Navigating stakeholder relationships for UX writers and content designers

As writers, our work tends to rely heavily on the information that stakeholders give us. 

I was a content strategist at Google for 6 years and my content would get bounced around from stakeholder to stakeholder to confirm details and information and make sure everything sounded correct from each angle. 

My partner, who’s also a writer, has stayed up all night waiting for feedback from his team in India. 

Our work has us working constantly with other people: a Product Manager, an Engineer, a UX Designer, or even someone from Legal. But without our stakeholders, the content we write may not be accurate, clear, or helpful at all.

Building productive relationships with your stakeholders is key to writing better, more helpful content. If you build strong relationships, you create a harmonious working dynamic that results in content that you can be proud of. 

Understand on a personal level

This is where it all begins. A personal understanding is the foundation of a strong relationship. But no! — you don’t have to be best friends. 

We all work from home today, so being able to understand that your stakeholder is also human is absolutely necessary. Sick babysitter? Oof, that sucks. Power outage? That’s not great. Know who they are. Know what matters to them. Then, put yourself in their situation. When something happens, this helps you to humanize work and adjust based on the situation. First and foremost, we are all human. And work? It can always be negotiated. 

I remember once needing feedback from a stakeholder who hadn’t been responding for days. According to the stakeholder, the project was urgent, but once the content was ready for the stakeholder’s review, there was no response. 

We were getting close to launch and as the content strategist, I was getting nervous about missing deadlines. I sent messages and emails, but still didn’t get an answer. Instead, I reached out to other people on the team to get the information I needed. 

Later, I found out that my stakeholder had been dealing with a personal emergency. I was able to get my information, and learned how to empathize with my stakeholder. 

Sure, they didn’t tell me earlier, but sometimes things happen. Understand, empathize, and be human

Know who they are professionally

People have different working styles. Some think analytically, so when you talk to them, the first thing they might question is data. 

Some like to read first before they understand and ask questions. Some like to go deep into the details, question every little thing, and appreciate the process. 

Imagine this: you’re presenting to a director who is very data-driven. If you present to them with a focus on details and less on data, they may end up needing more info, asking more questions, or even missing the point.

One of my former managers told me this: “Always understand who you are presenting to. Then, strategize your presentation to fit how they accept the information.” If you present a data-driven presentation to a data-driven director, they’ll receive the information better.

This principle applies to more than presentations. When communicating with designers, talking analytics might not always be the best way to get their attention. Instead, try talking about heuristics, user journeys, research, etc. Understand what a person responds to most in their work so you know how to communicate better. 

Note that I said “might.” Remember, someone’s title may not always be an indicator of what they respond to best. Ask them. Let them tell you. 

Ask how they receive feedback and tell them how you want feedback

Ah, feedback. A make or break for some relationships, but so essential to your growth, both personal and professional. At work, we say feedback is a gift. But in reality, a gift is only a gift if the person receives it as one. 

Imagine being gifted a snake. 

I’m deathly afraid of snakes, so to me, that wouldn’t be a gift at all. Every person receives feedback differently. As a writer, I like to mull things over first, understand, then decide on actions. And I prefer feedback as comments so I can read through them first. Then, I’ll set up some time to ask questions, clarify, and set action items. 

Because feedback is such an important part of our work as writers, ask your stakeholders how they receive feedback and most importantly, how you want to receive feedback. 

Now the question is, do you even know how you prefer to receive feedback? It’s okay if you don’t. Pay attention to feedback that you receive well versus feedback that you don’t. Try to identify what actually works for you and what doesn’t. And sometimes, the way you receive feedback may differ depending on the person who gives it to you. 

Educate each other

I once worked on a team that questioned every single thing that I did. They hesitated, they questioned, they ignored. It was not fun. It was difficult, and slowed down the work. It turns out that they just didn’t understand who I was and what I could do for them. They didn’t trust me, they didn’t know my role, and they weren’t aware of the expertise that I brought to the team. 

If you’re a writer on the team and you struggle with getting your stakeholders on board, try educating them. Tell them about the benefits of having a writer. Give them exercises on simplifying words. Show them guidelines. Show them what you do and what you CAN do. 

But don’t stop there. Learn what they do as well. Understand them. Understand their processes. It also helps you because when you need to clarify something, you’ll know who to go to. Professional relationships, like personal ones, are a two-way street.

Know that you’re on the same team

This is a really important understanding to have. This isn’t about who’s right or wrong. This isn’t about who’s smarter, who has more experience, who has the most impressive credentials. It’s not about who’s to blame, who screwed up, or who didn’t make deadlines. It’s about the user. It’s about giving the user what they need. It’s about understanding the user, providing for the user, making things right for the user. 

Next time you’re arguing for something, ask yourself this: Am I arguing because I think I’m right or because something feels off and the user might not be able to understand something?

Don’t argue because you believe you’re right. Argue because something may be better for your users.

Most discussions get heated because people either think they’re right, or they just don’t understand each other. Here’s an example of how you can frame discussions:

  1. One party says what they’re thinking and why.
  2. Another says what they’re thinking and why. 
  3. Then discuss.
Remember, it’s not about who’s right or wrong. For all you know, you’re both right. The important part of this exercise is the WHY. Understand the why. Question the why. Research. Prioritize. Compromise. Then decide.  

Learn together

Have you ever made a huge mistake in your career? Perhaps you unintentionally leaked information or left a string unchanged and let it go live? Doesn’t feel great, does it? After my first leak, I cried for days. I thought I was going to get fired. 

One of the best things I’ve learned from my team is the act of blameless post-mortems. Earlier, I mentioned humanizing work. I’ll mention it again. We’re all humans. We can make mistakes. We’re not robots, not perfect. It doesn’t make us less of a writer, it doesn’t make us less of a professional.

If something doesn’t go right, admit it. Yes, it’ll hurt every single bone in your body. Admit it. Then go deeper into why it happened. Write a timeline. Identify where the issue started. Were you tired and not able to double-check work before launch? When should you have sent it for localization? What prevented you? Ask as many questions as you can to figure out what happened. Then, identify how you can prevent it from happening again. 

Your mistakes are what will make you a better writer and a better professional

Afterward, socialize your post-mortem. Stakeholders should know. People should learn. As a team, learn together. Work together to make processes better, to make things easier. 

And most of all, ask for help. I know some of you may be the sole writer in your company. Ask for help rereading content. Ask for help checking for launch. Ask for help when life pops up. You are allowed to be human. 

What about you? Do you have any tips to help build strong relationships?

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