On Confab, Conflict, and Collaboration

A cherry on a spoon in the Minneapolis sculpture garden.

It’s two days after Confab and the scent of a Minnesota hailstorm is still wafting from the pile of laundry dumped haphazardly from my suitcase. There are a million things I could write about right now: Erin Kissane’s poetic take on the definition of liveliness; Karen McGrane’s salty assertions about selling content strategy; Erika Hall’s fiery deconstruction of the very kumbaya we were all in the middle of.

But this blog is brand-new (um, hi everyone!), so instead I thought I’d christen it with something appropriately hazily defined and self-indulgent: what I think Confab means for the CS community—and most importantly, what comes next.

But first, some history.

I’ve been writing and speaking about content strategy for some time now. But I’ve never written about it for us—the content strategists and other associated word nerds and data geeks who’ve been hanging around the internet trying to make better shit.

I’d like to say this is because I was focused on educating all the others—I’m not done telling my clients, colleagues, and pretty much anyone who’ll listen about content strategy, after all. But it’s probably got a lot more to do with deep-seated feelings of shame and inadequacy (who the hell am I, anyway?) than some kind of higher purpose.

So why now?

It only took me two days, a dozen-ish conference sessions and a seemingly inhuman number of alcoholic beverages in the North Star State to realize that we, my friends, have reached a critical mass: ain’t nobody gonna hold us back now. Especially not when we’re fueled by bourbon, cake, and Halvorson’s cheek kisses.

But we’re also at a crucial moment for content strategy. If we let it pass, no amount of sweet Minneapolis cherry sculptures can keep our lovefest from turning sour.

Don’t get me wrong. Confab was perfect—exactly what we needed, exactly when the world was ready for it. It was a whirlwind of smart folks full of passion, excitement, and encouragement. And rightly so: it takes a lot of high fives and hugs to get a discipline off the ground, and I doubtlessly wouldn’t be where I am without the groundwork laid by today’s CS bigwigs.

But to put it very crassly: We can only have a circle-jerk for so long before it’s going to start to chafe.*

If we keep things insular—keep focusing just on making a space for ourselves and railing about the others who just don’t get it—factions will form, the backchannel will get bitter, and sooner or later, we’ll wear out our welcome amongst the very people we’ve worked so hard to make notice us.

Elbows versus ears.

Many of us elbowed our ways to where we are today, and I’m certainly one of them. I fought hard, talked loud and generally pushed and prodded to get included earlier, more often, and more substantively.

It worked: I went from web writer to self-proclaimed content strategist to CS lead to the director of all things content- and message-related. I went from being stoked at having 20 hours budgeted for copyediting during the development phase to pitching the business, co-writing the contracts, and leading a team of six. I’m now able to adopt CS principles across not just website projects, but other media as well—including stuff on the social media and marketing side of the spectrum. These, I think, were big wins.

But elbows are a short-term game plan. Once you’ve established a bit of voice, it’s time for ears to take over—time to start listening to and collaborating with those people we fought so hard to let us in in the first place.

This, I think, is where Erika Hall got things so right (in her “delightfully hostile” sort of way, of course). Once you’ve proved your value—shown that damn design team how much better their product looks in practice when you’re included—there’s no us against the world anymore. Instead, it’s just us: one team, getting shit done.

When that team includes those who’ve spent their lives calling it IA or UX of IxD or any other acronym you can imagine, that’s going to take some give and take. It’s going to take some acceptance of—or rather, delight in—the shades of grey that separate where one discipline ends and the other begins.

So what’s next?

I’m not suggesting the lovely CS folks I met are sitting around suggesting we shouldn’t collaborate with neighboring disciplines. Rather, I just don’t think we can get there until we decide to move beyond just banding together and finding strength in numbers.

Creating a connected content strategy community has been critical. Maintaining it will always be important. But now’s our chance to start, collectively, pushing one another outside the comfort zone we’ve only just created.

Only then will we build our very own spoon bridge across the pond, and share the fruits of content strategy just a bit further.

*Sorry. Blame the tallboys I drank outside the Twins game for that gem.

7 thoughts on “On Confab, Conflict, and Collaboration

  1. Personally, I’m offended by the chafing reference.

    I kid.

    This is my favorite wrap up so far and certainly speaks to the need to expand CS principles as much as our own careers.

    Disagreement is good for any group, it builds the layers of discussions, but petty passive aggressive negativity benefits no one. Let’s hope the CS community doesn’t fall victim to this trend like other groups have.

  2. Thanks, Sara, for having the courage to lay out your ideas and fight hard for content strategy. It’s a fight I didn’t realize could have any traction and I’ve been on the outskirts. I’m a brand strategist, project manager and client services person who believes in strategy first, words second, design after message, editorial strategy to keep the benefits going. I’ve been lucky enough to have been challenged and inspired by the UX designer/developer I work with to become a content strategist. Over the past 3 years, he’s dropped irresistible morsels in my path to gain my support in finding a way to expand the strategy work and user testing we get to do. It just makes the work better. So, I know that people in other disciplines are as hungry as the words folks to make things better and willing to get in and work in what way we can toward a common goal. We all want to make the work better. I look forward to getting your perspective as the field evolves. I’m going to start a blog this summer with mine. It’s an exciting moment.

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