Episode 16: Tracy Playle, Pickle Jar Communications - Content Strategy in Higher Ed

March 20, 2019

Tracy Playle is well known in the content strategy industry for her expertise in content specific to the higher education community. In this episode, she and Kristina chat about both the challenges and positive trends Tracy is seeing in higher ed, and how she has been helping universities design user-first experiences by truly understanding their audiences—both students and stakeholders.  

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About this week’s guest

Tracy Playle

Tracy Playle is the chief content strategist for UK-based content strategy consultancy Pickle Jar Communications.

After spending her early career working at the University of Warwick in a range of communications, content, and digital planning roles, Tracy set up her own consultancy in 2007. Since then, she has advised over 160 organizations in 25 countries on how to plan, create, distribute, and manage compelling and effective content. More recently, she began coaching budding content strategists and senior leaders who want to embed a more strategic approach to content management in their organizations.

Tracy is an enthusiastic, award-winning speaker and is invited to speak at conferences around the world. She is also founder of the ContentEd conference, serving the European education sector, and author of The Connected Campus: Creating a Content Strategy to Drive Engagement with Your University.

She lives in the northeast of England with her dog, Scout.


Episode transcript

Kristina: Hello again. Welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at BrainTraffic.com.


Kristina: Hello.

Tracy: Hey.

Kristina: Ms. Tracy Playle. Is that you?

Tracy: It’s nice to be here.

Kristina: It’s good to hear your voice. Alright Tracy, I’ve been looking forward to catching up with you for several weeks now, and I’m glad that we were able to connect. For our listening audience, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

Tracy: I can indeed. So yeah, I’m Tracy Playle. I am the CEO and Chief Content Strategist—I give myself my job titles being the CEO—at a company called Pickle Jar Communications. So as you can tell from the accent, I’m based in the United Kingdom, and I specialize in supporting the higher education sector primarily with content strategy.

Kristina: Excellent. When did we first meet? I think that probably it was through Confab Higher Ed. Is that right?

Tracy: It was indeed. I think you had me on the program first in it must have been about 2014 and I was over speaking about comedy and humor in content.

Kristina: That’s right.

Tracy: And I’ve done that quite a few times now on the various Confab programs over the years, and it’s one of my favorite topics to talk about, but I’m by no means an expert. I’m just an enthusiast.

Kristina: I’m just a hilarious content strategist. That’s my primary qualification is I’m hilarious. Good work.

Tracy: I just spend my life just laughing at things and just thinking we have to see the funny side and all.

Kristina: You know what, that’s great cause mostly I just cry. Mostly I’m like, “Really, content?”

Tracy: That’s so sad.

Kristina: No it’s not true. I’m a lighthearted, jolly optimist. Also, not always true. Tracy, how did you come to content strategy?

Tracy: I think in pretty much about the same way that most of us came to it and that’s we kind of fell into it. It always was like an accident, doesn’t it, in this career, in this profession. I was originally going to be an academic of all things, so I went back to what was my first university after doing my Master’s degree.

Kristina: And what did you do your Master’s in?

Tracy: See my Master’s is in American Literature and Culture.

Kristina: Oh that’s funny.

Tracy: Yeah, yeah. My Bachelor’s is in English Lit, so literature through and through. Was going to do a PhD, went back to my university to start it. Didn’t get funding to do the PhD so I started working in the communications fffice of my university to part fund my studies, my research, and suddenly got really, really interested in learning about all of the amazing things that universities actually do that went well beyond my own sphere of experience of being at university.

So I’m suddenly learning all about the research they’re doing, alumni engagement and fundraising, and community impact, and all this kind of stuff, and got really, really fascinated in the work that I was doing and suddenly one day realized that I was completely fatigued of reading novels. I could no longer read a book without wanting to reach for a pencil to annotate the margins. And I just kind of realized that all of the joy of studying literature, it sort of saps the ... it’s been sapped out of it really by studying it for the previous four years, and I was loving my job so they created a full time post for me in the communications office. So I started working in content through working in university communications, but really it was a PR route into it for me.

