Leading a one-to-many webinar is a strange affair. Me, alone in my office, wearing a headset, talking out loud at what I hope is a normal volume to an audience of unseen someones in unseen places all over the world.
I’ve done a half-dozen or so of these things now. It’s getting a little easier. I have to be extra-attentive to my pacing and energy on a webinar, as there’s basically no feedback. Am I talking too fast? Too slow? Am I speaking in a normal register? Normal volume?
A few things that seem to help:
Standing. If I can pace a little it feels much more natural.
Gesturing. No one can see me, but I still move my arms around and point at things as if I’m on stage. I think this helps with the energy level.
Pausing. This is a hard one; if you’re not talking nothing is happening. I have to remind myself it’s important and good to pause, to breathe, to let important points hang in the air a little.
Now I just need to stop asking “right?” so much. Right? It’s crazy.
Just back from Interaction 19, a big design conference held in Seattle this year. I gave my How to Get the Writing Done talk on Thursday in the Cinerama, a lovely theatre space with an intimidatingly-large screen.
I almost didn’t go. Thought about canceling when Mom died in December. I didn’t know what kind of state I was going to be in. (I still don’t quite know what kind of state I’m in.) But I’d grown tired of putting my life on hold every six-to-twelve months to deal with some personal tragedy. So I stuck it out. I’m glad I did.
I skipped what I’m sure was a lovely speaker reception, and didn’t stay long at one of the happy hours on Thursday. There were some old friends I should have talked up, and some new connections left unmade. More than my mood could manage. I put my energy into getting there, getting back, and giving a good presentation. Check, check, and check. We’ll call it a win. Sometimes showing up is all you can do.
I did a completely new workshop (and related talk) at Confab this year. By completely new, I mean:
Not upcycled from a talk I’ve already given
Not an evolution on a previous talk or workshop
Not based on a blog post or other writing
So new, new, new. It was a lot of work.
Confab Tenessa (her actual legal name, believe it or not) asked me to do a workshop that responded to the strong interest she gets on the topic of user journeys and customer journeys. I was game, but I knew I didn’t want to simply teach “how to create a customer journey map 101”. For one thing, that’s often not the right solution. For another thing, it’s not an area I have direct deep experience in. So I took it and turned it a little and my premise became: use the excitement around user journeys and experience mapping as bait to hook people into a workshop about being more user-centered in the content strategy work they’re already doing.
These were the major steps in my process:
1. Read lots of books
All design tools are made-up, yes, but a lot of what’s been made-up has also been written down, so we might as well start there. I read a few new books and revisited some old ones to get a fuller landscape of user-centered design tools planted in my head. I wanted to lean on books in particular (as opposed to blog posts or my own reckonings) to anchor the material in current literature and help ward against semantic diffusion.
2. Capture all my notes in a single-purpose analog notebook
This was a change from my usual approach. I normally take notes into an outline-style mindmap document. This time I wanted to stay more open and have more room to play and sketch. I had even less idea than usual what would be valuable and where I was going to go with it. Paper is more workable. You can scribble stuff out, cross things off, circle and highlight. Mindmaps are faster, but I didn’t need fast this time, I needed flexibility.
Having the notebook also helped the workshop prep feel compartmentalized from other projects. I kept it on top of the books I was working from in a tidy little pile, and I knew it was workshop work time when the notebook was open. Taking analog notes also cut down on digital distractions.
3. Use my whiteboard and abstract to focus on the big picture
Trust me: you do not want to put in weeks of work only to re-read the abstract toward the end and think “Oh shit. Thaaaaaat is not what I’ve been working on.”
I printed and taped my abstract to my whiteboard and worked over it to put some weight behind the main ideas and give myself some points of focus throughout the rest of the process. The big diagram in the center, for instance, got refined into a simpler slide when it came time to draw the deck.
Having big ideas on the whiteboard helped keep me moving. It was a place for my eyes to land whenever my brain unhelpfully interjected “Wait, what the fuck was this workshop about?”
