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The Early Signs of Future Content Strategists

by Emily Folstad on March 15th, 2012

Here at Brain Traffic, we’re often asked what skills content strategists share. Content strategists come from lots of different backgrounds, but they usually seem to have a few traits in common. After polling the Brain Traffic team, we realized that many of these traits were evident not just from the beginning of our careers, but from the beginning of our lives.

If you think you’ve got a budding content strategist on your hands, look for these early signs:

  • Always has their nose buried in a book
  • Is a writer who is published early
  • Thinks learning and listening is fun
  • Loves organizing
  • Starts pretend and real businesses
  • Makes well-reasoned arguments

Need proof? Read on. But beware: MAJOR nerd alert.

Book worms and proud of it

First and foremost, we spent a lot of time reading––from an early age. It makes sense that content strategists start out as consumers of content.

We loved books. We were rewarded for reading (remember Book It?). Many of us fondly recall the excitement of elementary school book order sheets. We started book clubs. We even set goals for our reading.

For Julie Vollenweider, starting middle school meant a new challenge—reading only non-fiction (which resulted in a fascination with mobsters). Erin Kissane determinedly read one non-fiction book (she got hooked on military history) for every novel she consumed. Melissa Rach eagerly awaited the arrival of the bookmobile instead of the ice cream truck.

Picture of Julie V.

Julie V.'s early affinity for reading (and fashion) holds true today.

A refrain commonly heard from our parents was shared by Chris Barrington-Davis—“Get your nose out of that book!” We read so much that many of us were grounded from reading. But Erin K. was so miserable without reading that her parents quickly took pity and reversed the punishment.

And if we were teased for being bookworms? Angie Halama had a standard reply: “Why, thank you.”

Published young authors

All that reading led to writing, creating, and publishing content. Even if our first attempts were, in retrospect, comical, many of us were published before sixth grade. Melissa R. won a contest at age 9 with a poem called “Take a Ride on a Unicorn’s Back.” I was the proud second-grade author of the play “The Little Heart.” Julie V. was the founder, publisher, and editor of The Fourth Grade Flamingo.

An excerpt from Melissa R.’s award-winning 4th grade poem:

Take a ride on a unicorn’s back.

Then go climb a rainbow and slide back down again.

A minute will be like an hour.

Your fun will never end in rainbow land!!!!!

Learning (and listening) for the fun of it

Our learning didn’t end with the written word. We actively sought out opportunities to feed our curiosity with extra learning.

When I was in 4th grade, I signed up for summer school because I thought it would be fun. On the first day, I realized it was for kids who had trouble learning, not for the kids who wanted to learn more. Meghan Casey repeatedly attended summer school to free up her regular schedule for independent literature study.

In addition to reading, we discovered that listening was a great way to learn, too. Emily Wiebel didn’t speak much between the ages of 2-8, preferring instead to listen. Meghan C. was known as an objective consultant whose phone rang off the hook with friends calling for advice.

The joy of organization

There’s more! Our nerdiness did not stop at reading and writing. For a good time, we organized. Animals, crayons, and—shocker—books.

Many of us shared an early fascination with these animal index cards. Erin K. spent days reading, filing, and refiling them. Christine Benson was obsessed with studying dog breeds.

Snow Owl Safari Card

Remember these? Courtesy of Atlas Picture Cards.

Erik Westra was fascinated with a certain mammal book. He used index cards and a recipe box to “record the key facts and interesting information about each mammal, and file them in whichever order interested me at any given time (average weight, gestation period, continent of origin, etc.).”

Beth Johnson was a self-described “hardcore crayon enthusiast.” She spent more time finding new ways to organize the crayons than actually coloring with them (neons, shimmers, classics). Christine B. “invented” new rainbows: “Two favorites were an Easter rainbow with pastels, and another one with all jewel tones.”

Beth and her art supplies

Beth J. and her organized art supplies

And yes, not only did we read books—we also organized them. Tenessa Gemelke recommended improvements to the school library shelving organization. Angie H.’s first job was at a local library, where she found shelving books to be relaxing. Erin K. was often mistaken as a librarian, because she knew the Dewey decimal system inside and out, and would answer questions from patrons.

The exception: a designer in a sea of content strategists

But not all of us shared a love of organization. Sean Tubridy, lone designer here at Brain Traffic, “stuck all the labels on my Star Wars carrying case without even considering the figures that I owned or where they would fit. Thus, to this day, almost nothing is properly labeled, Yoda rattles around in a huge compartment, and Chewbacca is folded up and jammed into a slot half his size.” He concludes that “I was never destined to be a content strategist.” Fortunately, he’s a great designer.

Sean meets Darth Vader

Sean T. meets Darth Vader, circa 1978

Play office leads to real office

With all that reading, writing, learning, and organizing, was there any time left to play? Of course there was—time to play office! Many of us had pretend and real businesses from an early age, getting a jump on the business smarts we would need later on.

