Margo Stern: I’m so excited to be here and hopefully my mom is actually out there. Cool. Oh, she’s there, yay! Also, while we’re talking about this, my notes are super small still, so I’d like to see them bigger if that’s possible. As we’re talking about words on the screen, I want to give a big shout out to the live closed captioning that’s happening underneath me right now. It’s been so good that we see accessibility to that baked in to all of our experiences here.
I hope you have had a fantastic Confab. I hope that you have a better understanding of who you are, of what content strategy means to you, and I also believe that probably isn’t entirely true, that you’re entirely confused about what content strategy means for you, what it means with the person next to you, and what it means for your future. So hopefully by the end of this, you’ll have a better idea.
So content strategy is still an amorphous thing. We come from a variety of disciplines. We do a lot of different things. Some of us are journalists, come from advertising or library science, studied things like Russian literature, psychology. So it’s no wonder ... oh, it’s getting in real time, bigger and smaller. It’s no wonder that our industries and our cross-functional partners are still a little bit confused about how we show up and who we are when we’re in the room, but I think it’s that difference that makes us stronger, that keeps us connected to one another.
We can’t do it all. We shouldn’t have to, but I think knowing our strengths, where we’re the most awesome, that’s really where our powers lie. So, in order to get in front of that ambiguity, the weirdness about content strategy that’s still out there, I’m going to ask you, eventually, to go through an exercise of defining who you are and what kind of content strategist you are. This means not only looking at the kind of work that you want to do now, but the kind of work that you want to do in the future too.
So when you define yourself first, this does a number of different things. You can calibrate your own successes, both real and perceived, and your failures; set expectations with your cross-functional team; help other people, like your manager, help you; and also know how to assess a misalignment of strengths and how to take the right action.
So, content strategy is still kind of a new thing, and determining your strengths isn’t just about what you want to do today but about how you plan for a career in the future. There isn’t just one way to do content strategy. I’m sure you’ve experienced that talking to other people in the last couple days. There isn’t a really specific well content strategy career or path that we all take. We’re all still figuring it out.
So, this didn’t happen. Content strategy was not a thing that came up during career days in elementary school. If you ask little angry Margo here what she wanted to do, it probably was something to do with writing. I was disproportionately excited about my library collection. It has always been a strength of mine, word stuff, from being an avid reader to writing, those kinds of things.
This led me after a bit of time to finding a career in advertising where I could put my words, my wit, and my strategy-oriented brain to work. So here is my advertising career path and it looks like a lot of change, and it was, but it’s kind of these big zigs and zags where I started at big agencies in one city to smaller agencies and bounced back and forth between freelance and full-time and took a quick, ill-advised sojourn into being a cheese monger for a few weeks. Through each step I really was course correcting and better understanding what it is that worked well for me.
So, to be honest, the time after I’ve left advertising has looked kind of the same, but those zags are a little bit smaller and smaller. I learned, I know, that I like to work at big tech companies to solve problems at scale. I know that I need to care about the work that I’m doing, and I also prefer being an independent contributor. I might call it an IC. I’m sorry if I slip into acronyms, to being a manager, and also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that at Facebook they’ve been really great about helping me through that career path and saying, “Okay, management isn’t exactly working for you in this space. Where can we find a new home that works?” And it’s been pretty amazing.
There’s a reason this slide is blank. I can’t tell you how to make a plan and stick to it. I can’t tell you where I want to be in five years with any confidence whatsoever. But I can tell you the work that I want to be doing. Like I said, problems at scale, user problems I really care about, and I want to leave room for doing talking and writing, that kind of thing. So how did I come to define these things? How did I make it from trial and error to actually putting it into action?
Well, let’s talk about what being a content strategist is, where we come from. Here’s where we come from in complete list. But as you can see, even though there’s a variety of disciplines, there’s a lot of overlap, be it advertising, library science, academia with the crying. There’s a lot of things that we do and where things overlap, and it’s those overlaps that are our strengths but also can be our folly, right? So these are all the things that we can do, and this is going to be hard to read and I’m sorry. But a lot of the things that we can do and that we do do at work every day also are covered by other disciplines.
