On Helping

 As content strategists, writers, and editors, we ask a lot of questions every day. It’s part of our job. We ask practical questions about websites, words, and sentence structure. We ask hypothetical questions to get people thinking. We ask uncomfortable questions, and we ask questions we don’t really want to know the answers to. But there’s one question that has enriched my relationships, improved my work, and led to more interesting conversations than any other:

“How can I help?”

In our world, there’s a lot of focus on the content strategist as hero or fixer. And sometimes we do swoop in and fix things. We clean up messes and clear up confusion. Those are important capabilities to share and explore, as long as we still feel the call to be helpful.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not solving problems independently. For the most part, our jobs rely on other people doing their jobs. There’s no content to plan without a business that needs a website. There’s no website to fix without writers and designers and developers. Our clients, teammates, and bosses are all solving problems, too. We’re part of an ecosystem. It needs us, but we sure need it.

In the process of evaluating content, we often get the chance to ask big questions and start important conversations about organizational values and business goals. I love it when that happens! But whether or not those conversations have a lasting impact depends on a lot of factors: Who are we talking to? What does this business need? Who else is in the room? How are they feeling right now? In this role, we’re facilitators. The process can end with real change, but it starts with people who are willing to change. We don’t do any of this alone.

I love a good problem to solve. Give me a sloppy page or vision for a website, and I’ll take it on as my own. I like setting goals and seeing them through. Honestly, I also like the validation I get when I accomplish something on my own. But sometimes my perspective on the problems I’m trying to solve is too much about the act of solving the problem. That’s dangerous, because the focus is on me and my capacity to fix things—not the people I’m trying to help, the thing I’m doing to help, or even the impact of the thing I’m doing to help.

Going into projects with the attitude that we’re going to fix everything diminishes our chances of fixing anything. We can reflect on what we bring to the table, or we can talk about processes, outcomes, and all the things we can accomplish together. I’ve written and talked about the value of empathy for our readers. Corey Vilhauer has written and talked about empathy for our clients and teammates. Sara Wachter-Boettcher says it all starts with vulnerability. But I think this is worth saying, too: We’re not the only empathetic ones. We’re not the only ones who work well with others. We don’t have special superpowers disguised as strategic skills. The best web designers I know have taught me lessons in empathy, and any good manager knows that working toward a shared vision starts with understanding individuals. Sometimes our most empathetic move is simply supporting them.

There are so many ways we quietly help people in our day-to-day work. We spend hours upon hours working on articles and entire websites that will have someone else’s name on them. We spend more time editing blog posts than it took their authors to write them. We labor over content audits and style guides, and then we just have to cross our fingers that someone will actually use them. We perform extensive research and make careful recommendations, but at the end of the day, acting on those recommendations is someone else’s job.

When we really want to help, we go out of our way to be flexible and adapt to different people’s styles. Most of us are working across departments or companies. They all have their own systems and workflows, and though it’s tempting to better organize other people’s teams in a way that makes sense for us, sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is meet them where they are.

As helpers, we have to be willing to learn new skills for the sole purpose of making someone else’s life easier. For me, that has meant things like learning markdown to improve our team’s workflow, reading design books so I can better communicate with my coworkers, and asking questions in public that are maybe a little embarrassing for me. For someone else, it could mean attending a conference, figuring out how to make a spreadsheet do math, or tagging along on user interviews. This kind of intentional learning rewards us so deeply. We don’t get any glory for it, but it improves our work, builds trust with our teammates, and shows us our own limits and shortcomings.

We also have to be willing to do things that don’t necessarily fall within the confines of our job description. For some content strategists, this means writing and editing. We work with content every day—we should not be reluctant writers. For others, it means getting people who don’t like to be in rooms together, together in the same room. Some of our most delicate work happens behind the scenes, during conversations in conference rooms and hallways. That stuff isn’t in the job description because it’s intrinsic. It should be a given. Lisa Maria Martin calls it a "salty, ever-present undercurrent" to our work. Our relationships and breakthroughs don’t produce measurable results, and we don’t get to print out emotional progress reports and say “Look what I did!” But those conversations help, so we sit down and we have them.

I work with a bunch of smart people who know things I don’t know. Some days, the best I can do is listen and help them. And I’m ok with that.