Smashing Conference pair writing workshop
My workshop at Smashing Conference by Marc Thiele, used via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Thank you for attending my workshop. This page includes instructions, discussion questions, and links for all the activities we’ll do today, as well as links to resources like articles, slide decks, and books for each topic.

You can also download the Presentation deck (PDF).


We’ll be using the Comcast Business website throughout the afternoon.

Activity 1: Strategy mad libs

Remember those little books where you’d fill in the blanks with random nouns, verbs, and adjectives and end up with a ridiculous story? Today, we’ll use that same idea—except that instead of a kooky story, you’ll work with your group to quickly develop a rough strategy statement for Comcast Business. We’ll use this statement throughout the day.

In the real world, I use this activity all the time when I am trying to get groups of stakeholders to agree on a direction and make decisions on priorities.

  1. Spend 5 minutes reading what Comcast Business has to say about its brand and its customer service:
  2. With this information in mind, spend 10 minutes discussing the following questions as a team:
    • Which values are most important to Comcast Business?
    • What do you think the company wants customers to think and feel when they encounter the Comcast Business brand?
    • What would you guess Comcast Business’s goals are, based on this information? It’s okay to make some assumptions.
    • What would you guess users are most interested in getting from Comcast Business? What needs do they have? (In the real world, we’d research this!)
    • How do you think website content could best communicate the values, goals, and needs shown here?
  3. Now, turn to your mad lib worksheet. Spend 15 minutes deciding how to best fill it out to meet the needs you’ve identified.

Further reading

Find more info and ideas for adapting this approach in my article on Content Mad Libs. You can also download a PDF of today’s mad lib worksheet.

Activity 2: Define your voice

Based on the rough strategy your team decided in activity 1, it’s time to make some choices about the voice and messaging that matters for Comcast Business. We’ll do this with a card-sorting activity.

By carefully selecting a limited number of cards to define Comcast Business, you’ll quickly get everyone on the same page about who you’re trying to be—and who you’re not. These cues will then help you make decisions about personality, word choice, and message prioritization in your content.

Each group has a set of 36 cards (for a real-life session, I’ll often start with more than this). Here’s what to do. You have 20 minutes:

  1. Spread your cards out in front of you, so everyone can see all of them at once.
  2. Quickly identify which ones don’t fit what or how Comcast Business should communicate online, using your mad lib to guide you. Set those aside.
  3. Take a look at what’s left. Start selecting the ones that feel most aligned with your strategy, and move those to their own section.
  4. Get down to no more than 12 cards. To help you whittle, look for terms that are similar to one another, and pick the one that most speaks to your goals. For example, if you have both “trusted” and “reliable,” you might want to discuss which of those terms feels most critical to communicating with your customers.
  5. When you’re done, make a list with two columns. Label the left column: “Less” and the right column “More.” Under Less, write all the terms that you threw out right away—the ones that do not fit. On the right, list the terms you selected. (Don’t list the ones that got left in the middle—these are your “meh” terms and aren’t worth your time right now.)

We’ll use this list in the next activities to guide our work.

Further reading

For more on using card-sorting to create brand messaging, voice, and tone, read: Content Strategy at Work by Margot Bloomstein. You can download Chapter 2, which details this activity in-depth, for free.

Activity 3: Content analysis

Now it’s time to look at some real content and see how well it reflects the strategy and messaging you’ve agreed on—as well as find inconsistencies, duplication, or other problems.

Start with the main Internet service page, and start exploring this section (just the Internet section) of the Comcast Business site. See if you can look at 5 or so pages over the course of 20 minutes.

  1. Write down the name of each page you visit in the Internet section (e.g. Business Internet, Business Internet – Plans & Pricing, Business Internet – Included Features, etc.) in the first column of your audit worksheet.
  2. For each page you review, discuss the content:
    • Does it align with the strategy your team developed? If not, why not?
    • How well does the content align with the voice and messaging you decided on during the card sort? Use you Less/More list as a guide.
    • What’s the most important content on this page? Is that content prioritized?
    • Is it easy to understand, or is there anything that confuses you?
    • Is all of the content useful? If not, what seems to be extraneous? What’s missing?
  3. Fill in each column of your audit worksheet with notes as you go.

Further reading

Content audits come in all shapes and sizes. Learn more about how to take a deep dive into one with these resources:

Activity 4: Writing structured content

Pair up with another member of your team (if your group has an odd number, make a trio).

Select one page of content that you audited where you felt like the messaging, prioritization, and tone were off base. As a pair:

  • Spend 10 minutes sketching how you’d redesign that content. Which chunks of content do you need (e.g., overviews, feature explanations, calls to action, etc.)? How would you prioritize them to serve your strategy? Consider how that content would work on a small screen, too!
  • Spend 25 minutes rewriting the copy to fit the new model—and to embody the voice and messaging your group decided on in the card sort.

Create a text document with your draft copy in it. Don’t worry if it’s rough—just get as far as you can. As you write, pay special attention to:

  • Subheads, links, labels, and other short bits of information. Make sure these help guide a user through the content.
  • Defining which information needs to be communicated first—make sure you’re not just filling boxes.

Spend the last 10 minutes sharing drafts with the other pairs in your group and discussing:

  • What else could you cut?
  • Is anything unclear?
  • How could it better reflect the voice you’re trying to achieve?

Further reading

For more on pair writing, modular content, and leading writing workshops, see these sources:

Activity 5: Where will you start?

Think about what we’ve covered today. What’s one area where you can start applying these principles or trying out these activities? This could be for your company, for a client, for a school project, or even on your personal site or blog. Here are a few starter ideas:

  • Does it seem like there’s tons of old content on your site, and you’re not sure what its value is? Start a content audit to understand how much content is out there, where it is, and what it looks like.
  • Are different authors from across your company writing content that’s inconsistent? Get them together to decide voice and tone, and then follow up with an editorial style guide that defines how the team will communicate.
  • Are you rehashing the same discussions about goals, priorities, and what goes on the homepage over and over? Try starting your next meeting with a content focus activity.

Take a Post-It note and write down:

  • A content challenge you want to solve
  • What the first step will be to solving it

That’s it!

Thank you for coming today! If you have additional questions or want to bring more content strategy training to your team, send me a note with the form at the bottom of the page.

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