My last few years there I was head of a service called Research TV, and my job was to communicate research from a number of different universities for video and news releases to television channels around the world. And as we’re doing this, YouTube comes along. iTunes pops up and starts a section of iTunes that was known as iTunes U, so it was all about university content, and suddenly what we were doing, we’re trying to put this content out there on television channels around the world, became a lot more relevant to the online audience. But for me what we were really doing is telling good stories and that I think was probably the first point at which I really saw myself as a content professional. But the term content strategist probably didn’t come into my life until, I don’t know, maybe about seven or eight years ago I think I really started to think of myself as a content strategist.

Kristina: And what were some of the key problems that you were up against solving, because I think that that is really when people start to think of them as strategists. When they’re suddenly not just designing or putting ... Well, it’s like people who are designing who are suddenly like “Wait, I’m designing for experiences. There are problems to solve. I’m a user experience professional.” Similarly, I think with content folks where they’re suddenly “I’m not just cranking out blog posts or videos, I’m really trying to solve problems for both users in the business.” Tell me about some of the problems that you came up against, that you were excited to help the university solve.

Tracy: Yeah, there were a couple of things really, and I think that the big one for me was dealing with, and the constant frustration of dealing with, this mythical audience known as the general public, and constantly hitting up against people rattling off their objectives that they’re trying to reach in the education sector, and then they just go “But really we just need the general public to love us.” And what does that mean? That actually means absolutely nothing, and if we can’t really dig into understanding our audiences properly, we’re not serving our institutions properly either.

So I think it was really for me at the point at which I started to feel like I was starting to un-pick this concept of the general public and these big broad nonsense audiences really that started making me think that I was probably more strategic in terms of how I was willing, able, and probably driven to think.

The second part for me around that was also when I say I started Pickle Jar Communications 11 years ago and actually made that move to become a consultant. I actually specialized in social media activities. That was what everyone in the education sector wanted to know about, and we’d been doing loads of that at the University of Warwick where I’d worked, and the frustration with that emerged from, we could come up with great ideas for creating engaging content to play out on the social channels but the moment that you’d even try to connect that to a larger user experience or audience experience or journey or however you wanted to say it, we had no control over shaping that content.

So even if it was something as simple of you’re going to create an amazing piece of content for social, but actually you want to send them to the website, that experience would be totally disjointed. So it was really through that work that I then found myself coming actually back to doing a lot more website work. I’d actually done quite a lot of work on web when I was working at Warwick University and then had this gap in my career of a few years where I didn’t do a lot on that. So then came back to that and it also then fell into place and that was around about the time that I think I probably picked up your book and the term content strategy landed on me and went yeah, this is what we’re doing here.

Kristina: Tell me about Pickle Jar Communications? What is behind the name Pickle Jar?

Tracy: You know for someone that works in content, I really, really should have a better story for this. It’s crazy, right? 11 years and I still haven’t come up with a good story why we’re called it. So the real reason, it was a line in a song. I was originally going to set the company up with somebody else. He eventually didn’t join the company cause his wife got pregnant and that was a bad, bad time to leave a stable secure job and try and be a consultant. So everything we thought of was either registered as a limited company here in the UK or the domain name was already purchased. So all of our great ideas we had for company names just weren’t going to happen.

So he went home from work one day and was listening to a song on his iPod on the way home and it just had this line in it about being in a pickle jar, and he came back into work the next day and he said, “You know that line sort of sums up how I felt about our conversation around coming up with a company name.” And we went so what about Pickle Jar Communications, and we just went yeah. It doesn’t mean anything, but it sounds kind of fun.

But I love it, in a way, because it’s a little bit quirky and it’s a little bit silly. In a world in which our job is all about helping people to assign meaning and think about meaning and think about connection with things, to have a kind of company name that is completely meaningless and completely disconnected to anything. I don’t know ... and it sits quite comfortably with me. So one day we will come up with a better story, but we haven’t yet given ourselves the time or the space to do that.

Kristina: I don’t know. I think that’s a really great story. I think that every single person can just feel like, “I had this great idea and then I found out that 80 other people had it and then I didn’t know where to go with it,” and so I think that it’s terrific that you both were like “This sounds good. Let’s just go with this” and that it ... I have never heard of another company name like that. It really stands out, and I think that it really nicely reflects your personality and the way that you talk about and present your practice out into the world, which is very lighthearted, very positive. I just think it’s great.

