I’m Glad You Asked

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I’d love to answer your questions about writing, communication, grammar, messaging, branding… and whatever else you toss my way!

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I’ve been thinking about my answer (see below) to this question: I am transitioning to a new professional area, what advice can you give regarding finding my voice in my new career? – Melissa M. in Wisconsin

And I have more to say about it. In my first answer I talked about “finding” her voice by recognizing it. And in order to recognize it, it must be differentiated from the other voices… the “not her” voices. The “other people think this is a good idea” voices.

I think that’s the most crucial piece. But there are other parts to add on, too, if Melissa wanted to.

(1) Free Association

As she’s figuring out what differentiates her “voice” from others’ voices, she could write down the words that describe that emerging style.

This is accomplished free-association style (aka “brain dump.”) At this point, it is important to note that nothing is “stupid” or “wrong” or “not good enough” or any other value judgment. This openness allows Melissa to explore how she wants to express herself.

Here’s a sample list:
Conversational
Warm
Light
Cheerful
Authoritative (but nicely)
Inviting
Direct

(2) Skim the List

Next, Melissa can revisit the list. She may want to do it right away, or maybe she’ll leave the list alone for a day or two… or a week or two. There is no magical timeline on this.

When she revisits the list, she’ll read through it and mark off the words that aren’t really reaching out and grabbing her. Or she’ll circle the words that are grabbing her.

Conversational
Warm
Light
Cheerful
Authoritative (but nicely)
Inviting
Direct

(3) Consider Your Audience

Only after Melissa has completed Steps 1 and 2 should she consider her audience.

Most people do this backward.

This is because they are listening to the other voices in their heads… the ones that sputter out jargon: Target market! ROI! Niche! Millenials! And whatever else. The terms are interchangeable with whatever’s “hottest” at the moment.

Yes, it is important to consider how your audience wants to be talked to, but it’s more important to consider who the heck you are, and what language you are speaking first.

Knowing those things – who the heck you are and what language you area speaking – will actually help you understand who your audience is. Doing it the other way around results in your audience defining you.

And when that happens, you are just like everybody else in the faceless, nameless marketing crowd. Yes, be professional; yes, be appropriate. But overall, be yourself.

That’s what people are craving from a service provider.

XO,
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I am transitioning to a new professional area, what advice can you give regarding finding my voice in my new career? – Melissa M. in Wisconsin

Well, I’m glad you asked, Melissa! I love talking about voice. It’s typically less complex than it might appear at first blush.

Finding one’s voice is usually about shushing all the other voices that aren’t, in fact, one’s own. These voices belong to everyone else – your mom, your dad, your gramma, your 8th-grade home ec teacher (because that used to be a thing,) – and they also belong to the nameless, faceless entities like social norms, gender expectations, glass ceilings, and I don’t know what all else.

To find your voice, it is imperative that you quiet all the other ones – that you recognize what is you, and what is not you. That you know what you believe v. what you are practicing. Sometimes I find myself engaged in mental practices that I don’t at all believe in. They are simply habit. Crappy, outdated habit. Once I see that, I can drop them.

I’m reminded of that Shel Silverstein poem…

shell-silverstein-listen-to-the-mustnts

Separating out the mustn’ts, the don’ts, etc. from your own ideas is one of those simple but not easy endeavors. People have different tactics: exercise, meditation (i.e. mental exercise), making art of whatever sort, journaling, receiving bodywork (massage, acupuncture, etc.)

The idea here is to do something – or a combination of things – that will help you to connect with your own natural sense.

What’s natural sense? Never heard of it, you say? That’s because it’s a phrase I just made up 5 seconds ago. Natural sense is a combination of common sense and intuition. It’s more practical than intuition alone, and it’s more mysterious than common sense. Natural sense. It’s the good shit.

Changing professional directions is a fabulous time to do some voice excavation. It’s like how moving gives you a chance to declutter; you look at your stuff differently when you’re considering boxing it up and carting it around and unboxing it again. You ask, “Do I really need/want this XYZ?”

Now that you’re shifting into something different, you can dust off some items that you’ve not been able to use before – maybe you now have the chance to be more informal, something you’ve always wanted, for example. Take a look at what you’ve held onto mentally, or what you’ve been telling yourself you “can’t have.” Since you’re rewriting your professional parameters, you can decide what to incorporate and what to discard.

I’ve found that quieting the other voices through any of the above moves and recognizing your natural sense are all you need to do. “Finding” your voice is really a matter of calling it home, and clearing the way for it to show up.

XO,

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What’s acceptable in blogging in terms of proper grammar and formal writing vs. “write it like you’d say it?” I find when I write informal emails I use a lot of dashes, ellipses, and commas for cadence. When writing a blog post I find I’m more formal. In that formality I feel like I lose “my” voice. – Christi B. in Pennsylvania

Scroll down to see the answer to the “voice” part of this question. Today, I tackle the grammar v. “write it like you’d say it” for business blog posting.

