Papa didn’t preach – and other things Hemingway can teach you about voice


On LinkedIn this week I came across this picture quote:

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I didn’t have to look at Quote Investigator to instantly know: there’s no way – not in a fit that’s a way manlier colour than pink – that Hemingway wrote this. I mean really. As if the man who spent his life acting, reacting, spending, criticising, and yes, quitting, would. But that’s only part of what made me laugh at the idea that Papa would say such a hackneyed thing. The bigger reason was this:

It wasn’t his voice.

I’m no Hemingway scholar, but I know what sounds like him, and what doesn’t. I, along with countless others, know the dance of his words on the page, and his message. This was not it. Papa didn’t preach. That is what voice does: it differentiates what you communicate to the world from the rest of the hubbub.

Voice is a vast subject, and it’s kinda hard to pin down. This is because the concept of voice is a metaphor – a metaphor for the way your communication sounds individually yours, like your spoken voice does – and metaphors are tricky like that: people interpret them according to the countless filters of their minds. But voice is also a vastly important subject, and one that all businesses should have a grasp on.

Your communications should have a clear, individual voice. Maybe two or three voices, if you have more than one audience or market sector. What your communications shouldn’t have is as many voices as it has staff (something that is a danger in this new age of many-to-many communication), or a voice that turns off its audience or market. Your voice should make your audience and market simultaneously – and unconsciously – think, “Yep – sounds like them” and “They really speak my language”.

Voice doesn’t just cover your written communications. It covers your actions, which means that it’s the basis for your branding. And it’s built on five fundamentals: audience, message, attitude, style, and practice.

Knowing your audience is fundamental, and yet I am amazed at how many businesses and organisations – big ones – don’t take the time to pin down who the audience is. If you don’t know with whom you are communicating, how can you communicate? (Hint: you can’t.) Knowing your audience – and ideally, taking the time to create a persona – informs your voice directly because they are front and centre in your mind as you create your communication, and you will create it in a way that they will respond.

I once did a comms overhaul for an organisation whose online content was so formal and circumlocutory that their audience – made up largely of people from lower socio-economic, and culturally and linguistically diverse, backgrounds – just weren’t reading it. They were, in fact, ringing up en masse for the same information and using up staff time that the organisation needed for service delivery. My first step was to define their audience and create a set of personas for the staff writers. The staff writers kept these pretend people – and their pictures, courtesy of stock photography – foremost in mind as they wrote. The result? An instant change of voice, and with it, market engagement. The number of fact-finding phone calls dropped, and the organisation was able to concentrate on providing their services.

When I talk about communicating to the world, people often think that what they need to communicate is information about their products or services. But that’s not it. What is it – and it’s why story is so big these days – is message. Forget what you have on offer: why are you offering that? What do you actually stand for? This is, dear reader, the ultimate POD, because it is you. And the you is what makes your voice unique. Take me, for example: why do I do what I do? Basically, I do it because you know what? I’m an old hippie at heart. I have a fundamental and immovable belief that communication is the path to connection, and connection is the root of every good thing in the world. I have a continual loop of “It’s A Small World After All” alternating with “All You Need is Love” playing in my head. So you’d better believe that my message permeates every single communication I send out into the world. If it doesn’t connect or help people connect, then it’s not my work – and you can quote me.

Your message, of course, affects your attitude. My attitude is fairly irreverent because there are so many golden calves out there – idols that have stopped people communicating and connecting – that need to be torn down. This helps create my voice. What’s your attitude? How do you view the world, what you do, your industry, and your market? You need to become aware of this, and then convey it in your communications. Without an attitude, you are beige. You are vanilla. Things that may be fine for 1970s pantsuits and ice cream, but never when used to describe an attitude.

The final two are relatively straightforward and yes, easy even. Style is about the way you write: your choice of words, and how you put them together. How you choose to use – or misuse – grammar and language. Maybe, like one of my clients, you want to communicate to your market and audience in flowing, poetic blog posts. Or maybe, like another of my clients, you want to communicate Dragnet style: lots of short, to-the-point, no-nonsense material and “Just the facts, ma’am”.

There’s only one way to work out what style is best for you, and that’s to practice. Practice allows style to emerge. And as a matter of fact, practice also helps bring out your audience, message, and attitude. There is no shortcut to voice. It can’t be taught, even in a damn fine blog such as this. After you’ve put the previous foundations in place, it only comes after much practice, sending out communication into the world over and over again and listening for feedback – even if the feedback is deafening silence.

But it’s worth it. And let’s face it: cultivating your voice is definitely something that Hemingway would tell you to do.

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