Gabriel Smy podcast interview: small businesses, blogging and being honest
In Episode 5 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Gabriel Smy about content strategy for small businesses, blogging, and being honest. Check out his blogs: SmyWord, Verbatim Poetry, and The Tongues of Men, and follow him on twitter @gabrielsmy.
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Read the transcript
Jonathan Kahn: I’m speaking to Gabriel Smy, who’s a writer and a content strategist based in Cambridge. Gabriel, thanks for joining me.
Gabriel Smy: It’s a pleasure.
Jonathan: You’ve been a copywriter, an editor, a tutor, a trainer. How did you get into this thing, content strategy for the web?
Gabriel: Not deliberately. About four years ago I had a long running contract that ended and I was looking for more work. I was looking for something a bit more settled as well with a young family, thinking that that would be good. I was looking around to see what there was. In the summer actually I just asked a load of copywriting clients if they had any short term things just to keep me going while I was looking. One guy, who’s in Cambridge, actually said “Well I do have quite a lot of copywriting work, but also I’m wondering if it could be more than that.”
We started it off just doing some copywriting for him. He has this website company, basically making websites, writing software for small medium-sized businesses. He was looking for someone who could actually come in and help with the content in a bigger way.
I don’t think he really knew what he was after, but he knew it was more than just copywriting. He knew that I could write and had some other various skills. It emerged from there. Does that make sense?
Jonathan: It does make sense. How did you initially do more than copywriting? What were the first things that you were doing that were not just copywriting for that company?
Gabriel: I guess it starts off with, “Here’s a website and they really don’t know what they want on it, so can you help them shape what’s on it.” Yes it’s copywriting, but it’s how does it all fit together? How does that work with features? How does that work with the design? Immediately you’re into those questions. And, “Oh look, this client hasn’t actually thought about what they’re trying to do with the website or do with the content. Can you help with that as well?” Then there are gaps in actually producing the content.
Some of that I’d do myself. Some of that I’d help them to find ways to fill those gaps. Not baptism of fire, that’s extreme, but it was in the relative deep end of, clients need help with content. Can you help? I don’t know what I was called first of all, I can’t remember.
After about a year of so this idea of content strategy was emerging. I remember actually, shortly after starting working with the company, finding an article on “A List Apart” about content delay syndrome.
Gabriel: Do you remember that one?
Jonathan: Yeah, that was a while back.
Gabriel: Yeah, and reading that and thinking that makes so much sense. Actually it was my boss who was saying, “You should read this, this is the kind of thing I’m thinking about.” Of course then actually working with clients, this role developed. The title “content strategist” covers a multitude of sins, especially in smaller businesses. I think that’s pretty much what I do.
Jonathan: I think I first became aware of you on Twitter. Mainly linked to your blog SmyWord.com, which… I think you started that to talk about content strategy. Why did you do that?
Gabriel: I was reading things online and realizing, “There’s a very interesting conversation being had and I want to join in with the conversation.”
Gabriel: That was it. I had a few tuppences to throw in from my own point of view, but mostly I wanted to learn from other people. “I’m doing this stuff, but how should I be doing it? Are there better ways? Where’s this all going?” It was about joining in really. I don’t know that I had that clear of an idea where the blog would go, but I wanted to be part of it.
Jonathan: What have you learned from SmyWord?
Gabriel: Apart from keeping a blog up is really difficult [laughs] is one thing, actually I’ve learned a lot about blogging itself, as you’d expect. I’ve learned that there’s always more to learn and there’s some very smart people out there and it’s a good thing to be in the conversation. I’ve learned that things that seem very simple to you and very obvious are still worth sharing because people find them useful. I get that feedback quite a lot.
What else? People don’t actually read what you write. That’s one of the things I’ve discovered. People will come up to you and go, “You wrote this amazing post about A, B, and C,” and first of all I’d say I never posted about that. Then I realize that I wrote something that was a bit like that and they projected onto that post what they wanted me to have written because it’s what they needed to hear at the time.
Gabriel: Actually that’s not a bad thing. It’s good that people are engaging and it’s good to put ideas out there for people to react to in whatever way they need to react. Does that make sense?
