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Finding your writing voice and what that means

Finding your writing voice and what that means

A lot of writing advice talks about ‘finding your voice’. But what does that mean?

We all have a unique ‘physical’ voice. The tone, accent and language you use are formed from a unique mixture of your background and education; where you’ve lived and worked; who you’ve associated with, who you admire and whose customs you adopt.

Speaking vs writing

Studies have shown that we start to recognise human voices in the womb. In the early stages of human evolution, being able to distinguish whether someone was friend or foe in the dark, would have been an important survival trait.

In contrast, writing is something we’re taught to do. It’s a skill we have to learn and it doesn’t come as naturally as speaking. So our writing voice is more likely to be influenced by education, and what we’re taught about writing.

And that’s where there’s can be a disconnect between our speaking and writing voices. In being taught to write, we assimilate all these ‘rules’ about grammar, spelling and punctuation. And they can sometimes get in the way, making us fearful of making a mistake when we write.

What happens when we write?

I’ve seen it more times than I care to remember in business communications. When someone picks up a pen or taps their fingers on a keyboard, their ‘voice’ changes. It becomes more formal. It looks for clever sounding phrases. It adopts things it’s seen written elsewhere in a bid to sound professional.

Man in a suit tightening his tieThat’s how you end up with nonsense like “leveraging our partner ecosystem” and “assuring you of our best attention” (an email sign off that I used to see on a daily basis).

Say those phrases out loud. How do they feel?

That’s a tip I use in my business writing workshops.Read what you’ve written out loud. Ask yourself ‘Would I actually say that?

Read what you've written out loud. Ask yourself 'Would I actually say that?' Click To Tweet

If you have to mentally wrinkle up your nose, or adopt an unfamiliar tone to say it, then it’s not natural and authentic. And your audience, your customers will sense that.

Why our spoken and written voices differ

When we speak, our communication is spontaneous. We don’t use complete sentences. We get distracted. We intersperse our words with pauses, umms and errs that give us time to think.

When we speak, our body language, facial expressions and tone give clues to our meaning and intention. We understand if someone is being sarcastic, joking or being serious. Our spoken voice is full of our personality.

When we write, we don’t have these extra clues to illustrate our meaning. The words we use have to do all the work. So it’s important that they are clear.

But your written voice can represent your personality in the same way that your spoken voice does. Use words to paint a picture, tell a story, conjure up ideas in another person’s mind. Drop in a colloquial phrase or a favourite word. It’s all about being authentic.

Use words to paint a picture, tell a story, conjure up ideas in another person's mind. Click To Tweet

Finding a voice for my clients

Cup of coffeeIn writing for clients I have to adopt voices. It’s a bit like being a impressionist. I listen to them talk about their business. I read their written content carefully. I look for words and phrases they use and mimic their rhythm and style.

When I adopt a brand voice for a client, it’s often about dialling up or dialling down certain elements. One client has a lovely chatty tone of voice, so as I write for them, I imagine popping into their kitchen for a cuppa.

Another client is incredibly creative, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. I throw in words that appeal to the senses and drop in a one-word sentence for impact.

How I help improve your writing voice

Sometimes my job is to give a client’s voice clarity. I edit out words that you don’t need, strip away the fluff and focus on what matters so that you present the best version of your business.

Sometimes my job is to give a client’s voice a confidence boost, so instead of words like ‘maybe, might, a bit’, I use words like ‘can, will and lots’.

singerOften my job is to give your communication clarity. That means structure and punctuation that makes it easy to read. It’s a bit like a singing coach showing you where to breathe when singing a complicated line.

When I correct grammar and spelling, it’s about avoiding distractions, and preventing you from looking stupid. Think of me as the friend who’ll tell you that you have spinach in your teeth, or your dress tucked into your knickers before you head out to impress someone.

Think of me as the friend who'll tell you that you have spinach in your teeth Click To Tweet

As a copy and content writer, I choose my words carefully. The trick is to keep my client’s voice, but give it a tidy up. Just like you might brush your hair more carefully and put on a clean shirt for an important meeting.

The voice I use in these blog posts is mine. A unique mixture of my background, education, influences and interests. You may not be able to detect my accent, but my writing voice is authentically mine.

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5 creative writing prompts to spark fresh ideas for your business marketing

5 creative writing prompts to spark fresh ideas for your business marketingDo you ever think I don’t know what to write? I’ve said all that already? There’s nothing new to add?

