Wrangling Your Global Content

Wrangling Your Global Content
January 2, 2019
In this episode of Globally Speaking, Scott Abel, AKA the Content Wrangler, talks about how content is the lifeblood of an organization. In fact, it’s a strategic advantage and an asset—but many organizations don’t treat it this way. Scott explains that businesses need to think differently about how they create, manage, translate and deliver content to make it more useful and meaningful for consumers. Tune in to hear his expertise!
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Speaker Transcript
Renato I’m Renato Beninatto.
Michael And I’m Michael Stevens.
Renato And today on Globally Speaking, live from Seattle, Washington, at the Rendezvous Jewelbox Theatre, we have a special guest. Somebody that I’ve wanted to interview for a long, long time.
Michael He’s a wrangler.
Renato For those of you who’ve been in the industry for a while, you’ve probably heard and read about Scott, who’s one of the pillars and experts in our industry. Before we go any further, let him introduce himself.
Scott My name is Scott Abel and some people call me “The Content Wrangler.” I was under some kind of spell by someone dressed in a cowboy outfit at the time I named my company—
Michael Yee hah!
Scott —and I’ve regretted it ever since. No, I’m just kidding!
Renato So, you are the content wrangler?
Scott Yeah, my job is to help people think differently about how they create, manage, augment, translate, localize and deliver content in hopes that they’ll do it in a more useful and meaningful way.
Michael Is content just words?
Scott When I talk about it, it’s usually anything that helps an organization accomplish its goal or might hinder it from accomplishing the goal. So, it’s the lifeblood of an organization. It’s the way that you communicate, it’s everything that you say, it’s everything that people perceive. It’s the messaging that you give out either intentionally or unintentionally. There’s a way to control some of it. Maybe some of it’s outside of our control, and maybe machines will augment and help us do some things better. But customers can’t become customers until they understand who you are and they believe you and they trust you, and in the world that we live in today, there is a lot of confusion. There’s a lot of different information being thrown at people, and I think that we could take some more thoughtful approaches about what we’re going to produce, how we’re going to produce it, why we’re going to produce it and leverage technology to do it a little bit better.

In the end, I want to help people accomplish whatever it is that they set out to do at the moment that they were engaging in the content. And you know, they don’t always choose to engage in it. They could be walking through an airport and there’s an important message being broadcast over the loudspeaker that’s recorded, but meanwhile, three human beings are shouting over that: “Please, Diane Johnson, come to Gate 24, your children are missing.” And there’s distractions, right? There’s the warnings, there’s a fear, there’s “I could be late,” there’s “I need to go through security,” there are blind people, there are people who speak different languages. We have a lot of communication problems, and just to go through an airport like Heathrow, you actually have to walk up to a machine, scan your passport, insert a credit card, use a touch screen, it prints out a chit of paper that you take to a scanner, scan to walk through to go to a machine that looks at your eyes that prints out another chit that you give to a human being who then scrutinizes you and either lets you in or not. And depending on which country you’re in, when you go through security, you might be given a pencil and asked to fill out some information on a card in order to get into a country. All of that has to be orchestrated. That’s content strategy, right? How do we get from A to B?
Renato Don’t we all think that we’re experts? After all, communication is the main activity that we do.
Scott I think we assume that because you and I are having a conversation, that most of those people are hearing exactly the same thing that you and I perceive that we’re hearing.
Renato What is the moment when a content strategy becomes important for an organization? What is the moment where you go from being an amateur and winging it? To support my question: when Facebook decided to start doing localization, they figured out that the best experts on Facebook were the Facebook users.

The terminology is the one that the users choose to use. So, their strategy was to let the users translate, but then over a certain period of time, they realized that that was not scalable and then they started engaging professional services. So there are different levels of strategy there.
Scott Sometimes it depends on the industry that you’re in. Industries that make things that will kill you—if they’re misused or used in some way that is dangerous, like airplanes or weapons or pharmaceutical products or medical devices, those kinds of things—their fear is future non-compliance or lawsuits that lead to litigious fines. They don’t want to lose money in that way.

