Scary question: what do people find interesting about your work?

Chris Brogan and Julien Smith tell us to find out what ordinary people find interesting about our work, and talk about that at parties.

So I did it. I asked my sister Prue the scary question suggested in 'Trust Agents':

'What do you find interesting about my work?'

I meant the everyday work I do for Contented: business strategy and operations, creating new online courses for content authors, dealing with customers and partners, tweeting, and writing blog entries like this. (Never mind extra-curricular work with the body corporate, eccentric tenants, Plain English Power, book reviews, writing a playscript, dance group and so forth.)

This is the sort of question you can ask only a family member. Anyone else would be embarrassed to death. It's scary to ask and also a scary question to be asked — confronting, because the usual unspoken reply is, 'I haven't a clue what you're talking about, and to me your work is a crashing bore.'

Now, nobody would call Prue ordinary. She is a gorgeous 70-year-old former physiotherapist and psychotherapist, now active in other fields. She uses technology for various purposes, but has never used an enterprise content management system or intranet in her life. IT talk is a foreign language to her: she was my perfect guinea pig.

First I gave Prue a lightning tour of my computer, showing her various web sites, the Contented learning system, correspondence, and our online courses for the digital workplace. She was, indeed, interested. (Whew!) As usual, it was easier to show than tell.

Then I asked her the scary question: 'What do you find interesting about my work?'

Her thoughtful reply: 'It's all about people.'

And the penny dropped. People are interested in people. They're not interested in what I actually do. And it's true, Contented is all about the people we are trying very hard to help.

  • Web and intranet teams faced with an insoluble problem: content quality.
  • IT staff who know content authors struggle but don't have the resources to help them.
  • People at their desks who are floundering because their writing tasks have been automated.
  • CMS providers who know that their CMS works best with good content but cannot turn bad content into good.
  • Competent people who have to write with technology, for technology, without understanding the reasons or implications.

People are people. They are bemused by being labeled content authors. Nor do they regard themselves as end users, human capital or enhanced employees: they are people. And sometimes their humanity gets lost in a great big, overwhelming, inescapable, ever more complex ICT machine.

Yes, it's all about people. Otherwise I'd be bored in a day. That's far too vague for an elevator speech, but still, it's an insight.

Photo: the Taylor family reunion, 2010. I hope it's too small for you to recognize anyone. Half these people write content without knowing it.


Dec 16, 2011 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Exactly! Me too, me too. By the way, watch out for a review of Pippin Barr’s marvellous new book, How To Watch a Video Game. That’s another eye opener. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Dec 16, 2011 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Oh my. And I thought I was one step ahead of the game. Thanks Karen: I (or someone else) will get the date sorted.

Dec 16, 2011 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Hi Karen. When I was working as an editor, a report crossed my desk called The Stormwater Drains of Upper Hutt (I paraphrase). My heart sank. But as usual, once absorbed in the work I realized—you guessed—it’s all about people. Then it became interesting.

Dec 16, 2011 • Posted by Chris Brogan...

You’ve got it. It’s always about people. And relating. And that sense that YOU might have a similar experience in there somewhere.

When I tell stories about the famous people I meet, the stories are almost always about some utterly human element: shyness, a specific tic, a way that the person seems a lot like you or me.

Ditto your work. : )

Dec 16, 2011 • Posted by Karen

So true. That’s what I find “interesting” about my own work. It’s all about people. Engineering … it’s all about people. Web comms … it’s all about people. (Helping people do things.)
I like people. I like finding out what people want. And helping them do it :)

Dec 16, 2011 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Thank you, Chris! That’s what makes your writing hit the spot, time after time.

I’m amazed how often I have had to learn this lesson in business. It’s easy to get mesmerized by what we do, and think this interests other people. No way. People interest people.

Dec 16, 2011 • Posted by Karen

PS. Your blog-post and today’s comments are showing the date as “9 December 2011”. I think the calendar needs an update … it’s already 16 December 2011 :)
Is it? I’m now not trusting myself …

Dec 13, 2011 • Posted by Alistair McAlpine

Thanks Rachel. We can’t be reminded enough that “it’s all about people”.

No matter what we write or it’s destination, unless its never going to be read, “it’s all about people”.

I need to remember that this holds true when my son’s are camped on their computors, flitting between facebook, online gaming and who knows what else. To them, “it’s all about people”.

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