So here’s the thing, I believe in accessible writing that sounds like a human wrote it. Let’s say I’m blogging for a brand that one single person doesn’t represent. I write posts in a voice that is accessible to the readership of that brand. The “target audience” (a barfy term, but you get the point) will respond more favorably to certain styles of writing than others. And as a writer, it’s my job to generally understand the people in that audience… and to speak to them.

For example, you’re my audience. And I know that I can write “barfy” and you’ll be okay. If I were writing for a client, I wouldn’t likely use the term “barfy,” but I might use lots of words and turns of phrase that I, personally, would never say. Because my personality isn’t what’s important in these writing cases. (Except for that essential bit of it that allows me to view a situation or product from a variety of lenses.)

Communicating in alignment with the brand is what’s important. This is why, in my writing process with clients, I spend a great deal of time getting to know a business’s existing messages, unearthing the covered up ones, and creating repurposable wording that communicate these messages.

For many-to-most entrepreneurs – Christi included – their personalities are a key component of brand communication. They are, in essence, their brand. They’re their brand… which brings us to grammar’s role.

Grammar, I think, is sadly misunderstood. And I don’t simply mean they’re and their or the invasive apostrophe catastrophe. Those are the particulars of grammar, and I’m talking about the concept of grammar. The concept of grammar is widely misapplied.

Grammar is intended to clarify meaning, not imprison it.

Like any tool, it can be a weapon in desperate or ignorant hands. When we begin to censor or contort ourselves out of fear of the Grammar Gods – or use it as a way to mock other people – we are missing the point.

Grammar is our friend. Seriously.

Not having grammar would be disastrous at worst and reeeeeaaaaaaalllllllllllly annoying at best. If we didn’t agree to certain structural elements, we wouldn’t be able to communicate. So we have subjects and verbs. Declarative sentences end in periods. Interrogatives require a question mark. These are things we accept, just like we accept that we read and write from left to right on a page.

And so correct grammar – or correctish grammar – is an aid in communication. And it is more or less essential for written communication in business. Ignorance of grammar can confuse your message and erode your credibility.  Intentional use of grammar – throwing in em dashes and commas for emphasis, establishing tone and cadence with punctuation – can be lovely as long as you (more or less) know what you’re doing.

One final quick note: it’s the author’s opinion that intentional misuse of grammar is fabulous when it heightens the message in some way. But before you can intentionally break grammar’s rules, you have to know them. And staying true to grammar’s conceptual purpose is, in my experience, a must.

X to the O.


What’s acceptable in blogging in terms of proper grammar and formal writing vs. “write it like you’d say it?” I find when I write informal emails I use a lot of dashes, ellipses, and commas for cadence. When writing a blog post I find I’m more formal. In that formality I feel like I lose “my” voice. – Christi B. in Pennsylvania

Today I’ll address the “voice” part of this question, and I’ll get to the grammar part next time.

I’m a big proponent of voice. In the most essential aspect of communication contest, voice and messaging are tied for first. And they’re both tickled about it because they work so well together. Grammar is not in first, and is kinda pissed about it. Aw, poor grammar.

If your writing lacks voice, then you’re probably writing something that no one actually wants to read. Voice belongs in writing. Voice is not synonymous with bias or lazy writing. Voice has more to do with style than opinion. In some cases, your voice will be louder, more distinct, and drawing more definitive lines. In other cases it will be more subtle. In the case of blogs for entrepreneurs, voice is especially important.

How to decide what’s what?

The question to ask yourself, I think, is Why am I writing this blog? (And underneath that question is What is a blog? but that may be a question for another day.)

So, really. Why are you bothering to put the time into blogging? Most people and businesses write blogs to keep their sites up-to-date, to stay in touch with their clients, to build readership, credibility, and SEO.

(Some do it because they think they’re supposed to… which is a good reason to stop doing something. If you’re blogging because you think you’re supposed to, quit. Hire someone else to do it, or find another way to build your online presence.)

A blog is all those abovementioned things, and it’s also a chance to connect with people. Actual people. These people are your customers and your potential customers. The people who couldn’t care less about your message are not your people. You’re not writing for them. But the people who want to hear your message, who need your services really want to engage. They want something interesting.

Christi is a CPA. How casual or formal she goes depends on who she’s talking to. Is she writing the blog to impress her colleagues? To get admitted into a journal? Is she submitting these articles to the WSJ? If so, then her writing will be sprinkled with jargon and served along a side of industry-standard stiffness.

But I’m pretty sure that’s not her audience. Christi’s site states, “We are not your typical bean counters.” Her blog is an opportunity to reinforce that statement, and her voice is one of her best assets to assist her in that goal.