An Interview with Scott Abel on “The Language of Content Strategy”

Scott Abel, also known as The Content Wrangler, is an STC Associate Fellow and curator of the Content Wrangler Content Strategy Series for XML Press. Scott was kind enough to answer a series of questions from STC about The Language of Content Strategy, one of the entries in the series.

James Cameron:
 Can you talk a bit about the Content Wrangler Content Strategy Series for XML Press? How do you decide what books and authors are a good fit for the series?

Scott Abel: The Content Strategy series of books from XML Press and The Content Wrangler aim to help professional communicators in a wide variety of content-related disciplines share their knowledge and experience with others. The series supports three basic types of books. The first type is “The Language of…” series of books that attempt to define and explain the importance of terminology used by a specific segment of content professionals. Current titles in this series cover topics including content strategy, technical communication, cybersecurity, and localization. Upcoming books in this series will cover business storytelling, content design, augmented reality, content engineering, machine learning, and elearning.

Authors are selected based on a variety of factors, including their area of expertise (what they know and how they know it), their professional peer network (who they know and who knows them), their ability to reach a wide audience who listens to what they say, and in what channels do their audiences consume content (Twitter, email lists, Linkedin groups, webinars, local meetups, industry conferences, blogs, magazines, etc.). Our most successful writers and editors have created their own personal brand and are producing content for their audiences and distributing that content across multiple delivery channels.

Aside from knowledge and experience, we also look for highly motivated achievers — communicators with a track record of getting things done on time and in accordance with the standards we use to govern our approach. It’s not enough to be a subject matter expert and a good writer. We look for folks who are driven to succeed and who know how to both manage both their own workload and time, while also keeping others involved in the project on schedule.

JC: The Language of Content Strategy is structured around 52 content terms that every business professional should know, with an essay and explanation for each term. What made you decide to structure the book (and others in the Content Wrangler Content Strategy series) in this way? Is terminology particularly important to content strategy?

SA: Co-editor Rahel Bailie, myself, and a dozen or more technical communication experts (including STC superstars like Ann Rockley,  JoAnn Hackos  Joe GollnerRobert Glushko, and others) were at the forefront of creating the terminology that is documented in The Language of Content Strategy.  The contributors to the book are thought leaders, educators, inventors, and practitioners who defined and used these terms on various projects with dozens of companies around the globe, long before Kristina Halvorson shined a light on the emerging role of content strategist in her popular book, Content Strategy for the Web.

While Halvorson popularized the term content strategy outside of the fields of technical communication and product information management, her book created more buzz than it did substance. What Halvorson lacked detail, she made up for with luster. Her book shined a bright light on the need for strategic thinking in the Web content arena, but her experiences were markedly different than experts from the field of technical communication, whose work often extends beyond the Web.

While Halvorson’s book was helping to promote the need for strategy, technical communication pros were busy creating multi-channel publishing solutions and delivering intelligent content dynamically. Doing these things well meant having a mastery of the terminology used to describe such things as content reuse, content engineering, and structured content, and to allow us to pay homage to the smart people in other fields who invented the tools, techniques, and standards that we adopted and put to use in our work.

The terms we used in technical communication content strategy projects also had to mean something to those with whom we worked to solve complicated content challenges that were not limited to the Web. A great example is the term, “transclusion” (the inclusion of a piece of content in a document or set of documents by reference), which was seldom used in the content strategy sector, but was a common term used by computer scientists and software developers (folks we relied on to help us deliver the right content to those who need it, when, where, and how they desire it). We wanted to make sure that people who fancied themselves content strategists (a title many have adopted despite having little or no experience doing much more than copyrighting and editing) actually had a foundational language upon which to build successful careers.

We created that first book in “The Language of…” series to encourage other content professionals to speak using a common terminology to describe our work, our work products, and our methods, approaches, standards, and tools. And, we wanted to help others talk about what we do without making up nonsense words or creating synonyms for marketing purposes. One great example of the need for a common language can be found when people attempt to discuss intelligent content, which Ann Rockley defined in her seminal work, Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy as “content that is designed to be modular, structured, reusable, format-free, and semantically rich and, as a consequence is discoverable, reconfigurable, and adaptable.” When left to their own devices, other professionals invented other terms for the exact same thing (e.g. smart content, adaptive content, etc.).

JC: What were the challenges you and Rahel Anne Bailie faced when curating The Language of Content Strategy,despite your experience with the topic?

SA: People are always the problem, and they were in our effort to corral 50+ plus contributors and convince them to collaborate within the confines of structured content project. Some experts we called upon simply did not have the time to do what they volunteered to do. Others, were unable to stay within the boundaries. For example, we ask each contributor to submit an essay of no more than 250 words to answer the question, “Why does the reader need to know what this word means?” Some contributors struggled to say what they wanted to within the 250 word limit. We edited the lengthier essays and removed a few from the book because they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) trim the work down.

And, occasionally, contributors whose primary focus is academic research found our simple, easy-to-understand approach to providing the basics to business pros less than appealing. They would have preferred it be a more academic endevor. We decided not to argue about our approach. We know what our readers want (because they tell us) and we provide content to address their needs as they specify. We’re not an academic publisher, nor do we pretend to be.

Of course, running book projects with 50+ contributors can introduce many lessons learned. We’ve had our fair share of  unanticipated challenges that we have addressed by adjusting our approach, our tools, and our rules.

The Content Marketing Institute covered our project in detail in “A Case Study in Intelligent Content: ‘The Language of Content Strategy’”.  They also discussed the technology behind the book in an article by Richard Hamilton of XML Press.

JC: Do you have any advice for students, new professionals, and established technical communicators who are interested in breaking into the content strategy field?

SA: Yes; study and learn everything you can about content, neuroscience, technology, and business. Seek out projects like “The Language of…” series to work on as a volunteer. You’ll gain valuable experience and you’ll develop influential contacts that can help you find work in the field.

JC: Which of today’s trends in content strategy will have the biggest impact on the future of the industry?

SA: The biggest trend with the most impact is the realization that all content projects deserve—and should be based on— a sound content strategy with achievable and measurable goals.

JC: The Language of Content Strategy seems to be geared toward practitioners and professionals. How might students and academics benefit from the book?

SA: Each book in the language of series has an intended audience. In the case of our most recent work, The Language of Cybersecurity, the audience for the book is business professionals. The terms included are important for all business pros (that includes technical writers, documentation managers, information architects, software engineers, content strategists) to know and understand. It is not a book for security experts, although a newbie to the field might find this book a good starting point.

The same can be said of The Language of Content Strategy. It’s not a book for practitioners and professionals. It’s a book to help anyone (including academics and students) understand how these terms are in use today in the world of business.

Thanks again to Scott for participating in this interview!

Known affectionately as “The Content Wrangler,” Scott Abel is an internationally recognized global content strategist and intelligent content evangelist who specializes in helping organizations deliver the right content to the right audience, anywhere, anytime, on any device. Scott is the founder, CEO, and chief strategist at The Content Wrangler, Inc. ( He’s also a highly sought after keynote presenter, moderator, and a frequent contributor to content industry publications. Scott’s alter ego, The Audio Wrangler, is a popular DJ and dance music mashup artist.

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