Making risk management work (2): Holding conversations

This post is part of the Content Is The Web risk management series.

You know the roles and definitions that risk management is based on, so now we turn to how to talk about risks with your risk reporters. After that, the next post introduces the tools you need to manage them.

(Risk reporters used to be stakeholders and points of sign-off. If that’s news to you, let me repeat the link to How risk management works (1) – Roles and definitions.)

It’s your decision to talk to risk reporters one-by-one, or all together as a group. It’s most important, especially at first, that you do actually talk. The old days of sending drafts and receiving tracked changes or free-form comments are over. Your risk reporters need to give you specific information that they probably haven’t been asked for before. You’ll need to prompt them, ask follow-up questions, and really get to know what they’re thinking. Could you do that over email? Only slowly, if at all.

It probably sounds like this will take a long time. At first it might, but by building up understanding and (hopefully) rapport, this working relationship will pay off in time. And you’ll end up with better content, too.

Here’s the short version:

Never ask “can I publish this?” again. Instead, ask “If I did publish this, what could happen?”. Talk about bad things that might happen, and in each case get specific about likelihood and consequence. Be open, be receptive, and use other people’s expertise.

Never ask “can I publish this?” again

Your old workflow was based on permissions: “Is this approved?”. With risk management, you’re not asking for approval anymore. Your risk reporters don’t hold a “stop/go” sign. Instead, they have information that you need to understand.

So throw away your old script and those old power relationships.

Instead, ask “If I did publish this, what could happen?”

The subtler question you ask instead is an “if”: “What effects might this draft content have if it becomes the final, public version?”

This new question does a few useful things:

  • It nudges people to think from the reader’s point of view
  • It encourages realism, rather than feedback about academic or unimportant things
  • It looks at content’s effect on the audience.

Talk about the content as if it’s live, and being read by real people. It might even help to use personas here. Dig into the information and impressions that you’re passing on.

Talk about bad things that might happen

Part 1 defined a risk as a bad thing that might happen. This is what you need to talk about. When you have it right, you end up with a risk statement.

“It seems wordy” isn’t a risk. “You’re missing our usual tone of voice” isn’t a risk. “You have the product measurements wrong” isn’t a risk, either. But this is the sort of thing that your colleagues or clients will be used to saying. By controlling the conversation you can tease the actual risks out.

Looking at things from the reader’s point of view helps a lot. The content is wordy: So what? So…the reader might not finish the page. And the info at the bottom is really important.

The risk statement, then, is that skim readers might miss the important info at the bottom of the page.

The tone of voice doesn’t sound right. What’s the effect of that? People who read a lot of our stuff won’t get the familiar feeling that we give them. We might sound like we’re being fake.

Or, as a risk statement: The tone might confuse people who know our brand well.

Product measurements being wrong is an easy one to turn into a risk statement. People might buy something that doesn’t do what they want.

It’s not a coincidence that every risk statement includes the word “might”.

Get specific about likelihood…

For every risk, get into detail about who could be affected. Hone in on that word “might”.

How many people might miss that important last paragraph? If your pages are usually around 100 words but this draft is a 10,000-word diatribe, probably quite a lot. But if it’s only 120 words, more people will stick around ’til the end.

The tone of voice risk is only going to affect people who already expect a certain voice from you. The better known you are, the bigger the risk’s likelihood.

The product measurement risk is very likely to play out if you’re describing a 2-bedroom house as having 5 bedrooms. Everybody’s going to pick up on that one. But if you’re saying that a 512GB hard drive is only 500GB, fewer people are going to notice.

…and get specific about consequence, too

A risk’s consequence is completely separate from likelihood. Consequences happen when risks play out.

In every case take the “might” out of the risk statement and use “when” instead.

When people miss the important info at the bottom of the page, what happens next? Maybe they miss a special deal and overpay. Maybe they don’t see that the product isn’t shipping until next year, or never see that an updated version is also available.

When our tone of voice confuses people who know our brand well, the consequence is a change in their brand perception, which works against other branding that took a lot of effort to get right.

Finally, the product measurement case: When people buy something that doesn’t do what they want, you might end up with anything from unhappy customers to legal problems.

Be open and receptive

You’ll find that risk conversations like these are quite different to the way you’ve worked through content approvals in the past. You’re asking much deeper, better questions, so you’ll end up with a lot more information.

This is a good thing.

Getting your risk reporters to describe things from the reader’s point of view, and to properly break down likelihoods and consequences, brings clarity. Chances are that neither of you will have thought about your content like this before. You’ll be surprised by what you come up with, what ends up being important, and what doesn’t.

This is everyone else’s time to say what they think. Accept what you’re hearing and let the tools you’re using – more on those in part 3 – direct attention where you need it most.

Use other people’s expertise

Another good thing about these conversations is the way they show you how other people think. It’s a chance to learn from experts, whether a brand manager explaining the consequences of losing brand voice, or a lawyer detailing what happens when the small print isn’t there.

You’ll walk away smarter. Next time you’re working on similar stuff, you’ll have more knowledge and be better at your job.

Moving on, part 3 describes a framework to make sense of all the information you draw out of risk conversations. Then part 4 looks at the tools you use as you manage risks.