The One Thing We Must Do More Of

Dec 7, 2022
Kate Walton

Hello from Steyer,

Today I want to talk about the kind of failure that every honest content professional will admit they’ve experienced at some point in their career, and usually many times over: the failure of having something that you’ve painstakingly crafted get any reaction at all.


Whether you’re a writer, a designer, a video producer—or even a manager distilling a new policy into a beautiful Slack post for your team—you’ve been there, right? Holding your breath, you pushed your brand-new content out into the world. Deep down, you were hoping for a high five or two, but mature professional that you are, you were also fully prepared for some pointed questions or harsh critiques. And instead: none of the above. Crickets, just crickets.

Most content people, including myself, aren’t really the sort who need new ways to feel insecure; any soul sensitive enough to carve meaning out of chaos is going to have some feelings when their handiwork fails, it seems, to register with anyone. In fact, they may even ask themselves—because as a type we are nothing if not dramatic—“Do I exist? Am I even real?

The answer of course is, “Yes! You totally exist! You’re 100% real! And that thing you just made is some combination of thoughtful and useful. People are just busy and distracted. So, chin up... and all that.”

A weary coach might stop there, because it’s all true. But it’s not everything that’s true. What is also true—although it’s painful to hear—is that a content piece that falls utterly flat was:
1) most likely created in a vacuum; and
2) delivered in a way that didn’t actively encourage the kind of engagement required for content to really connect.

To create content that moves the proverbial needle—forges real understanding! raises awareness! persuades! earns buy-in!—creators need to do way more than produce. We first need to listen—and then, after we’ve crafted something and pushed it out, we need to listen again—to what landed, what didn’t, and why.

I think we believe—perhaps because we are for the most part sensitive souls—that we’re already doing this, but my take is: nope, we’re not. Not because we don’t mean to or want to, but because real listening is so effing hard. To listen, we (a bunch of congenital producers!) not only have to stop producing for a time; we also have to coax our tight-lipped audience into producing, into sharing with us exactly where their heads are and what they really need from us.

Which brings me to the couch in my office. I bought it at IKEA in Hong Kong nearly 20 years ago and the reason it matches my curtains is that I also bought those at IKEA in Hong Kong nearly 20 years ago. Over there, they occupied the same room—a tiny studio apartment. Here in the U.S., where many of our homes have (gasp!) multiple rooms, this couch and those curtains have long been separated. The couch landed up in a bedroom, where it was (concerningly, I now realize) casually referred to by the whole family as “the laundry sofa.”

Then, on the Friday before Halloween, a beloved child in our neighborhood, a high school sophomore who’d been at our bus stop since kindergarten, died by suicide. All who knew this dear girl and her sweet family were left reeling. Without even knowing what I was doing at the time, I started moving furniture around the house. Hulk-like, by myself. And after trying various configurations, my office ended up looking like this:

Ever since I put the couch there, one or the other of my two teenagers usually flops onto it after school and—in part, I think, because my back is turned—they’ll often share about their day. Kind of like the way car rides are useful for connecting with teens.

In the most awkward segue of all time (apologies but also: welcome to my brain), I will now try to bring this back to the realm of work: as we seek to be better listeners—to all the various groups of people with whom we are trying to connect by creating content—what’s the equivalent of the blue couch? Before we produce and share another thing, how do we first make it easy for others to produce and share?

Here at Steyer, we’re trying various things to be better listeners as an employer: we’re using Suggestion Ox (a tool for wholly anonymous questions and feedback); we’re exploring the use of fiction as a potentially less intense way to talk through sometimes-overwhelming DEI-related topics; and we’ve taken to our local hiking trails for a handful of exit interviews—learning, in some cases, more from those one-hour walk-and-talks than we did from months of video conferences. I’ve also started to color during meetings. That photo in the corner that looks like a stock photo called “Elegant Coffee Cup Against a Blurred Background of Rainbow Pens”? Nope—that was actually my coffee (I live with a coffee aficionado) and those are actually my pens.

What I’m excited to do in 2023 is not only to continue these listening experiments internally but also to keep weaving a listening culture into the content work we do for clients. I suspect that every content project—large or small, pedestrian or lofty—has its blue couch, the thing that unlocks what we really need to hear in order to do a good job of connecting.

What do you think? What are the blue couches—the methods that spark real listening and learning—in your life? I’m all ears and would love to hear from you!

Thanks for reading,

Image credits: Steyer Content