Interview with Val Swisher, CEO of Content Rules

By Scott Abel | STC Senior Member

In the digital age, change happens quickly. This column features interviews with the movers and shakers—the folks behind new ideas, standards, methods, products, and amazing technologies that are changing the way we live and interact in our modern world. Got questions, suggestions, or feedback? Email them to scottabel@nullmac.com.

In this installment of Meet the Change Agents, I chat with Val Swisher, CEO of Content Rules, about her passion for making content available to those who need it for work, for play, or in times of need. We discuss the changes that have taken place in the technical communication industry and how the future of our industry will rely on our ability to mesh people, processes, and technology together for maximum impact.

Scott Abel: Thanks for making time to talk to us about global content strategy and all things content. I’m super excited to chat with you, but before we get started, for our readers who don’t know who you are, can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?

Val Swisher: I’m Val Swisher, CEO and Founder of Content Rules. I’ve been in the technical communication world since 1988. I started my company in 1994. Back then, I was a contractor who wrote technical documentation. Things have changed since then. These days, I focus most of my time on helping customers develop content strategies for the creation, management, and delivery of intelligent content, especially for organizations with a global audience. I am particularly interested in content optimization; making sure that content can be easily and well-understood in English and every other language.

I am particularly passionate about my volunteer work. I am a board member for Translators Without Borders (TWB), a U.S. nonprofit organization that aims to close the language gaps that hinder critical humanitarian efforts worldwide. TWB recognizes that the effectiveness of any aid program depends on delivering information in the language of the affected population. By maintaining a global network of professional translators, we help nonprofits organizations overcome communication barriers, increasing access to critical information and services while fostering a climate of understanding, respect, and dignity in times of great need. The ability to use everything I’ve learned in my career to help save lives is an amazing gift. I run the Simplified English program for TWB and am honored to be part of this great organization.

Scott: Technical communication has changed a lot over the last 30 years. We’ve moved from typewriters to computers to desktop publishing to intelligent, multi-channel, multilingual dynamic publishing. It’s been a whirlwind of change. In your career, what changes do you think impacted the profession the most and why?

Val: The Internet has affected absolutely everything we do in technical communication. When I started back in the late 1980s, we didn’t have email. We didn’t have the Internet. We printed manuals. We used telephones to communicate. Sometimes I wonder how we ever got anything done!

Aside from the Internet, I think that the advent of intelligent content and XML has had the next biggest impact on our profession. Intelligent content is content that is modular, structured, reusable, format-free, and semantically rich and, as a consequence, discoverable, reconfigurable, and adaptable. Before intelligent content, we had no straightforward way to write once/use many. We didn’t separate text from formatting information, which made producing content for multiple channels tedious and expensive. And, we didn’t have ways to locate legacy content quickly and repurpose it without rework.

In the global world, translation memory has had the biggest impact on the localization and translation process. Think of translation memory as a central repository that contains translated source and destination language pairs. The ability to compare content against a set of existing translations—and automatically reuse the previously translated words—has revolutionized the way that we translate. It’s dramatically increased the speed at which translation moves, and how much we pay for it.

Scott: We both have broad experience in the discipline of content strategy. In fact, you worked closely with me on a few projects that attempted to demystify content strategy and help our peers understand what content strategy is—and isn’t. Over time, our thoughts about the subject have changed. What is content strategy? And why should technical communication professionals adopt more strategic thinking about content (outside of the obvious things like writing and editing)?

Val: Content strategy is a process and methodology for how you create, manage, deliver, and archive content. To provide real value to a content organization, technical communications professionals need to look at the larger world in which the content they produce exists. By that, I mean the entire content ecosystem.

Content strategy is a business plan for content. It addresses the lifecycle of content and includes plans for authoring, managing, storing, translating, localizing, formatting, tagging, and delivering content. It also is concerned with a host of other tasks, including access, change, and version control, as well as how we will retire, archive, and destroy content.