Tracy: So one of my silly stories around the company name is that I have quite an unusual surname and so most people can’t remember my surname or certainly wouldn’t know how to spell it, and someone came up to me at conference and they’d heard me speak at another conference before and they were like yeah we wanted to find you and we wanted to get in touch with you. And so they’d typed in “Tracy Pickle” into Google and they managed to find me. And I love that. I love my surname and I’m very proud of it, but there is this temptation to change my surname to Pickle because how fun would that be?

Kristina: That would be real fun. That’s amazing ...

Tracy: It’s cute.

Kristina: Yeah, it’s great. It’s great. Talk about a personal brand. I don’t normally like that phrase, but in your case, you’ve got it. Good work.

Hey Tracy, one of the things that I was really interested in talking to you about today is, and something that I’ve thought about, Sarah Richards, who runs Content Design London and I spoke about at length in an earlier podcast in this series, is the rise of content, the rapid rise of content design as a practice in the UK, and how it sits alongside content strategy or doesn’t or perhaps it’s subsumed it a little bit, and you very specifically offer content strategy services through Pickle Jar Communications.

Can you just talk a little bit about the rise of that term and that discipline and how that has or has not shaped the way that you are setting up and delivering your services to your clients?

Tracy: Yeah, it’s funny actually. We’ve received our first ever brief only a few weeks ago from an organization that was specially asking for content design services and not using the term content strategy. I have to give a shout out to Sarah cause she’s my hero and increasingly becoming my friend as well. And I think her work and the work of the GDS team and everyone around that has been absolutely amazing.

In just the art of, if I’m being completely honest, stating the bleeding obvious. It really isn’t rocket science is it, to just go you know we need to create content that people actually want and need and not put all the fluff around it. And that’s what I love and the user centered approach that it takes is wonderful.

The difference for me from content strategy and content design, I see content design as being an almost subset of content strategy, or if you will, I see content design as being part of the state that takes content strategy to implementation. So it’s almost a transitory thing where we can take that strategy and we can turn it into something, can actually do something with it. And I think it’s very, very difficult to get a content strategy into implementation without a content design mentality, if that makes sense. So for me things like creating page tables, doing the user story work, all of that is part of that link in process between going okay, we’ve got this overarching strategic vision that we want to implement. How do we actually turn that to something on-page. And that for me is what content design does beautifully.

Whether it is any more developed here in the UK, I don’t know. A lot of my learning comes from all over the place really, and particularly mostly from attending Confab. So I think maybe we’ve just done a good job in the UK of crafting that term and owning that term, and I think because a lot of the work around that was around such a visible site in the UK, which is the GOV.UK website, which of course pretty much everyone if you’re a citizen of the United Kingdom needs to use at some point. In fact, it’s probably the only website where that term general public is okay to use. It’s become very visible because it was linked to such a visible project.

Kristina: So when your clients then come to you with requests for or saying, “Hey, we need a content strategy. We need content strategy services.” Talk to me about the kinds of problems that they’re hoping to solve.

Tracy: They can come from so many different positions. So some of the people that will approach us will be ... Oh, these are my favorite ones to hate, right? Let’s start with these ones. The ones who have—

Kristina: I know exactly what you’re going to say.

Tracy: I know you do.

Kristina: Go ahead, go ahead.

Tracy: Check me if I’m right on this, but it’s the ones who are “We’ve just launched our website and now we need to think about content.”

Kristina: Yeah, yeah. I was going to say it’s the ones that are like “Okay, we need to deliver content to the devs in four weeks and we’re ready to start talking about it.”

Tracy: Some of them are even later than that. I mean some of them—

Kristina: I know, or afterwards. Exactly.

Tracy: “Help us fill in these boxes” and that fills me with horror. We still get them. We get them less now. So some of them, I guess half of our content strategy projects are built around some kind of development with a website. So more often than not now, we’re now able to argue the case that that process needs to start before any kind of design and build, and we’re getting quite successful in actually making that happen now.

The other angle that people come to us with, and actually I think what they’re really after is a content marketing strategy rather than a content strategy, and that’s when they have a specific campaign, a specific objective that they’re trying to work towards within the organization. So it could be student marketing, student recruitment. It might be a fundraising campaign or an alumni engagement activity. Sometimes it’s research communications.

