Tiffani Jones Brown podcast interview: collaboration at Pinterest

Tiffani Jones Brown

In Episode 25 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Tiffani Jones Brown about collaboration at Pinterest. You can follow Tiffani on twitter @ticjones.

To learn more about these themes, come to #dareconf: people skills for digital workers, 22-23 September 2014 in London.

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Jonathan: I’m speaking to Tiffani Jones Brown, who’s joining me from California today, and she manages the content strategy and writing team at Pinterest. Tiffani, thanks for taking the time to join me today.

Tiffani Jones Brown: Of course.

Jonathan: We’d like to talk today about collaboration, and how that fits with your work. Tell me about what you do at Pinterest.

Tiffani: I manage the content strategy, and writing team, as you said. We sit on the creative team along with researchers, and product designers, and brand designers, and our job is to be the voice of Pinterest, if you will. We do everything from coming up with Pinterest voice guidelines, and style guide, to helping the brand team define our brand principles, to writing everything that is in the product. Things like naming features, and micro copy. We also do all of the launches associated with the product, so scripts for videos, things like that. We do a lot of strategic work, so for example, channel strategy, and distribution strategy for our social channels, like Twitter, and Facebook, and email.

We work high and low, if you will. [laughs] We do the strategic pieces, and the writing pieces.

Jonathan: It sounds like there’s a large range of things you’re doing there.

Tiffani: It’s more than other places I’ve worked at doing this kind of work. There’s a huge range between the strategy, and the actual execution.

Jonathan: Just to take, say one of those, something like the style guide, or the brand principles, I would guess that when you’re working on that kind of thing it’s not just like you, Tiffani, on her own with a notebook, and then you just do everything and it’s finished. There’s lots of people who you need to talk to and work with to make something like that work.

Tiffani: Yes. Absolutely.

Jonathan: How does that play out as a writer?

Tiffani: I’ll start with the voice guidelines. When I first got here Ben, our CEO, and Evan, our co-founder, had been doing a ton of the content production on the writing themselves, and as we were trying to grow as a company in scale, they were like “We need you to do the writing,” and I quickly understood that there’s no way that I was going to be able to do all the writing. I needed to hire a team.

I needed to make sure that all of the good stuff that they had done stayed because they have a very good…They both have a very good voice. Pinterest has always had a brand that people feel pretty positively about, and a big part of that is how Ben and Evan just are.

When I was trying to draft those initial voice guidelines I basically interviewed all of the people who had been here since the beginning. I got here when we were maybe around 65 people, but I took Enid our community manager, and Ben, and Evan, and all the people who are like the founding people and I interviewed them about how do you think we are as a brand. Who do you think we are? How do you want people to feel about us, and you write how would you describe your voice.

I sort of started in a graphic kind of a way.

Jonathan: Yes.

Tiffani: Because I didn’t want to superimpose a voice on top of company that already had a good one. I wanted our written voice to be a natural extension of what already was there, and for that to stay as the company grows. One on the ways I had to collaborate was just by really working with the material, which happened to be people that I already had to do that.

As far as making the voice happen, there’s a ton of collaboration that goes into that. I hired a team after that, there’s going to be six of us soon, and one thing we do is each team member is assigned to an area of Pinterest or an area of the product. For example, Kim is assigned to all of our help in ops content and Evany is assigned to big products, like interests we call them. And Sadia is assigned to our business and internationalization.

For each place that they are assigned, they run voice training for anybody who is doing a lot of writing. So sometimes we do a lot of the writing, but often there’s too much volume and other people, like salespeople, need to do it. We have to make sure they understand what we’re going for and who we are.

And so a big part of the collaboration is actually just working with them to help them really get a sense of what that is.

Jonathan: So when you set up those workshops where you’re helping people, you’re going to voice training to say, “You’re job isn’t necessarily a writer but you need to write in the Pinterest way,” how do you position that to be something that’s kind of getting them what they need versus you telling them what to do?

Tiffani: It’s always tricky. I think we think of our job as making other people’s job easier, so what we don’t want is to sort of pass guidelines across the fence and be like OK, now follow our instructions. It’s almost about, I would say first and foremost, is helping people get in the right frame of mind.

That means helping it feel like there’s something in it for them too. We think of Pinterest’s voice which is clear, and conversational, and warm, and honest, and delightful where appropriate — we think of that as being one of our big competitive differentiators. It’s who we are and it’s important for us to be who we are, because that’s a big reason why people want to use our product.