I hear that a lot from businesses I work with. Most of the time you’re thinking about what you’re doing, your customers, your products, making sales and generally getting on with business. Thinking about how you write or talk about what you do to market your business doesn’t cross your mind until you find yourself stuck for inspiration.

If you’re looking for something to say in a blog post, facebook update, newsletter, instagram post or any other place you market your business, try one of these creative prompts to get you started.

Ever think I don't know what to write? Try one of these creative prompts Click To Tweet

1. Write in the style of… a detective novel, a fairy tale, a science fiction adventure…

How would you sell your products and services on a space ship? What would happen if the local outlaw came into your store?

If you feel like you’re always saying the same thing the same way, deliberately adopting a new and alternative style can shake up your thinking and give you some new ideas.

Open book2. Pick a sentence at random

This works well with a fiction book, but a newspaper, magazine or other printed item can work too. Choose a sentence at random, write it down and continue on from there.

An alternative starting point can give your writing a whole new direction.

3. Choose an object and tell its story

Select an item on your table, in your pocket, or just something you can see. Now write about life from its point of view. How did it get there? What’s its purpose? What are its goals and dreams?

This is a great creative prompt if you’re looking to freshen up the way you talk about products or services that you sell.

A great creative prompt if you're looking to freshen up the way you talk about products or… Click To Tweet

4. Write ten sentences

Write ten things about your day. They can be simple and mundane, or detailed and elaborate. They don’t have to link up or follow on from each other, so you can write something about having breakfast and then something a customer said to you. The only rule is to write complete sentences.

If the thought of writing anything feels daunting, this is a great way to grasp the confidence to do it. It’s just ten sentences after all.

Direction sign post

5. Write about a journey

It could be something as simple as a walk to the bus stop, or a trip into town. It doesn’t have to be that tale of the time you walked the Macchu Picchu trail.

Think about a journey and how you would tell the story of that journey to someone else.

This is a great way to get you thinking about structure and order as you write, because all journeys have a beginning, middle and end.

Think about a journey and how you would tell the story of that journey to someone else. Click To Tweet

How will any of this help me write about my business?

Writing creatively is about having fun, loosening up and forgetting about what you think you can or should be writing.

These creative prompts won’t necessarily give you something to use in your business straight away, but they will shake up your thinking and give you a fresh new place to start.

Look for the unexpected words and phrases that come from writing with a different set of expectations. Are there any that you can use?

As a copywriter, I often have to write about stuff that can seem pretty boring at first glance. I have used all of these tips and more to help me come up with fresh ideas and new perspectives.

Creative prompts will shake up your thinking and give you a fresh place to start. Click To Tweet

Want support and encouragement to write more creatively?

Try out some of these creative writing tips for yourself and join me for a day’s creative writing retreat at Christmas Farm in Northumberland on Saturday 23 September.

Fuel your creative inspiration with lunch fresh from the farm garden, plus plenty of tea, coffee and cake.

Book your spot at the writing table today 

For more hints and tips on great writing for your business, sign up to my mailing list

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Why use a copywriter for your business?

Most of us can write. Most of us can explain our business, what we do, what we offer, what’s brilliant about it. So why would you hire a copywriter, like me, to write for your business?

Knowledge and experience

Do you need a business website, an advert, a blog post, a flyer, a report, a bid document, a video, a case-study, a speech, or some social media posts?

microphoneA copywriter knows what style of writing works best for different media.

For example, my first job was working with BBC Radio, so I understand the difference between writing things that will be spoken, and things that will be read.

I  can adapt my writing style for print from a detailed business report to a snappy postcard or flyer. I can write SEO friendly content that helps customers find your website, product or service in the vast world of the internet.

A fresh perspective

You’re the expert in your business. But sometimes it’s possible to get a little too close to be able to see things clearly.

spanner, hammer, nail and screwDo you talk the language of your customers? Are you trying to sell a drop-forged, chrome-coated,open-ended spanner, when your customer is looking for a tool to loosen off a nut?

A copywriter will ask questions, find out about you and your business and get to know your customers too.

As a writer, I can explain things clearly, and write about your business in a way that your customers understand and engage with.

Stand out from the crowd

How many other businesses do something similar to yours? How do you attract attention, and make yours the company that customers choose?