So it’s those kind of drivers, and you get these pockets and silos within higher ed that are serving their own objectives and their own agendas, and they come and they’ve notionally heard about content strategy. They might have heard me speak at a conference that might not be a content strategy conference. More often than not, it’s something different. It’s a marketing conference. It’s a communications or web conference. And they have this notion of an idea that content strategy might be a magic fix for them for something, which generally I don’t think it is cause often when we get in and work on any of these projects, as you know more often than not, that the content is generally not the biggest problem. It’s normally the people and how they work together that’s often the problem.

So some of the problems that actually need to be fixed are not necessarily going to be fixed by thinking about the content, but thinking about everything else that’s framed around that. And that’s why about two years ago I developed this model that I spoke about at Confab last year, which is the ten-part ways of thinking about how mature your organization is with your approach to content strategy. Most of those things relate to people and culture rather than to the content or what you might see on page itself.

Kristina: How are you able to move the conversation when people say, “We have problems with our content,” to gently guide them to, “Actually you’ve got problems with people and process”?

Tracy: That’s such a lovely way of putting it, isn’t it? I let them do it themselves. I just ask the right questions and shape workshops and the like to get them to arrive at that conclusion theirself. To be honest, there are very, very few projects that you go into where that’s not going to be a problem, especially working in higher ed where we’re working with these massive complicated organizations who are full of people with very, very powerful egos, and also full of people whose life’s profession is some kind of intellectual pursue and research and digging into stuff and all of that kind of stuff. So it’s a really challenging environment to work in.

So stakeholder engagement side of the work that we do is probably one of the most important pieces. And for me what I’ve really learned, particularly over the last four or five years of doing this, is getting people to arrive at things and getting them to think that it was their idea that they arrived at it is probably one of the most powerful things that you can do in this job.

So if we want to develop a particular approach with a content strategy, we might run some kind of consultation workshops early on with various different stakeholders, and we get them to come up with ideas in some of those sessions as well. And then six weeks later, let’s say, when we’re presenting back the strategy to them, if you will, we will present things back to them as though it was their idea in the first place even though it wasn’t. It would just be along the lines of you know that brilliant idea that you came up with in that workshop you attended? Well, here it is again. And they might be scratching their heads going I’m pretty sure I didn’t think of that, but you make them think they did. And that’s the same with helping them seeing that their organizational structures, the way in which they interact as people, is often the barrier.

So I think the role of a content strategist just is really to become a bit of a people maneuverer and a problem solver in that respect, and I feel that is a skill that we have in droves and we sometimes apply it really, really well to the content and the content strategy and the user experience, but we don’t always apply it quite so well to the stakeholder engagement side of things.

So to give you an example of this, I was running a workshop recently for a client, and the session was all about, the brief I had was can you come and run a session for us that’s going to help us work across different faculties within the university to collaborate more around that context, because at the moment we’re all sending stuff out all over the place. We’re conflicting. We’re wasting lots of time and resource, and we’d really, really like to just get some more benefit out of being more collaborative.

And so in this exercise, in this workshop, I had them throughout the day ... They had some giant Post-Its on the wall, and they had to capture through the day in each group three big things that they felt they needed to take on and achieve. And I went over to one of the groups, and they’d put their three big things up on the wall, and we’re having a talk, a conversation around what they were and why they’d come up with those things.

And through the conversation someone said, “Well, you know what we really need, Tracy, is we actually need an institutional content strategy that guides us and steers us as faculty as to what we should be doing and can then be translated down to our own areas and domains that we’re working in.” And I said, “Why don’t you have this up on your wall as one of these things that you need to be taking on?” And their response was, “Well, anytime we ever develop a strategy, and we take it to senior leaders, they just say no, and they say no because our strategy doesn’t seem to be addressing the objectives that they have.” And I just said to them, “Do you not sit down and have a conversation with them at the start of this process around what their objectives actually are?”

And the idea that you would even do that just seemed to be a bit of a shock to them, but that to me is just crazy because when we’re doing good content, the first thing we’re thinking about is our audience. So when we’re doing good strategy work that we need to persuade someone of then we need to think about our audience for that, who are of course, our internal stakeholders. So through having conversations like that, you do get to see them ... you get them to see things in a slightly different way.

