Confab 2018
May 23, 2018
Corey Vilhauer

Confab 2018 Lightning Talks

Hosted by Corey Vilhauer, these eight brave speakers present in the “Ignite-style”: 5 minutes, 20 slides, 15 seconds per slide—and the slides change automatically



Kristina Halvorson: Now, it’s time to introduce our lighting talk host, Corey Vilhauer. Corey Vilhauer is a user-experience architect at Blend Interactive, a web strategy development and design firm in the middle of the Midwest, aka Sioux Falls. He makes monthly mix tapes, he watches old Dragon Kid matches, he thinks too much about buying a mountain bike, and is clearly eminently qualified to be on the stage at Confab.

He writes at length about writing for accessibility, content strategy methodology and methods, and small scale content at Corey is a long time Confab attendee and kind of a mascot within the content strategy community. I just made that up. So, I’m thrilled and excited and delighted to welcome to kick of our lightning talks, Corey Vilhauer.

Corey Vilhauer: Hi. I am Corey Vilhauer. Boy, there is a lot of people here. I know how this works. There is 700 or so people staring at me right now wondering, “Him? This is the guy they chose to follow in the footsteps of Matt Marquis?” But yeah, it’s me. I’m Cory Vilhauer. I am your lightning talk host. I don’t want to make it seem like you don’t know who I am because you definitely know who I am. I’m kind of a big deal. In fact, if we look at this next slide, I am featured on the Confab home page. And the next one, also, it has “content strategy” in the URL. I’m pretty much content strategy.

But in seriousness, I think you probably know something that, weirdly enough, is a byproduct of something that I did, which is an incredibly gross thing. I’m sorry. I gave a talk in 2013 called “Empathy: Content strategy’s hidden deliverable.” And through that talk, came one tweet that broke off one hashtag: #confabfeelings. I don’t really have any connection to this. It’s not about what my talk was about, But, what ended up happening was with #confabfeelings is it became a thing. It became sort of the embodiment of what it feels like to be at Confab.

And all bits aside, I think Confab, I mean it’s phenomenal in what it does. I’ve been to a lot of conferences and conferences can be kind of a drag. You have people up on stage and you have people in the audience, and rarely do the two meet. But, at Confab, the line is blurred. There’s a lot of interaction. You’re able to speak with the speakers freely. People are moving in and out. That’s why I like the lightning talks. Because what we’re doing is we’re actually saying, “Hey, we don’t just want speakers up here.” No offense to speakers. But this conference isn’t about the speakers. This conference is about you. This conference is about the attendees.

And so, it’s neat when we get people who are attendees of the conference, and they’re going to get up here and they’re going to give you their thoughts on content strategy. And we have some people who have spoken before and we have some people who this is the very first time they’ve ever spoken in front of a group. And it doesn’t matter. Because they all have the same format. Twenty slides, fifteen seconds per slide, five minutes, auto-advance, sweat pouring down their face, there’s a lot of anxiety, and I think that’s what makes Confab so great. How all of this kind of rolls together, how there is definitely a community. It’s not speakers and attendees—it’s a giant community.

And so, let’s start that right now. What I did is I gave all of our speakers a gigantic questionnaire. I asked a question about wrestling and nobody knew what it was. Nobody knew what WrestleMania was. And so then, I emailed Tenessa and I said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore.” She said, “Your hotel’s already booked.”

But, I did ask everybody, “What’s a written work that isn’t based on content strategy that informs what you do?” And our next speaker said that it’s Dorothy Parker’s short story, But the One on the Right. She said that Parker packs so much information into so few words, so much information about characters and about scenes into so few words, which is funny because that’s ultimately what we’re doing here during these lightning talks.

So, please give a warm welcome to senior content designer of customer experiences at PayPal, Alexa Apallas.

Alexa Apallas: Hello. I’m here to talk to you about why people really don’t want to hear “oops” or “uh-oh” in an error message and what they do want to hear instead. So, the examples in my presentation are drawn from real life, but I made some modifications.

Imagine that you’re going to a website to order a gift, but you’re in such a hurry that you fat-fingered the URL and you wind up here. How does that make you feel? Me personally, I’d be annoyed. And I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Hey, it’s just a 404 page. Have fun with it.” But, for your customers, a broken link or a bad URL is a blocker. If they can’t figure out what to do next, they might just leave. So, a good error message is clear and concise and lets them know how to fix the problem that led to the error in the first place. If the message isn’t clear or if there’s no way out, that leads to drop-off, which is not great for conversion.

So, let’s get to it. What’s really wrong with “oops”? It’s conversational, right? Lots of companies use it. But at PayPal, we’re dealing with people’s money and when it comes to money, people do not want to hear “oops.” And words like “oops” and “uh-oh” alert people that something’s wrong, but it doesn’t really make them feel in control. And it can subtlety imply that they’re the ones at fault. So, that’s why it’s really best to avoid these words and go with a more empathetic approach.