So the thing that we all have in common, writing the words, is the thing that everyone just expects us to do and that’s what we show up and they said, “Okay, do the words.” So it kind of feels like a double edged sword, for me at least. We can write the words and that is much of what we do, and we all know in this room that we do a lot more than that, and I think that’s great because we can point to the things in the product or the website that we’re launching and said, “Yes, I did that,” unlike some designers or researchers that might say, “Yes, I had an insight that was in this product. It’s really important. I do impact and things.” So we have the opportunity being able to point to the words that we write and say, “Yes, that’s where my impact is. I did that, but I did so much more.”
So, how do we do that? How do we do the more? How do we express to our teams, to ourselves, to our managers, to people that we are interviewing with, exactly our strengths and not doing it in this defensive way? This is me on my deathbed saying, “I’m not just a copywriter anymore. I do so much more.” How do we get ahead of it, articulate our strengths so we’re not in this persistent state of kind of defensiveness forever?
So I call this finding your awesome. This is supposed to be much bigger because it’s super important. So, finding your awesome. This is not a typo. Facebook takes a strengths-based approach to personal and professional development. I used to call this finding your awesome when I was managing a small team at Twitter. We had a teeny, tiny team and we had a ton of work to do. So I told them, “Tell me what your awesome is and I will help you do that thing.” So for some, that might have been taxonomy weirdness. For some, that might have been writing and talking. For some, it was product thinking. So my job as a manager was to say, “Okay, this is what you want to do. I’m going to help you do that thing. So your job then is to do that for yourself.”
So when you start doing this, when you start determining what your strengths are, there’s a couple things to keep in mind. It’s okay if it’s easy. It’s okay that you like parts of your job, and don’t take for granted that the thing that comes naturally to you, that you enjoy, is something that everyone else can do. You have skill. You have talent. You have training. It isn’t magic even if someone asks you to do your magic. It’s not. It’s real.
So something that is a strength is something that goes when time goes by quickly. When you’re in the zone, when you’re geeking out about things. This isn’t the same for all of us, not by a long shot. For me, I like getting into weird language puzzles. I like solving for difficult content situations, and I also like the writing and the talking. It’s what comes naturally to me and it might not look like anything what comes naturally to you. Again, it’s okay if you enjoy it. It’s okay if it’s easy. That’s how big it’s supposed to be.
Also, keep in mind, you don’t have to do all the things. I imagine that in the last couple days, people have been showing their work and you are thinking, “I can’t do that. If that’s what content strategy looks like, I don’t know if I’m doing content strategy.” I still have that feeling all the time. If someone shows me their incredible, beautiful mind audit of things that they did and put it into this chart, I’m like, “No, I don’t know what that is.” It’s too much for me but that’s not my content strategy. When I see stuff like that, I always thought, “I hope that no one’s expecting me to do that because I don’t think that I can.” So, I can. It’s just going to take some time. I’m not going to enjoy it. It’s just not my jam.
So, this is too small to read. I’m sorry again. But this is how to get to where we’re going. So this is an exercise to determine your strengths, and it’s going to seem simple, but remember, I just told you, it’s okay if it’s easy. So this is how you identify your own strengths. Go through an exercise of writing down all the things that you do in your job. It doesn’t matter if it’s content strategy only task or something that has little to do with your work product at all, like mentoring.
Be generative. From this list, identify the ones that call to you most, that you feel in the zone when you’re doing. You can have conversations with your peers, with your managers. Look at past reviews and try and pull out what this list looks like, and from that list, now you have a definition of what being a content strategist is for you.
I also want you to identify your “not-strengths,” and I’ll talk about why I call them not-strengths. These can be both content strategy tasks and not content strategy tasks. For instance, I’ve gotten pretty consistent feedback throughout my entire career. This is going back to advertising too, about how I show up. That I can be aggressive or that gender charged word, abrasive, or direct, and I tried really, really hard and spent more energy in trying to fix that in not great ways than actually focusing on strengthening my strengths, and fixing that meant looking like showing up in a pastel shirt or wearing a nude lip and thinking that that would somehow soften my appearance and make me be less of a jerk. Actually it didn’t, so I was sitting there scowling through meetings in a more of a nice day look.
