Being a content generalist or a content specialist

Being a content generalist or a content specialist

When I founded Fourth Wall Content three years ago, I was nervous about what I would offer as my ‘services.’ I had an idea of what sort of work I wanted to do, and equally strong ideas as to what I didn’t want to do. I had an ideal client list, values to guide what I would say yes or no to and a feeling that didn’t have a name, just something that told me becoming a self employed consultant was the right thing to do.

The nerves around how I sold myself and what I could help others with was down to me being a content generalist and not a content specialist.  

Defining generalist and specialist

My definition of a generalist is someone who has knowledge and skills across a broad range of subjects within a field. Ah yes, that could be a specialist too. So to that point, I consider a specialist as someone who focuses on one specific area, or a few areas such as a content practitioner who only does content modelling work or is all about information architecture. Arguably being a content designer is a specialist role but you could be excellent at a broad range of skills within that role. This is the problem I’ve faced when building a business around being a content practitioner or consultant.

Let’s wade further into the murky waters of semantics.

I don’t think it’s necessary to label yourself a generalist or a specialist. It doesn’t need to be a binary choice. But sometimes others expect you to identify in a specific way in order for them to understand how you may be able to help them. People attach expectations and worth to job titles and labels. 

The trouble is, the terms ‘generalist’ and ‘specialist’ are subjective. I think specialist is the more problematic of the two, along with ‘expert’ because I’ve always wondered what makes someone a specialist or an expert? It could be:

  • number of years experience in a role or industry
  • seniority in an organisation (and related - job title)
  • amount of money earned
  • age - surely not!
  • focusing on one or just a few distinct areas or skills

It’s the last one on the list that was in my mind as I defined my own offering and evaluated my skills, experience and areas of interest,

What this really came down to for me is what do I want to ‘sell’ and what sort of tasks and skills do I want people to associate with me. If they have a project coming up, what will they need to know about me that will make them think, let’s ask Rob if he can help.

Defining an audience and how you can help them

I’ve recently been through a period of defining in more detail what sort of business Fourth Wall Content is and who my audiences are. It’s always hard doing things for yourself but I was helped by business coach, Keir Whitaker, who guided and encouraged me with insight, ideas and support. To define my audiences I had to think about what I do and who I do it for. I was back in the murky waters.

At the start of the process my answers were broad. Because being a generalist means there are lots of different teams and organisations that I can work with and there are lots of different ways I can help them.

Through friendly interrogation and persistent refinement, I was able to define the main audiences I serve and the way in which I serve them. I realised it didn’t have to be an exhaustive list.

As part of this process I considered:

  • Who I want to work with and help
  • Who has previously approached me to help them
  • What their ask was
  • How long was the work for
  • What sectors and types of organisations have I worked with as a consultant
  • What were the outcomes of the work - how did they transform
  • Common characteristics of people and teams I help 

I then wrote statements, not unlike user stories, based on the outcome of thinking about that list of considerations. They are:

  • I help individuals, teams and organisations who recognise the need for great content but don’t know where to start
  • I help individuals, teams and organisations who are growing a content team but don’t have anyone in house to take it to the next level
  • I help individuals, teams and organisations who understand that their processes could be better but don’t know how to get started
  • I help individuals, teams and organisations choose the right tools to automate, streamline and improve efficiency for their processes
  • I help individuals, teams and organisations define a strategy for their content with measurable goals

There was a lot of other information noted about who those individuals, teams and organisations are. Those ‘I help’ statements above are the dinner party pitches to talk about what I do. 

It was also useful to think about what my specialisms are based on the work I have done and the work I want to do:

  • Assessing an organisation’s content operations and making recommendations for improving and optimising those operations for increased efficiency
  • Defining, documenting and implementing content workflows
  • Creating and disseminating content style guides
  • Helping organisations create strategic and measurable content plans
  • Writing user-centred content using clear language that is inclusive and accessible 

Those too are broad in some ways but I think that’s ok because actually, content work is broad and varied. There are areas that can be focused on but I enjoy the variety and being able to work on lots of different things. Being a content practitioner brings together knowledge and experience from my journalism degree, BBC audience researcher role, working within design agencies, being head of content, and my writing, editing and communication skills.

So I have knowledge and skills across a broad range of subjects within content and UX, but I also have some specific areas where my experience is greater. I'm a generalist with specialist skills then. Or maybe I’m a specialist at being a generalist. Oh, let’s not.

Getting comfortable with being a generalist

Let’s go back to 2021 then when I founded Fourth Wall Content. I was nervous that being a generalist would come across as being ok at lots of things and not excellent at any one thing or more and that would be a negative perception of the value and skill I could offer a team or business.

I was worried about people asking me what sort of work I was doing because it was so varied. In any one week I can find myself:

  • Leading trio writing sessions with large public sector organisations to help them improve the way they create user-centred bilingual content
  • Grading student essays for two different UX Content Collective courses
  • Producing the Content Strategy Podcast hosted by Kristina Halvorson
  • Creating a content inventory and auditing content
  • Writing content for one of the UK’s Armed Forces
  • Copy editing books

There are crossovers in all of that work in terms of skills and knowledge, but they just need that skill and knowledge to be applied differently and with different considerations based on the context of the work.

The other end of the generalist scale for me is a list of areas where I have some experience but it is more limited. That means I don’t look for that sort of work and they are topics I don’t write or talk about. Some examples are information architecture, content modelling and taxonomy. I can do those things but depending on the scope of the project. In those cases I like to be a generalist working directly with a specialist.

There are all sorts of crossovers, adjacent disciplines and transferable skills across roles and tasks. As a content practitioner I have lots of experience leading research activities but I’m not a user researcher. Again, the semantic swamp can bog us down.

It took me a good while to get comfortable with being a generalist and actually seeing this as a strength for the work I do. When I'm working on a project I am able to identify other needs or considerations. I can also make recommendations for other areas of the content lifecycle or operations and can connect lots of dots for the organisation. It means I can coach individuals or teams but also do the work myself if they prefer. I can audit content or assess a workflow and think much more widely about what the findings are revealing for the culture and politics of content across the organisation. I also have a long list of questions that I can ask to make sure the work being done is strategic and user-centred, regardless of what my role is within that work.

After fretting over needing to specialise in one area to make a successful consultancy, I’ve learnt my strength is in being a generalist. Fourth Wall Content can help lots of different teams in lots of different ways and now I have the confidence to be able to talk about what that means and looks like in a way that helps others understand if I am suitable for their projects.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of labelling who we are and what we do but I have found that even when others expect me to tick a certain box of what my role or title or offering is, instead I can talk about the sort of problems I help to solve and the outcomes and transformations of the work I do. That’s when the value is communicated clearly. That’s when I can talk about being a generalist with confidence, and dare I say, pride.

If you need help with an upcoming content project and think I'd be a good fit, I'd love to know more. Please get in touch.

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