4. Draw out my ideas (literally and figuratively) in the Paper app
Drawing slides put my brain in a different mood than assembling them in Keynote. Every slide was a blank slate. Did I want to make one big point with a few big words? Or break something down in detail? Would this idea be best expressed with words? Or a visual metaphor? Or a sketched representation of the actual thing?
I initially thought I would just use Paper to do a few illustrations and/or hand-lettered quotes, but I was really enjoying myself and ended up drawing every single slide.
In hindsight I might have used a different app with layers and more flexibility to make changing things easier, but it took less time overall than you might imagine. Drawing means you’re not fussing with guides and grids and alignments and fonts. Being able to sketch whatever I wanted also meant no time hunting for photos and graphics.
Drawing the slides was also a great excuse to practice sketching and lettering. My work on the slides was spread out over a period of no more than three weeks, but I can tell at a glance which ones I did first and which ones I did toward the end.
5. Arrange and find structure in Keynote
After finishing what I imagined to be 2/3 of the slides, I exported images from the Paper notebook to Dropbox. I then set the Keynote presentation to a custom size that matched the default output size from Paper so I could directly drop in images as new slides without having to adjust anything.
I then played around with sections and structure in Keynote, adding transitions here and there and just kind of getting a feel for the flow of everything. I leaned heavily on the ability to nest slides into sections in Keynote’s navigator. Unless I’m giving a very short talk my slides are always organized into sections, even if the sections are not called out explicitly during the session.
When I found need to revise a slide or add a new one, I would sketch it quickly in Paper and send it to my laptop via AirDrop. Easy-peasy.
6. Rehearse out loud to figure out what I had to say
Once I had most of the slides in, I did a couple of fast play-throughs (just looking at all of the slides in sequence) and added presenter notes as things occurred to me. I’ve found that talks and workshops flow better when I make notes in small batches across big sections, rather than getting focused in on a particular slide or talking point.
I use presenter notes for self-coaching and to capture any details I’m afraid I’ll forget. I try not to make them too dense, and I intentionally leave out some of the bigger, more mentally-available ideas and anecdotes because I don’t want to accidentally be reading them instead of presenting them.
7. Tweak and refine
I channeled my usual last-minute anxiety about the workshop (and the talk version of it I gave a few days later) into improving the quality of slides I already had: primarily, re-lettering words to make them bigger and (somewhat) easier to read. In most cases I would flip to the original illustration in Paper, duplicate it, erase any words that I wasn’t loving, and give them another go. Then AirDrop, drag and drop, save.
8. Give the workshop!
I felt vulnerable using lo-fi, sketched-out slides, but I managed to only make one joke about it. I put a link to the slides on the screen as people came in the room so they could find them on Slideshare and follow along (in case anything was difficult to read).
In facilitating this workshop, I discovered a major advantage of my approach I didn’t expect: I knew the material really well. Every drawn slide was like an icon in my mind that helped me recall what I’d read about it, what information I decided to include or not include, even the point in my process where I added that knowledge to my stack. I felt much more confident about the topic than I had any right to be, and the workshop was so much the better for it.
Holy shit. So was that a conference or was that a conference?
I’m still reeling from the end of Confab 2018, a (the) content strategy conference held annually here in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My employer, Brain Traffic, produces the event. My primary contribution leading up to Confab is to interject unasked-for advice into conversations I overhear the actual Confab team having. My two best interjections this year were suggesting those little instant cameras as speaker gifts (which was a trick, because I wanted one), and the idea for making an activity book for the attendee swag. I also came up with at least one content strategy related owl pun for the cakes that nobody ever sees because they get cut up before the cake break.
(Note that this is just me as a dude reflecting on his own Confab experience, not any official statement from Brain Traffic or Confab. I feel dumb saying that because no one cares but I’m saying it anyway because PROFESSIONALISM!)