Jonathan: Absolutely. Yeah, because that obviousness point is so interesting because if you think about it, if you’re going to write something on a blog you normally have to know it to write it and that does require a certain amount of obviousness for you. I think it’s interesting to me that you say you wanted to join in the conversation about content strategy and participate in that. It was obvious to you that therefore you should blog.
Jonathan: Because I think that isn’t true of most people. I think many people would do better in their growth in whatever field if their immediate reaction was, “I know, I’ll start writing about this from my perspective and see where it goes.”
Gabriel: Sure. Actually it wasn’t an immediate reaction.
Jonathan: OK. I just sped it up.
Gabriel: It was an immediate idea.
Gabriel: But it took quite a while to do it and part of that was fear of criticism and running out of ideas and actually I haven’t got anything to say…
Gabriel: …and all those things, which I still feel to some degree, but I’ve found that on balance it’s better to throw your hat in the ring and have a go and be part of it than just to stand on the sidelines watching, I think, so that’s why I did it after a while.
Jonathan: Yeah, well, I think everyone has that fear, especially bloggers.
Jonathan: I think, in a way, that’s the only way to engage in a way that’s useful to you. If you show up at a meet-up and don’t say anything or don’t meet anybody, or if you publish blog posts that are basically derivative stuff that you found elsewhere, parroting what someone else has said, then it’s not going to be of any value to you so you do have to take that risk or face that fear if you’re going to get anywhere with it.
Gabriel: Yeah. Yeah, that’s it. Actually, the blog led to great things straight away, so connections with people and then London, other content strategy people. There was work, actually, that came that way as well, so projects. It was a combination of Twitter and blogging, I’d say. But people kind of feel like they know you to some degree to begin with and so you’re starting on a better footing of conversation.
Jonathan: We have met in person. But you have a very clear personality that comes through on Twitter, particularly, and the blog, the way it’s written. That’s something that’s, yeah, I think it’s very helpful for profile building and if you’re trying to move your career in a certain direction or be known for something, just having a personality that exists is really useful. I think because you’re on Twitter most days and you just have a certain way of commenting and a certain type of thing you like talking about and it’s always entertaining and I can sort of see your grin coming through the Twitter
Gabriel: [laughs] Thanks for saying that.
Jonathan: You’re probably grinning in the avatar photo as well, but in the words you’re saying, it’s kind of coming through so yeah, cool, excellent.
Gabriel: It doesn’t always go through, of course, but no, largely speaking. I have got into trouble.
Jonathan: Just before we finish talking about SmyWord, I want to talk about what is my favorite post that you wrote, which is, “Small Businesses Need Content Strategy Like A Camel In The Night.” Can you tell us the story that’s in that post?
Gabriel: It’s a true story. My wife and I before children had a holiday in Egypt and Sinai. We went up Mt. Sinai, and what you do is you start climbing in the middle of the night so that you arrive at the top for the sunrise, which is glorious. But it does mean you’re climbing in pitch black in the middle of the desert. It’s a big rock in the middle of the desert and you’re climbing in the pitch black. It’s not a difficult climb, but it’s very dark and cold. We started off and we had a guide among the group. Right at the beginning, I mean, literally, you can’t see anything around you and these lights came closer and there were some Bedouin and they offered us camels to help us climb up for $10.
We were doing fine and everyone in the group was doing fine and so we said, “No, thanks.” They were very persistent and they kept coming back. They basically walked the whole way up the mountain with us offering us a camel the whole way up.
And we were all doing fine and after a couple of hours you could see that it was beginning to take its toll, the journey, on people in the group and especially some of the older people. There was one lady in particular, bless her, must have been in her 50s, I think, and was struggling quite a lot and so even though we must have been nearly at the top at this point.
They have these deep steps at the end and we were getting towards them, and the Bedouin stepped forward as they had the whole way up and said, “Camel? Camel?” She finally said, “Yes, I need a camel.” And straight away the guy said, “$50,” which was five times what they offered at the start and she took it. She paid for it.
I had this story rattling around in my head for ages before I realized it’s kind of a metaphor for things that end up costing a lot more money when you need them later on. Whereas, if you pay for them at the beginning, then the cost won’t be so great.