Content strategy as a discipline is a much larger universe than a particular topic or chapter in a document. As companies create, store, deliver, and manage increasing amounts of content, the need for a unified strategy has become greater. Many people can create content, ensuring it is well-written, styled, and punctuated. Far fewer communication professionals can create—and maintain—a solid content strategy that addresses the needs of today and the needs of the future. Content strategy is a critical, high-value skill that technical communicators can—and should—add to their professional development efforts.

Scott: We often discuss the ways that technical communication professionals can increase their marketability by adding additional skills to their tech communication tool box. I think that one of the best ways to add value is to find a way to connect technical communication to sales. Do you agree? Can technical communication content enable sales? And, if so, how might technical communication professionals begin to connect their efforts to sales?

Val: I agree. I think that the link between technical communication and its impact on sales is important to make.

Buyers are savvier than they used to be. It is much easier to do extensive research on a product before making the purchase. For example, I bought a new pair of earbuds the other day. I looked at all sorts of specifications and information before making the purchase. I know a whole lot more about earbuds now than I did last week. All of our customers are like this now.

Product content drives sales. Prospective customers often rely on technical content to make purchasing decisions. Several recent surveys have discovered this connection.

Forrester estimates that buyers complete 60 to 90% of their buying decision before they engage with a sales person, in both B2B and B2C relationships. Our content impacts sales, whether we want it to or not. The goal is to connect our efforts to sales. Doing so will increase our value and make it increasingly unattractive for upper management to replace us.

Additionally, research from Shotfarm indicates that brands that provide complete, high-quality product information in one convenient location are viewed as “most trustworthy” by shoppers. Repeat purchases, lower levels of returns, and long-term loyalty are the rewards. The same study finds 76% of consumers noticed inconsistent product content (for the same product) across multiple channels. Similarly, 87% of information seekers say multi-channel content inaccuracies negatively impact their purchasing decisions.

Consistency in style, tone, and terminology enhances brand perception. Consider Apple. They are sticklers for consistency—in structure, in voice, and in language usage. This consistency shines through in all their product content.

Scott: Content strategy is, in its purest form, inherently global. That is to say, if your company is global so, too, should your content strategy be. As the author of Global Content Strategy: A Primer (The Content Wrangler/XML Press), you know a lot about global content. Why is it important to think globally and act locally? And what does that mean, exactly?

Val: You know, Scott, I have a terminology problem with the words “content strategy” and “global content strategy.” To me, you cannot have a comprehensive content strategy if you are missing the global component. Time and again, I work with customers who treat translation and localization as an afterthought. And I think this is a huge mistake for many reasons.

Not everyone speaks English. Many people in the United States believe that people all over the world speak English. There is nothing further from the truth. If you want to attract prospects and maintain existing customers outside of the handful of countries that have some form of English as their primary language, you need to focus on global content from the beginning.

Many who speak English use it as a second or third language. Whether you translate your content or not, your content strategy should focus on creating content that is easy for everyone to understand.

Not everyone wants to be your best friend. There is a growing trend in the United States to create content, even technical content, in a way that addresses the reader as a “pal” or “chum.” Trying to translate this type of material is tough. And, in many parts of the world, your prospects and customers do not want to be treated this way. They could even be offended, which will have serious ramifications on your brand.

The strategy for creating, storing, publishing, and archiving content becomes exponentially more difficult as you add languages. If you fail to plan for a multilingual content strategy, the clean-up involved will be infinitely more complicated than if you had considered multiple languages from the start.

Scott: Terminology management is one of my favorite topics. It’s the science nerd in me, I guess. What is terminology management and why is it needed today?

Val: Terminology management is one of my favorite topics, too. I guess that’s why we get along so well. Terminology management is the science of controlling the words that writers use and the way in which writers use them. Every company needs terminology management. It is critical for legal reasons (to control trademarks). And it can help you improve readability, accessibility, findability, and translatability.

From a readability standpoint, particularly in technical communication, we need to focus on saying the same thing, the same way, every time we say it. For example, did you know that there are over 20 ways to say “Click OK”?

Here are a few: Click OK. Press OK. Tap OK. Select OK. Hit OK. Click the OK button. Press the OK button.

You get the idea. From a readability standpoint, pick one way and use it always. In this particular case, I would recommend Select OK. That way, the same term can be repurposed for a device that has a keyboard and a device that does not.

