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“What’s that mean?”

ImageAt the end of each episode of Far Field Productions TV shows like Bones, a boy points to a tree in the distance and asks, “what’s that mean?”

“What’s that mean?” can logjam decisions while everyone debates the meaning of words and ideas.  I’ve watched an hour-long meeting devolve into a discussion about the difference between connotation and denotation of basic words followed by another (later) meeting to get back on track.

That’s an abysmal waste of everyone’s time.

So I begin every website redesign benchmark and task meeting with a vocabulary lesson.

Why should I expect everyone to understand the language of content strategy?  I’m no more an expert about each of the academic fields encompassed within the institution I work within than they should be in website development and content strategy.

For example:

I needed key departments to provide content requirements for each section of the website’s approved top-tier navigation.  These sections were not based on departmental hierarchy, however; we established the main navigation through user testing, analytics, and logical/intuitive organization of information.

The first hurdle was getting every department to think globally about the website rather than focus solely on “their” section.  Then, I needed to make sure we were all using and understanding the same taxonomy so we could make key decisions.  I provided:

  • a visual of the templates we would use to create interior pages
  • a mock-up of the drop-down menus for each top tier navigation so they could see “their” section in context
  • a short list of keywords:  main navigation, section navigation, content architecture, utility navigation, and three-clicks navigation
  • an outline of their CURRENT website content, organized in folders, pages, and on-page content

This approach meant I could engage both visual and abstract thinkers and provide context for the information and decisions we needed.

Anticipate the different perspectives people bring to content decisions.  Respect their expertise.  Educate without patronizing people who don’t work with a digital communications mindset.

Answer “what’s that mean?” before they need to ask.



I’m almost finished developing the content structure for a new website, after slowly wading through the top tier navigation (aka “major buckets”) of content currently strewn across 10,000+ assets in a chaotic index.  Most of the sorting has been straightforward – history under “about,” extracurriculars under “student life,” the news center fully visible in the header navigation.  And I’ve carefully consulted with each department and decision-maker to ensure I’m not missing something or overthinking the taxonomy.

But there’s bit a tug here and there. “I’m responsible for these three separate but equal things so they all need to be under one category.” And, “I’m in charge of this area, why is THAT (which I don’t manage) in ‘my’ menu?”

Responsive content strategy organizes navigation with the user in mind.  Usability tests, feedback, surveys, and discussions drive the structure, placing content where visitors intuitively look for it.  That means content is organized for visitors, not for departmental or divisional hierarchy.

Sounds reasonable, but organizational politics and division of responsibilities can get in the way of a best practices approach to decision-making.

I’m coaxing department leaders to think more globally about the website and to look at “their” content as part of a continuum that engages prospective students, informs current students, and makes it a three-click experience no matter what someone wants to know, do, or share.

As someone said at Confab 2013, there’s a bell curve to every website redesign.  The trick is to push the curve toward excellence and away from fair-to-middling.

Let’s put that in the parking lot.

It doesn’t take long for a good communicator to adopt the jargon, phrasing, and acronyms of an organization.  As a long-term freelancer, I have shifted fairly easily among a diverse field of clients, from hospital to furniture manufacturer to fashion to software developer.  Each time, it was much like learning a variation on a language you understand well – British English as opposed to American English, for example.

Such is the case in higher ed.  I didn’t go for a graduate degree because I was too busy writing through the years.  But now, as a full-time digital communications manager, I’m working with JDs, Phds, MBAs, LLMs, MDs, JMs, masters of this, doctors of that, and “certified in XYZ.”

ImageWe strive to meet “best practices.”  Ideas go to the parking lot for later consideration, while some merit headline treatment.  The new CMS has a granular structure so we can enter once and post in multiple pages. Decision-making is a collaborative process, engaging stakeholders and developing buy-in through front-loaded one-on-ones. Scholarship is everything, and supporting documentation absolutely requisite for even a color or font choice.

In other words …

I utilize the “language” of the institution to guide decisions and approvals.

I say “best practices” when I mean “this is what we should be doing.”  I propose stakeholder engagement when I mean “let’s get all the decision-makers on board with this through small group and individual discussions as well as an online survey.”  I present data definitions for a new faculty landing page when I mean “the page needs to have thumbnails, titles, courses, areas of expertise, and contact info in a visual directory that’s user-friendly.” I offer more bandwidth when I mean I can take on more work.  And I use terms like paradigm shifts, taxonomy, analytics, accessibility, and benchmark so decision makers take me seriously.