Sometimes, we create these error messages so they wind up being really short and robotic. That can happen when the error message is an afterthought. We spend a lot of time thinking about a happy path; we don’t think so much about when something goes wrong. And it’s really important at the start of the project to think through those unhappy scenarios.

So, you can create a message that’s more aligned with your brand’s voice and tone. Those details make a difference. And again, it is important to be concise, but sometimes all you need to do is add a few words to humanize it, make it sound more conversational. Adding “the” and “you” here makes it more like you’re talking to a person. And again, “Invalid email address.” “Check your email address and try again.” It’s a much more pleasant experience that way.

So, really try and think about how to move the conversation forward. In that last example, what about “please”? Wouldn’t “Please check your email address and try again” sound more polite? Well, we really try and keep our error messages friendly and straightforward and sometimes when you repeat “please” all the time, it will end up sounding condescending. It’s a throwaway word.

And what about “sorry”? When’s it appropriate to say you’re sorry? I generally reserve that for times when things are going really wrong. If it’s a relative minor error, I leave it out. But sometimes, you have to say you’re sorry. There’s just no way around it. Something’s really wrong and you need to apologize, give the customer a way forward, be human and humble about it. And “we’re sorry” and letting people know to contact you is the way to do that.

Now here, I’ve changed the wording to “oops”. See how that completely changes the tone? “Oops, there’s an issue with your account.” That almost trivializes the issue and it doesn’t make the customer feel like you’re on their side.

Alright, quick show of hands. Who here enjoys being told when they’ve done something wrong. Right, usually not too many people. That’s why empathetic error messages don’t assign blame. Here, try to avoid something like “You entered an expired card number.” Instead, “Check your card number and try again.” It’s just a way to alert the customer that something’s wrong, but it doesn’t assign blame and it lets them know how to move forward.

Now, remember how I said that error messages are often an afterthought? That can happen when they get written by people who aren’t as familiar with customer facing content like engineers, right? So, it’s really important to have everyone in your team build some empathy. And you can do that through user research, listening in on customer service calls, writing error messages, a library of error messages and trying to reuse some of those error messages in multiple scenarios.

What we really want to do is put the customer first. Error messages are a fact of life, but if we think about the customer’s mindset when these error messages pop up, we can make them better. We can craft them so that the customer can get through and finish their task. So, if you keep these five points in mind, you’ll be able to craft those error messages that let customers get on with it. Finish what they were trying to do in the first place. And that is a successful outcome for everyone.

Thank you all so much.

Corey Vilhauer: Hi. Hi, I’m back. Like I said, I asked a billion questions, and our next speaker says that she does content strategy for non-profits specifically because she believes in the transformational power of words. Not just how this is key for content strategy, but how this is key for actually seeking justice in the world. Also, through our questionnaire, I find out that her favorite Halloween costume was when her mother dressed her up as Janet Jackson as a toddler. Both of these seem incredibly awesome, so please welcome director of public relations and outreach at The Unitarian Universalist Association, Marchaé Grair.

Marchaé Grair: Hi, Confab. Thank you for having me to do this lighting talk. Today, we’re going to be talking about centering the margins in outreach. Or as it may have been referenced in your program, in community engagement, and why that work is so important.

For the sake of today’s conversation, we’re going to define marginalized people as those who are experiencing discrimination and isolation because of identity. Those who are, in fact, pushed to the margins of society.

If we’re really going to do this work, we have to realize that when it comes to matters of justice and injustice, there is no compromise. People want to know that you will advocate for their identity, that when they come to your web spaces, they’ll feel safe.

You can’t expect people to engage with a brand that doesn’t advocate for their basic humanity. If someone doesn’t feel like they’ll be welcomed in your digital environment, they’re not going to stick around very long. I know I wouldn’t.

Centering the margins will make your content more inclusive, it’ll make you a more trustworthy source, and it will also make you and your brand and your team more socially responsible, which is something I hope we all want.

Let’s dive into four ways to do this work. Make clear commitments to anti-oppression in all digital spaces, especially social media, where we know there’s an uptick and a lot of bigotry and hate. You have to this because being neutral in digital spaces makes room for bigotry. If you don’t say you’re explicitly anti-oppressive, unfortunately, people take that as permission to be oppressive in your digital spaces.

Create community guidelines that say what you won’t tolerate and who you will support. Say things like, “We are anti-racist,” “We are against sexism,” and in these conversations about marginalized identities, “We will center those marginalized people.”

Two: Be honest in your content creation because superficial diversity disengages the people you hope it will engage. Nobody wants to see themselves plastered on the front of your website just because you thought about it at the last minute. Don’t try to represent diversity in content strategy when it isn’t truly reflected in other elements of your brand, because once people get beyond that superficial aspect of diversity, then they won’t have a good user experience.

