Can Content be Engineered; Can Writers be Certified?

tl;dr: We can apply engineering methods to content development, but we do not have the body of proven algorithms or known-good data to justify formal certification of communication professionals the way we have for doctors and engineers.

We talk about content engineering. I call myself a content engineer sometimes. But can content really be engineered? Is content engineering engineering in the same way that engineering a bridge is engineering, or only engineering by analogy?

This post is prompted by a fascinating conversation with Rob Hanna and others at the monthly STC Toronto Networking Lunch. The conversation morphed into something I think I can fairly characterize as: is there a uniform methodology to technical communication, one that can form the basis of a curriculum, a certification, or a toolset, or is there a legitimate diversity of approaches, roles, methods, and tools. read more

The Difference Between Story and Drama

In our data-driven age, we tend to give short shrift to story. Story tends to get herded off into the ghetto of drama. Story is for amusement; at work we stick to data.

When I wrote my last post, suggesting a switch of terminology from “content” to “story”, many people naturally interpreted story as meaning drama. As Larry Kunz put it, “In technical writing, the story’s hero is your reader, who’s trying to accomplish something or learn something.”

That may be a useful way to think about your tech writing, but it is a definition of story derived from the world of drama. When I talk about story in the world of tech comm (or marketing communication, for the most part) I am not talking about drama, I am talking about general human communication about everything. Because story is not a special preserve of entertainment. It is how we communicate about everything.

That so many readers understood my emphasis on story as referring to drama is my fault. Since I was using “story” in a broader sense than its common usage today, I should have spent more time defining it. That is what this post is about.

Some might suggest that my mistake was choosing the wrong word, rather than failing to define story adequately. The data-driven world has a strong faith in the mot juste: the idea the there is one perfect word for every concept. But that is not how words work. Words cleave to the concerns of the day. Even where our vocabulary provides multiple words, they all tend to cleave to the same dominant concerns, rather than making clear and fixed distinctions.

I could, for instance, have chosen the word “narrative” rather than “story”. One could argue that “narrative structure” would make a nice counterpoint to all the various forms of “data structure” that we encounter today. There’s something in that, and I may write a post about it one day. But I don’t for a minute think that most of my readers would automatically have understood the scope of what I was talking about better if I had said “narrative” rather than “story”.

This in itself is evidence of the importance of story in how we communicate. We don’t communicate by exchanging words but by referencing common stories. This is why words cleave to the concerns of the day. They cleave, specifically, to the dominant stories of the day.

Two stories dominate our associations of the word “story” today. One is the story of how our world today is data driven. Anything “anecdotal” is frowned upon. We need the numbers. Numbers are facts. Stories are fiction.

The other is modern Hollywood story theory, as expounded in books like McKee’s Story and Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. The essence of story is the hero’s journey — an idea derived from  Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was famously the guiding pattern for the first Star Wars movie.

These two stories dominate what we think of when we hear the word story. Yet neither of them are fiction. Neither of them have a hero, or a journey. Neither of them are drama. Nor could either of them be reduced to entries in a database table. They are the kinds of stories that we communicate with every day.

A large part of why we tend to discount this meaning of story, despite it being the dominant form of communication about absolutely everything all the time, maybe that our expression and consumption of these kinds of stories is more or less tacit.

Take, for example, the word “Hollywood” as used in the paragraph above. It evokes not only a place, but an industry, a style, and a culture. There is a large and complex story behind that single word, and the entire structure of the paragraph depends on you recognizing it. But when you recognize it, the result is not that you are flooded with all of those association, that you pause, for perhaps hours, to recall all of your associations with that word, before you can apprehend my meaning. You hear “Hollywood” and you apprehend it instantly.

As I commented in an earlier post, this is remarkable, when you stop to think about it, and it is also essential for efficient communication. If we had to unpack all the stories tacitly present in every word we use, we would never get anything said, and never understand anything that was said to us.

At the same time, if I were to try to explain what that paragraph was about to someone who had never heard of Hollywood, saying something like “It’s a place in California where they make movies” would be utterly inadequate. To get the full flavor of what Hollywood is, and what its influence is on our language today, requires far more than this simple identifying fact.

In fact, the best strategy for making my point to that person would probably not be to explain to them what Hollywood meant, but to tell my story about the forces that shape the understanding of “story” in a different way, a way that invoked the stories that person already knew. (However, I might not be qualified to do that. I might not know the stories that person knows. Someone else, with a foot in both worlds, might be required retell my larger story for that audience.)

This tacit understanding of stories, which is the basis of our language, and which shapes the concerns to which our words cleave, is, I am convinced, the reason why the curse of knowledge exists. We forget that the words we use invoke stories, because we recognize their meanings instantly and tacitly. We cannot see that we need to tell a story because we are not conscious that we have invoked one.

