Graduation: An Unintentional Lesson Plan

The Web Editors blog continues its graduation theme with a guest post by Brain Traffic’s Meghan Casey, who kindly agreed to offer these words of wisdom.

By Meghan Casey, Brain Traffic

It never occurred to me until I sat down to write this post that my family played a pretty huge role in my personal journey to become a content strategist. So, my advice to graduates is to look for lessons in every relationship and interaction. They’re there. Here’s a summary of the lessons I never knew I was learning.

Lesson #1: Help people, but be realistic and take care of yourself.

My mom was one of the most charitable people I knew. She also seemed to have an uncanny ability to know how much was enough to put the people she helped on a positive path that they could sustain on their own.  And while she was very generous with her time and money, she didn’t completely over-extend. She saved time and energy for her family.

So, how does this apply to my work as a content strategist?

First, it’s taught me to think about whether my client can realistically implement what I’m recommending. If they can’t, I’ve wasted their time and money. It’s okay to stretch and to think big, but it’s important to ground your big ideas in reality.

Second, I’ve learned that I can’t do everything for everyone and that my time is valuable. This important attitude helps me ensure my projects are profitable for my employer because I don’t give clients my time and smarts unless they pay for it.

Lesson #2: Find the pain and demonstrate how you can help fix it.

My dad spent most of his career as a traveling salesman. A really good one. On more than one occasion, I heard his colleagues and friends say, “Jack Casey could sell ice to an Eskimo.” (I mean no offense here.)

I was witness to many a phone call as my dad conducted much of his business from the comfort of his recliner when he wasn’t on the road. Aside from being a very charming and personable guy, my dad had one of the main tricks of selling down. He listened for the things that kept his clients up at night.

I’ve applied that to my work too, which is why I always ask my clients about their challenges. And then I relate my recommendations back to them. And it’s why I keep my readers wants, fears, and questions front-of-mind when I’m writing for websites.

Lesson #3: Stand up for people.

I’ve looked up to my big sister my entire life. One of the reasons why is that she always stood up for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves or needed a little help to do so. She counseled battered women. She ran a children’s advocacy organization. She raised awareness about depression and suicide. And she currently raises money to cure Type 1 Diabetes.

So, how does that apply to my work as a content strategist? It reminds me to think about the people who will be implementing my recommendations and ask questions like:

  • What else are they responsible for?
  • Do they have the skills and experience necessary to execute my ideas?
  • What tools might they need to support them?
  • Will they be freaked out or excited about the changes?

With those questions answered, I can create more realistic recommendations and build in thoughtful commentary to reduce their possible concerns and objections.

Lesson #4: Find the middle ground.

By trade, my eldest brother is an attorney whose preference is to resolve family law issues with mediation.  He’s also been the referee of family arguments or disagreements for as long as I could remember – often for simple things like deciding where to go or what to have for dinner.

His ability to help groups with differing priorities find middle ground has spilled into my work. Some of the tricks and tools I use are to:

  • Make a list of all the stakeholders for my projects and record what role they play and what they care about most.
  • Start all meetings in which contention is likely with something like, “Let’s keep in mind that none of us is here to try to sabotage this project. You all want to do the right thing.”
  • Clarify (sometimes repeatedly) that alignment doesn’t always mean agreement on all the issues. It can mean agreement to move forward with a compromise.

Lesson #5: Leave your work at the office.

My other brother likes to have a good time. Always has. But, he also is one of the most responsible and dedicated employees I know. When he’s on the clock, he is working. Hard. But, when the work day is over or the weekend is upon him, he rarely gives work a second thought.

I admire that. I’m not very good at it. But, he’s taught me the importance of trying to maintain that separation of work and life outside of work. It’s partially about work-life balance, but it’s also about not letting the details of your personal life creep into your work day. Two practices I try to follow (sometimes unsuccessfully) come to mind:

  • Take time off to deal with personal matters, rather than trying to fit them into your work day.
  • Do not—I repeat—do not check your work email over the weekend. And if you just can’t help yourself, don’t respond to the emails you receive.

Lesson #6: Aspire.

One of the most meaningful quotes from my baby sister’s eulogy of my mom is this: “She didn’t reward behavior or achievements that were within my reach and for my own good….and so I learned that effort mattered.”

Since she was little she took that lesson to heart and, in turn, passed it along to her big sister. She constantly aspires to do better for herself and for the people around her. Something being out of her reach was a reason to go after it, not wallow in its impossibility.

I apply that concept when helping clients craft a core strategy for their content. Sometimes we all need a reminder that a strategy is an aspiration – it’s where we want to be, not where we are today. Putting it out there as an achievement to work toward helps to motivate the teams responsible for attaining it.

And with that, I bid you good luck in the awesome and rewarding field of content.

Meghan Casey is a content strategist at Brain Traffic, the world’s leading agency devoted exclusively to content. She helps a wide variety of clients – start-ups, non-profits, colleges and universities, Fortune 50 companies, and everything in between – solve messy content problems every day.


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