Marginalized communities want authentic representation, not symbolic diversity as an afterthought. If you throw up a black girl on your website as a last-minute thought, I won’t stick around very long. Nobody wants to see themselves represented as “the token diversity” of your brand. Engage with the communities that you hope to reach in a real and authentic way, beyond just plastering people as a checkbox.

Honor marginalized experiences as a user context. We’ve talked so much about user experience at Confab, but do we ever stop to think about how people experience things differently because they’re marginalized?

Spoiler alert: they do. Ask yourself, “How would a marginalized context impact someone’s experience of your brand?” So, if somebody is spending their days fighting off bigotry, how is that reflected on your website? Do they feel safe when they approach your digital spaces? A person’s marginalized identity informs why they choose digital spaces so it’s a core part of their user context. They cannot separate the oppression they experience in the world from themselves when they’re at their website.

And number four, if you remember anything, remember the saying, “Nothing about us without us.” Again, “Nothing about us without us.” Let’s unpack that. If you don’t have marginalized people creating content and making decisions about content, you can’t create authentic content for marginalized people. How do you know what people really feel if everybody in the room looks the same? Or thinks the same? Don’t create content that speaks specifically to a marginalized group if you don’t have content creators who have the cultural experience. That’s where you get into things like appropriation and tokenism.

Quick recap on our work today. Let’s center the margins and outreach by making clear commitments to anti-oppression, avoiding superficial diversity, treating marginalized experiences as a user context, and remember, “Nothing about us without us.”

I would love to keep this conversation going. You can find me on social media and you can also find my writing on my website. Remember, we’re doing this work not just because it’s a checkbox, but because inclusivity and equity matter.

Thank you.

Corey Vilhauer: You know who doesn’t get enough attention? Extroverts. I’m glad you got that one. I’m like, “Should I put that one in there?” I’m actually very thankful for extroverts. Last night, on my third episode of “Party Down,” and I was just going to skip the party all together and then, thankfully, an extrovert said, “You should maybe come here. There’s a catering staff here too. You can just ...” “Party Down” is a show about catering staff.

Anyway, I’m up here gushing about Confab, but Confab’s great because it’s rare you see, split down the middle, an extremely extroverted and extremely introverted group of people and they just mesh, they just work somehow. I don’t know what it is about content strategy that takes two people that really shouldn’t work well together and they do work well together and then everybody is better for that. And I think that’s pretty rad. Although, I did miss an episode of my show.

Our next speaker said that people tend to overlook her because she’s quiet, because she’s an introvert, and she wants to share that quiet people can make a difference too. And so, please welcome writer and editor at U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress, Miss Alison Hall.

Alison Hall: Thank you. So, I have to start by saying, even though I’m here as someone from the Library of Congress, everything I’m saying is from my perspective and not the Library, the government, the Copyright Office. They made me say that. Because I’m telling my own story here.

But, how I really want to start is asking the question, “Who here is an introvert?” Okay, a lot of people answered. There’s probably some of us who didn’t answer because we’re introverts and that goes with the territory. Others of us, like me, don’t like the label, but go with it anyways because I want to tell my story.

So, back into 2004 ... this is a shameless picture of my girls ... I stopped working in an office so I could stay home with them. I did freelance work, I did other odd jobs around, but I really separated myself from the office. I stopped learning what was new, what was trendy, all that, kind of in my own silo.

Fast forward to this year, oldest one’s getting ready to go off to college, I’ve known she wanted to go out of state, so I had to get a little more steady income. Started off part time and in a sort-of office, I was at the fitness center at a local university, but really it wasn’t the same. Year and a half ago, I get this great job at the Library of Congress, but all of a sudden, I’m this middle-aged mom, introvert, quiet, having to go back, hearing all these new words—metadata, stakeholders. To me, a pain point is my old running injury in my knee. I didn’t know what that was. And I had this fear of the conference room. Oh my gosh, I have to speak up at meetings. I have to make small talk with people I don’t really know or people who’ve known each for a long time. How am I going to do this?

First year went okay. At my review, my boss said, “Are you an introvert?” “Uh, yes. Yes, I am. And really? It took you a year to ask that question?” This is me. But, he said, “I know you can be more assertive. You can you get your word out. You can do all this.” So, I had to figure out how. So, we had actually already done a DISC Assessment and the statement that came up about me is 100% correct. I was amazed. So, I’m sitting there at this meeting thinking, “Okay, everyone else who’s not like me is talking about themselves. I know what I am. Why am I sitting here? Can’t we just get this over with?” And this was the view. We were at our satellite office in Culpepper, Virginia, and I just wanted to be out those trees. I wanted to be hiking. I wanted to be in the solitude, the quiet, the peace. Again, introvert. That’s where I belong. But, you know, I have this job so I had to learn.