Speak their language, and your work flows so much more smoothly.

The (longed-for) demise of the print catalog/viewbook/brochure.

Higher ed is not alone in its fondness for the print piece.  Yet perhaps because the written word is so … academic … the four-color, photography-heavy catalog/viewbook/brochure is a mainstay of communications with prospective students, alumni, and peers. 

Flipboard is going after the catalog market.  (Get the scoop here.) They’re perhaps the most socially adept online vendor coaxing bulk mail enthusiasts into the digital venues their customers actually prefer.  How successful they’ll be depends on the generational decision-makers still clinging to the wayback marketing machine.

Sidenote: enjoyed at this week’s Confab 2013:  the perennial “girls under trees” photos on myriad higher ed viewbooks and websites is making way for “faculty holding small things in front of their faces.”

Girl. Tree.


Small things.


Part of my role managing digital communications in a higher ed setting is advocating for digital publishing versus print.  Since our primary audience falls between the ages of 22 and 26, their well analyzed preference for mobile and tablet communications means we need to place our message in their hands.

I’ve spot-checked post events to see where printed flyers, catalogs etc. go.  It doesn’t take an analyst and hours of research to find the result, which is as clear as the overflowing trash and recycling bins en route to the exit.


If you love your password, if you use it for EVERYTHING, if you haven’t changed it in the last decade, if you have one that’s easy to key on your smartphone and comes quickly to mind … you just might be a victim waiting for a hacker.

It’s getting harder to create a password because it’s getting easier for hackers to access online accounts.

“Must have at least 8 characters, including a symbol, an uppercase letter, and one number.”

“Do not use a name or phrase.”

“Avoid repeating numbers or letters.”


Worst passwords

The more complex the password, the harder it is to remember it.  So now what?  Confess: there’s a cheat sheet somewhere in your desk or on your smartphone with user names and passwords for work, school, family, social, shopping, and other online accounts, right?

We’re only human.

Hence the genesis of the password manager, like LastPass, DashLane, and the others in Information Weekly’s 10 Top Password Managers.  (I’m not touting any of them – just mentioning some options.)  These online programs store your passwords, audit them, and will even sign in for you.

Problem with this scenario is that we right brain folks who don’t memorize numbers and rely on speed-dial to call the kids are now even more reliant on something or someone else to handle the business end of communicating electronically.  Is that a good thing?  A little voice inside my head says it’s not … that not knowing my kids’ cell numbers is going to bite me some day when I’ve lost my cell phone or have to resort to using a land line.  Imagine the chaos if the internet goes down, I can’t remember my user name and password for the password manager, or forget to update that handy-dandy cheat sheet?


I’ve come up with a solution that works for me and seems to meet all the cautionary advice parlayed by security experts.  I change passwords quarterly and keep a “hint” list to remind me of the current template.

As for the kids’ cell numbers … well, they’re written down somewhere.

It isn’t that words failed me …

… it’s more that they overwhelmed me.  Opting back in to the full-time writer workplace has been an adjustment.  To say the least.   Thanks to writing nonstop as a contractor/freelancer since leaving ad agency round-the-clock work days, I somewhat seamlessly stepped back into working for a salary.  I have become a digital communications maven in a higher ed setting, leading a website redesign and migration to a new CMS and deploying content for website, emarketing, social media, and other venues at the speed of light (or as fast as my fingers can hit the keys).

I really love my job.

I get to debate the Oxford comma versus AP style, weigh in on brevity (above the “fold”/screen shot) versus content that scrolls on and on and on, listen to the IT team problem-solve apps and software options (and pick up some handy html along the way), and generally spend every working hour in a geeky slice of heaven.

Sounds perfect, right?  But there is one downside.

I have to dress up.  The two or three appropriate-for-clients outfits made room for a more extensive wardrobe appropriate to the professional and somewhat traditional place I now work.  As I reluctantly ventured back into fashions that are more on trend than my usual jeans-and-tunic ensembles, I discovered a somewhat surprising love of shoes.  One great black dress emerges every week, with different scarves and shoes for totally different looks.

Thank you, Pinterest.

n, n!

If you like vowels, you’re going to have to pay for them.  Twitter takes a page from Wheel of Fortune.

Since vowels count as characters, what’s next?  Punctuation?  Spacing?




Be nice.