When we’re talking, for example to salespeople, it’s about if you want businesses to interact with people on Pinterest it’s really important that they feel authentic and part of our community. There’s a little bit of helping them understand what’s in it for them as far as, the better businesses are communicating and being authentic on Pinterest and the more we write in a way that exemplifies brand principles, the better the whole ecosystem is going to work, the more success brands will have, the more they are able to post things that are actually interesting to people, the more we’ll attract the kind of brands that make sense in our ecosystem.

There’s a lot of thinking about what it means for each of our stakeholders and just making sure it doesn’t just feel like you must write like us, and more like why do we care about this at all in the first place.

Jonathan: So you’re actually empowering people or giving them tools to do what they already want to do more effectively.

Tiffani: Yeah, that’s kind of how I think about it. The other thing is, just as far as how you communicate about it, I think one of our jobs is to help inspire people. I have a sense that people innately want, even though we work at a big company, I guess you could call it a big company compared to like tiny agency, I have a feeling that people don’t want to talk in a corporate jargony way.

Even though that might be how they’ve been talking for awhile because that’s the environment they’re in. I think people are innately inclined toward a more natural easy way of communicating. There’s a little bit of just giving them permission to be that way and saying, kind of inspiring them to say, “We don’t have to sound like big robots,” you can sound like a person. It’s OK.

It’s not like we try to make it less like, “You sound like a robot, don’t.” More like, “Guess what, we don’t have to be that way. It’s better if we’re not in fact.” There’s a little bit of flipping the position.

Jonathan: That really interests me in terms of like if we could talk about your expertise or unique contribution to that. Because, traditionally it would be like what Tiffani’s an expert writer, so she does writing and she knows the right way to write. It’s like maybe you could come and have a course and she’ll tell you exactly what to do, but it actually it sounds like much more of a coaching thing where it’s like, “Tiffani is going to show you how you can have permission to just be a bit more human.” With some certain restraints that actually make sense for the business.

It’s like a coach role instead of a teacher role.

Tiffani: I would say something like that is kind of how I think of it. There are certain things we always do right, we always do do. There are just certain things we can’t, and we definitely don’t want to be like the grammar police, but we do want to just make sure that Pinterest keeps it’s spirit and that feeling that is so integral to our culture and our brand.

Our job is to embody that and inspire people to embody that too.

Jonathan: I want to take you back to a thing you said a little while ago, which is when you first came to Pinterest and you were trying to figure out what the voice was. That you chose not to make it about basically what you’ve previously seen in your previous lives as being like, stuff that works. Instead trying to dig into what was already there.

Tiffani: Yes.

Jonathan: What I’m kind of seeing in that is, you need to sort of let go of your ego to do that.

Tiffani: Yeah.

Jonathan: Can you talk about that?

Tiffani: Absolutely. I think that writing in these types of environments, meaning like corporations or startups, it can be easy to feel a little beleaguered. It can be easy to feel like, “Oh, nobody appreciates my work,” just because of the way that products get built. It starts with the engineering and the design. Then, often, it can feel like the writing is tacked on.

I didn’t want to come in with that narrative in my head of “I am this beleaguered writer who must force my way in.” I also didn’t want to come in thinking, “I am such a better communicator than all of these people.” In fact, at Pinterest, I would say Ben, our CEO, is one of the best speakers that I’ve ever worked with at all. He’s a phenomenal writer. I would say he’s better than me in a lot of ways with all of that stuff.

I was thinking, “Well, there’s no sense in me trying to come in and puff up my feathers and say I’m the expert.” It’s more a philosophy of going with the grain. Figuring out what is good in this environment. Let’s really push on that. Let’s bring that to the forefront. Then, I have certain things that I know just work. For example, clear, simple, conversational writing is always better. That’s just a given.

As far as the voice and as far as how we make things as uniquely Pinteresty, I thought that there was so much good stuff to work with already. I didn’t want to get in the way of it just for the sake of me, I don’t know, being in charge. [laughs]

Jonathan: Yeah. If you had attempted to be in charge, you would have a different outcome.

Tiffani: Yeah, exactly. I think there’s something in it, too, where maybe if I was working at a different company, it would be different. If you work at a company where the CEO and the co-founders don’t value good communication, then of course your job is a lot harder. You believe that you are beleaguered and not appreciated and that’s not a good feeling. In this case, I was lucky, because there was some lift under my wings.