But, I’m not all quiet. I like loud music. I’ve been to Foo Fighters concerts. Doesn’t get much louder than that. I can spend an entire weekend talking with my friends nonstop. Those are my two best friends. And I taught group fitness for a long time, which combines talking nonstop and loud music. So, I think all that together, yeah I’m an introvert, but I’m also a good content creator. The problem is speaking up and getting the word out. I’m fine with this. It’s that small group but I’m not that good at.

And I was made part of the audiovisual team when I started this job. I didn’t speak up for a long time. And we did these videos for YouTube or for events. I had ideas, but I didn’t say them and that was a missed opportunity.

So, this last video we did, I started to change the way I think about things, I did speak up. I got the word out. I think the video is better. How? Did I do a confidence dance? Not saying I didn’t. But really, I shifted the way I thought. Instead of thinking what I’m not good at, I shifted to what I am good at and I shifted to really tapping in to my strengths.

So, luckily at my last job, we did a strengths finding assessment, so I had five words to go with, but really you can think about what you’re good at if you don’t know five specific words, thinking about what I was good made me shift the way I did my job and things started to go a lot better.

I interview a lot of people as part of my job as a writer. At first, it was just question-answer, question-answer, and I know that’s not the right way to do it, but it’s what I was doing. But, when I really thought, “Okay, I’m good at including people. I want everyone to feel important.” I started doing that in the interviews, fewer awkward pauses. I also learned to relate to people. This specific project, these people would not talk about it. But, I got to go to know them, got to relate to them, relate to the project. I was starting to talk a little, but it’s still not the greatest, but is it for work in progress. It’s getting there.

Also, in my job I have to arrange things, I have to be flexible. That’s kind of a hard one because you want this, you want this. According to these strengths, I’m good at both. So then, I’m working on, okay I have this said, this person doesn’t like it, I have to be flexible and I have to speak up with my flexibilities and I also had to learn. I learned all about the office—there’s a lot of people that work in the Copyright Office, about 400. Couldn’t learn about all of them, but I learned about what the offices do and bringing that together made everything I do a lot easier and it was just easier to get up there and talk.

And finally, achiever. I love crossing things of that to do list. So then I think okay, I don’t want to go talk to them, I just want to sit here quietly, I just want to go look out the window but, if I go talk to that person and I can cross it off my to do list. A lot of times, that was just enough motivation.

So yeah, introverts rock. Sometimes, quiet. If you are quiet, find that strength to get your point across. If you have a quiet person, give them that platform to talk. So now, I’m going to go back to enjoying Confab and Minneapolis, by myself, quietly.

Thank you.

Corey Vilhauer: One of the questions that I asked people was, “If you could do a lightning talk on any topic that wasn’t content strategy, what would you do that on?” and our next speaker said, “Hot dogs.” That’s all it says. So, please welcome senior web content strategist at Bixal, Jared Meyer.

Jared Meyer: A few years ago, the Small Business Administration, which is an agency of the U.S. Federal Government, decided that they were going to do digital differently and they created a department inside their agency specifically to do that. They decided that the very first project they were going to work on was the website. This is an accurate content model of the website. It’s everything that you thought it would be: PDFs, thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of pages, a 13,000-word FAQ, stuff like that. Challenge accepted. We decided to go ahead anyway. So, this is a story about how we were able to successfully do that more or less, despite the fact that we made a bunch of mistakes.

We got together and we just started working and then right as we we’re doing that, the November 2016 elections happened, and this was a surprise to us. And what happened was all of the senior leadership inside of the agency moved out really quickly and the problem with that was that those were the people that gave us mandate. So now, we were on a mission to Mars and mission control had been nuked.

But, we kept going. We organized into ... We used agile methodology and we broke up into teams of developers, designers, and content professionals, right? So, if you’re cringing at how you’re organized, correct. For the most part, it worked. If you’re not familiar with SCRUM—which is the way we did it—every two weeks, you end up producing some sort of piece of work.

And for the most part, we were able to do it, in terms of production. We were making stuff. Pretty much every two weeks, something new was coming up. But, there was a problem that we encountered pretty quickly was that stakeholders at this organization had no idea what iterative and incremental work meant. They were used to a contractor showing up—I’m a contractor, by the way—and saying, “Okay, cool. Here’s your website. Bye.” And so, what we were showing them was like, “No, no, no. It’s just this little piece. We’re going to do more.”

So, the first lesson was 1) integrate your teams. You need to be able to collaborate with each other. And also, if you’re introducing an entirely new way of doing work at a massive agency, maybe tell the stakeholders about it. So, make sure that you’re bringing them along.

