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What We Say and What We Mean

by Lee Thomas on September 1st, 2011

You say po-TAY-toe. I say po-TAH-toe. But we both know we’re talking about a starchy vegetable that can be baked, fried, mashed, or hashed.

But what if I say, “content type?” Do you know immediately what I mean? Do you think, okay, he probably means:

  1. The nature of the content. For example, it’s educational, reference, entertainment, etc.
  2. The type of thing we publish. Namely, local concert info, show calendars, and reviews.
  3. Some types of content are editorially created; others are curated, sponsored, or user-generated.
  4. The content will include text articles, slideshows, video clips, and podcasts.
  5. Different types of content appear on the landing page, overview page, and product detail pages.
  6. The content will be quirky, sassy, and cheeky. Unlike the boring type seen elsewhere.
  7. None of the above. And why is he talking about potatoes when it’s clearly cheese curd season?

If content strategy is part of your work, chances are good you see the differences between these interpretations immediately. Each addresses a particular aspect of content:

  1. is a broad descriptor
  2. is about substance
  3. is about authorship
  4. is about format
  5. is about structure
  6. is about tone
  7. is about deliciousness

In this instance, the word “type” is admittedly vague. Any discrepancy between what you understand “content type” to mean and what I intend would likely be revealed if we discussed it. Moving forward, we’d agree to use more specific terms. But if that discussion doesn’t happen, you and I may proceed in different ways, and our content project may run into trouble down the road.

What’s in a name?

When it comes to content strategy, some of the terms we use and encounter don’t yet have commonly shared definitions. In the CS community, different practitioners use the same term to mean different things. Certainly clients interpret some terms in different ways, depending on their point of view and familiarity with content strategy.

I’ve observed this especially at the front end of strategy projects, when the discussion is rather conceptual. The Brain Traffic quad establishes a helpful framework for talking about the major concepts of substance, structure, workflow, and governance. However, go a level deeper—when working on actual client projects—and we often need labels to help explain specific concepts. Especially concepts related to content substance and how it comes together in structure. For example:

  • Discussions about substance often include terms like content mix, subjects, topics, or types. Generally, these terms come up when exploring the parameters of what should, and should not, be included in the content. Like the example I opened with, such terms can be applied and interpreted in different ways. Even around the Brain Traffic office, these terms are used differently depending on the person, project, and when the work was done.
  • Discussions about structure may include terms like module, container, component, collection, view, or element. Such terms are necessary when exploring the different ways content can be assembled, broken down, atomized, and reassembled. Because content can take many shapes within different media and presentation devices/modes, the meaning of such terms can vary wildly. That’s not necessarily bad; in fact, the flexibility can be useful.

Three steps toward clarity

Like any field, content strategy will continue to develop a vocabulary. We’ll agree on definitions for some terms and debate others. Along the way, we can help our clients, colleagues, teams, and partners by aiming for clarity. We can:

  • Speak our assumptions. It’s easy to assume that people share an understanding of a term, especially when it’s a common word like the examples mentioned in this post. But when a term is used to identify a particular aspect of content strategy work during the course of a project, assumptions are ill-advised and potentially risky. Avoid this by explicitly defining terms and labels as they are introduced.
  • Examine our choices. In the rush to meet a deadline, the terms used in a draft recommendations document may not be the most accurate or useful. Pause and consider how well each term expresses the intended meaning: Is there a more accurate word? Are the various terms used distinct from one another?
  • Use terms consistently. Is the same term used to mean one thing in one deliverable, but something else in a related deliverable? Are two different terms used to refer to the same thing at different times? These things are easy to fix, if we take the time to notice. (A good proofreader will help spot them, too.)

Content people know that words matter, and that context, usage, and nuance can affect meaning in subtle or substantial ways. Paying attention to the terminology we use can help ensure our work is understood as intended, and lead to more successful projects.

Have you run into terminology issues in your content strategy work? What are some of the terms that caused debate or misunderstandings? Let’s hear from you in the comments.

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