How to Be a Content Therapist

I sometimes hear a content strategist joke about being a “content therapist”. But it’s not so far off! Most of content strategy isn’t about writing. It’s about listening. In a way, we are (unlicensed) therapists. Content therapists!

In other words, we need to understand how people feel in order to communicate with them. How we relay information is just as important as the information itself, and that means we need to listen.

Build consensus

Here’s one example of a question that might come to a content strategist: should we (the organization) stop using the words “master” and “slave” in technical documents?

A junior content strategist may think the answer is “yes” or “no.” But a content therapist knows to respond with a question: what is the context?

In our example, the context is that the words are harming people. That’s a very good reason to remove it. The question is likely coming to the content strategist because there was disagreement elsewhere in the organization, so it’s useful to know what the disagreement is as well.

Now the content therapist has more people to hear from. If the disagreement comes from concerns like “where does it end?” then we’re having a very different conversation from a more logistical concern, such as “where is the budget coming from to make these updates?” (As a note, both of these are questions that can be answered, and neither means “don’t change it”.)

In this case, the content strategist’s role isn’t actually to decide on a word. Their role is to be a content therapist. They need to listen to marginalized people who know the harm a word can cause, and they need to listen to the dissenting opinion, in order to help dissenters understand the value of embracing change.

Document and share

Another challenge content strategists come across is how to show that they’re listening. Again, we lean into the role of therapist. We show that we’re listening by writing down what we hear.

For example, hearing that the organization uses the Oxford comma is great. Documenting it, and sharing it out to decrease inconsistencies, is better. Equally, knowing that the organization supports the LGBTQ community is a nice thing. But documenting the usage of gender-neutral pronouns is better.

Documenting the practices that people share with you will help them know they’ve been heard. Sharing those practices around the organization will help people hear each other.

Keep iterating

Lastly, a content strategist isn’t meant to make a decision and leave it forever. By listening to people, you will hear when things change. And then, as a content strategist, you’ll re-write and revise.

A governance plan can help stop this from feeling overwhelming. Set a schedule and a plan for when changes will roll out.

Be a content therapist

Ultimately, a content strategist is (of course) creating guidelines and setting out rules. But no one wants to follow rules unless they understand the value to them. That means a good content strategist has to listen. Listen to the stakeholders. Listen to the end-users. And listen to coworkers. They’ll tell you what they need, and then you can tell them how you’ll help.

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