But going back to the original question, which is about how you get people to see their own dirty underwear, so to speak. Most of them know it. They know it already, and I know this has come up on some of your other podcasts. I’m just echoing what others have said here, but I hear all the time people say to me that was like therapy talking to you because you’re enabling them to really get out those institutional problems that they face. And also because I used to work in an institution, I know it. I feel it. I don’t just hear it and listen to it. I can actually feel what they’re experiencing, so that helps.

Kristina: So interestingly a lot of the trajectory of these conversations, of course, happens over and over and over again no matter what industry we’re talking about. I mean, we’ll have clients come to us from retail and financial services and healthcare and oil and gas and politics and higher ed and everybody says, “Well, do you have experience in this industry?” and every time I just say, “Look, the topic is the topic is the topic,” but people and the challenges that they have, the kinds of conversations that they need to have, the way that they think about content, that is ... I often tell people there’s a finite set of content challenges that manifest in a million different ways.

And I want to talk a little bit about specifically how those challenges can manifest within the higher ed community. We used to hold for many years, we held Confab Higher Ed, which was a content strategy conference specifically dedicated obviously to higher ed folks, and for a variety of reasons we wrapped it all back into one conference. But we were able to present that conference because there was a unique set of challenges faced within higher ed content strategy. Can you talk a little bit about some of those specific nuances?

Tracy: Yeah, and I have to say to that point while I love Confab so much and it is like for me a big family gathering every year, we set up ContentEd over here in Europe because you guys wouldn’t bring Confab Higher Ed to Europe and we needed it.

Kristina: It’s a long story and I’m so grateful you did that. It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful.

Tracy: But that common empathy within the profession is really, really felt at these kind of events, and what’s happened with the ContentEd community is it’s given a platform for that narrative to play out, to discuss those kind of complicated issues. So higher ed, I think that we are completely unique. I think there are other sectors out there that do have similar frustrations to us, but some of the barriers that we experience in higher ed are firstly there’s this crazy sort of we’re not quite public, we’re not quite private line going on. So that creates a very awkward perception of the institutions from people on the outsides view. They don’t quite know how to deal with us. We’re massively, and particularly in the UK, we’re massively, massively subject to policy changes, political influences, and of course education is always such a big ticket, main platform manifesto type pledge that various politicians will be making.

So we’re constantly at the whims of this ridiculousness of changing scenarios. In the UK, we’re still living out this debate of should people pay for their tuition or should it be free, and obviously that’s changed over the last 15 years or so, or 20 years even. It’s to whether higher education and undergraduate study is funded. So we have these big, big policy pressures play into us.

We have a challenge of brand positioning, all desperately trying to say why we’re unique from other universities, but actually fundamentally we are not particularly unique from each other. So that kind of competition element which has really crept in a little bit more over recent years, particularly on this side of the pond, it is becoming really, really challenging because fundamentally we do all do the same thing. We’re all in the business of research and teaching and translating that to society in various different ways. But often we teach very similar courses. We’re often structured in very similar ways. You have two choices really. You either study at a campus-based university or a city-based university. So even architecturally and geographically they’re not actually that different.

So that gives us quite a bit of challenge. And then they all go through these big brand exercises and they go “Right, we’ve got it. We’ve nailed it. Well we’re different,” and one of the things you get to see from a consultants point of view because you are working with multiple institutions, you kind of die inside a little bit when they get excited about their new brand proposition and why they’re different, because you know what’s going to come out of their mouth, you’ve probably heard another university saying only two or three weeks ago. So that makes it really, really challenging to help them find that unique voice for themselves.

The other challenges are things like the type of community that we’re dealing with where academics are brilliant, and brilliant in their own individual subjects, but what that often means is that they tend to have a loyalty, particularly those who are more research intensive. They have a real loyalty to their subject instead of necessarily having a loyalty to the institution that they work at.

So you’re dealing with these people who work in very strange networks and clusters that actually float beyond the boundaries of the institution, and the subject of this thing called freedom of speech, which is absolutely amazing and right, but it makes it very, very challenging to be in that environment. And because they are people who are professional scrutineers, so to speak, it also means that they all scrutinize the work that you’re doing to the nth degree.

Kristina: “Professional scrutineer” is going in my Twitter bio, like—

Tracy: I’ve never said that word before, that term before, but now I’m like that—

Kristina: And it stopped you in your tracks.