So keep an eye on your not-strengths, and again, I don’t call them areas for growth or area for improvement or weakness or soft skill, because again, I think these euphemisms put a little too much pressure on making them better, but I think you want to know them so you can be up front about them. You want to tend to them but I’m going to ask you to be patient and gentle with yourself. Focus on the good stuff but know where you’re fallible too.
As you’re growing, as you’re going through your career, I also want to keep in mind that growth doesn’t always have to mean management. I was a manager for a long time and there are aspects of it that I really, really liked. I liked mentoring. I liked helping make people better at the things they enjoy doing. That was great. There was some other stuff that was not strengthening to me. In fact, when I talked to my manager at the time about this, and she said that managing was strengthening to her, it just ... I couldn’t understand it. It didn’t fit with my brain. So throughout a year of kind of wrestling with this and better understanding it and feeling like, “Oh, in order to grow, I have to be a manager,” and her saying, “It’s really okay. You can just go do the job,” I gave myself permission to change and be an individual contributor.
But, I took with me what I found strengthening. Namely, mentoring and helping other people. So these are two valid and equal career paths, and there’s still a good deal of overlap. I can find ways to take the parts that I want without losing myself in what’s the most strengthening to me, and again, I got to give props to Facebook management for helping me through that. It was a good time.
So, you have your strengths, you have your not-strengths. What do you do with them? You do this. Sharing your strengths isn’t bragging. It’s setting expectations about how to work with you and where you’ll do well. It helps your manager make good connections for you so you can do the kind of work that you should be doing. It helps your cross-functional team understand what you’re there to do and what value you bring, and it helps you assess if you’re doing the right job, and it also helps you identify your own gaps and where you want to tap into the community, these people around you, to fill them.
So, we’ll start with taking your strengths with your manager. So, there’s all different kinds of manager relationships. I’ve seen boss type leadership, I’ve seen servant type leadership, but I prefer to think of the manager-managee relationship as more of a strong and intentional partnership, or like a trusted friend. So for me when I was a manager, I wanted people to tell me what they were great at so I can make that connection. As someone who’s being managed, I want my manager to know my strengths so they can help me get unstuck, so they can connect me to the right fitting opportunities and choose the right kind of projects.
Also, at some companies, there’s a lot of manager turnover, so the more that you know who you are and can tell that expressly and proactively to your manager, the faster those one-on-ones are going to be effective and useful and less of that awkward get to know you time.
So how to take your strengths to your team. So, teams, and I’m going to say XFN, when I do, I’m talking about cross-functional team. Again, acronym problems. Cross-functional teams are made up of all different kinds of diverse roles and strengths that all come together to do one thing, like a hockey team. Sports. This diversity can lead to a lot of strength and cooperation and a lot of confusion too. It’s especially true when we don’t fully understand what other people do or how they work. I think this is especially true for content strategy. There’s a varying degree of familiarity with what we do. We show up in all different kinds of ways, so it’s not surprising that the people we work with are a little bit confused about what to expect from us.
So being explicit and collaborative with your team about your strengths better sets up a good working dynamic and gets you to a good place faster. So with a new team, sharing all of your strengths together, and I’ll talk about how to do this, you get over that awkward sussing out and sniffing each other’s butts and understanding exactly who it is you’re working with, or doing that weird offsite thing where you’re playing games or getting drinks but not actually talking about how you work together. So there’s a couple ways to articulate your strengths.
These are a couple books that we use at Facebook. This is my cat, Canoga. So these books, there’s Clifton’s StrengthsFinder and StandOut, and they’re kind of like Buzzfeed or Cosmo quizzes for work. They’re tactical tools about how you can find your strengths and they’re not just about content strategy strengths. So Canoga here, for instance, is really strong at adaptability and being commanding, especially when it comes to how much kibble she has or does not have.
So, we did this StrengthsFinder thing in my team. This was this incredibly beautiful chart that someone on my team put together. Remember, one of those beautiful charts where I’m like, “I have no idea how you do that but I’m glad you’re here.” On the left hand side are team members. On the right are the strengths that go from most common to least common. So we could really see how our team mapped out together and how we fit together. Here’s another version of it, is now a circle. But the same kind of thing, we could see where we were similar, and these were just content strategists. Imagine how this might look with a cross-functional team of totally different roles and responsibilities and different ways of showing up. So it’s a nice way to proactively get ahead of understanding how other people work.