Ben and Evan and the early people here really do care about good communication. It’s a good situation that made me not have to fight in the way that I hear a lot of content strategists and writers have to fight. Regardless, I think my preference is to think about, “OK, what’s good here? How can we capitalize on that?” rather than “I need to fix everything that’s broken.”

Jonathan: Right. It’s really interesting listening to you say that. The reaction I expect, in a sense, when people hear you speaking of thinking, “OK, for Tiffani, she just walks into Pinterest as the first content person. I’m not in that situation.” Yet, you’re still talking about a choice you made. You still could have gone in there resentful or insecure. You were like, “No, I’m going to try to be very fair and not make it about me.”

Tiffani: Absolutely. Even though I was the first one, and even though there was some lift under my wings, there was still that perennial tension between needing to shift things really quickly and polishing them at the copy and content strategy level, and there’s that perennial tension between the way that, for example, marketing folks tend to think about content and the way that a writer/content strategist tends to think about content.

All of those classic tensions were very much in the environment. I remember when we hired our very first marketer on the business side, there was a lot of us needing to talk to each other and understand where the other one was coming from, for example, about jargon. That classic issue of jargon. Our sales person would say, “We have to say leverage,” or, “We have to say this, because that’s the language that our audience already understands.”

It wasn’t that those types of things weren’t happening, it was just thinking about, “OK, what’s the good piece? What’s a battle worth fighting or digging into, and what is something that I don’t need to dig into? What’s the outcome that I want?” The outcome doesn’t have to be that every piece of copy is perfect. The outcome should not be that I get everything I want.

The outcome should be that Pinterest succeeds as a company while being true to our own principles and values, and communicating in a way that helps people understand how to use our service, use it more, and feel like we’re a company that cares. If you focus on the outcome, I think that helps you to move past some of those perennial debates. It puts them in their place. Am I really going to have a 30 minute conversation about the word “leverage”? Maybe, maybe not.

Jonathan: The other thing there is, if you’re really focusing on that outcome, you can’t really get that on your own.

Tiffani: Exactly.

Jonathan: You can’t get that by telling the marketing person that they’re using the wrong word. That’s not going to get you there.

Tiffani: Yes, exactly. It usually doesn’t work, and I’ve made this mistake many times. It usually doesn’t work to make people feel bad about the work they’re doing. Even when you’re editing people’s writing, it can be really frustrating to edit for the same things over and over again. You’ve been doing this for however many years, you’re editing whatever it is and the same jargon keeps coming up.

You can be like, “Why is this happening? Why, why, why?” That doesn’t lead to great relationships, when you make people feel bad about their work and say, “Why are you writing like this?” I think if you focus on the relationship and the outcome, oftentimes, the writing result will come out of that.

Jonathan: That’s true across the board. Writing is what we know, but it’s true for anything, I think. It’s collaborative. You need more than one person to make it work. It’s interesting, I was having a discussion about this idea of how to deal with feedback. We were playing out this scenario about giving feedback.

The person playing it out was saying, “I would never normally talk to this person about why they’re reacting in this way, because we’re discussing the meeting, and the meeting is about deciding what the copy or what the next sprint’s going to be.” He said, “You mean I’m allowed to think of this as the relationship?” It’s part of the work as well as the actual outcome of the work.

Tiffani: Yes, exactly. I think that a big part of our jobs as writers — and designers, anybody, really. If you work in an organization which is a set of a bunch of humans clumped together in a box, no matter what, a big part of your job is going to be having relationships. There’s a majority that’s about writing and content strategy, and then there’s the relationships. Then there’s being really strategic about outcomes and goal oriented. That’s a big part of what we all do.

Jonathan: On that point of we’re in a box which is a bunch of humans working together…

Tiffani: Yes. [laughs]

Jonathan: …and we need to build up a relationship, do you have some tips of things that we can do when we’re facing these situations or the perennial challenges or something and we want to try and collaborate instead of fighting? Do you have any tips for people that they can use?

Tiffani: I can tell you some things that have worked for me and some things that haven’t worked.

Jonathan: Sure.

Tiffani: One of the things that really works for me is to treat people like they have my best interest in mind, to not come with the assumption that somebody is trying to overlook my work or trying to make sure I don’t get a seat at the table. I find that, when you treat people like they have your best interest in mind, that we all want the same thing, which is for our company to succeed and for us to be successful in our disciplines.

That opens things up a lot more, and people are more willing to do each other’s bidding when they are stressed. The number one thing, I think, is building real, actual human trust with people. That means a lot of things. It means having tough conversations sometimes. If you’re feeling really weird about something, you have to say it.

