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September 13, 2021

The importance of terminology management (podcast)

In episode 102 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and Sharon Burton of Expel talk about the importance of terminology management.

“If we don’t give customers the information to understand what we’re telling them, they won’t be successful and we have failed.”

– Sharon Burton

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Sharon Burton:                   Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way. My name is Sharon Burton, and I’m your guest today.

Sarah O’Keefe:                   And my name is Sarah O’Keefe, and I’m hosting. I delegated reading our bumper to Sharon because, well, there were some attempts and it didn’t go well. But, hopefully the rest of this episode will be more professional because we’ve got Sharon in charge.

SO:                   In this episode, I want to talk to Sharon about terminology management. Sharon Burton is a longtime friend of mine and also a senior content strategist at Expel. Sharon, welcome and thank you for taking on guest hosting.

SB:                   You’re welcome. I’m very happy to contribute to the overall mirth levels.

SO:                   This is going to be trouble.

SO:                   Tell us a little about yourself and your job at Expel, and what Expel does.

SB:                   The honest to goodness truth is I’ve done pretty much everything there is to do in this field. At least, it certainly feels like that.

SB:                   What I’m doing at Expel, I’m salaried at Expel, which is also new. I’ve not had a lot of salaried jobs. We work in the cybersecurity space. This is a new space for me, which is exciting. One of the things I love about our field is you always get to learn new things. I’m learning about cybersecurity. What we do is we are your offsite security management staff. There are groups of people in mid to larger companies called a security operations center.

SB:                   A medium to large company will have a group of people staffed called SOC, S-O-C, security operations center. Those kinds of people will monitor all of your hardware, and your software, and make sure that the people logging into the networks are the right people and all of that. The problem with that, and there is a big problem with that in the cybersecurity industry, is multi-fold.

SB:                   Number one, there aren’t enough people out there who are trained to do this, flat out aren’t. There’s a huge deficit of people. Number two, the people in the security business, because there aren’t a lot of them, they job hop a lot. Because as soon as they get bored, they can go get another job doing something interesting elsewhere, so you have a lot of staff turnover. And number three, sitting there and watching the logs of all of this stuff, all day long, is mind-numbingly boring. So you have staff shortage, mind-numbing boring and people job hop.

SB:                   What Expel does is we are your, if you will, offsite stock. But, we’ve got a whole bunch of tools and technologies, and all kinds of fun things that we’ve developed, so that we don’t bore our people. We’ve got all kinds of bots that do exciting and fun things. And, we’re a young company, we’re only five years old. When I started, they knew I was the first content anybody and they hired me because they knew that to move the product forward in any way, shape or form, was going to require content strategy. Not just content, lots of people are creating content here, but an actual strategy.

SB:                   When I first started here, I met with the CEO, and the COO, and a couple of other people and I said, “Okay, you hired me. Let’s talk about why you hired me. What problems do you see as we need to solve?” Both the CEO and the COO, two of the three founders, said, “We’re a content company that happens to make some products, and the products happen to be in the cybersecurity space. But, if we don’t provide content to our customers to understand what a threat is, things that we’ve handed to them and said this is a threat, you should go fix this. Or, you’ve got an intrusion, you should go fix this. If we don’t give them the information to understand what we’re telling them, they won’t be successful and we have failed.”

SB:                   I went, “So, you mean that we’re a content company that happens to make software?” And they said, “Yes.” I went, “I think I’m in love, perhaps more than HR is comfortable with.”

SO:                   Awesome. I wanted to talk to you about terminology management, because you’ve … Well, as you’ve said, you’ve done a lot of things but we had to pick a topic, so we came up with this one because I think it’s near and dear to your heart, and it’s also maybe not well understood.

SO:                   Can you tell everybody just what is it? What is terminology management and why does it matter?

SB:                   There are certainly people, much smarter people than I am, who could talk about this. But, I’m going to talk about it because it’s something that I’m currently involved in, part of the foundation I’m building here at Expel.

SB:                   We all know that there are a lot of words. I have been accused of having them all and using them all, all the time. Go ahead and laugh, Sarah, I know. But, there are a lot of words. Technical writers know that we should call something the same thing all the time. Unlike when we were taught to write in school when we were told, “Oh no, our reader will get bored if you always call it a field. You should call it other things.” The reality is the technical writing, techcomm community, we know once you decide to call that thing a field, by God, that thing needs to be called a field every time because otherwise, you’re going to confuse your users. That’s terminology and that’s making your terminology consistent.