Tracy: That’s brilliant. You’ve inspired me.

Kristina: Tell me about what positive trends you’re seeing then within content strategy, either specifically within the higher ed community, because that’s a long laundry list of unique challenges to be walking into any university to talk about their content. What kind of positive trends are you seeing in terms of how the conversation may be shifting around content, and how universities are thinking about it and creating and managing it over time?

Tracy: There’s been a massive shift over the last 10, 15 years. But particularly people thinking in the last maybe five years or so of people really starting to understand what a user-first experience actually looks like. I’m working on that to dive into it. Now at the moment, we’re a little bit stuck sometimes in that we focus a lot on understanding our audiences from the prospective of the channels and platforms that they use and the information needs that they have in relation to us as an institution.

In the work that I do, I’m quite keen to push it to two other layers with us, so I have a four-part way of thinking about how to understand an audience, and those other two layers are the first one is around their values, behaviors, and motivations. So it’s really about the thing that makes them a human being and the thing that really gives them the fabric of the person that they are, and it’s actually generally one of the bigger telltale signs as to the decisions that they will make in relation to our institutions.

Because that point again about we’re very, very similar in the education sector so the information that we’re providing is often the same. So actually what we need to be doing is playing more to the emotions in order to differentiate ourselves and we need to understand our audiences to do that.

And then the fourth part of understanding the audience is that we’re trying to push a lot further within the sector is understanding the influences or the distractions, as well, that inform the decisions that people are making. So I’m actually a really big fan of looking at what else are they looking at when we would want them to be looking at us. I know that a lot of people in this profession will spend a lot of time doing really detailed content audits and things like and looking at what’s going on within our own world, but I think we can get as much from what’s going on in the rest of our audiences’ world to understand how they engage with and connect with content in different ways, so it’s more of an outward looking approach. So we’re starting to see some of that understanding that we’re at least need to understand our audience is a lot better emerging in higher ed, but we tend to focus very much on the student audience in that respect because that’s often where the financial drivers are, if I’m being crude about it, in the sector.

So the other thing that’s been a big shift in higher ed over the last, I’m going to say 20 years really, is the recognition that marketing communications and branding is not a dirty word. I mean there are some institutions where you probably still couldn’t talk about brand, and there are some institutions that have probably only recruited their first director of marketing in the last few years because it was seen as such a dirty word before that you wouldn’t really talk about that in higher ed.

But that has changed, and the other thing that comes with that, and this is why the conference community is certain, is that what also comes with that is a recognition of the professionalism of people working in these careers and in these fields. Now we haven’t yet seen, I don’t think, the shift from a content prospective for people recognizing that content is a profession as well, and I think we’re just on the cusp of that happening at the moment.

So that’s what I see as the community around me and around us and the work that we do and with ContentEd over here is really about that. How do we change that narrative so that we can really start to get people to recognize that content is a profession and that there are those of us out there that actually know what we’re talking about when it comes to this stuff, and need to have that senior voice on the top seat within an organization.

Kristina: And isn’t it interesting? I mean coming back full circle. A lot of the times the advice that I will give to folks who are struggling to make themselves known or to establish credibility around their content skills, often times what I will remind them is that in order to get people to listen to them and to support them, they need to make those people feel heard in the first place.

Tracy: Yeah.

Kristina: Yeah, and so that comes right back around to what you were saying. Make people feel like it was their idea and make sure that stakeholder engagement is one of your top priorities as a content professional.

Tracy: Yeah, and there are a number of times when I do stakeholder interviews and you go in and they’re like “We’re talking about the web project, so I’m going to give you a list of the features and functionality that the website needs and tell you this kind of stuff.” And you go “No, no hang on. Let’s just take a step back. I want to know what you want to do, what you need to achieve in your role here.” What are you actually working towards rather than talking about whether you need another sign-up form for something over there.

And I think when you do that people start to really respect you. “Hang on, this person actually really cares about what the institution’s doing, not just what the website’s going to do.” And that does help to give you more credibility, but the other piece around that is also, and this is so, so important. I heard you talking in one of the other podcasts about people getting the confidence to put themselves forward to speakers and things like that, and I think it might have been Abby Covert you were speaking to about this, and that point that embracing your vulnerability is actually really, really important when you’re going out and speaking to stakeholders and building your own credibility as much as it is when you’re putting yourself out there on a public stage.