Chris B.-D. played office and school. She made up the stories and the rules, and directed her playmates, making sure that everyone had fun. (Anyone else sense a project manager in the making?) Julie V. made imaginary business presentations to imaginary clients. She now regularly presents Brain Traffic to potential clients.

Some of our offices were more than imaginary—we had real life businesses. Beth J. started her own business making and selling jewelry in 5th grade, until her operation was shut down for exploitation of the younger kids. I had multiple crafts businesses, constantly tweaking my product line to find what would sell best. Melissa R. helped her parents flip houses, learning prioritization skills she now uses daily in her work.

Tough negotiators

Resoundingly, many staffers learned early how to make well-reasoned arguments for things they cared about. Christine B.’s father was a lawyer and lobbyist who loved logic and debate, and required that she construct arguments and find supporting research for any request.

When Beth J. realized she was being paid $3 an hour less than her siblings for similar work, she made a presentation to her father requesting a raise, and got it. In the 7th grade, Tenessa G. urged her parents to quit smoking by preparing “a lengthy report that detailed the risks to their health, the financial losses, the social and emotional effects on their children, and even the cosmetic damages to the house.” In a similar effort, at age 3, Erin K. wrapped her mom’s cigarettes in Mr. Yuk poison control stickers, which actually got her mom to quit.

And if we didn’t get our way? My favorite childhood phrase was “give me 37 good reasons why not.”

Picture of Emily F.

The author displays an attitude.

Our poor parents.

A special bunch

After all the stories came in, we marveled at the similarities. We knew Brain Traffic was a special place, but we didn’t, exactly, know how much we all had in common.

So, we admit it. We’re overachievers who like to read, write, learn, organize, do business, and argue. Some people would call that nerdy. We’re okay with that.

As Tenessa G. said, “I’m so glad we all found each other.”

What’s your story?

What were some of the early signs that content strategy would be in your future? Please add your stories to the comments.

  • http://twitter.com/katiedel katiedel

    I love this post – I actually LOL’ed. Dare I say, I showed the signs…

    -  Reading: Always. 
    -  Published early: Check. 8th grade poem published nationally.
    -  Learning is fun: Learning Japanese & oragami wasn’t easy, but it was fun at least. Definitely not a normal suburban Chicago extracurricular for a 3rd grader. 
    -  Organizing:  My bookshelf was so impeccable, I started “renting” to friends growing up.
    -  Starts businesses: I sold everything from pencils to custom keychains in grade school. Quite lucrative, of course. 
    - Well-reasoned arguments: I pushed to visit the “big kid library” as a 2nd grader, and petitioned square dancing in gym class as a 3rd grader. If it’s not fair, I change it. 

  • http://twitter.com/katiedel katiedel

    Didn’t get to finish my comment sorry :o ) — This is a fun/cute post! Thanks for sharing!

  • Paul Foth

    Yeah, so when my mom would be off actually shopping at the local K-Mart, I’d be in one of the book aisles, happily putting all the Hardy Boys titles back in numerical order.

  • http://twitter.com/efolstad Emily Folstad

    Paul and Katie, thanks for sharing! 

  • Dianehendrickson

    It is interesting. In retrospect I see childhood characteristics regularly displaying themselves in my adult children. For example Tom didn’t start to become a serios traveler as a teenager. He started as a preschooler when he would regularly “go exploring” out of my eyesight, and sometimes get so far away that it was scary.

  • Michelle Dear

    One additional bullet point: Never wastes time watching TV (which is inferred, of course, by reading all the time.)

  • Bill Payne

    Thanks to Erin Anderson for her contribution to “Interact with Web Standards”. Her examples led me to the site and to this blog. Knowing that so many other people were like me at an early age is just, well, gratifying!

    And Brain Traffic? Who knew back then that such an organization would even exist in the future! (I predate the age of the internet!).

  • http://twitter.com/carriehd Carrie Hane Dennison

    I look back and see I exhibited most of those traits too. I loved working in the library to organize the things I love most: books! Thought about being a librarian – or historian. Now I am a content strategist, which really is a combo of those things – curation and organization! Glad to know it all works on in the end for us “nerds.” :)

  • Anonymous

    Interesting. I am a writer, not a visual person, but I’m much more like that designer. I hate to organize beyond the structure of the individual piece I’m creating. I’m more likely to be taken for an actor than for a librarian.

  • http://www.paypal-gift.net/tag/borse-louis/ borse louis

    Lol. the pictures really make me laugh~

  • http://dennyconnolly.squarespace.com Denny Connolly

    I disagree with this one. I was always obsessed with all forms of narrative. If a good story is being told, then I can’t turn away.

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