Basically, that is a metaphor with content strategy that facing up to the fact that it’s going to cost you at the beginning, getting all your ducks in a row, and having a plan everyone’s working from and knowing what you’re going for altogether, and ends up costing you a lot less than trying to sort out the horrific mess when you’re supposed to be launching a site and going live and you haven’t got the strategies in place and you don’t know who’s running the particular account and where’s the copy for all that sections—you know. So that’s the story.
Jonathan: I think it’s fantastic because I think that what you’re capturing there is at the beginning of the process, people don’t know what they’re going to need. You just managed to capture that. I wanted to just read a tiny bit from the end of your post where you talk about all the challenges that this notional small business reader is going to be facing with their website. You say, “I’m too honest to play the camel trick on you.” Then you say there’s a list. “Your content isn’t good enough. Your existing print content doesn’t work on the web. It takes time to produce good content. There are bits of web content that you’ve never even heard of. When you finally realize what you want on your website, it’ll be too late to make the change. Your site might look great when you launch, but it will deteriorate soon after. Then you’ve got blogging is tough to keep up and you can’t offend your boss.”
It’s like a list of all the things, and then I think in future posts, you kind of go through all those different things. I think that’s remarkably honest, and again, I think it’s one of these things we’re talking about earlier about being obvious. These are actually quite obvious things, at least to web content strategists, but they’re not something that’s necessarily obvious to this notional customer.
My question is why are you so honest? How does that effect the type of work that you’re doing?
Gabriel: It depends how deep you want to go psychologically. I mean, genuinely, honesty is pretty much how I do life. It’s the only way I know how to be, so I’m a terrible liar. I can’t even tell my kids there’s a Santa. Actually, this is an aside, but one of my children…I’ve always told them. I’m going to get vilified for this, I know, but I’ve told them about Santa and it’s a fantastic story, and not to tell anybody else. We enjoy the story, but I just can’t tell them if it’s not true, you know?
One of my children decided that there was far too much evidence to the contrary, and clearly Santa was real and so just ignored me anyway. The strength of childrens’ own convictions is the lesson there.
Jonathan: But you probably feel fine about that.
Gabriel: Yeah, no. That’s quite good, actually. That feels like some kind of small victory. I don’t know. But, yeah, it’s how I am, and of course, it’s very easy to be honest when you’re writing and you’re not getting a direct reply. But I do try to be like that in conversation as well with people. I think I find in work that honesty and calling a spade a spade, people do appreciate it. It does help to make to make connections with people.
I think that’s why I probably started doing it when I was younger is actually it helps you to connect quite quickly. It’s a shortcut in relationships.
But there’s a down side in business as well. It’s not so straightforward as that, is it? Sometimes you have to tell people what they need to hear at that point for the greater good of the project and their sanity or release information at the right times or, yeah, I think it’s called “discretion” or something like that. There’s the politics, and I’m really not very good at that stuff. I would say I’m very grateful for being part of a team who are much more strategic, you know?
I can think of examples where I’ve tweeted something about…I have to be careful what I say -Tweeted something that actually turned out to come originally from a client’s website, and the client saw it. I wasn’t being mean, but I was being honest about something. We had this conversation about it, and it ended up with the client asking me to come and do more training in that area to help them.
It was this initial kind of tradeoff about it, but the outcome was good. No, I’m think I’m winning with it, more or less.
Jonathan: I think one of the challenges with honesty is when you’ve actually got…Professionals like we can see something clearly, and the people we’re talking to, say, people within a company, see something very, very different because they have their own way of looking at the world and their own culture and their own kind of slightly out-of-date concept of what’s going on around them. In that situation, I think you have to uphold that, “I’m not going to lie about Santa”-type honesty, although it’s not straightforward to work out how far the person can move in their perception of their own reality.
I think that’s one of our key challenges, really, when we’re saying to companies, “The way people do business has changed and you need different skill sets and you need to be organized differently,” and all this different stuff. That may be obvious to us. It most certainly isn’t obvious to the people we’re speaking to.
Jonathan: Working out that bridge between just saying what’s in our head versus what they can actually helpfully understand is the tricky thing.
Gabriel: Yeah, and then, of course, having an appreciation that you’re being honest as in you’re being true to how you see it.
Gabriel: But that’s only your way of seeing it as well, so there’s that openness in conversations to people in your work to actually being wrong or just shifting your view on it as well. Because if you don’t have that, then it’s hard to expect other people to have it as well.