And thus we grossly underestimate the role that story plays in all of our communication. In particular, we fail to recognize that all data is founded in stories.

The desire to remain fashionably in the realm of data is probably the reason we are more comfortable with the word content than story. Content reduces story to the role of storable and retrievable object: data.

But we are really in the story business. And if one thing should separate professional writers and communicators from the rest of the population, it should be their appreciation for the central and indispensable role of story in all communication, and their ability, in particular, to escape the curse of knowledge and recognize which stories need to be told.

At the organizational level, discovering which stories need to be told is probably the heart and soul of a successful story strategy.

Let’s Replace “Content” with “Story”

We used to be in the writing business. Then we were in the communication business. Now we are in the content business. It’s probably getting time to change the monika again. I have a candidate: “story.”

There have always been two schools of thought about the word “content”. Some love it. Some hate it.

I hate it. It is an ugly generic word chosen specifically not to mean anything specific. We can’t say “writing” because sometimes we use pictures. Etc. Etc. It is the sort of word you use when you don’t care what is in the container. (Many years ago I asked a Documentum rep what Documentum meant by content, to which he replied, “anything you can store in Documentum.”)

But the problem for “content” haters is to propose a suitably comprehensive alternative. Which is catch-22 because anything equally comprehensive will also be equally generic. The only way out of this catch is to go meta, to focus not on the artefact but what the artefact represents: story.

“Content” exists to tell stories. All the forms we use to tell stories are incidental to this. What matters is the story, and any media you can use to tell that story is merely a tool of the story business.

Now, lets see what happens when we drop “story” into some well-known “content” phrases.

From Content Strategy to Story Strategy

Content strategy has always struggled to define itself. This is no doubt due in large part to the generic nature of the word content. If content is anything that fits in a container, then content is everything. Some definitions of content strategy seem to embrace this broad definition, claiming that content strategy is about everything an organization thinks, does, knows, says, and is. Others limit it in various ways. To some it is specifically digital, or specifically Web-oriented, or specifically marketing oriented. To some its seems to be little more than a fancy word for copywriting.

What happens if we talk about “story strategy” instead. This seems clearer to me. Story strategy is about how an organization tells its story (overall) and how it tells its stories, of which it doubtless has many.

Clearly technology and media are part of that strategy, but they are not the focus. The focus is story. Clearly too, this is not a strategy for every piece of data the organization holds. It is about its stories and how they are told.

That is not going to immediately banish all arguments about scope and jurisdiction, but I think it is a step in the right direction and is an immediately more concrete way of expressing what the discipline is supposed to be about.

From Content Lifecycle to Story Lifecycle

Here is where we would start to see the change in emphasis making a real difference. Content lifecycle puts an emphasis on individual artefacts: bits of text and graphics being created, published, and retired. Story lifecycle puts the emphasis on the story to be told and how it changes over time, how it becomes of interest and ceases to be of interest.

That a story has a lifecycle that needs to be managed is an idea very familiar to the news media and to politicians. News media produce many artefacts to tell what they often call “a developing story”. Politicians often seek different ways to tell their story to different constituencies.

It should be clear that for any organization, the story, and its lifecycle, is more important than any individual item of content. For any organization, many individual content artifacts will be created, modified, and retired over the lifespan of a story, and that story will be told in different ways, in different media, for different audiences. Managing the story is far more important than managing the individual artefacts. Indeed, managing the story is, or should be, the main reason for managing the artefacts.

Thinking in terms of managing the story lifecycle also puts us back in the realm of the writerly mindset, rather than the database mindset that often informs content management design and decision making.

From Content Management to Story Management

Which brings us to content management. How different does the role of story manager sound from the role of content manager? The former is clearly an editorial role; the latter sounds more like an IT role.

How differently might a content management system look and behave if it was conceived of as a system for managing stories rather than generic blobs of “content”?

Yes, of course, we would still need systems for managing texts, graphics, videos, and any other communication artefacts. But suppose that we thought of what we were asking that system to do in terms of the stories to which the individual artefacts were merely contributory?

What do you think, is it time to move on from “content” to “story?”


The other thing wrong with the DIKW pyramid

I took a side swipe at the DIKW (Data Information Knowledge Wisdom) pyramid the other day, and included a link to David Weinberger’s excellent debunking of it, which concludes:

The real problem with the DIKW pyramid is that it’s a pyramid. The image that knowledge (much less wisdom) results from applying finer-grained filters at each level, paints the wrong picture. That view is natural to the Information Age which has been all about filtering noise, reducing the flow to what is clean, clear and manageable. Knowledge is more creative, messier, harder won, and far more discontinuous. read more