Another issue was that it was a total Wild West situation. Anybody could put anything in the website that they wanted, there’s no one to say yes and no one to say no and once that vacuum got created, we said, “Well okay, let’s take this to our advantage and we’ll be the ones who say yes and the ones who say no.” And for a while, it was great. We were able to make lightning fast decisions, whatever we thought was a good, smart idea, we could do 100%. And that was great for a while.

But, the thing about websites is they’re really visible. And so eventually, the stakeholders found out and they started showing up. And now, since there was nobody who was actually authorized to say yes or no, guess who the stakeholders thought were authorized to say yes or no about anything they felt like. So, that was a pain.

So, what we quickly did after that was to put together a steering committee of leadership from all the main pillars within the agency and actually write down some governance and get some documentation around it to help bring a little bit more order. The days of just doing whatever we wanted were over.

Another way that we organized this work was that we primarily treated it like a technology product instead of a communications product. Very sort of development-lead and we did do some really cool stuff with that. We moved off of Drupal 7 and then we moved into a nice clean Drupal 8 and then we cut its head off so that it could be decoupled, we used React and that let us do some really cool stuff. So, we were using the content management system just for content. It just managed that. It was a system for content. Very cool. But, the problem was, because we were so focused on producing stuff and making this thing, we ended up not really looking into our users that much. We didn’t spend the time that we needed to do the research and the user research. Instead, we ended up focusing more internally inside our institution because it was right there.

Obviously, what we should’ve done was to spend more time focusing on our actual users, shining a light on them, figuring out what they needed and since we’ve started, we’ve started to develop more ways of doing that. So, we produced a lot of stuff and then found out that not all of it actually helped people.

Where we are now is that, because the way we did the website we’ve been able to launch it sort of in sections and stitch together the old website and the new website and we are on track to fully retire that old website by the end of the summer and that is great. But really, the work that we have to do is just starting.

So, one big lesson is don’t be married to a method. We spent a lot of time figuring out how we were doing the work and if we were doing the work the way we were supposed to be doing it, instead of just like doing work that would be valuable for people. So, don’t be married to a method.

The next thing is that while you can build something maybe two weeks at a time, you can’t build your vision two weeks at a time. You have to have that from the start. Especially if you have multiple teams, we all need to be working in the same direction.

And that really bring us to the last and final point, which is that although we’ve done this already, we have the site and it’s done, we have this product, our work is just beginning because now we have to actually start changing the underlying behaviors, motivations, and incentives that produced the website in the first place so we can actually do it good for now.

So, thank you and please pray for us.

Corey Vilhauer: So, I had a bit that I was going to do where I used an air horn on my phone and it just went off, so I’m so sorry, Jared. And then, do you know what happens when you frantically hold the power button down on your phone trying to turn it off? It calls Emergency Services. So, the idea is that ... I called Tenessa about this. “What’s my role up here?” She says, “Just go up there and keep the energy up.” So, that’s what I apparently did.

Anyway, I asked everyone, “What brought you into the industry?” and our next speaker said that he never really felt more at home with ... whatever this is ... professionally speaking with content strategy. And then he says, “You are my peeps.” So, my peeps, please welcome manager of the web content team at the Bank of Canada, this is Gord Roberts.

Gord Roberts: In January, I got an amazing opportunity at the Bank of Canada to help unveil our next bank note, featuring human rights champion Viola Desmond. This was an amazing opportunity to reach 36 million Canadians coast to coast to coast and content strategy, right? I was super confident I had this, despite the fact that the bank note design was a state secret, I needed content in English and French and this theme of human rights really needed extra special care. Then I got my release date: March 8th.

I had just over 30 business days to deliver a multi-platform web content strategy celebrating, not just human rights, but the first Canadian woman on a Canadian bank note. 30 days.

So, the first thing I did was panic. Because this was such an amazing opportunity. I was new on the digital strategy team. I did not want to blow this. And it turned out all I needed was a little bit a help from my friends in web development. Because you see, they’d long ago given up on contractual design with separate teams working in separate streams, diverging and hopefully converging to deliver something. I’m sensing a bit of a theme, but they started to adopt a platform, a process that was kind of more open and collaborative. They’d gone agile. Focusing on people building things together rather than dividing and conquering on set plans. If they could do it for systems design, why couldn’t we do it for content design?

So, the first thing we did was work with our developers and itemize everything we knew we needed for content. ROT analyses, asset inventories, key images, raw text, the code changes for it, the look and feel designs, the whole bit. Then, we brought in the communicators, the subject experts, and our designers to organize everything into swim lanes, prioritize and assign tasks, and park the distractions at the bottom. Physically surrounding ourselves with our work helped us have open, honest conversations about it.

