Kathy Hanbury: from Tech Comms to Content Strategy

In the second of our guest blogger series featuring the insights of content experts around the world, Kathy Hanbury, founder of E3 Content Strategy in Vancouver, Canada, tells us how she made the jump from technical communicator to content strategist. We particularly love the mixture of personality traits and serendipity in her list of things that helped her make the transition.

Thinking of switching careers from technical communication to content strategy? You’re in good company. Tech-writing is the perfect training ground for content strategists.

  • We’re trained in plain language, task-based topics, structured writing, customer analysis, interviewing and information design.
  • We can think in 3D as we determine how our users will navigate through our content.
  • We’ve been part of doc teams and understand the information development cycle.
  • And if we’re lucky, we know about personas and user scenarios.

These are all fundamental building blocks of content strategy.

It’s a natural transition (via anger and education!)
For me, the transition from technical communicator to content strategist was both natural and accidental. As a technical writer, I was always growing and pushing towards usability and customer experience, sometimes through very rocky terrain! I just couldn’t help myself – I could NOT create stuff that was useless and difficult to read without getting all worked up. And I used that energy to educate myself and my colleagues about content usability.

You have to fight for quality content
When I accepted a customer experience position as a user researcher for a global financial organisation, I was thrilled to expand my usability practices to websites, mobile devices, intranets, and web applications.

I learned new methodologies and standard user-centred design processes. I reinforced and applied the concepts that I had learned as a technical communicator to different scenarios. I didn’t need to evangelise usability anymore, but boy did I ever need to fight for quality content! I saw so many really great usable designs brought to their knees by bad content. And everyone around me seemed to be oblivious or resigned to it.

Look for the missing component – and fill it
Working as a customer experience specialist was the flip side of working as a technical communicator. What connected these disciplines, for me, was that each of them had a critical missing component that resulted in my passion to adopt a more holistic approach. Content strategy is that holistic approach.

There are as many different paths towards content strategy as there are content strategists. Here are some of the things that helped me make the transition from technical communicator to content strategist.

Kathy’s nine paths to content strategy nirvana

  1. The inability to say “Yes sir, no problem” when asked to produce garbage.
  2. A great mentor.
  3. A love for language and commitment to usability.
  4. Empathy for end-users and customers.
  5. The ability to sell the value of content. Or at least the stamina to never stop trying.
  6. A corporate merger that resulted in lack of support for quality technical writing.
  7. A bad economy that resulted in me losing my customer experience position.
  8. The conscious decision to create opportunities that led me towards content strategy. Even before I knew what it was called.
  9. And my tech-writing skills.

Step 10: taking the plunge
So now, almost a decade after I began tech-writing, I’m opening my own content strategy consultancy. My business – E3 Content Strategy – is less than two months old and I’m still starry-eyed, but I’ve never been happier at work.

My clients understand the importance of both usability and content, and I’m finally doing the work that I love and believe in on a regular basis. Educating my clients is still a big part of my job, but now it’s not only accepted, but expected.

Moving from tech-writing to content strategy has shifted my role from tactician to strategist, and team member to team leader. That’s not only more valuable to my clients, but it’s way more fun for me.

Kathy Hanbury, 2010

Want to know more about content strategy or how to make your own transition to content strategist? Check out our recent content strategy posts. Firehead is the leading recruiter for content strategists in Europe – and we’re posting not only the thoughts of content strategy’s major players, but also plenty of resources to help you make the shift.