Jonathan: Absolutely. Cool. You, back in November last year, spoke at our London Content Strategy Meetup about small businesses and content strategy. I think he company Fluent, I think, isn’t it one of your specialties that you will deal with the smaller company or the smaller project?
Gabriel: Yeah, I think that’s what we’re good at. Some of our clients are quite big, not huge, and then some are very small. We’re probably small or medium-sized businesses generally. I think we’re good at that, and that’s our clients at the moment. We don’t limit ourselves to that.
Jonathan: I don’t know if you remember what you said at this talk, because it was last year, but can you just give me some of the things you’ve learned about what content strategy means for small businesses?
Gabriel: Sure. I think that working with smaller businesses is actually very satisfying because you are very connected to the creative side of things. It’s very hands-on. You have to be multi-disciplined and be prepared to wear all kinds of different hats and do all kinds of different things to help. It’s all hands on deck and getting things going. It can be frustrating, because of smaller budgets and smaller time scales and those sorts of expectations. I’d say though, this is probably true for everyone, because you get this complaint from everywhere, but smaller businesses haven’t heard of content strategy, and probably are not even thinking in that way at all.
Gabriel: A lot of times it is persuading them that their smaller budget or wanting something in a month’s time. That let’s start this in the right way, and it’s focusing on content as opposed to how you thought you want the logo to be orange, which is great, but let’s not start there. That’s some of the frustration. I’m trying to think what I put in that talk. The key thing is persuading them the value of content strategy without having to sell content strategy as a concept.
Jonathan: How do you do that?
Gabriel: The way we do it is by not selling them content strategy, but by working out the things that they do value and are prepared to pay for, and then showing them how that’s really content strategy anyway. [laughs]
So, SEO, copywriting, blogging, it might help with marketing, things like that are all trojan horses we can use to actually say, “Well, OK, let’s audit your content to begin with,” or, “OK, so you want to do better in Google, but do you realize that things have really changed in SEO, and that you want to be producing great content that’s useful, that people want to share, making easy for them to share, and being part of the conversation yourself?”
That’s how to be found by people in a way that doesn’t make them run off screaming afterwards, as well. It’s scratching their itches, but showing them how content pretty much is the answer to a lot of those things. What we’ve found is, as we…
We have great relationships with our clients, and we have some who we’re doing continual work for, and with them, they learn to trust us on it, which is great. They start off being quite wary of something with a funny name, and after a while, it’s, “You guys are doing a great job and this is working,” so the approach is validated.
Jonathan: I think one of the things you did say in the talk is that you have these longer term relationships with small businesses, which I think might be the key to your success, really, because so many agencies I speak to are these project-sized engagements or campaigns, and you just can’t actually be sustainable in what you’re doing if everything is a project or campaign.
Gabriel: Yeah, we do, so we have some that are along… We have one-offs as well, and we have hilarious, “Can you produce us a website in three weeks?” type, and we say, “Tell us a bit more,” and then we find out the client has absolutely nothing except a domain name, and it’s a new business. We come up with not just a website but a brand identity, and a business plan, and the whole lot within three weeks. [laughs]
They go, “Thank you very much,” and then they go use someone else for the next thing, because it’s the nature of the thing. Yes, we get all sorts, and then I’m involved in really small projects with people who just want some help with copywriting, or they just want some advice on their content, or they just want an audit to a particular… These kind of smaller, one-off things, and then right up to larger projects.
Jonathan: I want to talk to you about some of your other projects that are not content strategy, really, because you have millions of things going on at the same time, which is really excellent.
Jonathan: Can you tell me about Verbatim Poetry, which, I’m going to quote from the about page, “Frames the ordinary words of real life to see if there’s poetry in them?”
Gabriel: That’s quite good. Yes, Verbatim Poetry was just a fun idea that… I studied literature, and I love poetry and I love words, as lots of people do. One of the things I take delight in is reading the back of a shampoo bottle and thinking, “Oh, that almost makes a haiku,” or thinking, “Isn’t that a poetic description on the back of that bus?” Not amazing poetry, but it’s interesting where you find little bits of poetry. The idea was just to start a blog where I would find little bits of poetry in the words of everyday life, and post them up as poems. Some of them are arranged quite formally, and most of it’s free verse, and just see what people thought.