They are a lot more cautious. That often triggers whenever there’s a massive lawsuit and the cause of the lawsuit is content. It didn’t have a comma where it should have been; the judge knows the rules of grammar, so she says, “That’s actually what that says, so you lose,” and now it cost you 80 million dollars. That will trigger a content strategy discussion in a company in a minute.

But I think by nature, companies don’t even think of it as a strategic advantage. They don’t even value content as an asset. And part of that reason in the United States is that it’s not allowed to be included on a balance sheet. You can’t say, “We’re 84 million dollars short of our sales this year, but thank goodness Renato made some content worth 85 million, because now we’re a million ahead.”

But there is a value to everything that we produce, all the content that we create and the impact that it has on people. But we don’t usually think about how to manage or measure it.
Michael But Scott, isn’t so much of that content low-value?
Scott Much of it is. Think about this: they basically pay people to open a blank document in Microsoft Word and type whatever you want. This is not a strategy. It is a poor strategy, it is the beginning of a revelation that you need one. But, if your job is “I need you to communicate on behalf of the company to achieve these goals, and here is your template”—a blank PowerPoint screen or a blank Microsoft Word document—you’re basically saying, “Do the best job you can. Whatever you do probably will be good enough, and if not, you’ll learn about it when we review you six months later or lay you off because we don’t think you’re doing a good job.”

Workers aren’t even set up to succeed with content oftentimes. They’re left to their own devices and then we have to search the web to figure out what other people are writing and why.
Michael So, it sounds like you’re leaning down the road of controlled language and tools that limit writers?
Scott I don’t exclude those things. What I say is that if you value content as an asset, there’ll be some money associated with it, and you’ll decide what you’ll be willing to pay people to do and what they should be doing when they’re creating content.

And what would tools do? Sometimes the human is better, but at other times the mundane task can totally be handled by machines. But people often prefer those tasks; they feel attached to them for whatever reason. “I know machines could do it, but I want to do it!”
Renato I remember when I was in the transition from typewriters to computers. I remember there was a Portuguese-to-French translator who said, “I can never use a computer because I have a central relationship with the keyboard on my typewriter.”
Michael Oh! To hear the carriage return?
Renato Yes!
Michael Oh, that sound!
Renato And he couldn’t because the computer was so impersonal, and he didn’t have that mechanical exercise.
Scott And we talked about this on the show, about predictability and patterns. Humans are creatures of habit. We thrive best when we can predict things, which is why, when predictive analytics from artificial intelligence is useful to human beings, they gravitate to it.

If you could just say, “How many cups are in a quart?” or “How many teaspoons are in a half cup of milk?” to your talking device, and it tells you and then you complete the recipe, you’re totally happy that that is able to do that. But then you say, “Well, would you like it to do more things?” and they say, “Oh my God! It could kill me!” We jump to the fear because we like the convenience of the predictability, but if we think it can predict more than us, then we start to fear it. And I think we have to figure out where do we fit when we’re trying to help people with language?
Renato You are a consultant, you work with large organizations, you help them figure out these problems. Tell us: who gets it right?
Scott I can’t deliver on that question because I’ve recently realized that because people are the way that they are, content isn’t the problem. The problem is organizations are not designed to take in new ideas and be able to leverage them and use them. Anybody who’s honest knows that if you have a room full of people, they are not all working in collaborative unison. It’s not some kind of unified thing. Humans are different, and we have to recognize that, right? I think that’s part of the challenge. Organizations aren’t set up to encourage that growth, and so what happens is they get derailed, and they’re so busy deciding what to do that it could take 18 months to decide some technology change or something they should change.

And by that time, technology has taken leaps and bounds exponentially, and outpaced them. So, you see all these companies dying off because they don’t have the exponential growth that they need. If I recognize I have a content problem and I’m equipped as a content manager of some type in a big company, I only have the power to change that, and maybe only within my boundaries, right?

