any mistakes are mine.

I’ve just arrived in Phoenix, Arizona, this year’s host city. It’s around 40 degrees Centigrade, or 100 Fahrenheit. Phew! But I’m sure the temperature will be just one of the hot topics at this conference. 😉

The keynote presentation was given by Jonathon Colman, content strategist at Facebook.

Wicked Ambiguity, by Jonathan Colman

Jonathon started with a big smile and the sage saying, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.” It’s the sort of thing we say to children. But we live in a world of uncertainty. That’s what this talk is about.

Jonathon told us stories from Stephen King (“that shape under the sheet could be anything – anything at all”) to Claude Shannon, the father of information theory (a diagram of communication from the 1940s that is still relevant today).

He then ran through the diversity of roles technical writers fill: writer, designer, information architect, content strategist, and more. Despite our diversity, we stand united against ambiguity. We make the complex simple.

But what if we were writing a message, without knowing who would try to interpret it? Jonathan went over two scenarios that present this problem. It’s one of those unsolvable problems – one which needs a different type of solution: a “wicked problem”.

Some examples of wicked problems:

  • Jonathon showed us the well-known map of the Cholera outbreak in 19th century London, showing the highest incidences of cholera in relation to the location of the water sources. This is how John Snow saved London and invented the field of epidemiology.
  • Another map showed the incidence of Ebola virus in West Africa.
  • The war on drugs is another example of a wicked problem, where the interdependencies resist resolution.
  •  And climate change. We’re just now understanding how this effects everything, from climate to politics.

Jonathon spoke of two wicked problems in technical communication:

1) Communicating with aliens

Jonathon emphasised that this is not science fiction. He launched into a few amusing stories about scientists who’d had bright ideas to communicate with whoever is out there in the universe, such as drawing triangles in the Siberian tundra or burning messages onto Mars.

He then showed the engraved diagram and symbols designed by Carl Sagan, that were sent out with Pioneer spacecraft. And followed up with other condensed, rich and layered messages sent into space, such as the audio and visual messages sent on the Voyager spacecraft in the 70s. Jonathan says Carl Sagan is possibly the greatest technical communicator ever.

But what will an alien civilisation make of this? Will they even be able to play it? Will they be able to interpret it? And what will they do as a result of receiving the message?

Uncertainty rules.

2) Nuclear semiotics

We have nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants. Both leave behind nuclear waste. How do we communicate the dangers of this waste to future generatios who might come across it? That’s the problem of nuclear semiotics.

Plutonium 239 has a half-life of more than 24 000 years. To be safe, it has to remain untouched for nearly 100 000 years.

Uranium 235 has a half-life of nearly 704 million years.

Looking back at our past, we note that language is a fairly new invention. Thus, communicating the danger of nuclear waste is wicked problem.

The US created the Human Interference task force, with this mission: Stop humans coming into contact with nuclear waste. Their task was to create a message capable of being interpreted for over 10 000 years.

One of the suggested solutions was to create a religious priesthood, the Atomic Priesthood. The reasoning is that religions are one of the few things that last over a long period.

Another idea was to launch a global network of satellites that would constantly communicate the location of the nuclear waste sites. Or to create some genetically modified plants that would only grow near the sites, and would contain encoded information about the composition of the waste. Plants as a medium for technical communication!

Yet another idea: Ray Cats – cats that would glow in the presence of nuclear radiation. Reasoning: Humans have a long-lasting association with cats. (After all, smiled Jonathon, we created the Internet to immortalise cats. This got a good laugh from the audience.)

Jonathon listed a few more approaches to the problem of keeping future humans away from nuclear waste.

We don’t know what the effect of these messages will be on the intended audience. They may not work.

Wicked problems are everywhere. They’re catalysts. They change us, and ignite our creativity. They make us think, they force us to solve them, and that’s how we evolve.

Ambiguity and technical communication

Jonathon finished off by returning to ambiguity and its relationship to our role as technical communicators.

Ambiguity, uncertainty, and the unknown are part of every-day life.

Some people are terrified of uncertainty, but technical communicators grapple with it routinely. We ask the hard questions, instead of passing that ambiguity onto our customers.

Technical writers communicate complex information in a way that is clear and simple. We can’t solve the wicked problems, but we can try. And that effort is what we do best.

Thanks Jonathon

This presentation was a great start to STC Summit 2014. Jonathon is an amusing, engaging speaker. He filled the room with laughter and with enthusiasm for our field of technical communication. Here’s a link to Jonathon’s presentation on SlideShare: Wicked Ambiguity: Solving the Hardest Communication Problems.

Report from voice and tone seminar by Kate Kiefer Lee

Early last Friday morning (5:30am, to be precise) I attended a webinar presented by Kate Kiefer Lee (@katekiefer) on creating a voice and tone for your organisation. The presentation is titled “Voice and Tone: Creating Content for Humans”. Kate is Editor and Content Strategist at MailChimp.