We adopted another technique to facilitate our shared understanding even more. We did peer review. So, nobody worked alone. We paired up, iterated in those pairs and then twice a week, got back together in the group and reiterated. Working this closely together helped us reduce the amount of content we were creating, by finding new and better ways to reuse the core content and then recycling those efforts we were saving back into making better, smarter core content.

So for example, when we took our raw descriptions of the bank note elements and put them in our web framework, we found new ways to use pictures and prose to tell deeper, more meaningful stories about human rights. And when the developer saw our asset inventories that we were building of third-party content—videos, articles supporting information links we could do—we realized we could plug those directly into our framework to enhance our story rather than putting them out on, say social.

Working this way super closely helped us clear the board really fast, which was great because it got better, smarter content off to translation faster. Again, because we were creating this shared understanding in our group. But, could we do that for the rest of Canada?

As it turned out, if we hadn’t been working so closely together, we would have missed this opportunity that was right in front of us. We had this footage of Viola Desmond’s sister seeing the bank note for the first time. We were just going to put it on the webpage. And we ourselves were emotionally kind of attached to it, so we released it on social one week to announce our event and our workforce, Canada, and the rest the world took it from there. It’s kind of like content strategy in motion. Without anybody ever seeing the note yet, they were attaching themselves to the emotions and stories behind it. To the point that when the curtain dropped on March 8th, the wind was already at our sails.

In the two and a half months since then, millions of people around the world have visited the site, shared it, and connected with us directly to help make it even better. And I’m thrilled to say that this new way of working has stuck for us so every week that banknote group and I get back together and look at the tiniest details of the note like security features and find new ways to work together to make more compelling stories worth sharing out of them.

So the three hopes as I conclude: one is I hope I’ve been able to show you how collaborative design leads to better product, better content, by facilitating a shared understanding in a group of people. And you content strategists can make that happen. And I hope I haven’t led you to believe that likes and shares are the goal here. They’re not. They’re really just your sign posts on your road to success. Great product, great content that provides great experiences is the goal.

And finally, I hope you’ll visit our site for yourself at Connect with me, connect with us, and help us make it better and better. Because it’s content people and as people, we’re better and stronger when we work together to make the right things right.

Thank you.

Corey Vilhauer: When asked why she made the decision to pitch a lightning talk at Confab, our next speaker said, “A few years ago, I decided I couldn’t do any worse than some of the speakers I’d heard.” So, I confirmed it wasn’t Confab. It wasn’t anyone at Confab. Mostly, I just confirmed it wasn’t me. But, I’m confident it’s going to go great. So, please welcome the co-chair of PLAIN, the Plain Language Action and Information Network, Katherine Spivey.

Katherine Spivey: Thank you. I can’t tell you how encouraged I am to have heard plain language in practically every session. I’ve been overcome something or another, just plain language sympathy. I feel it pouring off of you in waves.

I wanted to give you plain language without tears. I know that sometimes we get stuck on plain language. Here’s the working definition that PLAIN uses: “Communication that your audience can find, understand the first time they hear or read it, and use what they found,” and it is the law for the United States Federal Government. PLAIN Writing Act of 2010.

How many of you get this kind of stuff? Doesn’t have to be from the government, but how much of you do you get this? You’re like, “What is this wall of words? Why do I have to look at it?” And sometimes the question is, “You have to post this, Legal’s approved it.” And you know, sometimes you have to. I’ve put out my lips so far and it has no effect whatsoever.

But, what I wanted to tell you is there are some baby steps where you can start to build a relationship of trust by promising not to change their content. You can even do a word for word comparison and say, “I did change your content, I did not touch your words. I added formatting and white space. I broke out this wall of words into a bulleted list. I added some headers to help guide people through your material. I broke that big paragraph, but I didn’t change any words.”

Headers are useful. People scan. We’re the government. No one reads our stuff for fun. We have no fan club. If we can get people through their tasks, they will at least hate us less.

Headers. These are the things that will help people scan and they’re much more likely. I look at some content sometimes, I need another cup of tea just to just to even start reading. So, sometimes your most powerful weapon with plain language is just the Enter key. You know? Break open those paragraphs. Stop those sentences. This is where you can do a little editing and say, “You know that sentence was 17 lines? I broke it up.”

Pronouns. Whatever Federal Government office it is, it’s “we.” The reader is “you.” You know, I explain that this helps people know what they’re supposed to do and it reduces confusion. All I did was add pronouns.

I’ve heard a lot about passive voice and active voice. Subject, verb, object is the English sentence. Don’t mess with it. You know? If you have trouble figuring out what’s passive, remember the classic bureaucratic line: “Mistakes were made.” And the way you can tell this is, can you add “by zombies”? “Mistakes were made by zombies.” Zombies made those mistakes. There are ways around this. It helps get a message that the audience needs and will use.

