Content Strategist: Bad Mother F…

This isn’t so much a response (and it’s definitely not a review) of Erin Kissane’s excellent new A Book Apart No. 3, The Elements of Content Strategy. It’s really more of a randomly inspired rant.

Image courtesy of

I just finished the book, and will hopefully be writing a better response soon, but one line stuck with me early, and I couldn’t resist:

…many sites are still built around internal org charts, clogged with mission statements designed for internal use, and beset by jargon and proprietary names for common ideas. (pg. 9)

First, let me say, “Amen.”

Second, spending my formative teenage years in the 90s, I can’t hear the word “beset” without picturing Samuel L. Jackson packing a very large .45

So without further ado, I give you:


Content Strategist: Bad Mother F

The path of the righteous reader is beset on all sides
by the inequities of weak messages
and the tyranny of proprietary names for common ideas.

Blessed is he who in the name of clarity and good content
shepherds your readers through the valley of jargon,
for he is truly his client’s keeper and the finder of lost users.

And I will strike down upon thee
with great relevance and furious usability
those who attempt to bore and deceive my readers.

And you will know I am the content strategist
when I lay my spreadsheets upon thee.


That’s all.

You may now return to your thoughtful, meaningful discussions of content, curation and governance. I’ll just be over here quoting movies to myself and laughing for no reason.

How to Carve an Elephant

Continuing on my joke theme, the title of this post is based on another long-time favorite:

“How do you carve an elephant?”
“Start with a block of stone, and cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

The challenge in writing an effective ad or web page isn’t in figuring out what to say, it’s in figuring out what not to say. One of the hardest parts for clients and managers to understanding is that it’s okay to narrow your focus onto one specific audience or offer. Sure, it’ll miss for some audiences. But it’ll be a direct hit for others. You can’t say all things to all people, and you can always hit that other audience next time.

That’s why it’s important to define the audience and the goal at the very beginning.
And that’s where the joke comes in.

You don’t have to know exactly what your elephant is going to look like before you start, but you have to know you’re carving an elephant. Then, relentlessly cut away anything that doesn’t get you to that goal.

Now, there is a line here. Cut out anything extraneous, but not so much that you lose the actual point of your content. More Picasso than Rothko.

But it’s easy to know how much to write or how much to cut when you have a defined audience and a clear goal. Go in without that, and you’ll get exactly what you planned for. Nothing.


I decided to take my own shot at this topic after reading a few great posts in the last couple of weeks, like this one from Brain Traffic and another from Copyblogger.

The Cartoons People Make by Being Alive – Hugh’s 100ppl

This post is in response to Tyler Hurst’s #100ppl post: a call for fans of Hugh MacLeod to share their favorite piece and discuss what art means to them. If you head over there soon, you may still be able to join Hugh’s 100ppl. But please finish reading this first.

Some people might say this is a cop-out, but I have to say my favorite gapingvoid piece is the hughtrain. Sure, it’s one of the most popular, but it’s the first work of his I ever saw. And the first one I ever bought. Here is mine… #43/200.

My hughtrain print

Mine. That’s the strange thing about buying art. Yes, it’s his. He signed it. But this one is mine. My hughtrain. I worry about that. The the acquisitive nature of mine. On a certain level, I get just as much joy and motivation from the ones I download for my desktop or tape up in my cube.

But I also get a kind of inspiration from knowing I’m a part of helping Hugh keep making more, and that’s good for us all.

So a couple of months ago, I got another one. “intoxicated by possibility.”

not framed yet, but it's going next to my hughtrain.

It was a toss-up between that one and “liberation from oneself is the hardest kind.” (I actually let my wife decide between those two… which is how I was allowed to buy another.)

For me, all three of these–and most all of Hugh’s works–are about getting past yourself. Doing. Being. About the things you find if you can shut up for a minute and think. I mean really think.

It’s why one of my favorite works of writing is a play called “A Thousand Clowns,” by Herb Gardner. Murray Burns is an eccentric, out of work television writer who takes in his orphaned nephew. The nephew is too grown up  for his age, and Murray spends most of the play trying to get him (and his NYC neighbors, his former boss, and the inevitable love interest) to get past themselves and look around. Murray explains why he doesn’t want the kid to go:

I want to be sure he knows when he’s chickening out on himself.
I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won’t notice it when it starts to go…
I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities…
And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.

