man standing on patterned tile floor, looking intently at his phone
PHOTO: Michal Pechardo

Companies are taking bold public positions about where they advertise and who they form strategic alliances with, making conscious decisions about the values they champion. Each of us in our own way can shape the course of commerce and public policy by the decisions we make every day — the products we buy, the causes we support, the knowledge we share. Everything we do and say has impact on the world around us. But we do not always think to practice that impact thoughtfully, consciously.

Communicating in a Conscious Language 

The words we use have the power to connect, to inspire, to call to action and to tear down. We have no idea what impact or damage an email or text may have for others. We read all kinds of things into what people say. One of my team leads used to send our team regular emails about travel destinations. It led an intern to ask me, “Does he want us to go somewhere?” In that professional setting, without any context, the emails were just confusing and a little amusing.

Editors who have to compress an article’s theme into a compelling headline run into this all the time. Some newspapers encourage wordplay and suggestive language in their headlines to grab readership, but risk offending those readers. Careless words in a tweet or email can end careers. In political and cultural communications, words are particularly fraught with generations worth of painful history.

“Conscious language” is “the art of using words effectively in a specific context” to be respectful and inclusive. Conscious Style Guide founder, Karen Yin writes,"Because we believe that content and context work together, we avoid a one-word-fits-all approach. Instead, we encourage you to immerse yourselves in these ongoing conversations about language so you can come to your own conclusion about what is more effective for you and your audience."

It means being thoughtful and aware when creating — and sharing — content. It means crafting an email message as though you were OK with it being on the front page of your local newspaper. It’s that easy to bring the world in on your office jokes. It means waiting and cooling off before pressing the send button, when reacting in a moment of anger.

I like to have a colleague review my content before sharing, if I have any concerns about how it will be received. I met an artist who said that whenever he felt angry or sad, he stepped away from his work. He said artists in some traditions believe their negative moods are captured in their work. Around the office, that looks like the ALL-CAPS!! guy who needs to practice a little restraint and conscious content practices.

We Don't Work in a Vacuum

When I start an information management consulting project, I ask participants to spend time observing themselves. We then come back and exchange experiences. We always concluded two things: 1. people’s work patterns are vastly different from each other and 2. they are often settling for organizing systems that don’t make sense for them.

We all have work patterns, i.e., ways of doing and organizing things. Some patterns make the business sing and some are off-key, but they’re our patterns and we become comfortable with them. Like one of my clients told me, “I know it’s weird how I do things, but I know my way around, I’ve gotten used to it.” She went on maternity leave and her interim replacement was so lost in that weird pattern that she decided to create a whole new content area for herself.

As an information specialist, I thought I had the edge on organizing systems. But one day I noticed I had to scan my set of files every time I wanted to talk with clients, to surface the specific few items I needed. Wouldn’t it just be easier if I aggregated those items into their own select view? Content organized around purpose, logical patterns.

The biggest resistance to improving off-key patterns is, “I don’t have the time to set up a new process and structure.” But they use up valuable hours every day looking for things because they have accepted “weird” as their pattern. And because they can’t navigate other people’s “weird.”

The content of the new generation platform is not your content — it needs to take its place in the organization’s shared knowledge reserve for this powerful solution to return its investment and unlock its potential to transform the business.

There are exciting, intelligent ways for content management solutions to personalize work patterns for users, ones that even create personal taxonomies based on their search patterns. But you still need a core set of structures, an agreed-upon organizing system and language that comes out of thinking beyond your own patterns and personal file shares.