The Story Economy Blog

If You Hear Voices, You’re On the Right Track

One of my favorite grown-up things to do is talk to groups of students about writing as a career. I love it when I get to tell them: “Hey, you know all of those people who say that you can’t make a good living as a writer? Ignore them all. They are wrong.”

So, aside from being the cool one who gets to tell teenagers to ignore well-meaning adults (you’re welcome, parents), I also get a chance to talk to them about nifty stuff like voice, and how the best way to find it is through reading everything your teacher assigns (I’ve got your back, teachers).

Reading what other people have written shapes everything about who are as a writer. “Innate talent” is a bunch of crapola. You learn to write by reading stuff you love, stuff you hate, and stuff you don’t care anything about. The problem is when kids stop at the stuff they don’t care anything about and don’t explore beyond it.

Adults do this too, of course. Business owners, especially. “I just can’t write,” they say. Now, let me be honest: it’s much better for my bank account if you can’t write. Because I can, and I would really like to do it for you. Writing books and marketing copy and speeches and scripts is a skill, and I am all for people knowing their limits and hiring people like me to do it.

But, just because you aren’t going to write your stuff, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a sense of your voice.

No, not whether you’re a soprano, tenor, or baritone. I’m talking about your voice on the page or on camera: your tone and way of communicating. Your attitude and way of approaching language.

Even if you lack a command of language, you still have a relationship with it. Teasing out that relationship is the golden nugget, the glowing stone, the thing Harrison Ford is always searching for in those movies. It’s the job of any good copy strategist to pull it out of someone (it’s my favorite part of the job, actually). But if you have a running start, it really helps.

Notice, Absorb, Channel

One great way to figure out your voice is just to notice what kind of writing you respond to, and what you recoil from—across all mediums and genres. Any writing fair game: 19th century novels, scripted TV shows, brochures from the doctor’s office, blogs, marketing emails, biographies. All of it is good material if you can notice why. What parts of the voice do you like? And most importantly: What parts have something to do with why you’re in business and the way you do business?

Right about now, you might be thinking: “Okay, Ms. Know It All, what about your voice? How did you develop it? What writing have you noticed that has something to do with your business?” If I had to assemble a snapshot of the parts of the voices I totally dig and often channel, it would combine the lovely neuroticism of Elizabeth Gilbert, the corny storytelling of Harry Chapin, the smart humor of Mark Twain, the incredible pacing of Aaron Sorkin, the raw inspiration of Seth Godin, the irreverence of Diablo Cody, the quirky normalness of Anne Tyler, the crystal clarity of Malcolm Gladwell, the sassy lilt of Virginia Woolf, the transparent warmth of Anna Maria Horner—and hundreds of other writers I can’t possibly list because I know you have better things to do.

I’m sort of obsessed with voice, so I’ve thought about it, you know, a lot.

It’s okay if you haven’t. But if you are thinking about refreshing your brand, changing up your copy, and/or creating new marketing materials, I’d start noticing the many voices out there—mostly the ones you love and the ones you hate. Read other people’s sites and eBooks. Watch their videos. Download their freebies. Check novels out of the library. Pick up a magazine that looks interesting. Notice the different ways writers address their readers and engage with them. Sit with it, hear them, and absorb them. Make notes: “I like this, but I don’t like this” is great. Even better: “I like this or I don’t like this because . . .” The “because” is always what matters. (“Because it sounds good” is not the nugget. “Because it feels true for my business” is getting closer.)

Remember, a story without voice is just words on a page or teleprompter. Your business deserves more. It deserves a voice. So start listening!

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