Clarity Through Content Strategy


This article was originally published by Gather Content.

If you are a content strategist — in job title, project role, or just in your heart — your job at every point of the process is to facilitate understanding. You might:

  • Help businesses understand the size and scope of their web presence
  • Help CEOs understand the cost of maintaining old and bad content
  • Help designers and developers understand the business goals for a given webpage
  • Help writers and content marketers understand your brand’s voice

Even a solo practitioner conducting a content inventory is doing so to increase their own understanding.

Understanding requires clarity and coordination. Getting the clarity and coordination you need to do your job, and to ensure the success of your project, often requires looking beyond the “content stuff” to the entire organization itself. To that end, I have developed a framework that you can use as a sort of debugging tool for clarity problems. It is a set of lenses that will help you to identify what’s unclear, make it clear, and document your understanding.Here it is:

The VMT Framework

The framework has six areas. A certain amount of clarity is required in each of these areas for any design project to be successful. As you study the framework, consider the area in which you do most of your day-to-day work, as well as where you tend to encounter the most problems. Understanding how these areas relate to each other may help you troubleshoot issues in your projects.

The division between the left and right columns reflects a division that is common in most business cultures. These halves are best thought of as either “business and brand” or “product and content.” Use whichever makes the most sense to you.The framework is further divided vertically into three levels, representing a sort of conceptual dependency from top to bottom. Organizational stuff shapes project level stuff which shapes context/experience level stuff. While all six areas of the framework influence each other to one degree or another, the most important relationships are represented by immediate adjacency.

Vision and Voice — The Organizational Level

The top level, the organization level, is just what it sounds like — stuff that relates to the overall organization itself. Typically this will be a big concept like a company, city or university. It could also be a department or team, depending on the scope of whatever problem you’re trying to identify. If the concepts of Vision and Voice, as explained herein, don’t fit well with your organizational concept, your scope might be too narrow. If the Vision and Voice seem far away from your work, your scope might be too broad.

Unless you’re in an executive leadership position, most of your work won’t live at this level. That doesn’t mean you and your team don’t need to understand it.A vision is realized. Your vision is the change you want to see in the world. It asks, what will be different when all of our work here is done?

A clear vision is ambitious. Ambition is a crucible. It brings clarity to projects in many important ways. The more ambitious the vision, the more obvious it will be when things do not serve that vision — making it easier to say no to new and wasteful initiatives, for instance. If your organization’s vision is weak, absent, or poorly understood by those involved, everything that follows after will be a struggle. As Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson write in ReWork, “When you don’t know what you believe, everything becomes an argument.” If you experience a lot of churn and back-and-forth disagreements in your work, an unclear Vision might be the culprit.

For websites and other publishing projects, a core strategy statement designed with stakeholder input is a good place to start with clarifying a vision. Manifestos and other company culture documents can be good for startups and non-profits. I also like using Whitney Hess’s Problem Statements formula for ad-hoc clarification of vision: WHO needs WHAT because WHY. I’ve stopped more than one meeting mid-way and written that up on a whiteboard to good effect.

Voices are found. If vision is the change you want to see in the world, voice is how you talk about getting there. It’s your perspective, your worldview. An organization’s voice might evolve over time, but it is not situational, and cannot be applied artificially. Articulating your organization’s voice is best done through a discovery process, not brainstorming meetings.

In my experience one of the most important factors influencing clarity of voice is vocabulary. Good words and good names bring clarity. Weasel words and inaccurate names beget confusion. Names shape our perception of someone’s voice before we’ve even heard them speak.

A clear voice is consistent. Expressing wildly different opinions, or expressing your opinions in wildly different ways, will confuse people and make it harder for them to understand what you truly believe. Your voice will be obscured.As part of our brand/content column, work related to voice is sometimes written off as phoney or artificial. This is true only of bad work. As Ralph Caplan writes in By Design:

The end product of design very often is surface treatment. So what? We live in a world we look at, so it might as well look good. … Since objects cannot speak for themselves, they need to be made to look like what they are and what they do. That is even true of corporations, which, although they can speak for themselves, are usually incoherent because, in the words of a corporate designer, they are both impersonal and multi-personal.

Ralph Caplan

If your team is having trouble getting executive agreement on positioning, key brand statements, or even look-and-feel on design projects, you might be having issues with voice.My favorite tool for working through voice problems is Margot Bloomstein’s message architecture card-sorting methodology, as described in her book Content Strategy at Work. In my own practice I refer to this as Voice Architecture, which I find to be more accurate (#sorrynotsorry, love you Margot!) and better suited to this framework.

Mission and Message — The Project Level

The project level is where most of the “stuff” happens. Publishing websites. Providing services. Producing widgets. Projects can be big or small, ongoing or one-off. I find making a distinction between the organization itself and the projects of the organization particularly important with startups, who might find themselves “pivoting” through multiple product concepts with the same vision and voice.