If you translate content, terminology management is even more critical. Did you know that you have to pay for each variation of “Click OK”? How much do these extra words cost you? Multiply the number of words that are different by the number of languages you support. Then multiply the total by the translation cost per word. It can add up pretty fast. And you end up wasting money—lots of it.

Scott: How does a company know if they have a terminology management problem? Is there a way to determine the healthfulness of a set of content? What approaches would you suggest? What criteria matters?

Val: The easiest way to determine if you have a terminology challenge is to examine your translation statistics. If you have a very high number of “fuzzy matches” in your translation process, you likely have a terminology management problem. All of the ways to say “Click OK” that we discussed are fuzzy matches. The higher the number of “fuzzies,” the more likely it is that you are using different terms to mean the same thing.

Highly regulated industries, such as finance and medical, already understand the impact of managing terminology. They know that if words are misused or confusing, the results can have serious ramifications. But, even in unregulated sectors, terminology mismanagement can have an adverse impact on the way people perceive your brand and understand your message.

There are specialized tools on the market that can evaluate your content from a terminology, brand, and style perspective. Content Rules offers a free content health check using some of these tools. We analyze 100,000–200,000 words you provide. We return a report detailing the quality aspects of your content, including whether your content is global ready and what changes you need to make to optimize it for translation.

Scott: We’ve talked a lot recently about something we dubbed the “Holy Trifecta of Content Management.” Can you help our readers understand what it is and why it is perhaps the most efficient way of creating, managing, and delivering the right content, to the right people, at the right time, on the device of their choosing?

Val: Ah yes, the Holy Trifecta. It has three main components:

  • Intelligent content
  • Terminology management
  • Translation memory

By marrying the strategy and technology for all three of these components, you can achieve content nirvana. Let me explain.

Intelligent content is modular, structured, reusable, format-free, and semantically rich. As a consequence, content that is intelligent is discoverable, reconfigurable, and adaptable. Intelligent content can be easily mixed-and-matched to create content deliverables, automatically formatted for display on nearly any device type.

To deliver on the promise of the Holy Trifecta, we also need terminology management. Failing to control the words we use can have a negative impact on the experience our prospects and customers have with our content. Without a terminology management strategy—and tools—in place, we may inadvertently confuse, frustrate, or otherwise turn off those we seek to attract.

An example. What if we create a user guide for dog owners that includes multiple topics that leverage synonyms: Walking your dog; feeding your canine; grooming your puppy; training your pooch; keeping man’s best friend happy.

When we fail to control terminology—to agree on a single word to use when we mean canine—there will be challenges with our content. Once we weave the topics together into a user guide, we end up with unnecessary, expensive, and potentially confusing terminological inconsistencies. When you add translation to the mix, things can get messy and more expensive.

To round out our Holy Trifecta, we add translation memory (TM). Translation memory is a database created when a translator works on content. The database stores content in translation units. Each unit is a pair: a source language version and its destination language equivalent (e.g., English and French). The pair is stored together (as a unit) in the TM.

When a translator works on content, translation tools evaluate whether the source and destination terms already exist in the TM database or not. If they do, then we save time and money by reusing previous translations of those words stored in the TM database.

When we use new words, we have yet to translate (and remember in our TM), we have to pay to translate those words.

So, how do we put all of this together? It looks like this.

Intelligent content allows us to reuse modular topics of content in multiple deliverables without incurring additional content creation costs. Managing terminology ensures that the English (source language) is unambiguous and consistent. It also ensures that we only pay to have content translated one time because we’re optimizing our content translation expense by reusing the same terms over and over again. We save significant amounts of money because the words we use already exist in our translation memory database.

This way, our content ends up being easy to create, easy to manage, easy to store, and cheaper, better, and faster to translate. A beautiful, well-choreographed dance!

Scott: Thanks for sharing some of your thoughts about content development, optimization, and the role of technical communication professionals in content strategy. I really appreciate you taking time to share your expertise with others.

Val: Thanks for including me, Scott. I hope your readers found my comments useful.

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