Again, no fan club. No one at my office writes for fun either. But, what information does your audience need? And sometimes all you need to do is switch a paragraph to the top. Also, with passive to active voice, focus on verbs. I was so pleased to hear the gentleman from Slack edit “Send a notification to notify.” There were little shouts in my row of excitement. Rescue those hidden verbs, pull them out of your prose, send them to your readers. Instead of “came to the conclusion,” “concluded.” But, do not use, in the name of god, do not use “conversate.” Please. Just don’t.

Watch jargon and acronyms. That’s what people complain about the most with government writing. Too much text, too much jargon, too many acronyms. They don’t even mean the same in the same agency. You know? They can switch for divisions. So watch your jargon, watch your acronyms, don’t do alphabet Scrabble soup to your readers. It’s mean. Don’t do that.

So, what I’m trying to say is plain language, there are some steps you can take without having to edit too much and change the words. But, work on introducing words, real words that real people use. That’s what people are looking for. Do not make me try and decipher how you—specifically you—are using the word “ordering.”

And until we have that wonderful state on our keyboard where we can just hit a button and plain language will automatically happen, remember these baby steps, remember these techniques, think about your user, and you will find a ton of information on, including the Federal Plain Language Guidelines.

Thank you so much.

Corey Vilhauer: Raise your hand if you are or consider yourself a designer. Or raise your hand if you have an art degree. Not that many people here. Huh. Well, I’m not going to throw this out, so ... Our next speaker, I asked, “What’s the worst bit of advice that you ever got? Specifically, about your career?” And she said that somebody told her that her art degree was going to be a waste of time. And then, she became a visual and interaction designer. And then, she transitioned into content strategy.

And now, she’s on the main stage at Confab. So, waste of time, right? Please welcome principal content strategist for client and user experience at Pitney Bowes, this is Julie Threlkeld.

Julie Threlkeld: Hi, Confab. I’m delighted to be here to spread the gospel of pair writing to my tribe. I will be speaking from the perspective of a content strategist working in UI and UX copy, but I hope this will be applicable to you, nevertheless.

Pair writing. What is it? It’s not about pears. It’s not about fruits. Unless you bring fruit to your session. But, it is about at least two people getting together to write together collaboratively.

So, it’s good for getting rid of dummy copy and design. It’s great for exposing when you have a weak content strategy or no content strategy, so you can do something about it. And it also begins to embed writing earlier into the design process. It produces copy very quickly, it streamlines the process, it gets you away from the endless email threads, meetings, versions, and finally it produces real copy for stakeholders to respond to.

What do you need? You need a writer, preferably a good one. And you need someone who knows more than that writer knows about what the writer is writing about. Preferably, people who are articulate. Parents are great at this because they explain things to children all the time.

It is very good for short, discrete, compact pieces of copy or for outlines for longer pieces of copy. Not so great for long form copy, anything that requires deep knowledge or multi-piece things like campaigns.

Okay, five steps to successful pair writing.

Limit it to three people. Otherwise, you start getting into the too many cooks issue. And give everyone a job. This is a gross over simplification, but this gives you an idea of how a researcher, writer, and designer might collaborate.

Narrow the scope. Try to stay in one realm, one product, one feature, and decide on what you’re going to produce ahead of time. And realize you may need to chip away at the problem over several sessions.

Keep it short. This is intense work, so schedule an hour, take the three things you’re writing. Say, it’s three modals for a sign-in process. Give 10 to 15 minutes so that your time-boxing each of those things and you focus on producing copy.

Work with the tools you already know and iterate as you go along. An example is when I work with a designer, I might be sending copy in Slack, while the designer is updating an actual prototype and we can all see if it’s working.

At the end of the hour, you want to come out with real copy and other issues will come up, but try not to get sidetracked. Realize that you can put them aside and deal with them at another time.

There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this in person versus online and what works for you may reflect how you normally work with people. At Pitney Bowes, we find online is very effective, but your mileage may vary.

Make yourself a constant resource for people. You stay connected to the work they’re doing. You constantly show your value and you understand the thing. The thing that everyone’s working on, you understand it more and more, so they have to explain to you less and less what you’re actually doing for them.

And there are incredible long-term benefits. Some of them may be obvious. Some of them will be surprises. But, this is very important. Pretend that you knew what those surprises would be and you planned for them because it will make you look much smarter than you actually are.

One great benefit is writing becomes a part of design, as it should be. Writing should drive and iterate with design, not be driven by it and pair writing gets writing into the design process much earlier.

“How to write” sticks better. So, I produce tremendous amounts of writing guidance for designers and development people and sitting with them and writing helps that content stick because they’re practicing it, so it’s much more effective than expecting them to go to our website and look it up.

And this is the most incredible side effect of pair writing is you build an army of writers. People begin to come to you, not with lorem ipsum, but with draft copy that you can refine. And that’s a better use of your time.

