My most painful content lessons (Part I)

Over the course of a 20 year career, I’ve produced a lot of content. To begin with, my outputs were almost exclusively press releases. Thankfully, the world moved on and, since then, I’ve produced everything from op-ed pieces and research reports through to live debates and documentaries.

That represents a body of work that I’m very proud of. However, those 20 years have also been punctuated with a lot of very painful lessons on how not to generate content. In the interests of sharing, here are two of my bigger content mistakes, failings or lessons that still get me a bit hot under the collar.

pages of content

Reaching journey's end

There’s a lot of corporate lingo and consultancy truisms which leave me reaching for the sick bag. “You have to take them on a journey” is one of them. Sadly, the sentiment it expresses is true – and I’ve occasionally fallen foul of failing to do this sufficiently.

When you’re as immersed in editorial considerations and content production as I am, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that everyone gets what you’re trying to achieve.

I’ve sat in those meetings where it’s all been explained; I’ve written the briefing documents and strategy papers and seen the heads nodding in agreement all around the table. But I know now that even this is not always enough.

I worked on a large thought leadership report a few years ago with a professional services firm. Some data had been provided for us to work with – but it wasn’t great. I therefore set us off on an interview route, eventually producing a piece of content based around the insights gleaned from a dozen credible, high profile industry experts. From the outset, I was clear in stating that this report would be somewhat different from the corporate norm; opinionated rather than factual; an extended feature article, rather than a set of bullet points and findings.

Thinking we were all on the same page, imagine my surprise when, right at the end, a senior stakeholder claimed he didn’t like it because it was “too many people just spouting opinions and not enough facts”. It was a hammer blow.

The lost supporter

So late in the day and with no other useful data to incorporate, there was little that could be done. Pragmatism won out and the piece was published. But that senior stakeholder wasn’t really onboard as we headed into the distribution phase.

It’s all too easy to point the finger at him, accusing him of not paying enough attention to the document as it took shape. However, I should have anticipated that this was always a risk, pushing a counter-cultural piece of content in a very conservative, orthodox organisation.

I still stand by the content. Flicking through it the other day, I still found it to be an interesting read. But I lost a major supporter along the way. He never completed ‘the journey’ - and I should have put more effort in at the start to make sure that didn’t happen.

This observation isn’t limited solely to my project stakeholders and subject matter experts. I’ve also seen pieces of content fall foul of compliance people or design teams, all of whom had their own rules and guidelines to follow.

I’d get angry at this, suggesting that such rules were not created with my preferred sort of content in mind. Sometimes, I’d earn myself a bit of wriggle room but, more often than not, the discussions would end in a frustrated stalemate. At such a point, you have to ask yourself; who’s the bigger mug – the person who wrote the (stupid!) rules or the person who didn’t acknowledge them from the outset?

no content mistakes here

The dangers of editing by committee

During my career, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen potentially good pieces of content destroyed by over-zealous committee editing. I never should have let it happen. I wish I could have saved a few more of them.

I’m forever promoting the value of adopting a publishing mindset when it comes to producing corporate content. In a publishing environment, a reporter writes a story. An editor and sub-editor will be involved in the subsequent process; suggesting amends, tidying up the copy and deciding whether or not to publish. That’s it; a very simple, tried and trusted process. At no point does every other reporter – or every other person in the building – get to bring out their red pen too.

Yet that’s exactly what happens in a (large) corporate environment. The bigger the organisation, the more people who want to get involved; not creatively but destructively. These people are typically some way removed from the editorial process and don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve. Some of these interventions are typically justified on the premise of compliance, even though writers are well aware of the regulatory constraints within which they operate. Many more are justified by “wanting to get another set of eyes on this” – which really means covering backsides.

A shift in direction

After I’d lost yet another nascent piece of engaging content to some unknown third party red pen, I shifted tack. I established editorial review groups, whose job it was to review and edit content. I then made it clear that anyone else who received our content was invited to review and critique but not to edit. By publishing more content by-lined to a named individual, I reinforced the point that these were their thoughts. “For critiquing, not editing” became a team mantra.

This helped – but it still didn’t prevent all the unwanted edits. Perhaps I didn’t make the point clearly enough (see ‘taking them on a journey’ above). Perhaps some people in a very hierarchical organisation just can’t help themselves. But at least I began to avoid some of the pain associated with the uninvited red pens.