I had a full calendar for this Confab and I was glad for it. My friend Ida was in town early, and we spent Saturday as tourists all over downtown Minneapolis and eventually at Art-A-Whirl. We were lucky enough to see Sean make his first in-person sale for Modern Skateboards, his ridiculously beautiful line of custom, hand-painted complete skateboards. I got in some more Art-A-Whirl with my friend Michael the next day, and found myself daydreaming about renting a studio space somewhere in Northeast just for kicks.
Confab is three days long, with workshops on the first day. So I was up early Monday for breakfast before facilitating a brand-new workshop about being more user-centered as a content strategist. It went fine I think?? We’ll see how the evaluations turn out. Workshops are tricky because they depend heavily on the experiences of the people in the room, and because it’s difficult to rehearse them solo. Still! Confab crowds are attentive and inquisitive, and their good questions and contributions always help fill in some of the rough spots. My goal for a half-day workshop is for 80% of the participants to mostly enjoy themselves and leave with at least one good idea. For a full-day workshop it’s two good ideas.
I decompressed in my hotel room in the afternoon and did a bit of work. Later, there was a speaker reception at 4 Bells, which is completely gorgeous and has great service. Made a few new friends and caught up with some old ones. We met the new Facebook Fellows and I scored an excellent Baggu tote bag with a subtle Facebook Content Strategy logo they brought for the occasion. Got groceries with it last night and the clerk said, “This is such a nice bag I almost feel bad putting groceries in it!” Now that’s some classy swag.
Tuesday morning was a new experience for me: not being even a little hungover the morning after the speaker reception. Oh, and also: leading the official Confab run! I was downstairs at 6:30 in the goddamn morning to lead eleven lovely Confabbers on a 2.36 mile run through the Loring Greenway and park, around the sculpture garden at the Walker, up and around the Walker itself, and back. And we didn’t lose anyone! I don’t think.
I’ve never been on a group social run, let alone led one, but I was able to borrow experience from going on community bike rides here in Minneapolis, and from leading campus tours at Drake way back in the day. Which, now that I think about it, a running campus tour would be kind of cool.
The conference part of the conference
Tuesday and Wednesday were the session days, and therewereSOMANY good sessions. The schedule was a little different with many more mainstage talks this year, meaning everyone at the conference watches them together, and there was also a Slack team just for attendees. So although it was a much bigger crowd than I’m used to at this kind of event, in some ways it also felt like a closer, more communal experience.
I never know what my practical takeaways are at a conference until I find myself needing them in my work a week or month or two years later. If I had to pick some personal themes, I found myself noticing points about:
The work being more important than the disciplines and tools (Gerry made this point rather explicitly in the first mainstage talk, and it echoed throughout many others)
The value and power of not just writing, but of designing with words
The importance of having a shared understanding of your content and business reality with the people you’re working with
The idea that inclusivity in content and design should be table stakes for any team, and that many teams don’t yet have the right people at that table
Wednesday morning I delivered a talk version of my workshop, focused a bit more on the types of situations each tool was best-suited for. I stole a technique I learned from Ahava at a previous Confab and stood at the entrance to greet attendees as they came in the room. This helped me feel more at ease, and also to redirect a few of Monday’s workshop participants to another session, since the material was going to be so similar. Thanks to Zach (Zack?) on the A/V crew, Jatin, Lynne, Quentin, Tenessa, Lauren, and everyone else I’m forgetting that helped things run smoothly.
This discipline of content strategy is evolving fast. Confab is always a smart crowd but this year it felt like there were more seasoned experts in every room (not just on stage), more people asking more advanced questions, and more casual conversations about content strategy victories, not just challenges. It was a little intimidating, to be honest, but also very encouraging. All that, plus the sheer number of attendees, speaks to a very healthy and growing industry. Can’t wait to see what’s next. (I have a sneaking suspicion something exciting might be coming this fall…)
Addendum: a few things I bookmarked during #Confab2018
Made my first trip out to Sioux Falls and to Now What Workshops last week to talk about writing tools with some lovely folks. I wasn’t able to stay as long as I’d have liked but I did get to sit in on Laura Creekmore’s morning workshop on content modeling. I sketched a few notes:
These quotes also caught my ear:
I write in spreadsheets because it forces me to structure things.