SB:                   But, companies are starting to figure out it isn’t just the user guide or the online help where this matters. It matters when the salespeople are talking to customers or potential customers. It matters when marketing is talking to potential customers or to customers. It matters on the blog, it matters in the post-sales content, which is my happy place. But, it also matters in the customer support database, it matters in the UI. Because if we don’t figure out what stuff is called and then use those words, we look like we’re all self-employed, or something. There’s that customer experience.

SB:                   There’s also the translation. If you don’t have your terminology managed and somebody walks in your office and says, “Oh, we just closed a deal and all we have to do is deliver in German, in six weeks.” If you’re laughing thinking, “Oh, that never happens,” Sarah and I are here to tell you we don’t have enough numbers to count the number of clients we’ve dealt with who have that exact situation happen. “What do you mean we can’t deliver in German? Well, we’re just going to translate the content.”

SB:                   Well, if every time we say click okay, everybody says it a different way … I worked with a client once, where I did a quick analysis on just a subset of the docs, and they said click okay in over 50 different ways. 50. “Click the okay button, click okay button, click okay, select the okay button.” Well, if we had translated that, then that’s 25 cents a word, per language. We would have to pay that, because it’s $50 million in German in six weeks, we don’t have time to go fix that, so we’ll translate that right now. We’ll fix that after we translate it, which means your translation memory is now no good, or at least a limited value, it gets so expensive.

SB:                   Now at Expel, we are not currently localizing and I don’t know that we ever will, because the international language of cybersecurity is English. But, we have to act as if that guy, that person, that woman is going to walk in your space and go, “German, $50 million in six weeks.” If you’ve done your terminology management, if you’ve gotten your language groomed so that it’s all consistent, you can go, “Well, that’s not optimal. I think we’ll be okay,” instead of putting your head down on the desk and bursting into tears, which is usually the reaction.

SB:                   That’s why terminology management matters, because it’s customer experience and it’s literal dollars and cents.

SO:                   I think even setting aside localization, the point of the thing should always be called the same thing. It’s not a baby seat, a car seat and an infant seat, and a safety seat.

SB:                   And, a booster seat.

SO:                   It’s one of those. And a booster. Yeah, it’s one of those. Now frankly, I’m not in that particular business and I don’t particularly care which one you pick, but I care a lot about you picking one of them.

SB:                   Yeah.

SO:                   Even if you’re only operating in one language, there’s that consistency issue of, as you said, using the same term for the same thing so that people don’t get distracted wondering, “Wait, why did they change? Why is it different in this document, or in this chapter, or over here? Or, why is the marketing content different from the techcomm support content? This is weird.”

SO:                   How do you do this? We have convinced you, the gentle listener, we hope, that you should consider terminology management. But, what do you do? What’s your first step?

SB:                   Well, I’m in a really fortunate spot because my company got it, they literally hired me to do this stuff. I’m in an absolute sweet spot. I just said, “Well, it’s time for us to now take on the phase of the project plan where we start doing terminology management.” They went, “Oh good, I was wondering when we were going to get there.”

SB:                   But, I have also worked with places that needed to be convinced this was a thing. One of the ways to do it is to get a subset, a representative subset of docs. I don’t mean go look for the worst examples, I mean are you using Flare? Good, then grab the big Flare project. Flare is a great way to do this, because you probably have Analyzer. If you have Flare and you have Analyzer, and there are other ways to do this, but this is a great way to do it if you’ve got that tool, take a look for phrases that are almost but not quite the same. Analyzer will let you run that report. That’s how I got the click okay, all the different ways to click okay. You start getting your arms around phrases that are used all the time.

SB:                   I’ve spent much of my career in software, so things like click okay, accessing menus, the basics of the style guide, but the style guide is like an honor system. There are better ways to do this.

SO:                   For those of us who don’t work at Expel, what kinds of challenges might you have come up against in the past, when working at other less enlightened places? What kinds of pushback, or problems or issues do you run into when you tell people, “We are going to manage terminology?”

SB:                   I am formulating a hypothesis about the tech industry. I’ve been working on this hypothesis for about five years. That most software companies, for sure, don’t realize that they are in the content business. They think they’re in the software business, they think what they’re selling is a software product. But in fact, they’re in the content business. Now Expel, as I said, I’m incredibly fortunate, I know how fortunate I am.