It was definitely an invitation for people to join in if they thought it was fun, and people, surprisingly, do, so we’ve got quite a lot of poems sent in now. It’s been going over three years, I think. It only has a modest following, but it has a couple of fans who are proper poets. It’s one of these things where it could be a lot bigger, but I really don’t have the time to make this the thing I’m focused on.
Jonathan: Well, I looked at it yesterday, and there was something very fresh on there. It seems to be you keep it up to date, and it’s just really…
Gabriel: Yeah, so we publish twice a week at least. It used to be that I had that whole… I am permanently switched on to looking for poetry in places, so I can fill in a gap whenever no one submits anything, but it’s a while since I’ve had to because people send them in. Actually, what I say about that, it is just a fun idea. I don’t think any of us are taking it very seriously, but people like it. Actually, for me, it’s part of a bigger world view, which is finding beauty and worth in normal things, and in overlooked things, and in everyday things. On the one hand we’re doing it with words, but what would happen if you looked at the world in that way, if that was your lens on the world, this gratefulness and delight in finding stuff?
Then what would happen if you looked at people that way, the ordinary, normal people, and naturally you find the things which are worth framing? It’s part of a bigger thing in that sense, so people, if you found a poem on the back of a something packet, then…
Jonathan: You should read some of these. They’re really amazing. You should read some of these. They’re really amazing. verbatimpoetry.blogspot.co.uk.
Gabriel: I think verbatimpoetry.com as well.
Jonathan:Good, that sounds even better. Fantastic. Well, I’m going to keep enjoying those. You also published this extraordinary set of photos on Flickr called Envelove, which, when you did it, everyone went insane on Twitter about this. Can you just explain what that is, and why you decided to put it on the Internet?
Gabriel: Well, this is another little idea… To share, it was a little idea. What they are, they’re just handmade envelopes. My now wife and I met when we were 17, and I lived in Newcastle and she lived near Bristol. Throughout the first year of our lives we were quite far apart, and this was pre-texting, pre-email, believe it or not. It makes me very old, so it was letter writing. I wasn’t then an avid letter writer, but I was so infatuated with this woman that I think I wrote her 50 letters in our first year of going out, and she wrote me 60. It was even more impressive. What I did was, I think I was procrastinating and not doing my A level work, basically, so when I wrote her a letter, I’d write her a 13, 14 page letter, or something, and then I’d look around and make an envelope out of whatever was lying around the room, so the back of a magazine, or…
I was doing music A level, and used some of my old manuscript paper with notations on, and just things like that to make the envelopes. They’re not particularly refined. It’s hardly high design or anything, but at the time it was just a little flirty thing that I was doing, and saved buying envelopes as well. That’s all it was, and she kept all those, and what we found is that…
It’s not like she got those letters out loads or anything, but the few times she’d shown to people and friends had loved them and loved looking at them. I had a Flickr account, and thought I could share it with a wider audience if people liked looking at that. That’s all it was really, and it turned out people really did like looking at that, and saw it as a very affirmative thing, and a kind of a young love story in there. It was popular for about two days [laughs] , or a week.
Actually, a funny story about it is, I was contacted by a journalist working for an agency, saying, “We’d love to sell your love story to the papers off the back of these envelope pictures.” First of all, I thought that would be awful. Then I thought, “Oh, I’m actually quite curious about that,” so we went a little way along of what the article might be like, and it’d be pictures of the envelopes and a little bit about my wife and I, all this kind of stuff.
Then I found out that she was actually intending to sell it to the Daily Mail for their women’s magazine, and that was the end of that. It stopped there.
Jonathan: Deft save.
Jonathan: We’ve talked about four… I’ve lost count how many different online publishing things we’ve talked about that you do, but there’s one left that we haven’t talked about yet which I want to get to, which is, you’re currently writing a novel, and I can see from this blog that you finished your first draft, so congratulations on that.
Gabriel: Thank you.
Jonathan: The blog’s called “The Tongues of Men.” Is the actual book called “The Tongues of Men” as well?
Gabriel: Yeah, that’s the title.
Jonathan: It’s called “The Tongues of Men,” and you decided that you would blog about this, and then on the about page of the blog you share this quite personal story about how you decided to actually write this novel, which, it was remarkable just to see that kind of just there. Can you explain why you decided that blogging was going to be part of writing this book?
