The Story Economy Blog

I, Me, We, Our: The Debate on First Person

meAbout seven years ago, I wrote some web site copy for a really cool little gourmet wholesale coffee roaster. The guys who owned it had a great story. But I can’t quite remember it. Because mostly what I remember is that I wasn’t allowed to use “I,” “we,” or “our,” anywhere in the copy. The owner I was working with was a super nice guy. But he was strictly against referring to the company in first person. Even though it was his company. And the reason it was the company it was is because he was who he was. I remember thinking that it was very, very odd that we couldn’t just, you know, say it all directly.

I did what I was told, of course. Back then, I didn’t engage with my clients as much as I do now (another way to say that is “challenge”!). I also didn’t really think as much about the best way for a company to present their story. Honestly, I didn’t charge enough to do too much deep thinking: it was more like transaction copywriting. I was busy chasing down stories for magazines back then. So when someone would call me for copywriting, it was like: yeah sure, let’s just get this done, and not ask that many questions.

It’s nothing like the way I work now.

If I had to re-do this project, I would definitely push back. Just to clarify: first person is not always the right answer. There are times when it doesn’t feel as right. But what I’ve learned is that whenever someone has a knee-jerk reaction to talking about themselves in their own business, there is probably something deeper to explore.

Whether or not you use first person voice (I, we, us, our) or third person voice (he, she, they, the company) feels almost trivial—a semantic detail that should just naturally work itself out. But it doesn’t. You have to decide, and know why you are deciding that. And it actually says a lot about . . . well, everything.

Behind the Voice Choice

We’re just masses of people milling around in this story economy. My first instinct is always: come on people, get over your silly ideas about “objectivity” and let’s just claim the stories of who we are!

But that’s just my knee-jerk reaction. Which isn’t any better than the other knee-jerk reaction of hiding from first person.

So, let’s really think about this.

The first, most obvious question to answer when you are deciding voice is: are you part of something larger, or are you just you? I’m not using “just you” in a pejorative way. Because “just you” can be awesome.

I am “just” me, and that’s why I always write stuff about my business (like my web site and this newsletter) in first person. Because, well, it’s all me. If you hire me, you are buying what’s in my head. And I can’t write about what’s in my head if I can’t write from first person. I am my business, and I don’t try to pretend that I have “associates” or team members to sound bigger than I am. (That said, when I collaborate or join a team to work on a project, it ceases being about just me. I have to dissolve “me” into the team. And that’s totally, totally fine. I can only handle so much of myself anyway.)

Most of the time, you are going to resonate with my story, which is the same as the story of my business. For a client of mine like Reboot, where her personal story drives every aspect of the business, that’s the case, too.

But that’s not always the case.

You can’t always tell the story of what your business has become from inside your head. Because it very well may be larger than you. It might be the story of a lot of other people who have taken up your cause or idea. Maybe you move to “we” in that case. Like Trader Joe’s, Panera, or one of my recent clients, inKlein Consulting.

Easy fix, right?

It is, unless you truly feel like you can only tell the story from the outside, and the vantage point of how the world sees the company—which means a little less “we” and a little more referring to the organization in third person. For example, something about the smell of leather and the personality of the brand tells me that Coach needs to be mostly in third person. The vantage point just matters. Same with a company like HBO. People want to watch the TV shows. They want entertainment: that’s the story. Tell us about who you are in relation to what we want and how we see you.

It’s really about the perception of your company in the world: both the one that already exists and the one you want to create. Whether you talk from inside or outside has everything to do with it.

Really, the only other question to ask is: what are you afraid of?

There are two things I find people are afraid of with using first person. First, vanity (Oh, I can’t talk about me!). The second: looking unprofessional.

If vanity is your worry, you have to decide if that worry is greater than the worry that no one will hire you because your business is dependent on people knowing who you truly are and you’re not telling them. Telling your story the way you see it from inside your head is not being vain. Being vain is being vain.

As for appearing unprofessional: this is very common among groups like doctors and lawyers. They think they will lose credibility if they appear to be people with lives and real voices. The irony is that they are losing credibility by not appearing as people. Because of the story economy, the world is changing fast. For this group, I would say that first person is the new professional. Talking about who you are and why you do what you do will put you way ahead of the game.

The voice you choose isn’t just semantics. It’s a statement—either a statement on purpose or by default. So do some soul-searching and think about how your story is best told.


  • Lauren Worsh

    Posted by Lauren Worsh on 08/07/13 11:31pm

    I share your perspective on this, Judi. I like how clearly you break it down here.

    I appreciate those who authentically risk the intimacy of the "I" voice, when it is their particular quality of being that makes their work so distinctively and uniquely valuable. It helps me to feel into who they are, to see if I resonate with them, and usually that is the deciding factor for me.

    In creating my own website, which I just recently finished, there were moments in the writing when I would switch to a third person voice... and what I noticed when I edited and redrafted those bits was that that always happened when I was feeling some fear about putting myself out there, about publicly sharing my story and owning the uniqueness of my offering without apology. Once I worked through the fear, the "I" voice would re-emerge.

    Your posts are both invitingly personal and perfectly professional. I think when people settle in to trusting their own voice and the value of their unique offering they find the right tone and balance.

    I'm really enjoying the emergence of the "I" economy!

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 08/08/13 12:17am

      Thanks for your nice comment, Lauren! I read your "about" page, and it's really beautifully written. I love how you tell your story.
      -- Judi

      • Lauren Worsh

        Posted by Lauren Worsh on 08/14/13 5:58pm

        Thanks so much, Judi! I'm pleased it spoke to you. I respect your work and your voice, so that means a lot to me.

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