I am not a chair. This is not a pipe. The market for something to believe in is infinite.

Art can make us to take a sidelong look at ourselves and our world, and that’s what draws me to Hugh’s work. He’s just doodling on the back of business cards and arranging words in clever, sad, funny, defiant or demanding messages. Seems meaningless at first. But he’s part of a long line of flower arrangers, and those of us who stop and  look are better for it.

Let me take another line from Murray:

He sees street jokes, he has a good eye, he sees subway farce and crosstown-bus humor and all the cartoons that people make by being alive.

Thankfully, Hugh isn’t afraid to point and laugh and put those cartoons to paper for us all to enjoy.

So that’s my favorite Gaping Void piece, or pieces, or thing about them, or about art in general. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get out of this chair.

Are you interrupting your way out of new business?

Awesome photo from erin666 via Flickr

My name is Clay, and I’m an interrupter.
Actually, I’m a *recovering* interrupter.
Acknowledgment is the first step toward recovery.
But it’s far from the end.

I grew up in a house of interrupters. Conversations at dinner were often reduced to half-sentences and heavy sighs as one person after another jumped on top of the conversation.

Yet, I was oblivious to my own problem until college, when a coworker (on whom I had a serious crush) pointed out how much she hated my interrupting.

Sure, I still do it occasionally, but I’m also now painfully aware when others interrupt. Especially when they do it to clients.

In the last few months, I’ve been in too many meetings and conference calls where someone consistently and repeatedly cut off the person who was paying for us to be there. Like interrupting my crush, talking over your current or potential clients is one of the best ways to destroy your chances of a successful relationship.

Account services, creative directors and, yes, copywriters. We all do it. And it can be hard to recognize when you’re the interrupter.

It’s the kickoff meeting and you have an important question. Even more important because you already know the right answer. So you pose the question to your client, and she starts explaining her thoughts. But they don’t match yours, so you jump in to explain your question better before she goes too far down the wrong path.

A little rough, but no real harm right? You’re just guiding the conversation back in the right direction. That’s your duty as project lead. But who says your answer is correct? And who’s project is this, really?

Now, you have confidently guided the conversation back into safe territory, and you pause to let your incredible insight hang in the air for all to appreciate. But the client was just cut off as she answered a very important question about her project. She doesn’t care about your explanation or insight. She was waiting for her turn to speak!

So now she jumps into your weighty pause to continue explaining the answer to your important question. But you cut her off again because she’s completely missed your point about this project!

See where this is heading?

Absolutely nowhere. Some Eastern religions call this samsara.

Now your chances at finding the one true right answer have dropped dramatically. So have your chances at getting the client to really share her thoughts on this project. It’s hard to open up when you’re in constant fear of being cut off.

Just like college-Clay and his co-worker crush, you have now seriously damaged your chances at making a meaningful connection. Unfortunately, it’s not over. You still have to see each other and talk to each other on a regular basis. You still have to work together. And most likely, your client didn’t make the effort that my crush did. She didn’t tell you that she hates how you interrupt her in meetings.

But she does.

So you spend the rest of the project wondering why she doesn’t seem to respect your advice or listen to your explanations.

But as I saw in a great tweet from Will Sansbury (@willsansbury) yesterday, “Respect isn’t given to you. It’s returned.” Well said.

Now, you were saying…?

Non-web content strategy. A parable.

Here’s a non-website metaphor for all you content strategy folks:

A while back, I was tasked to rewrite the script for a pretty large (200+ employees) technology company’s phone message system.

They were launching a new identity, and the message was a “great opportunity to communicate the new branding to customers.” The core principal of that new brand was a commitment to “practical, easy-to-understand solutions” that helped people do their jobs better.

So I started asking questions about some basic functions of their phone system (e.g. What were the main goals of the callers? What support services do you provide over the phone? How do you organize company divisions?)…

Nobody understood what that had to do with the phone message. It was just supposed to sound nice and tell people the new brand mission, without any specifics to help the customers actually reach the person they were hoping to reach.

I ended up writing the initial greeting with their boilerplate copy about helpful solutions for their customers, and sending over the rest with, “If you’d like to speak with [blank], press [blank] now. For [blank], press [blank].”

Lorem ipsum anyone?