With this post my aim is to whet your appetite for attending Kate’s session, if you get the chance.

Introduction by Kate

This is what we’re aiming for, when thinking about the voice and tone of our organisation:

  • A tone that stays pretty much the same over time.
  • A voice that changes all the time.

At MailChimp, Kate deals with plenty of different types of content: email, website, blogs, text in the app… It can seem overwhelming to think about making all those consistent.

The way to tackle it is to find the company’s voice. Our customers are people, just like us. They deserve our thoughtfulness and our respect. The right tone of voice can turn a frustrated customer into a loyal fan.

Finding your company’s voice

Where there’s a company, there’s already a voice. Sometimes you have to dig to find it. Start by asking questions. Talk to the founders and other key people in the company.

These are some questions to ask:

  • What does your company do?
  • Why did you start your company?
  • Why do people visit your website?
  • Who are your customers?
  • What other companies do you admire?
  • If your brand were a person, how would you describe him or her?

This one is Kate’s favourite:

How do you want people to feel when they visit your website?

There’s no need to spend too much extra time to ask these questions. You can slide them in when doing stakeholder interviews.

This is a key thing to note: You’re looking for emotional responses. You don’t want the technical or business response. You want those moments when people’s eyes light up.

Making a list of character traits for your organisation

A list of word oppositions is a useful tool. That’s a list with the structure “x but not y”. Adding the “not” part is really important.

This is MailChimp’s list:

MailChimp is

fun but not childish.

clever but not silly.

powerful but not complicated.

smart but not stodgy.

cool but not alienating.

informal but not sloppy.

helpful but not overbearing.

expert but not bossy.

This list of characteristics is the best place to start any voice and tone guide, and should be right at the front of the guide.


Personas are a valuable part of the voice and tone content. You’ll probably find that your designers, UX professionals or product managers work with personas. Those personas should be used right across the company.

Other things to include in the voice and tone guide

Kate walked us through a list of things to include in the voice guidelines:

  • company’s mission
  • content types
  • specific content examples
  • brand traits
  • personality explanation
  • reader/customer types
  • visual guidelines

Traditional style guides

There is definitely a place for the more traditional writing style guides. But the voice and tone guides are perhaps more suited to being a part of every organisation, and are a little more meaningful. Why?

  • There are existing, industry-wide style guides that we can use. We don’t need to write our own entire guide. Instead, we can defer to an existing one and add our own custom items.
  • We can edit for style and grammar. It’s really hard to edit for voice and tone, because those are at the heart of and form the very fibre of our content.

Kate gave the example of two writers. Let’s call them Bob and Jack. Bob is an excellent writer but isn’t too good at getting the voice and tone right. Jack is a bit of a sloppy writer, but is right on the button with the voice and tone. Kate finds it much easier to integrate Jack’s content. It’s basically a cleanup job. Whereas editing Bob’s copy isn’t possible. Kate would have to rewrite the content.

Speaking onto the page

Read your work out loud. This stops you from sounding like a robot. It makes you more empathetic, because it puts you into a conversation. When talking to someone, you want to make them feel good and make sure you answer their questions.

Another trick is to read the work as if you’re talking to someone you know. Think of a specific person. This helps you to communicate in a friendly way, and a way that people will understand.

Watching your tone

Voice and tone are different. Tone changes all the time, depending on the situation and the audience.

To help define what “tone” is, Kate showed a picture of her dog. The dog responds all the time to tone of voice. For example, “walk” versus “no”. He responds to the way we say those words, rather than their meaning.

Kate talked about how the MailChimp voice and tone guide evolved. She showed a section of the style guide called “content types”. She realised there’s a huge range of content types. For example:

  • There’s humour in the app. But it’s outside the main purpose of the app. You can even turn the jokes off.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, there are compliance alerts. This is an example of bad news that you’re delivering to customers. This kind of thing can really ruin someone’s day.

So the customers are dealing with a huge range of emotion when they’re dealing with the content. One tone doesn’t fit all, because that’s not being respectful to the customers.

Determining your tone:

  • Consider the content type. Sometimes it’s really simple, such as a joke.
  • Think about the reader’s emotional state. This is an exercise in basic empathy. How does the reader feel when she gets to this page, and how will she feel when she has read this content?

Kate listed a set of content types that require a specific tone. For example:

  • Financial content, health and medicine, fundraising. This type of content is sensitive.
  • Help content. People are usually trouble-shooting when they come here. Not a good place for jokes or marketing.
  • Forms are stressful and often involve private information.
  • Failure messages and alerts often deliver bad news.

Kate showed us a wheel of emotion, and how she mapped the content types and types of readers to the various emotions.