SB:                   As I’m looking at where thinking is changing around content, and the value of content pre and post sales, I’m thinking that companies are more in the business of content and they just happen to create a product that they sell. But it’s got to have a large content ecosystem, otherwise it’s not going to be able to be used. I think about that, but I’m realizing that an awful lot of companies don’t know they’re in that business. It can be very difficult to get a company to recognize they need to control their terminology because they don’t see a value in the content, or they see a limited value in the content.

SB:                   One of the ways I’ve tried with other customers, other clients, a lot of places you can convince them to have a style review for content before it gets released. That means that a human being has to read it, read the content, they have to have the style guide memorized, and then they have to make sure that that content meets the style guide requirements. For terms, for how we talk about stuff, all of that stuff. That’s time consuming, labor intensive and fraught with errors because humans are full of errors. We want to be perfect but the reality is we are not, we are wonderfully imperfect.

SB:                   So you take the number of people who are doing that, the percentage of their time they are doing that, and then you figure out what that costs the company, fully loaded, it’s a straight business case. And then, you look at terminology management products. There are a couple of them out there. And then you start looking at what is it going to cost to do this programmatically, versus having people do it onesie, onesie. That is a way to go about it, but a company has to know it hurts before it’s willing to stop the bleeding.

SO:                   So there’s some pushback, just on the grounds of content is not important, which is pretty problematic.

SB:                   It is pretty problematic. The good news is, over the course of my career, we’ve gone from tech writers are secretaries to content strategy, bringing people in as senior content strategists, because they recognize how important content is. Now, that’s the arc of my career and it’s a beautiful thing. But, that level of enlightenment is not, perhaps, pervasive throughout the land. There are still kingdoms who don’t feel that content is as important. We’ll get them, eventually. Eventually, they will figure it out. It’s just it can be frustrating and hard.

SB:                   Because I think I am of the belief that what we do matters, in the content world. It matters because it lets people have content that will let them do the important things that they’re trying to do. Because of that, they deserve the very best that we, as an industry, and we as individuals, can give them. I really believe this.

SO:                   That was something I wanted to ask you about. We see terminology and terminology management introduced very often in the context of, “We need to mature our processes, we’re going to put in place some sort of content management, content management system. Then, we’re going to formalize our style guide and embed it using terminology management software,” those kinds of things.

SO:                   But, I feel like is there a best practice here? Which one should you do first? Do you do the terminology work and then the content management? Or, do you do content management first? Or, do you do them simultaneously? What do you think?

SB:                   At Expel, because we’re young, because we don’t have a full-time tech writer, we’ve got a contractor who we love, we’ve not built up that side of the house. Again, we’re young, we’re still in startup mode, we’re still in, “Take that hill! Okay, let’s take that hill.” We are not ready for content management, in the bigger picture. We’re building up a knowledge base. There was no knowledge base when I started here 10 months ago, there is now a knowledge base. I’m very proud of that. Is it where I want it to be? No. But, it’s only been on its feet for, what, April, so five months, six months. Toddling along now, it stopped the zombie walk.

SB:                   I wanted to get the style guide and the terminology management done early, early, early because I think this is the foundation that we can build the house on. I have been where we had the content management stuff in place, but we had no terminology management. That meant that somebody, part time at least, had to go through the content management system on a fairly regular basis and align the content. That’s labor intensive, but if you have an intern or a very young person, that can be fun for them for a while, until they get bored with it. But, it still has to be done.

SB:                   It depends on where you are on the spectrum. If you’re an established company with a lot of content, I’d go for the content management system first. I think the payoffs are going to happen faster there. Unless maybe you’re delivering in five languages, then maybe I’d go for the terminology management first. What’s bleeding?

SO:                   In short, it’s the mantra of the consultant.

SB:                   It depends.

SO:                   It depends.

SB:                   No, I would ask, “Where’s your pain point?” If you’re spending too much on localization, then I’d look at why are you spending that much. Is it because you have no terminology management? You’re not using a style guide, you’re not applying style? Can we solve it there, or do we need to go all the way back to your copying and pasting from document to document?

SB:                   And by the way, everybody knows, every time you copy and paste, a kitten gets hurt so don’t copy paste.

SO:                   Yeah, don’t hurt the kittens is probably as good a place as any to wrap this thing up. Thank you, Sharon. This was very interesting, and I think helpful. I hope that all goes well at Expel and wherever you may be.

SB:                   You are welcome and thank you so much.

SO:                   Thank you. And, thank you for listening to The Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.