It means digging into things when you’re totally unclear and being like, “Actually, I just don’t know what this means. I don’t know why we are doing this. I think I’m supposed to be doing this, but it seems like you’re asking me to do that,” and getting good at not confrontation in a bad way but confrontation, [laughs] the kind where you have to confront the elephant in the room.

I find that people can respond well to that, because often the elephant in the room is the thing that they’re dancing around too.

Jonathan: You could also look at that as speaking your truth…

Tiffani: Exactly.

Jonathan: …or just honesty, like “I’m going to just say that I’m currently feeling confused,” basically.

Tiffani: Yeah. [laughs]

Jonathan: “I’m just not sure. I’m feeling unsure. This doesn’t make sense to me. Would you be willing to explain what’s going on here” kind of thing.

Tiffani: Yeah, exactly. I think another thing that has helped me is to just apologize. It seems so basic, [laughs] but apologize if I screw up. For example, the other day, I had a thousand things to do, and somebody needed a job description edited. A job description on the list of things I have to do is very low-priority, but this person had been asking me for a long time.

I was pinch-hitting for another team member, so I start editing a job description, and I’m just like annoyed, like there’s thousands of pieces of jargon, and it doesn’t make sense. The way I edited it was, in Google Docs, to write these comments, like “What does this mean?”, “What does this mean?”, “What does this mean?”

Jonathan: I’ve done that for sure, yeah.

Tiffani: It was rude. [laughs] I was just in a hurry, I was frustrated, and the person…

Jonathan: It was like you didn’t have the energy to put it in compassionate speak.

Tiffani: Exactly. Sometimes, you can do that when you already have a relationship with the person who is asking for help, but, when you don’t, it can be really alienating. I was so busy that I didn’t even…I was just, like, whatever. Then the person who had written it came to me and they saw me sitting in the kitchen, they were like, “Can we talk in person? I don’t understand what you were asking.”

In that conversation, I realized I, first of all, hurt this person’s feelings. [laughs] It came totally out of context, and, even if I was totally right, which I was, you know what I mean? [laughs] Even if I was totally right, it was just not the right context for that way of communicating, because it meant that I had to have…not only did it probably not make the other person feel good, it meant that I had to have a conversation that took more time than if I had just spent a little more time explaining myself.

So, the person came, and I was even short with them then, because I was in a hurry. I was like, “We don’t use this. I don’t understand what that means.” They left, and was like, “This was shitty. They just don’t feel good after interacting with me,” so I just I just apologized. I was like, “Hey, I’m sorry. I just am in a huge hurry.”

I was like, “These are the four things I care about when I edit these, and this is why I made the edits that I did, but I think I’m actually getting in your way more than I’m helping you, so why don’t you just go ahead and ship this thing that you were trying to ship?” That made everything better. The person didn’t feel bad, they totally understood.

I think you’re always doing this balance. When the lowest-priority thing you’re working on is frustrating to you and it’s taking up a lot of time, it’s easy to just be jerky. If you do that, it’s nice to apologize if you work in a box full of humans. If you’re going to see…

Jonathan: It’s like catching yourself, and also letting yourself off, I think.

Tiffani: Yeah.

Jonathan: You’re never going to be able to do everything anyone’s asking you to do. You’re never going to be able to keep total calm at all points, because you’re not the Buddha.

Tiffani: Yeah, exactly. [laughs]

Jonathan: You need to let yourself off when things don’t go as you expected or you end up, for example, upsetting somebody because you weren’t ready, you didn’t really have the energy at the time to really think about it from that point of view.

Tiffani: Yeah. Those types of interactions, if you think about the interactions you have all day with people, the way people treat you, the vibes that you get, they make a big difference to how you feel about yourself, about your work. I think a big part of my job here, in managing and in building up a team, if you’re going to build trusting relationships, you have to be thinking about how you’re making people feel. It’s just a part of the gig.

Jonathan: Yeah. How am I making people feel, how am I coming across, and am I looking after myself? It’s part of that as well, because, if you’re not, then you just haven’t got that energy or time to consider the other person.

Tiffani: Exactly. There’s a certain amount of ruthless prioritization, to put it in that word that everybody uses, but it’s true. You have to also be really focused on your priorities. That way you don’t get too exhausted.

Jonathan: Tiffani, this has been really awesome, and I’m so grateful to you for sharing your knowledge and experience on this. I think it’s going to be inspirational to people to listen to it, so thank you.

Tiffani: Yes, of course. Thanks for having me.