Types of readers:

  • Troubleshooters – people looking for a solution to a problem. Frustrated. Want a quick fix.
  • Explorers – people trying to find out about MailChimp. Excited and interested. The content can be more relaxed.

Examples of voice and tone guides

We took a look at some examples of good, effective voice and tone guides from various organisations. I’ve picked my two favourites here.

Kate walked us through some parts of MailChimp’s voice and tone guide:

Looking at the section on Freddie’s jokes:, we saw that the guide includes:

  • A couple of tips. For example, it explains that the jokes aren’t meant to contain information.
  • A list of the reader’s likely feelings at this point.
  • An example of the content – in this case, a joke.

At the other end of the spectrum is the compliance alert: The guide predicts the reader will be feeling stress, confusion, anger, fear at this point of time. With those feelings in mind, it tells writers to be straightforward, serious, and calm. Don’t use alarming words. Don’t joke. And again, the page contains an example of the content that works.

Macmillan Cancer Support

This is one of Kate’s favourite writing guides as well as mine, because it focuses on people, which is very important for a cancer support organisation:

They really think about the way people are feeling. They clearly have content people who “get it”, who are very concerned about the organisation’s voice and tone, not just a dry style guide.

Examples and mistakes

Kate showed us some examples of where MailChimp got it wrong. For example, a system outage message that started with:

“Happy Monday everyone!”

I liked the openness of MailChimp, in allowing Kate to publicise these times when their content struck the wrong tone.

In contrast, Kate showed some times where the tone is just right. Not too formal or too stressful, Even playful when appropriate. For example, when asking the user to confirm the submission of a document: “This is your moment of glory” instead of something like “Are you really sure you want to submit this now?

We also looked at some content from other companies where the tone is just right, or not right. I enjoyed these examples, and the way Kate kept the focus on people’s feelings when they come to the content, and how they’ll feel after they’ve read it.

Humour, and being honest

There was plenty more in Kate’s presentation, including two very interesting sections on humour and being honest, with examples of good and bad.


Kate stopped at a couple of points during the session to answer questions from participants. I’ve noted down the questions and her answers.

At MailChimp, who uses the voice and tone guide and who uses the style guide?

The voice and tone guide is externally available, and is required reading for everyone in the company. Everyone communicates with the external world.

The style guide is internal. It’s available to everyone in the company, but it’s required reading only for the professional writers. For people posting on the company blog, for example, the oice and tone guide is required but the style guide is not. People who don’t consider themselves professional writers are nervous about writing. The voice and tone guide really helps them.

Does every company need voice guidelines?

Every company has a voice. Every company needs to communicate that voice to their staff. They may not need a detailed guide, but they need to describe their personality and make the “this but not that” list.

How long should the voice and tone guide be?

MailChimp’s is pretty long, because they have many different types of content. They need many examples and scenarios. If the company is smaller and does not have so many content types, you can have a much simpler voice and tone guide.

Do you use feedback from users for your voice and tone?

MailChimp does, in a couple of different ways.

Firstly, they have started doing user testing on voice and tone. No data to share yet, because they’ve just started. Kate is really interested in the process a user goes through when navigating through the website. Consistency of personality is important, so Kate is testing people with different types of content. The survey asks questions such as, was this reassuring, or are we trustworthy (with graded answers). Kate wants to make sure the reader feels they are talking to the same person throughout.

Secondly, Kate monitors what people are saying about MailChimp in social media, especially Twitter. When people say they don’t like a particular phrase or part of the content, Kate changes it. She also talks to people at conferences and other meetings.

How do you make sure people are following the voice and tone guide?

Kate looks at all the content regularly, once a month, to check that everyone is on the same page. If you notice patterns in the problems that keep coming up, find the writers and talk to them about the “why” behind the voice and tone.

She also recommends teaching people from the get-go. Share the voice and tone guide. Conduct training sessions. Writers and non-writers alike can “get” the guide, because it focuses on people and emotions.

What do you do if stakeholders don’t agree with the voice and tone guidelines?

The best voice and tone guidelines are true reflections of the people behind the company.

  • Make sure that the voice is honest – that it’s a true reflection of why people started the company and what they’re trying to do.
  • Probe to see if they’re advocating for a voice that’s not real.
  • Talk to the stakeholders about how people connect with a voice that is a true reflection of the company. This can earn you a lot of trust amongst the stakeholders, and will help them realise you’re on the same team. You’re not trying to invent a voice and tone out of thin air.
  • Show the stakeholders results. How you would change content, how it changes situations, and a before and after example

Do you localise or translate your content?

Kate acknowledged the challenges of translating slang content into other languages. A lot gets lost in translation.