There’s two other, more low tech tools that I also like to use. They’re more scrappy. They’re easy to implement at any time and you don’t have to buy a book. One is called Operating Instructions, the other is called Come to Me When. So, Come to Me When is a great way to tell your coworkers what you’re really good for. It’s nice, it’s a lightweight way to convey your work strengths or your personal preferences. You keep them in a shared doc so anyone can reference or access them at any time. So here are mine. Come to me when you’ve got a huge logic problem to solve, you want to geek out about word choices, you need coaching about how to have a tough conversation, you just don’t know where to start, you need a gut check, you need a recommendation of where to eat in San Francisco, or you want to look at cat pictures. I’m really good at all these things.
On the other hand, Operating Instructions is a little more detailed. It gives your team clear indications about how best to work with you. So this might look like your work style, your affect, answers to questions that no one thinks to ask. And also, this is a nice way to get right at those not-strengths, to say, “This is what you might think I need work on. This is what I’m working on. This is that same feedback that I always get.” These are mine and these are what I just shared with a team of mine recently. I use humor to connect. You may have seen it here. It’s just something I do and something that has been called out once in a while for being unprofessional. I kind of don’t care. It’s the way that I work, right? And I wanted to get ahead of it and say, “This is how ... I’m not just doing it to diffuse or to be funny or to stroke my own ego but if you want to do that, it’s fine. But I’m really doing it to build relationships.”
Secondly, I’m more approachable than I look. So that goes at that scowling thing or being aggressive or abrasive or direct. Letting people know I’m actually cool. It’s fine, and to that point, give me the feedback. I can handle it. I have a finite amount of energy. I get tired and I also tell my team I’m best at 8:00 in the morning. By 3:30, I’m done, so if you schedule meetings with me then, I will probably decline them, and then I’m an introvert-extrovert. Happy on stage, I’m happy doing comedy and stuff, but I also need some downtime to recharge my extrovert batteries.
My team recently did this exercise and we found out not only a little bit more about one another but it turned out we all had that same energy spike in the morning and then crashed in the afternoon. So we started scheduling our regular team meetings at like 9:00 o’clock on a Thursday and we’re all fine with it. Wait, that’s a laser. [laughs] Lasers. Okay. So here’s how to use the two different Operating Instructions versus Come to Me When. Operating Instructions, for more of a cross-functional team, for a new team, for a team that needs reforming or rebooting, or when introducing yourself, and then encouraging everyone else to follow along. Come to Me When, it’s more for peers, it’s good to show humanity. It’s less good for working style.
So when it comes to your strengths, this is also how to tap in with your peer group. So this is the insanely huge content strategy group at Facebook. It’s ridiculous. I know, I know. But, the thing is even though this is a lot of people that I get to turn to internally, you have met ... What do we ... 750 people that came to Confab that I hope you connected with each and every single one of them, either connecting with them on Slack or on a Facebook group, and the reason why you want to connect with your peers is to fill in those gaps in where your strengths are. So if you’re tasked to do something like a crazy audit ... Again, I keep coming back to this because it’s not my strength, I can ask someone, “Has anyone done this kind of thing? Where can I start? Where do I go from here?” So maybe it isn’t someone to ... You aren’t finding someone to do that thing for you, but at least someone to help you get unstuck.
So your strengths and who you are and your future, and for me, this is what the future looks like. Determining your career path should start with knowing your strengths and it also means how to suss out a misalignment of strengths and the different actions you can take. But let’s start with finding a job in the first place.
So, I’m kind of fascinated in a geeky, nerdy-out way, because hello, about content strategy job descriptions. I’m curious who’s writing them, I’m curious what kind of job or content strategist they’re looking for, since we are all so different. It’s just kind of always been fascinating to me, because I’m a weird nerd about these things. So, when you’re searching for job descriptions, I would keep in mind of certain keywords that stand out to you that make sense for, yes, this is the kind of job I should be going for.