Clarity at the project level means that we understand what we’re doing and why, and so do the people we’re doing it for.

Facilitating understanding and agreement at the project level is the bread and butter work of many strategists, and likely to be where you spend a lot of your time.

Missions are planned. They have steps, deadlines, people and roles. Most importantly, missions are designed to support the vision. This is where a lot of organizations go sideways — really big missions (like a website redesign) can eat up so many resources that it’s easy to forget why you’re doing it in the first place. I’ve worked with some non-profits that were guilty of this, allowing a mission like an exciting annual fundraiser to supplant their vision (“save the dolphins” becomes “organize a bigger and better Save the Dolphins party every year”).

Clear missions have an owner. That ownership can be a formal idea like “Pat is the product owner” or an informal idea like “Blake is bringing bagels.” Missions without owners and accountability aren’t really missions at all, and don’t fit our idea of projects, either. Ownerless websites are one common example.There are other disciplines (like project management) dedicated to the art of creating clear missions. In content strategy work, I tend to focus on modelling techniques that diagram and articulate everything that’s actually going on. Stakeholders are often surprised to see just how complex their own operations really are. Governance tools like RACI charts can be a big help, too.

Messages are articulated. If missions are the things you do, messages are how you talk about them.

A clear message has structure. In any given communication, a reader should be able to understand what the most important thing is, and the next most important, and so on.The more complex a message, the more difficult it will be to make it clear. My general approach to troubleshooting an unclear communication piece like a blog post or email or project proposal is to break it out into its constituent parts and translate it back from marketing speak into plain language. Nine times out ten the culprit is that there are too many ideas competing for attention in a single document.

For clarifying the message of web pages in particular, I like tools that force you to think about the page content in a non-linear way like the Core Model (I’ve also heard this called Core and Paths Diagram). Identifying and documenting themes/narratives in a content inventory can also provide useful insights for clarifying message.

Targets and Tone — The Context Level

Targets and tone exist at what I call the contextual level. You might also think of it as the experience or execution layer. Clarity at the context level means that we know not only to whom we’re speaking, but where the communication is happening, as well as the cultural and social norms and expectations that should best govern that interaction.

Targets are chosen. The intentionality is the important part. “Prioritized audiences? What do you mean? This product is for everyone!”

For this framework, Targets is a word I use to mean both channels and audiences — whom we want to reach and how we want to reach them.

Tools abound for clarifying targets, and doing so often comprises a good deal of initial consulting engagements. Research is particularly critical in this area, as it’s all too easy to make assumptions about how and where people consume information.

A clear target is specific. If a client tells me they want to “do more on social media”, I’m going to have to do some digging to figure out exactly what social media means — for one company that might mean LinkedIn, for another SnapChat, and still another might discover that they don’t actually know what social media is and just wanted to start blogging.

Similarly, broad demographic terms like “millennial’s” or “decision makers” are often thrown about as if everyone understands them, while in fact there may be very little agreement on a team about what those mean.When there’s a lack of clarity about whom we’re trying to reach, research-driven user personas are a popular remedy. Creating a simple channel inventory or visual ecosystem map that captures all of the places an organization is currently publishing to is also a good first step in clarifying targets — knowing where you’re going is a bit easier when you know where you already are.

Tone is responsive. It’s the part of your communication that adapts itself to the audience, channel, time of day, news, or anything else that would influence how two humans speak to each other.

Voice and tone are related, certainly, but so is everything else in this framework. With all three parts of the brand section laid out now, I can offer this gross oversimplification:

  • Voice is who you are
  • Message is what you have to say
  • Tone is how you say it

Clear tone is appropriate. A person will behave (and speak) differently at a party, in a court room, or at a funeral. They’ll also speak differently to a friend, a boss, and a spouse. When your tone does not match the situation or audience, it is confusing at best, offensive at worst, and a PR disaster if you’re really unlucky.

Tone is tricky and getting it right keeps plenty of savvy web writers well-employed. Personas and other audience-focused tools are again helpful for clarifying tone. An empathy map makes a nice partner to your personas and can help your writers put themselves in your audience’s shoes and craft a more appropriate tone.

Put it to work

Until our species masters telepathy (and maybe not even then), understanding each other will always be a bit of a struggle. I don’t know that I’ve ever had perfect clarity in all six areas of this framework on a project, even when I was the only one involved. That said, if you find yourself spinning your wheels, consider taking a step back and seeing if you can identify the problem with the help of the VMT framework. A few ways to use it:

  • Plan activities in each area to bake-in clarity for a new initiative
  • Use the framework as an outline for a one-day content strategy workshop, facilitating conversation in each area with a client team (participants could add post-its with potential problems to a poster for each of the six areas)
  • Map your org chart against the VMT framework to see if there are potential leadership gaps or conflicts
  • Tell a story about content strategy to people on the “business” side of the framework, or vice-versa

If you do put the VMT framework into practice, I’d love to hear how you go on. Get in touch!