Last week at my 8-year-old son’s request, I was Star Wars-ing a bedroom. To prevent being seduced by Darth and the Dark Side, I listened to a podcast.
29 minutes in, I sat amongst the Galactic Empire and snickered. To my surprise, the host (Kevin Rogers) and his interviewee (Brian Kurtz) started talking about me! Ok, they didn’t mention me by name, but they talked about how one could get (and be successful at) a specific position with a specific client — the one I happened to hold for the last 3 years.
The question they were pondering was how would someone be able to write for a client so well that readers, even dedicated, long-term readers couldn’t tell the difference. Essentially — how do you learn voice?
Knowing your own voice is important as a business owner (and we’ll cover that in Part 3).
For a copywriter, I’d argue knowing how to adapt to the voices of others is substantially more important. If you can write something that sounds like your client — only more effective — you’ll never be lacking in work.
But, even if you’re not a copywriter, this skill is essential for success in online business today.
Here’s just a few examples when you’d need to know someone else’s voice:
- Ghost-writing (books, publication, and blogs all hire industry experts to ghost write)
- Contributing a piece to a magazine or major publication
- Guest blogging
- Providing affiliate/JV copy
- Proposals (of all kinds)
- Job applications
While you don’t always need to (nor shouldn’t) forfeit your voice all together, it’s crucial to understand the voice and style of your audience. You don’t want to apply for a corporate job and use an anti-establishment voice — conversely, I know of one company that automatically passes over candidates that show up to the interview in a suit because it shows a lack of understanding of the company culture.
The same goes for guest blogging. Your voice is important and shouldn’t be lost. But you should also adapt to the voice of the site just as you would change the clothes you wear depending on the event.
5 Steps to Perfecting Someone’s Voice
1. Read everything you can.
When I first started at the job mentioned above, my first assignment was to create a database and write social media copy for every single blog post.
I hated it.
It felt like busywork. And the blog had 10 years worth of posts.
But, it turned out to be the single most valuable task for my growth. Suddenly, I knew his stance on everything — favorite college professors, book reviews, childhood stories, topics to explore, things that annoyed him. I became an encyclopedia of knowledge. (I even got an gag award for this at the company retreat. My coworkers laughed because I would constantly say things like “Actually, there’s a post –January 2012 I think — where he covered this exact topic.”)
More than that though, I could recognize his writing (and writing that wasn’t his) quickly.
2. Identify what their voice is
Using Part 1 of this series as a guide, describe the elements of their voice– cadence, tone, and vocabulary.
Run a few posts through readability tests.
Which of the 7 Primary Voices do they most resemble? Or is it a hybrid? Do they switch into different voices at different times? When? What effect do you think this has on the copy?
3. Get their voice on repeat in your head
The best way to know if you “sound like” someone else is to imagine them saying the words you are typing. They need to move into your brain and build a little cabin so you can call them up whenever you need them.
Do you ever open your mouth and hear the words of your mother or father flow out?
It surprises you when it happens but it’s easy to understand why it does. You lived with them for the first two decades of your life so their voice has moved in… creeping you out at every turn.
As a result, you could probably compose a blog post in the voice of your mother fairly easily. Too bad mom can’t be an affiliate. (But it would be a fun writing exercise. Now that Downton Abbey is over, I may just make that tonight’s evening activity).
Anyway, mom is probably not an affiliate, so you need to get that other person in your brain, too.
You have two choices:
- Move in with them.
- Listen to every interview, podcast, TV segment, or video you can get your hands on.
Almost everyone doing business online has audio or video out there. If you can’t find it, ask them. You should be doing this whenever you have downtime. In the car. When you’re cooking. Doing dishing.
I do this so often, my children start to think of my clients as family. (is that weird?)
4. Write drafts and compare
Now that you understand the voice you want to use, and probably better than the original writer, you can start writing.
Write a post in their voice and then compare. Run it through the readability test — are you at around the same grade level? Check your words per sentences (most word-counters can do this). And then read it out loud. Can you “hear” the person in your head?
Keep practicing this. Like most efforts in writing (and life), the more you do it the better you’ll become — and the more natural it will feel.
5. Get feedback (and write it down)
If you’re working on a content team, this is built into the process.
But, if you’re not, bloggers and content creators are always excited when writers ask for specific feedback. Anything you can do to make their lives easier down the road, is work they’ll gladly do.
Either way, all feedback (giving and receiving) is not created equal.