You create champions of writing. You will find that people understand the value of writing that it’s hard, but it’s also not so hard and they’ll start touting the benefits of writing and what you do to other people, even when you’re not in the room.

And finally, this continuous cycle of collaborating, improving, observing, iterating, collaborating more, refining guidance, can only improve your process.

So, if you have questions about pair writing or what I do for money or where I bought this sweater, you can approach me. I’ll be here till tomorrow morning. Or you can find me there.

Thank you so much.

Corey Vilhauer: Everyone, Confab’s almost over. That’s sad, right? As Confab winds down, we want to bring it with us. We have #confabfeelings ... I should have trademarked that ... But, the cool thing is that we can actually bring a little bit of Confab with us with the people that we’ve met and friends we’ve made along the way.

Also, podcasts. You can download podcasts. I know Brain Traffic has a podcast. I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s good.

Kristina Halvorson [off stage]: The Content Strategy Podcast.

Corey Vilhauer: Yeah, whatever. But also, our next and last speaker has a podcast and you should download that one too. So, please welcome the creator of the Efficiently Effective podcast and The Dutchess, Saskia Videler.

Saskia Videler: You nailed it. Hello, Confab. What an amazing couple of days it has been, hasn’t it? I mean, we’ve had these great workshops, these amazing talks, and most of all, all these chats with our peers and do you feel the fire inside you right now? Like Corey said, that’s what we call #confabfeelings. And I hate to break it to you, Corey already said it too, in a few hours, Confab will be over. And it will be up to us to keep the fire burning until this time next year.

But, we can do that. We might have to supply the coffee and cake ourselves, but we can keep talking to each other and we can keep helping each other. And that’s a good thing. Because I’m fairly positive that we all have our content struggles.

Whether you’re dealing with content audits, you’re creating voice and tone guides, building a team. You know, we have a lot on our plates, we have a lot to figure out. And therefore, it’s good that you’re able to talk to people. Your tribe is still there. Your tribe will be online. And you can share your experiences and share your ideas and help each other grow and help each other’s ideas grow.

And for that, it’s important that you ask questions. Asking questions is such an amazing tool. You’re allowing other people to help you and you’re also inspiring others with your questions. Especially when you share them in an online environment. Content is hard. You can’t know everything. And we’re spread out all over the globe and there’s a good chance that what someone on the other side of the globe is working on a similar problem as you are and it would be silly to do the same work twice when it only has to be done once. We could be a little more efficient and a little more effective. See what I did there?

Now, it might be scary to step onto that soap box. I get that. “Is my opinion valid? Is my idea good enough? Did somebody else already come up with that idea?” You know, it might be that somebody else already did talk about that idea. But, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing at all. You know, in a way, you could see it as you’re validating a good idea. They’re validating your idea. You’re perpetuating an idea and also, your way of explaining the idea might be a better fit for someone else’s brain. And if you can, give credit where credit is due, of course.

Talking about content strategy also has a side effect of people who are not aware of content strategy, who don’t know much about it, can learn about it and see how awesome it is, and how we can work together and maybe they want to become content strategist too.

So, sharing your ideas, sharing your knowledge, it’s important and how might you do it? I have a few examples.

You might write. You can write. You can write articles for your own blog, you can post them to Medium or online specialist magazines. They don’t have to be super long, but if you feel like writing a book, go for it.

If you’re more like a radio head like me, maybe a podcast is a good medium for you. It’s quite a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun and for me, it’s also a great excuse to talk with the people that I admire and learn more from them. So, that’s a great benefit.

Go to MeetUps, go to other conferences too—keep coming to Confab, of course—and offer to speak and inspire other people. Teach them about content strategy and talk about your experiences and your struggles as well, and if you see a good idea online—this might be simple—but retweet it or like it. It’s such a small thing to do, but you’re actually perpetuating the idea further into the world. You’re pushing it a little bit further. And it’s also a way to show your appreciation for someone else’s idea. Because in a way, they’re giving you this little free gift of wisdom, so it’s a form of saying thank you. Look at it like that.

And then, there’s also a couple of really great online communities. These are the three that I’m a part of and I think they’re awesome and everybody who’s in them is awesome and everybody’s super friendly and I can’t overstate how much I’ve learned in these communities.

And now to close off, you know, sharing knowledge kind of got a stigma I feel of like self-promotion and building your brand, but I think that for content strategy, it means a lot more. It means that if we talk about content strategy and we’re helping each other, we’re actually building the brand of content strategy. We’re super charging content strategy. And in the meantime, we keep the fire burning.

Thank you.

Kristina Halvorson: Thank you. My mic just fell off. That’s what I’m doing here. I just tweeted this: I swear, those talks are worth the price of admission as far as I’m concerned. Can we get another round of applause for our lightning talk speakers?

You guys just knocked it out of the park. Thank you so much.