So, for Facebook’s job description, I can tell that there’s a lot of writing, right? To plan and write content. It says writing again. Hands on writing. Cool, I like that. A lightweight process. I wonder what that means. Planned writing, editing and testing, helping and apply, maintain consistency. Great. I think I understand what this means and how this aligns with my strengths of writing and then also working collaboratively, which isn’t for everyone. That other people are going to have impact and influence on the work that I do.
So, back to that “who’s writing job descriptions and who’s applying for jobs,” I’m, again, fascinated by this match, of matching up what someone thinks that their strengths are and the job that the people are looking for. This is a mass dating scenario that looks terrifying to me, but again, it’s like how do you quickly and efficiently match up what you’re looking for and what someone else is looking for? And I think part of that is knowing what your strengths are and bringing that proactively to an interview.
So get your interview questions ready. I know there was a recent debate about how important thank you cards are. Fine. I think this is more important, which is that at the end of the interview, when they have questions, you’re not just asking them about their culture or work-life balance but really about how you are going to succeed in that role. So these are some templates. “I do my best work when I’m blank or blank. How much of my time am I going to spend doing that here?” Or, “I get really excited when I’m doing this kind of content strategy task. Is that a core part of the work that I’d be doing?”
So, what do you do when it’s not working? When you’ve identified your strengths, you’re in your job, and for whatever reason, you’re unable to wield them. This might be because there’s this misalignment of strengths, you’ve got a work nemesis, which is a real thing, because of company culture or something else? There’s three attacks to take. I’m so glad that you guys know who Lisa Loeb is and I was going to say it last night at karaoke but then I thought better of it.
So you can stay, you can leave, you can adapt. So let’s start with Lisa. Staying. So, there’s a few different ways you can stay, and some very valid reasons why you should or why you have to stay in your particular job, and that’s fine. So, some people can do this. Some people can just stay and change nothing. Sometimes I think I can do this. I think that everything else is going to change around me and if I just put my head down, it’ll all be fine, but I also know that if I’m not challenged by what I’m doing, it isn’t going to last long, but it’s an option. I put it out there.
This is also one that doesn’t work for me but it can work for some people. You take a step back. You care a little less. Like I said, one thing I know about me is that in order for me to be successful, I have to care about the work. I’m not recommending this as a good course of action for forever, but if you’re going into work every day and you’re feeling challenged, you’re feeling triggered, you’re feeling charged, or you’re overly dependent on your work to bring you happiness, then find something else to do with your time. Not all of your time, not all of your work time, but at least see if you can disengage a little bit just to make yourself feel a little bit better, get a break.
So, my friend Mike says, “If you’re constantly putting out fires, you might have an arsonist on your team.” This was what I’m talking about, about that work nemesis. About the one person who when you wake up in the morning or they schedule a meeting with you and you’re like, “God dammit. I don’t want to see that dude.” They can often draw too much focus and there isn’t a ton you can do about them. That said, in my experience, I have found that that one blocker who’s the guy who’s throwing everything off the rails, he’s not having a good time either and that sooner or later, often sooner, they kind of end up working themselves out like a splinter. It just kind of resolves. So be patient with your work nemesis.
Another way to stay is to set a threshold, and this is really good when things are feeling really hot and really charged and you feel like you’re reacting to something every day and you’re ready to rage quit. What I want you to do is set an arbitrary or an informed goal that might look like, “If we don’t ship this fucking website in two months. I’m done.” I’m sorry for swearing. I’m not sorry. If there’s not a change in leadership or it needs to be like specific. Not, “Steve needs to be less of an asshole.” Set a goal, set a deadline, and then give yourself permission to start looking.
Adapt. There’s Gumby, also a fun old reference. So, keep in mind, you can’t change what you can’t change, and knowing what the difference is, between what’s under your control and what’s not, is the first part of your newfound path to happiness. You can change the things you have control over. You can recruit your manager to help you identify those things. You can change yourself. You can change your outlook. You can change your expectations. Sometimes you can change your team if you have that flexibility, or your allocation.
You can try to spend more of the things that you’re good at and less of the things that you’re not. Again, you probably can’t ask Steve to be less of an asshole, or the mission statement of your company or your earnings, but there are things that you can change, so focus on those.
You can have some tough conversations. So we have this book and course at Facebook that we use called Crucial Conversations. The book looks like this. It’s a really great structured way of having difficult conversations that you don’t want to have, and there was a great talk yesterday about specifically this thing. So, do these things. It can make scary conversations a little bit less scary.