First, you need to tell them what kind of feedback you’re looking for. “What do you think?” Does not elicit useful responses. If you are trying to learn their voice or match the voice of their publication or site, you might want to ask questions like:
- Does this sound like something you would write?
- Are there any words that I should avoid?
- Is this the tone I should be going for?
- Do you think the length is ok?
- Am I speaking to the right audience?
- How would you write this differently?
Then, the next part is taking that feedback and internalizing it. Nothing is more frustrating than correcting someone’s work to have them submit the next assignment with the same mistakes. What I do is create a “Style Guide” for my clients.
This came right out of my days as a newspaper editor. Every reporter has two books handy at all times — The AP Style Guide and their specific publication’s Style Guide. The AP Style Guide covers universal topics like when to capitalize “President” or how to spell words with alternate spellings. The publication’s guide is how they handle more local issues. In our newspaper we decided not to put periods in the high school “VVS” and which towns were included when we said “Eastern Suburbs.”
When I started working online, I was shocked no blogger I could find had their own version of the style guide. So I made them. I included things like how they internally and publicly refer to their courses (abbreviations, official names, URLs, etc.), favorite sources of inspiration, words they never use, words they frequently use, colloquialisms, techniques they invented and named, how they credit testimonials (first and last name or just last initial), and any other feedback they’d given me.
Then, after I wrote something, I’d consult the style guide to make sure I followed all the “rules.”
It saves everyone a ton of time by creating a system.
BONUS: Even if you create these guides just for yourself, give them to your clients. They can give them to other writers and it makes you look like a real pro.
I’ve used this exact process many many times and it’s how I get repeat business. Finding a writer that “gets” their voice is such a huge win for content creators. It saves them time, frustration, and money and frees them up to focus on other areas of their business.
Would you be interested if I put together a worksheet on “Finding Voice” that guides you through this process? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. I don’t want to waste time if it’s not something you’d use.
NOTE: This part 2 of a 3 part series on voice. Click here for part 1: What is “voice”?
Jackson Cusick says
Love this series of posts. I’ve always wondered how to get the tone of a person into words. Even the transcripts of great speakers often feel like they’re missing something.
I’ve noticed this even with Ramit.
For example, all the ZTL videos come with transcripts. They have all the right words in them, but they never quite capture “Ramit,” like his/your emails and blog posts do. It’s amazing how you’re able to capture all the subtleties that usually get “lost in transcription.”
Have you done much handcopying? I bet it would be an infinitely more effective practice if combined with the insight you’ve laid out in these posts. So many people recommend it without getting into the details of what you should be looking for. It’s a huge help to see how you break it down.
I’d be curious to hear at what point you move beyond just SOUNDING like your client, and begin to THINK like him.
Anyway, stoked I found your blog. Thanks!
Thanks for the comment! I think the problem with most transcription is they have trouble capturing the cadence and tone of the voice. When you’re speaking, tone is extremely easy to convey because you have a lot of tools at your disposal — voice inflections, volume, body language, etc. When you write you have only two: words and punctuation. So, a skilled writer will use everything they can to help you “hear” the words, while a transcript strips away so much of the communications you get on video.
I haven’t done a lot of handcopying although many of my very good friends swear by it. But I think you’re right. Too much of the handcopying is done without intention. Without understanding why the writer made certain choices. A lot of the time, people that are ardent fans of the practice don’t use it to it’s full potential.
As far as when you start to THINK like a client… well, that comes with time. Like anything, when you write in the same voice over and over it becomes more natural and you don’t think about it as much. At this point, it actually becomes very difficult to edit other peoples’ work effectively. This is a good part of the reason I created this series. I knew Ramit’s voice, but I couldn’t communicate it to writers who were working for me. My feedback was “that just doesn’t sound like him”… which isn’t helpful for anyone. Once I figured out what made his voice, and what made ANY voice, it made it much easier to teach.
Jackson Cusick says
Thanks for the reply, Abbey!
You know, I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I just remembered what your posts reminded me of: This passage from Gerry Spence’s “How to Argue and Win Every Time”…
“If we listen we can also hear the music that carries the words of those who speak to us… If the sound of the words, no matter how powerful the words may be, does not move me, it will not move the jury. Sounds carry the meaning.”
Ever since reading that I wondered if the “sounds” he’s talks about could be conveyed in writing, too. Your notes on the AppSumo apology are a great example of how they totally can.
AppSumo ditched their usual voice. And what happened? They came off as less sincere. As a reader, you end up questioning the intention — or the meaning — behind AppSumo’s apology simply because of the way it “sounds.”
Awesome quote! 🙂