I think the bigger challenge is organizations have to understand that the ability to adapt their processes has to be baked in to the way that they’re organized and the way that they run.
Renato I’ve been in this business for over 30 years, and every year I have to explain to somebody why you need two types of Spanish. Because there’s a new generation that didn’t know; they haven’t heard that before and they don’t know that there is a difference between French Canadian and French.
Scott And one day they won’t need to know. A machine will know that for them and they will be able to work on the things that are valuable to the organization. Spinning those wheels over and over again means that that energy went out; it wasn’t utilized in some way.
Renato One of the dogmas that I fight against in the language business is the fact that we consider translation memory linguistic assets. They’re not assets. Because an asset is something that you can put in the balance sheet. It has a number, it has a value.
Scott You could argue that the capability that being able to leverage a translation memory will give you has a value.
Renato That’s the opposite of value for me because it’s like a discount. You go into an outlet mall to buy a Nike shoe for half the price of the one that you buy at the main store. It doesn’t really change the utility of that product; it’s like a discount.
Scott Are you saying the value from being a seller of the service or from being the buyer? In my role, I sit between the buyer and the seller, so I get to hear all the pitches from the sellers and all the fabulous things that they claim they can do that they usually are not that great at doing, and then I get to hear the bitching and moaning from the customers about what they wish the vendors would do.

We should figure out where the people fit and what the value is. But, organizations will have to one day recognize the value of the content assets they produce. Or why produce them at all?
Renato We’re getting to that point. There is a different value for pre-sales content and after-sales content. And why is that? Because we’re manipulative. So, if we’re doing a website that is going to attract people to buy our product, that’s valuable because I can associate that to a return on investment that has nothing to do with the price per word.
Scott You mentioned something in passing that’s also part of the problem. When content creators are siloed from each other, they believe that the island that they work in is the sole universe that exists in that company. So, if you have a support website, its support content is usually and traditionally made post-sale available. It is something you give to the customer after the transaction is complete.

But today, people actually search for that, so there’s no reason to separate them. We should place equal value on content that could drive prospective customers to be interested in our content, and that doesn’t only have to be marketing, right? It can be technical content.

For example, you really do need to know how big the furniture is before you buy it and try to put it in your vehicle. I know that only because I’ve purchased things. I lacked the technical information, but I received the marketing; I received the “you should purchase this product because when you leave you will feel better about yourself” and all those other things.

And I walked out only to find out that I didn’t have the information. So, they were busy trying to solicit an emotional response from me that did result in the purchase, but now I’m frustrated I can’t get it in my car. It’s partially my fault, but they package it up so marketing is one thing, and then after you’ve been converted to a customer, now we give you a contract written in all capital letters and words that you don’t understand, then technical documentation and training and support, all created in different ways. And you can imagine how frustrating it is.

There is a way to use this content for good to help both kinds of audiences, and then when you extrapolate, and you start localizing the content for a global audience and use technology, there’s hope that you can do good work, right? That you can help the person who was just there to see if the thing would fit in their car before they bought it, instead of trying to sell them all the time. And I think that’s part of the challenge.
Michael Do you see any trends as far as the means in which content is being delivered?
Scott I survey about 700 companies a year in an annual technical communications study. So, this is people who create content, they write how-to instructions and things of that nature for products and services. They seem to think that chatbots are going to start to deliver some of the content for people in a rule-based—not magical-artificial-intelligence way—but in a rule-based, “if you ask me this question, I can give you this answer” kind of scenario. That seems to be the number one trend.

Number two is voice content. So, ask Alexa, “Who is Scott Abel?” when you get home and Alexa will read you my bio, not the Scott Abel at scottabel.com who is much more popular and much wealthier than I am. But, you will get my bio because my content has been optimized for that device to find. Brands are going to start to recognize the importance of people wanting to just ask a question that they may not have anticipated in the marketing department or the technical communication department.

