Content Mad Libs

You remember mad libs, right—those little books where you’d fill in the blanks with random nouns, verbs, and adjectives and end up with a ridiculous story? Well, here’s a use for mad libs that’s not ridiculous at all: incorporating them into a content workshop.

Instead of a kooky story, though, these mad libs tell a story about strategy, goals, users, and content—and they're extremely useful for getting disparate groups of stakeholders to focus and align quickly.

How to do it

You could turn pretty much any question you want your stakeholders or content creators to answer into a mad lib, but there are two moments when I've found them most useful. Free free to adapt these scenarios to your needs.

Core strategy mad libs

One of my favorite times to use mad libs is during an early workshop where key stakeholders are involved, typically when we’re establishing some high-level direction for a project or applying communication goals to an experience.

Before running a mad lib exercise, make sure you've opened the group up with a conversation about goals or messages. Start with a conversation about high-level goals, audiences, and determining how content will meet user and organizational needs, and brainstorm ideas on a board or sticky notes. As you do, ask questions about how the different goals and audiences might fit together.

Then, hand out a mad lib sheet that asks participants to define who they serve and what their goals are, like this one:

Brand messaging mad libs

If the aim of the mad lib is to apply messaging goals to your web experience, try starting with message cardsorting—like the kind Margot Bloomstein explains in detail in this sample chapter of her book.

Instead of getting all the way down to a final set of attributes, try just whittling down to 40 or so terms. Then, you can use those terms as the options to choose from when filling in the blanks, like this:

Either way, I recommend breaking participants into small groups of three to five people. Give everyone their own mad lib to work from, but ask them to establish one final version per group.

I usually allot 30 minutes for the small groups to come up with a shared mad lib, then another 30 minutes for comparing and contrasting results—highlighting and discussing areas of alignment and disagreement as we go.

Why it works

Brainstorming and open conversations are great, but every strategic workshop has a moment where it’s time to make choices. After all, content strategy is only valuable if it’s specific and focused—no organization can be everything to everyone. Using mad libs helps people focus because it forces them to structure and prioritize their thoughts about goals, vision, and messaging into just a few words in just a few blanks.

You might be surprised how well it works: I’ve had organizations argue for hours about who they want to be, but then, after 30 minutes filling out mad libs as a small group, come back with answers that are 90 percent the same.

In fact, that’s another reason mad libs work well: they make it much easier to see where people agree—and where they don’t—than open-ended exercises. This allows you to stop arguing about everything and start having productive discussions about the areas where people truly diverge.

Now, don't get me wrong: mad libs aren't a strategy. They're just an input—a tool to aid in discussions, discovery, and decision-making. But they do give everyone a tangible, shared vision to vet the day's decisions against—and after the workshop, they serve as a rough draft you can use when defining your strategy or messaging direction.