Human skills for content strategy

In June 2015, I led participants at the Sydney Content Strategy meetup in a group discussion about the human qualities content strategists need for success.

After a super fun, heated and stimulating discussion we identified five key qualities, or human skills, that awesome Content Strategist’s have. Then I asked the group to hazard a guess to what degree they have those qualities. It was a challenging exercise in self reflection.

Examples of the self assessment audit that participants completed

Examples of the self assessment audit that participants completed

This is not an original undertaking - identification and ranking against competency has been done many, many, many times before - but I was interested to see what commonalities a group of content tragics might come up with when I asked them about human or soft skills instead of technical ones.

And the request comes in a fabulous context :) I will be presenting with Karina Smith at UX Australia in August 2015 on the topic of what makes people great at what they do. Our talk is titled “Qualities of the ultimate content strategist and designer”. Karina and I contrived this presentation, in large part, to give us an opportunity to talk to luminaries in the field of content strategy and design. People like Kristina Halvorson, Genevieve Bell and Jonathan Colman.

The idea came to me after reading Designing Together by Dan M Brown, I wanted to find out more about those supposed ‘soft skills’ and from a purely selfish perspective how understanding them might allow me to get better at them. It will be great to compare the findings from these interviews with the Content Strategy meetup exercise.

The results

The top five qualities the group decided upon - after much debate and in no particular order - were the following:

  • Empathy (professional)
  • Humility
  • Being able to negotiate
  • Adaptability
  • Confidence

Some of these qualities may on first glance seem contradictory - confidence and humility for example - however I think that as a rough 'straw man' pulled together after a short discussion they do a pretty good job of covering the key human skills of a content strategist.

Human skills, like the ability to listen carefully and purposefully, to shape and direct a process while also being able to flex when necessary, plus the ability to get to the heart of a problem either through methodical unpicking or intuitive leaps. To be able to ask questions in order to fully understand and to develop a group understanding and to take a leadership role that is based on a thorough understanding of user needs, business objectives, the problem space and context, technology, and communication theory.

The June 2015 Sydney Content Strategy Meetup - where all the action happened :)

The June 2015 Sydney Content Strategy Meetup - where all the action happened :)

Ranking and self evaluation

Some participants found it much easier than others to self evaluate, to decide on a scale of one to seven just how empathic, adaptable or even confident they were. An interesting next step would be to try to understand better how people made those decisions.

The runners up

There were lots of great qualities that were argued for, but rejected in the process of choosing our top five. At least 40 options were identified in our first brainstorm so it was a tough job to whittle it down to just five. But we managed in the end because prioritising and making a call on top options is an integral content strategy skill :)

Some of the qualities that did not make our top five list, but were strongly argued for are:

  • Diplomacy
  • Integrity
  • Collaborative approach
  • Situational awareness
  • Assertiveness
  • Open, friendly, genuinely interested, positive
  • Trustworthy
  • team player

The implications

I could not decide what is more interesting - the selection of criteria chosen by the group or the way people ranked themselves. How did they make the call? How do we measure ourselves against these skills and how do we decide where we want to be?

The humility option brought out the inner wag in some who ranked themselves currently at 100 per cent. 

You say soft skills, I say human skills

Why do we call soft skills, soft skills? It seems to diminish a set of skills that are often more important than technical skills. Is it because they are more difficult to understand or measure? Is it because they are traditionally viewed as more feminine? Are they more ethereal and slippery? In school we are taught to add up numbers, but are we taught how to negotiate effectively in the loan of a calculator?

What do you think the top five essential qualities of a content strategist are? Can you rank yourself on these qualities? I would love to hear what you come up with.