Kate recommends taking a look at the voice and tone, and humour specifically, and make notes about things that may not work. In some cases, make a choice to let things be. In other cases, you may have to sacrifice some content.

Kate has just started working with their translators on this, and will have more to share soon.

Is there research available for this kind of stuff?

The thing is that the requirements and results are different for each company. There’s not a lot of specific research. But look at companies that you like, and the jokes they make. There are a number of publications that talk about voice and tone, and brand personalities, and honest tones. For example, A list Apart:

In closing, from Kate

Kate recommended that we take a step back and look at the people side of communication. This can solve a number of problems, especially those at the very core of our content. And it can change the result when people read our content.

I loved the quotation from Maya Angelou that Kate closed with:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

In closing, from me

The beauty of this presentation, and of Kate’s style, is that it makes this stuff look easy. Just follow these guidelines, and you’ll be right mate. I’m convinced that Kate is right, and I’m fired up to try this out in practice. 🙂

The presentation has excellent content, well delivered, and Kate’s style is authoritative, lively and friendly. Thank you Kate, and thanks too to Adam Churchill of UIE for hosting the seminar.

Content strategy connecting the dots at Tekom tcworld 2012

I’m attending Tekom tcworld 2012, in Wiesbaden. Today is the first day of the conference, and I’ve decided to attend a number of sessions on content strategy.

Rahel Anne Bailie presented a session titled “How Content Strategy Connects the Dots between Business, Brand, and Benefits”. The aim of the session was to discuss how managing content as a business asset, with an iterative lifecycle, can bring value and ROI to a business. Rahel’s session description promised to explore the connections between functional areas within the emerging discipline to provide a framework for organisations and practitioners.

Rahel started out by saying: Instead of design-driven content, we want to have content-driven design.

Lack of content is a fail

If you do a search on a website, and it comes up with “no results” or “not found” – that’s a fail. Consumers don’t think about the prettiness of the site or the greatness of the brand. They want an answer to their problem.

Customer lifecycle

Marketing teams usually talk about the customer lifecycle. It usually finishes when the customer buys the product. The company forgets about you, the customer, after that point. If they’re really smart, they look at the full circle, including when the customer upgrades or renews the relationship. This cycle therefore takes long-term support into account. Looking at the timelines, the period of long-tern support is usually very long in comparison to the initial purchase period. However, many companies put more effort into the content that covers the initial period: marketing, white papers, case studies, getting started guides.

Our opportunity

In terms of content strategy, this offers a huge opportunity to fill the gap, and help ensure that people continue the relationship with the company. It’s an opportunity to become more engaged with our customers, and for them to become more engaged with the company.

Content as a business asset

Content is a valuable business asset, and needs to be managed as such.

HP reports that 90% of its products are sold on the basis of content alone. People read the specs before they buy the product.

Good content that people can understand builds trust. If there is a barrier of comprehension, that removes some of the trust. Trust is good for the brand, which leads to customer loyalty and profitability.

Good content management can do two things:

  • ROI – return on investment: making money
  • IRR – internal rate of return: doing something more efficiently, and thus saving money.

Content curation

What does content curation do?

  • Tells stories. People are hard-wired to understand stories. Make sure it fits the genre that people expect, and is relevant.
  • Recombines content to create new context and build the brand.
  • Promotes comprehension, helping people to understand a procedure and how it fits into the context all round it.
  • Turns information into knowledge.

Technical content is the cake that holds up the icing which is the marketing and branding material. Typically, the marketing material doesn’t really tell you what a product can do. Another good source of information is the user forums. People use the technical content and forums to make their decisions, not the marketing material.

Where does content strategy start?

Content strategy starts before the site design. It starts with search.

What is content strategy?

This is Rahel’s definition: “Content strategy is the repeatable system that governs the management of content throughout the entire lifecycle.”

  • Planning what we want to do with the content.
  • Collecting the content – writing it, getting it from translators, making new versions, etc.
  • Managing the content.
  • Publishing it, and retention/update policies.


Rahel discussed some examples of how companies manage their content. She showed, for example, how Starbucks have analysed what people want to do when they’re on their mobiles, as opposed to when they’re on their desktop. We need to think up the type of content we want to deliver, how and when and to whom.

Starbucks have even gone to the extent of creating content specifically for the BlackBerry, because they know that many of their corporate customers use BlackBerries.

Working towards a vision

We need to work towards a vision. People bring their perceptions and impressions from other companies on the internet, to you website. You have to keep up with what your competitors are doing. You need a vision of where you want to get to, and make sure you’re working towards it.

Content is connected

Content is not a system of silos: marketing, technical, training. Instead, it’s all about the product. The customer wants a seamless experience, and some sort of “aha” experience – something that makes them feel good about your company.

Our role is to match up the organisational expectations with the customer expectations, working towards an integrated content strategy.

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