So going into these scenarios knowing that you build your creditability by actually showing what you don’t know as much as by showing people what you do know is actually a really, really powerful way of doing that.

Kristina: You know I could not agree more, and I think that clients and audiences and students in my workshops are always shocked when they ask a question and I say, “I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that,” or, “I know just enough about that to be dangerous, so let me go and look for some other resources for you.” But I agree. I think that it’s like when you go out to dinner and you say, “What can you recommend on the menu?” And the server says, “Eat these three things. Stay away from this thing.” You’re like, okay, I trust you now.

Tracy: Yeah, exactly. And in the higher ed, if you can turn that kind of question back on them, of course, and remember we’re in an environment where people are used to being respected as experts, so if you can then turn that back on them, that kind of “I don’t know the answer to that. What do you think?” That kind of approach. It actually makes them feel good as well.

Kristina: It makes them feel—

Tracy: It makes them feel like they’re valued.

Kristina: It makes them feel heard …

Tracy: Yeah.

Kristina: And I think that that is when I give content strategy foundations workshops, the very first thing I have my students do is interview one another and teach them how to listen because I think that is again, it comes back to our role as a content therapist. People need to be heard, they need to feel seen, and then we can start talking about how many sign-up forms they need on the website.

Tracy: I actually think content therapist should a thing, and I think we should create that. I’ve started to do quite a lot of coaching work over the last year or so, and I love it because it actually gives a mechanism for people who can’t afford to bring you in to develop an entire content strategy for them, to be able to access that and to go through the process and the motions with them. You learn loads as the coach because you’re constantly exposed to what they’re doing. And all you’re really doing is tweaking and maneuvering them slightly.

But it does just ... the whole thing does just feel like therapy the whole way through. But yeah, I think that should be a career in its own right.

Kristina: Agreed. Changing my business cards now.

Tracy: Yes.

Kristina: Tracy, I’m so excited how you are working hard to change the conversation around content in the UK, and of course the trips you’ve taken to, I think you’ve been in Australia, and New Zealand, and the US, and all over the place. Where can people find you online?

Tracy: So, the company website is PickleJarCommunications.com or I am reasonably active on Twitter. So it’s just @tracyplayle, so Tracy without an E, T-R-A-C-Y P-L-A-Y-L-E. My name is so unusual that if you search for me, you’ll find me pretty much anywhere.

Kristina: Have you thought about purchasing TracyPickle.com?

Tracy: I haven’t but I’m going to go and do that right now.

Kristina: Yes.

Tracy: It has to be done.

Kristina: I’m full of ideas. Tracy, thank you so much for ... and oh why don’t you share with folks when ContentEd is coming up?

Tracy: Oh yes, yes. So it’s ContentEd. It is the ... Well, we used to say it was the only content strategy conference for the education sector in Europe, but now we think it’s the only one in the world because you don’t do Confab EDU anymore.

Kristina: You’re welcome.

Tracy: So we’re claiming that. So it’s the 27th and 28th of June in the beautiful, beautiful city of Edinburgh. I’m so excited. I may only live an hour and a half away from Edinburgh, and I’m there a lot, but I love that city so much.

But also this year, this is really exciting, we’re also launching the ContentEd Awards because we think that there’s some amazing work out there and that we’re actually not good enough in this sector and in this industry at patting ourselves on the back. So marketers, they’re patting themselves on the back all the time for the work that they do, the campaigns they do. So we’re like we need to change that and make sure that content professionals are getting the recognition they deserve, so that’s launching this year as well.

Kristina: That’s wonderful and what is the URL for that conference?

Tracy: So it’s ContentEdLive.com.

Kristina: Wonderful. Tracy, congratulations on all of the amazing work that you’re doing and thank you on behalf …

Tracy: Thank you.

Kristina: … of the community, and it’s a pleasure having you. Thanks for taking the time today.

Tracy: Thank you for having me.


Kristina: You’ve been listening to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at, of course, BrainTraffic.com. Thanks and we’ll see you next time.

About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

Follow @BrainTraffic and @halvorson on Twitter for new episode releases.