I write in a variety of styles and voices for my clients, giving careful consideration to the audience, message, goal, and other essential factors.  Lately, I’ve been writing in a setting where words are weighed, judged, and interpreted with keen analysis and thoughtful consideration of the connotations of the words.  The pressure on a writer is even greater in this environment because each writing assignment, whether in print or on a website, comes with the risk of unintended consequences.  Avoiding those consequences is imperative.

Yet unexpected and unforeseen consequences do happen. It’s interesting to observe the dynamics of how women and men charged with communicating the message handle feedback that is sometimes very critical.  I’ve watched women nod heads, take copious notes on tablets and laptops, and agree that they can be “more strategic,” “more careful,” or “more sensitive.” At the same time, I’ve seen men lean forward, debate the feedback, offer an alternative viewpoint, then agree to try a different approach.  The difference is telling:  women “make nice,” men assert themselves.  The end result is the same.  But along the line, the women come off as less sure of themselves and more amenable to being told what and how to do their jobs.

Which leads me to the ongoing discussion of women “leaning in” to take their place in work environments that still reflect a sharp divide between the way women and men think and work together.

Just this weekend, Fox News asked, “Are You Being Too Nice At Work?”  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution gathered a panel of high-caliber women “Aiming for the top” to discuss the challenges of breaking through a glass ceiling that continues to bar women from the highest echelons of business, legal, and academic worlds.   Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”  has precipitated a level of debate among women and within corporate America that feels even more intense because generations of women thought there would be power in their numbers entering business, legal, medical, and other fields.

We writers, too, must attend to the nuances of how we interact with our clients, our employers (if we’re on staff), and our peers.  We’re hired because of the quality of the work we’ve already completed.  We’re retained because of the level of respect we encourage in the way we handle feedback and discuss differences of opinion.

I agree wholeheartedly with reporter Amy Keyishian’s take on Sandberg’s “fake it ’til you feel it'” mantra:

The Nice Behavior: Be Realistic About Your Shortcomings
What to Do Instead: Fake It ‘Til You Make It

“Be more confident” isn’t realistic advice—confidence isn’t something everyone can summon with a snap of their fingers. But faking it? That’s something we can all manage.

Sandberg calls it “fake it ’til you feel it,” but the sentiment is the same: Women, more than men, let a lack of self-confidence discourage them from trying for their goals (for instance, they’re much more likely to say that their experience doesn’t qualify them for a new position, or their particular skills make them ill-suited for a project). Assume you will figure out the bits you don’t know, she says, and fake the confidence you need to take initiative.  Read more >>

Time after time, I have been in a position where a client asked if I could write a video script, speech, press release, etc. on a topic I had not covered before.  In every case, my answer has been “of course.”  I’m a good writer.  I can write about anything with a little homework.  The client doesn’t need to know how much I’m researching or discussing with peers.  The client just needs a skillfully written video script, speech, press release, etc. in the end.

You can’t fake writing skills.  But you can fake topical knowledge until you make it a reality.

And you get the next assignment because you present yourself and your skills with confidence and deliver quality results.

As Keyishian says,

“The takeaway? Succeeding in business—whether that business is a blog, the PTA, or being COO of Facebook—is hard, and nobody can do everything right. But you can try, and you can remain a human being while doing it.”

So be nice … with confidence, a firm grasp of how you present yourself, and unflinching self-advocacy.

If writing is so easy (everyone’s a writer), why is so much content badly written? I am fortunate to have clients who prioritize the message/content as an equal partner in their communications strategies. But there are legions of writers who experience the debacles of eLance, “give me five 100-word examples and I’ll think about it” offers, pittance pennies per word payments for SEO focused websites, and other hard-labor-with-little-return assignments.


I’m not sure what the big deal is.  Nate Thayer was respectfully asked by Olga Khazan, the Global Editor for The Atlantic, to repurpose an article he wrote for NK News about “basketball diplomacy,” for the benefit of her readers. Nate Thayer, needing a paycheck more than exposure, respectfully declined. And then, perhaps deciding that if he was going to work for free, he might as well get that exposure in a different way, he chose to adapt his experience into a blog post about the sorry state of unpaid journalism. Publishing the editor’s e-mail address seemed unnecessary, I suppose, but hardly vindictive so much as childish: “You offered me exposure to your readers, I return the favor to you via mine.” And then his comments were picked up by New Yorkwhich got him being a bit more profane and officially on-the-record. Recursively, the whole thing…

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