In a lot of cases, exposing our structure to users just confuses them.
The city was lovely. I explored quite a bit on foot, as I do, and stopped in to a few shops and restaurants. I like traditional main streets, with a density of shops and bars and a low-speed road with angled parking and lots of stop signs. Reminded me a bit of downtown Ames, and of Valley Junction in Des Moines (though hipper than both).
Sometimes I don’t really grasp where a place is until I’ve spent time there. Sioux Falls felt very familiar and homey. I overheard all kinds of conversations about Nebraska and Iowa and Minnesota, and there was Twins gear everywhere. In a certain sense it felt like a place I’d already been.
Thanks to Corey, Ashley, Karla, and everyone from Blend and the team and sponsors that made the event go. A+ would visit again.
Their new space downtown is really cool. I meant to take pictures, but despite arriving 25 minutes early I got lost in the building itself and spilled in out of breath 3 minutes before everyone started gathering. It was fine, just a whirlwind. It was a beautiful spring day, finally, and I walked back after across the river. So I did get to take a picture of the Jet Ski that’s still stuck in the St. Anthony Falls lock and dam.
The students were great, of course. I’m in awe of anyone who can make room for an intense program like that in the adult life they are already living in order to level up or change careers. That’s no small thing.
Got some great questions, which I’ve tried to recall and summarize below.
What specifically can developers do to help with this kind of stuff? (Friendlier user interface copy, for example).
Get involved early, if they’ll let you, and help UX designers understand the full scope of what they’ll actually need to design. Even good UX designers get tunnel vision on the ideal path, and neglect to write messages and design for scenarios where things go wrong.
Another way to help is to write something, even if it’s just bullet points about the situation. Designers can run with some basic info, but if you only put “error message goes here” you’re going to have to have a conversation about it, which will interrupt your precious coding time.
When in the process do you focus on this kind of stuff?
Ideally some of these principles, or principles like them, are baked into the design culture of your organization. So everyone is thinking about them all the time. That’s not actionable though, I realize.
Practically speaking, when I was a User Interface Writer supporting a team of User Experience Designers (who did all of the wireframing and user flows), I would typically consult with them in a sort of pre-review before they took their design concepts in front of stakeholders. It was best if this was a couple of days before the stakeholder meeting, as sometimes my questions would reveal a gap in the design concept they’d need time to fix. But sometimes it was an hour before the meeting, and I’d help them punch up the interface language and write things in a more user-friendly way.
What if I’m a developer and I notice that there are lots of bad/unfriendly/inconsistent message strings all over our product?
In the spirit of Dale’s principles, you want to find a diplomatic way to bring this to the right person’s attention, as it may well be that someone worked hard on those messages and they’re still just bad. I’d recommend collecting a lot of the strange ones together and sending off a message to relevant parties asking something like “Do we know how these are getting written? I’m curious about the process and wanted to see if there’s a way to strengthen what we have, and to know whom to follow up with if I have questions about particular messages.”
How do I get executives/stakeholders to care about this stuff?
Constantly remind them about users. Don’t just show wireframes like you’re handing in homework — put those wireframes and other deliverables into a presentation and story and make include the user’s voice/perspective however you can. Photos help. I always like the little thought bubble illustrations representing questions or concerns the user might have at various stages of the journey.
As a content strategist, I’ve found that quotes are very powerful. I like to warm people up to challenging ideas with impactful or emotional quotes from my user and stakeholder interviews that emphasize my point in a compelling way. Quotes are also nice from a pacing perspective, and tend to catch people’s attention as they skim through a document.
I also got the perennial portfolio advice question, but I’m going to save that answer for another post.
Thanks again to Ange, Emily, and all of the students and instructors that shared their time with me. I’m sure I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, remember to smile!