Kate Towsey is not afraid to try new things.
Last year, she picked up and moved from London to Newquay, in Cornwall, not too far from Land’s End. In English terms, that’s a 6 hour train ride from London and practically the end of the world.
She did this so she could surf every day.
Kate, to me, is a one-woman microcosm of the content strategy career path - a journey that can be strange and eclectic yet still feels inevitable.
An artist by training, she started out as a producer of radio documentaries in her native South Africa, followed by a sojourn traveling and studying yoga in India, where she began working on web ecommerce projects. Four years ago, she moved to London, where she continued working as a ‘web-y, content-y person’, helping companies restructure their customer communications and web content.
Now she freelances as a content strategist and project manager on print and web design and strategy projects.
We met recently to talk about documentation, art, scoping content strategy work, mountain goats, travelling and, above all, believing in yourself.
On life by the sea
EM: So, how is it, working from Cornwall?
KT: You have this dream that you’re going to tell everybody you’re not around, put Skype on ‘unavailable’ and vanish off into the ocean for two hours, but it doesn’t really work like that.
There are pros and cons, ups and downs - but I can pretty much work from anywhere in the world, dependent on meetings - and that’s really great. It’s all about planning – I can’t just pick up and go with my Macbook under my arm at a moment’s notice, it’s not as romantic as that. But I can go anywhere with Facetime and some forward planning.
On content-only projects
EM: You’ve been doing content strategy for longer than it’s been called content strategy - what’s changed in the past year or so?
KT: Well, now there are more projects that aren’t part of a redesign - projects that focused solely on content. Without those constraints - and with smaller budgets - the difficulty is figuring out what is important and what isn’t. Do we say, well, they need help with tone of voice, so we’re just going to focus on that? Because if you do that, somehow it doesn’t work. Because even if the content’s great, it can’t function if it’s in the wrong spot. So once you start to unravel the sweater, you need to almost unravel the whole thing.
When I’m making recommendations like that, I’m in this weird betwixt world - between trying to describe what someone is going to do or should do potentially, but not actually describing the design, or how that content would inhabit the design. You’re not designing the website, and you’re not writing the content - you’re describing things that people might think about when they design.
And then suddenly you think, wait, what am I actually doing here?
I can really only equate it to being in a cave and shouting at yourself, and not knowing whether anyone is going to hear you or if the sound is going to bounce right back at you, and in fact sound worse than it did before.
So before, I’d go into a project with a theory in my mind about what content strategy should be, and go in talking about deliverables as line items.
Now my approach is so much more confident in going to clients and saying, ‘I’m not going to give you the medicine now, I need to do a diagnosis first’.
EM: Do you find, now that we’ve codified it and called it a thing - and, maybe this is just me - but do you find that sometimes that sense of ‘yes, I know what I’m doing’ is even less than it was before?
KT: Definitely. You know, before, I didn’t have to write any documents. I would just kind of wander into a company and look at their situation and I didn’t have to actually write about it because I was just coming in as this content-y, web-y person. And I would just say, ‘well you know, let’s make this more friendly’, or more businesslike - whatever was appropriate for them.
It was a process that was spontaneous, and there was none of the documentation - for better or worse. I find now that because there’s a sense of delivering stuff, it has become a hell of a lot more complicated and time-consuming - and less productive, in some ways.
On documentation as artistic process
KT: But what I do find fascinating about writing documents - having come from a fine art/conceptual background - is this: how do I actually take what I’m thinking - which is conceptual, and not material - and communicate through words to the person who’s going to read it, and in that sense understand who my audience is as the writer, and use all my skills to deliver this stuff to them so that they’re going to find it engaging, and want to use it, and want to come back to it, and want to make it happen.
It’s funny, when I did my art degree I really moaned and groaned about the conceptual side of things. I thought I wanted to go and learn to paint and sculpt, but at that time it was all about, ‘go and have an idea and create a pile of bricks, and, you know, wrap it in something special’, or whatever.
And yet now, what I love about documenting an idea is that it is a process, in the sense that I have this stuff in my mind that I’m realising about content, and it could be that the emotion that it’s giving to the audience is wrong, or the way it’s being delivered is wrong. So I have all these ideas, which is the same as an idea you might have about an art piece.
Then, when I sit down to create this document, I’m essentially trying to express a message in facts and practicalities, but in a way that, as I said, is inspiring to my audience so that they’ll actually do it. I’m trying to create an emotion in them, so that that will create another emotion in their reader. Sort of like a daisy chain of actions and emotions that we’re sending down the line.
EM: That makes me feel much better in my soul about documentation - I’m not joking! I really think that’s how it should be, but it so often is rote and formulaic. The same thing isn’t going to work every time, yet we spend so much time trying to create templates for things, and yet what we do sometimes can’t be codified because it’s research, and that research has to be based on some emotional or intellectual response to the problems people are having.
KT: You’ve put your finger on what I find most satisfying and most frustrating about content strategy. There is no recipe. Every time is like the first time, and it’s hard work in that sense, and it never seems to get any easier. But it’s also satisfying, because if you’ve got a mind that needs challenge, it’s a good place to be.
On mountain goats and learning new things
EM: So what are you looking forward to next - in work and other adventures - this year?
KT: Well, it actually sounds very boring, but all of us on the team I’m working with have taken a leap forward with new technology like responsive design, or new ways of thinking about content strategy. And we’ve kind of been flying by the seat of our pants. So what would be nice would be to be able to settle in with that, and put roots down with everything new that’s happened. But probably more new stuff will just keep coming, so we’ll have to just keep learning.
But adventures! I have so many adventures planned for this year. Cornwall, Morocco, India, and Nepal in October, to visit some yoga friends of mine that hang out in the mountains.
EM: That makes them sound like they’re just roaming around like mountain goats.
KT: They kind of are.