So, you can also flex differently. What I love about this is that my yoga teacher posts this every week and he’s hysterical and he’s fantastic. So, if you know your strengths, if you know your weaknesses, what are the things in the middle? What are the muscles that you’re not exactly using that you could be using more to either solve particular problems or keep yourself more engaged? Yes, how can you do the same things but a little bit differently?
Speaking of cake, you can also leave. So maybe this is the time when you’re done and you’re ready and you have your resignation cake ordered and you’re about to head out the door. I would ask you to tap the brakes for a minute and think about what happens if you go. So, one of the most frustrating things about our job can be compassion fatigue, about feeling like we don’t have impact in the way that we want, that we’re fighting the same fights over and over again, but if you feel like these fights are worth fighting, if you feel that if you go, no one else is going to be in the room to advocate for the people who aren’t, then see if you can find a way to make it work.
This is something I work with on a regular basis. So, I’m just saying, when things are hard, it’s worth considering the impact of you not being there. But you’re like, “No, seriously, Margo. I’m done.” Cool. So, if you’re ready to leave, I would offer that you don’t go at this alone and you do it thoughtfully. Last month a colleague came to me and they were having trouble. They weren’t feeling like they were getting the growth that they wanted. They weren’t getting the promotion that they wanted. They weren’t having useful conversations and it was just kind of frustrating and they were done.
So, the feedback they were getting was that they needed to be more self-aware. I was like, “That’s weird.” So I asked them, I said, “Do you know what that means? What it looks like to be more self-aware?” And they said, “No. No idea, no idea what that means.” So I said, “What you need to go is go to your manager and have a really straightforward conversation and say, ‘What does that mean? What does growth look like? How do I measure this? Is there a class I can take? How do I know that I’m moving towards whatever this thing is?’”
So she didn’t quit. She stuck around. Tried to keep the gender neutral, didn’t work. But they are getting a little bit more information, so they aren’t just reacting to what’s happening in front of them from day to day. Know that when you leave, you will take it with you. So this is, again, me. My first day of seventh grade, and I was starting a whole new school and it was going to be a whole new life, and this shirt was going to change my life. Let me explain it to you. It was from Clothestein which was amazing. It was kind of like a puce color. It was tie dyed. It had a peace sign on it that was sequined.
That was going to make me the super, super, super cool kid that everyone was going to be friends with. So, no. Didn’t exactly work. I was still the same Margo who was more comfortable with a book than I was with people. So even if you’re trying to reinvent yourself for a new job, you’re still going to take your strengths and your not-strengths with you. You have to be honest with yourself, and not just go, but find a place that’s going to play to your strengths.
So Pinterest gives us these wise words. Leap, and a net will appear. I’m made of lies. John Burroughs said this, and I think there’s truth to it but there’s also not. Taking a step in your career shouldn’t be a leap of faith. I used to have a motto. I used to say, “If you’re a little afraid of doing something, you’re probably doing something right.” I’m not sure if that’s true anymore. I think I believe something a little bit different. You’re making your own net. You are, throughout your career, as you’re building your strengths, as you’re finding out what works and what doesn’t, the net appears because it lives inside of you like Spider-Man.
The more you know your strengths, the better positioned you are to navigate your career, no matter how it shakes out. Like I said at the beginning, I don’t know where I’m going, but the knowledge about who I am, for better or for worse, for floral shirts and scowling and for not, that’s what keeps me secure that I’ll be okay when I get there.
So, finally, this is some musical direction from Satie. Make your own demands, which is really wonderful as career advice. Not great when you’re playing piano, but I like it. I think that growth can come in many forms, and growth, again, like I said, doesn’t have to mean management or promotion. At a certain level, you can expand your impact. You can expand your influence, or you can just do your job and leave room for the other things that make you feel happy and fulfilled. Things like family, petting cats, petting cats with your family. There’s a wide range of ... wide world out there.
So to that point, you can choose your path. You define it based on what’s a strength for you, and you do your best. So take some time, learn what it is that you want to do, reflect on all the things you learned here at Confab, and then trust yourself and enlist others to go and make it happen. Thank you.