We expect this from our devices, and it may be an unrealistic expectation, but I think people are unrealistic sometimes and we just have to plan for that.
Michael There are a couple of things you just said that are ways to demonstrate the value of content. Support content and how it’s delivered and how easy it is to use can be a driver for sales.
Scott Especially in B2B transactions. For example, if you’re using a product and you think that the support that you’re receiving is inadequate today, chances are, when you shop for a new product, you might even call the phone number to see if they transfer you to people who don’t know what they’re talking about before you even become a customer. People are starting to do this and use social and other telecommunication means to do their own research, and I think it behooves us to try to provide the best content experience possible.
Michael And the second thing I heard was the value of being a first mover into voice.
Scott I’ve been trying to work with a couple of companies to develop voice solutions. I have a conference called Information Development World where we invite companies to come and talk about what they’ve been doing. One of the biggest sectors is healthcare. People want to be able to ask kind of a personal question to a machine in hopes they can just get a factual answer without being embarrassed.

And so the Mayo Clinic has been doing a lot of work with Amazon Alexa devices, trying to make a question-and-answer system that can help people in different languages be able to understand common medical problems and give them factual advice that is not ambiguous.
Renato This is fascinating because I read that book “Everybody Lies” and how the searches that people do on search engines are completely different than what they tell you that they do. So, you can see a lot of embarrassment and bias through the questions that people ask. They feel comfortable asking a computer; they don’t feel comfortable asking another human.
Scott Right, and once they feel comfortable, they start to become less likely to issue commands and more likely to speak to the device. As more natural language creeps in, we’re going to have to start teaching people how to write conversational content, which is totally different than writing in the narrative or third person. It’s actually quite challenging.
Renato That’s more creative and that’s more interactive.
Scott Yeah, in fact, at my conference I knew better than to ask, “Have any of you that are people like me done this work?” because most of them hadn’t. So, I found a woman whose full-time job in Los Angeles is to take scripts that movie companies buy the rights to and turn them into movies. And she was great because she taught us how to read through something and then think about, “How can I tell this as a dialogue?” I think we lack those skills, but we can build them into our repertoire of offerings.

And I think people around the world will benefit because they’re going to also have to develop conversational skills, and they’ll be localized for the type of audio that they’ll need. Which is a totally different field, which means there’s tremendous room for growth. I wouldn’t be afraid of computers replacing us. I would be afraid of getting behind and not understanding what computers are capable of helping us do, because if you can know that, you can beat the competition.
Michael What questions do we have from the audience?
Question Joe Didamo at the Big Word. Are source content creators more and more aligned with the translation arm of what they do, or trending to being completely divorced from the translators?
Scott It’s maybe a little bit of both and a little bit of something else. So, when I survey people, I ask, “How many languages do you support?,” questions like that, and then I chunk those people into groups. For people who work at companies that provide content between 11 and 50 languages, 60% of them have absolutely no idea what happens when the content moves outside of their domain. That’s not to say that they hadn’t learned that upstream, if they make some improvements, they might be able to help translators in the end. There may be people doing things on purpose to help make translations cleaner, but they often are not connected or don’t have a direct pipeline there, so they can’t get immediate feedback; there’s no agile feedback coming into the meetings every day.

About 20% of the companies say that they involve somebody from the language. These are also innovative companies that have complicated products that are highly configurable, so there are usually lots of variables and lots of people involved in the content. When you have that situation, there’s usually a lot of cooperation with the language and terminologists.

The last trend that I see is people trying to get rid of that altogether. They’re basically divorcing themselves from it and they say, “We write the content and then we give it to the provider and then we evaluate whether it was high quality or not.”
Michael Scott, thank you very much.
Renato Thank you so much.
Scott Thank you.

[Applause]

Scott Abel

Known as “The Content Wrangler,” Scott has been helping businesses improve their content for decades. In addition to his blog, he has written two books and numerous articles on content strategy and management. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and co-produces the annual Information Development World Conference for technical, marketing and product information developers. He also has a large LinkedIn group, The Content Wrangler Community, and heads up the San Francisco Content Strategy Content Marketing Pros Meetup group.

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