Gabriel: Sure. Well, similar to SmyWord, it was the idea of blogging about it. It was a way of making it real and making it happen, so sitting down to write a novel, you know that you’re not going to see that published for a few years. In fact, if you’re doing it in small doses like I am, then it’s going to take an awfully long time, and so there’s this great big long term project people… No one else is going to be involved for quite some time, and who knows if it’s even going to get there in the end? This might just be one of the training ones before you do something decent. Blogging was a way of saying straight away, “I’m doing something,” and publishing a blog post about it, which you can do quite quickly, is actually a way of making it more concrete.
There are all the other benefits of a blog, which are getting people’s feedback, sharing what you’re writing, kicking up the dust around the project if people are interested, crying out in pain in the process [laughs] , sharing, asking people questions. There’s all that kind of stuff, but for me, there’s definitely something of, telling people I was doing it in a very public way is putting a marker of my commitment down.
Jonathan: There’s a little bit of this about page that I was really struck by, which, I’m going to read a bit out. “And strangely, the passion and the calling seem to follow the commitment. Before, where I would lie awake straining to think of at least one decent plot for a novel, now it’s hard to turn off the tap.” You basically said that when you committed to doing it, then suddenly your commitment followed that?
Jonathan: Can you talk about that?
Gabriel: Well, I think there’s a quote from W. H. Murray, the mountain climber, in there as well. He said, “The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves, too,” I love that, the idea that sometimes we think it’s the other way around, and we think if we don’t feel passionate enough about something, we probably aren’t meant to do it, or it’ll be too hard to do, or something like that. Actually, this has definitely taught me that you make the commitment, and passion is a bit of a mocked word these days, but the passion does follow the commitment. Also, the ideas follow the commitment. Once you’ve committed to something, then you talk to other people about it in a different way. You don’t talk to them along the lines of “Maybe, one day,” but “I’m going to do this.” They say, “I want to do something like that, too,” and you find ways to help each other. Your conversations with other people are different.
I’m talking about this in a very idealized way. It’s quite a hard thing to do overall. But I do think, personally, for me, I had all kinds of ideas and I was approaching 30, and I decided that I just need to actually go for one of these, and definitely, deliberately, publicly made the commitment. It did change my relationship to it and my relationship to other people. I have been getting on with it, albeit a lot slower than I’d like.
Jonathan: Sure. Yeah, I just think there’s a link there to the web stuff that we do as well, and I think a lot of people are not sure if they are ready to make the commitment to changing the way they approach their work on a personal level, from being someone who’s fulfilling someone else’s instruction and is not really taking responsibility at that kind of personal level for what’s happening, to someone who is committing to helping someone change how they’re perceiving the world or change their perception of them in a hierarchy or whatever it is. Because I think that’s actually where we’re effective is where we’re able to help people change how they’re behaving, and that requires this commitment. You will not know the answers until you commit. Then, when you do, when you commit to it, something like content strategy is quite straightforward technically speaking. It’s kind of obvious what needs to happen. It’s just very, very difficult.
I think that I feel like people should look at this novelist blog, whether or not they themselves are a novelist because whatever it is that we’re doing, it’s of value. I think it’s going to require that level of commitment and it won’t be obvious what you’re supposed to be doing until you start doing it.
I thought that was fab.
Gabriel: That’s right, and actually I have had conversations with, for example, a musician who wanted to do an album. It was the same thing for her. Actually, after reading the blog we had this talk about her commitment to that and how that was going. It’s not just about writing a novel at all. It’s the same thing with SmyWord and content strategy. Do I write perfect, definitive posts about content strategy? Not in the slightest. I think some of them are awful. But it’s part of not just being a consumer, not just being one of the people who sits there with the most amazing ideas in their head but they never go further than their head.
Jonathan: Right. We’ve all been that person.
Gabriel: Yeah. And still am in lots of other places and other ways. Definitely, it’s the stepping up and doing something about it. And actually blogging has become so easy, that I’ve found that, for myself, a good way to do it.
Jonathan: Fantastic. I think that’s a really inspirational way to end the podcast. Thank you so much for your time, Gabriel.
Gabriel: It’s a real pleasure to chat to you, Jonathan.