In the content strategy world, experts talk about the tasks involved in creating, delivering, and governing content. What’s rarely discussed is that content experts are usually hired to develop content for one or more stakeholders who work outside of the world of editorial. Those stakeholders—otherwise known as clients—are counting on you to provide the skills and knowledge to deliver useful, usable content. Every client is different, and of course the basic rules of business etiquette apply to all your interactions with stakeholders. Beyond that, here are six tips for providing value to your clients during a content development engagement.
Understand your stakeholders’ situation. You may be working with stakeholders in different disciplines that are siloed within their organization. For example, on a single project, you may work with marketers, product managers, and developers. Each stakeholder may have different motivations and each may be envisioning different outcomes. It can be hard to know who is reviewing a deliverable. (I knew of a project for an enterprise organization where 70 stakeholders had been assigned to review a document!) As a draft moves through the company hierarchy, expect feedback to differ considerably from what you got in earlier review stages. Even small copy changes can result in considerable debate among stakeholders.
Inspire confidence. You’re the content expert. When you meet with stakeholders, you may find they have varying visions for the project. They may have limited insight into the amount of work and time required to deliver on ambitious plans. They may be unsure of what they need. Take it all in stride. Content development tasks aren’t easy; in fact, it’s a sophisticated endeavor that requires working hard and taking risks. You can do it. It’s your job. (It’s a bonus if you can make them laugh with some dry, writerly humor.)
Get answers to fundamental questions. Content strategy expert Nicole Jones wrote this story about developing content for Fortune 500 companies. She includes the following excellent list of basic questions that you need answers to before diving into a new project:
- Does the project make sense?
- Why is it important?
- Who is the audience, what do they need, and what action should they take?
- Is there any data to support the project?
- Does the content apply to other countries or languages?
- Who owns the content and who will update it?
Educate the stakeholders. We’re all in this together. I learn every day from the stakeholders I work with, and I return the favor by educating people about editorial standards. For example, some stakeholders may provide you with overwritten or jargon-filled content. As content producers, it’s our job to create content that delivers the message plainly in the language of the audience. (It’s that simple, really.) It’s okay to explain that common insider terminology (that is, most acronyms and jargon) is hard for most audiences to understand. It’s also helpful to define editorial concepts. I recently educated a client on a presentation project about how using parallel construction (in bulleted lists, for example) makes content easier for readers to digest. He got it right away and soon after sent me some raw content that featured parallel construction. I praised him enthusiastically, and we had a nice moment.
Realize your client’s vision. Your working drafts are the fundamental way you realize the vision for the project. This is especially true when your reviewers push back. Reviewers push back because once they read the message in plain English, they often see an opportunity to change positioning. I use this dynamic strategically and tactically. The written word—especially when it’s been produced—is powerful. People can have conversations with their colleagues and intentions in their heads, but once they see their ideas delivered on paper (so to speak), it’s concrete. Clients can’t reject a message, change a message, or refine a message until you make it clear where the message stands today. Content development stakeholders are going to want changes—significant changes—and often they’ll be able to figure out the changes they want only after they’ve reviewed your draft. It’s not personal. It’s just part of our job.
Defend excellence. On one presentation I developed, the stakeholders added two slides at the last minute. They didn’t want the content on those slides to be scrubbed editorially because they were running up against the end of their budget. As the content shepherd, I wanted the entire presentation to meet standards of excellence. During the final review meeting, I asked for a few minutes to look at those slides. Then I read aloud one (unscrubbed) sentence from a slide and asked the reviewers in the room what it meant. Everyone laughed because no one knew. As content developers, we’re on the side of the stakeholders. Assume the role of an advocate for the highest quality and most effective content possible.