A copywriter can help generate creative ideas, and approaches as well as choosing specific words and phrases that can set you apart from the rest.

Quality focus

glasses and notebookHow often do you find yourself in the middle of something, when your phone rings, or someone asks you a question, or an email pops up to distract you?

If you ask me to write something for you, I promise you my full attention. I’ll be 100% focused on writing quality words for your business, with no spelling or grammar howlers.

I’m used to working to deadlines, and getting to know a subject quickly, so whether you need some attention grabbing words in the next month, week or even day, then there’s a good chance I can help you.

Get it done

Hiring a freelance copywriter means you can have writing when you need it, not just when you can get round to it.

Sometimes you know what you want to say, but scribbling it down or typing it out just isn’t your priority. So that blog post, brochure, or website update never sees the light of day and never drives any customers your way.

A quick conversation with a copywriter will set that right. A professional will be able to write it more quickly than you can.

Lee and Beth at The Christmas Farm are really busy growing organic fruit and vegetables and looking after the animals that provide the meat and produce for their organic box scheme. They love sharing recipes and ideas for eating seasonal and local food with their customers, but don’t always have time. I help them out by writing newsletters and adding blog posts and recipes to their website.

Trust an expert

Working with a copywriter is just like working with any other professional who can help your business. It’s a bit like working with an accountant. While you could do the sums and spreadheets yourself, isn’t it reassuring to know there’s someone who understands all the ins and outs of tax and finances; someone who can save you a lot of hassle and money?

A copywriter, like me, can do that. I understand the rules and tricks of writing. I can advise you on the best approach. And I can write for your business, leaving you to focus on the nuts and bolts, or hammers and spanners.

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Writing workshops – my training formula

I run writing training and tone of voice workshops to help business people write communications that connect with their customers.

The tools of my writing workshops - coloured pens and pencils

I don’t know how it happens, but sometimes the act of putting words on a page, or these days, tapping characters onto a screen, makes people sound different. Maybe it’s the thought that this is business, that makes some companies come over all stuffy and formal. You can almost hear the pin-stripe suit and the overly tight collar (even when they’re actually wearing jeans and a T-shirt).

My aim when I run one of these workshops is to help people sound more like themselves. Or at least, more like a living, breathing human being, than a faceless corporate drone.

My training formula

When it comes to writing, or any kind of training, I apply a very simple formula: See one. Do one. Teach one. I’ve used it many times in lots of different types of training and it really works.

See one

Showing someone how to do something, or demonstrating good practice is a great starting point. In my writing training, I might do this by picking out some good, and not so good, examples of writing that I see the businesses using already.

Or I might take some memorable marketing straplines and invite people in my workshop to fill in the missing words.

It’s easy enough to demonstrate good examples, or how things should or can be done. What I help to do with ‘see one’ is to unpick why they are good examples. What works well, what doesn’t work so well, what could be better and so on.

Most people instinctively know, or understand what sounds good when it comes to communications. I can help you understand why that happens and how you can use that to your advantage in your business.

Do one

Writing training workshop table

It’s all very well seeing and being shown how to do something. But the real way to make any kind of training stick is to put it into practice.

That’s why you won’t find me standing at the front of a room giving a lecture when I do my writing training. It’s you who will be doing the work, thinking, scribbling things down, trying out new ways of writing. And I’ll try to make sure you have things to work on well after the session has ended too.

My workshops and training sessions offer a chance to get away from everyday distractions and really think about how you communicate, who your audience are and the language you use. It can be refreshing, eye-opening and illuminating.

While you’re playing games with language and testing out new things in the safe confines of a training session, my aim is always to make what you learn relevant to you and your business.

Teach one

I used to do quite a bit of practical training when I worked at the BBC, showing new reporters how to use digital editing programs, or to use a content management system to publish web pages. That’s when I discovered, that you only really know you’ve understood something when you have to share it with someone else.

Finding new ways to explain something you know well can be a challenge. I’ve learned to adapt to lots of different styles of learning, from those who learn best from seeing or hearing examples, to those who like to get hands on and move around as they take in new information.

In training other people, I’ve often found I have to explain something in a different way, or been challenged to look at something I take for granted from a new angle. It’s a big confidence boost for me to see and hear people I’ve trained passing on what they’ve learned to others.

When training gets tricky

I have had workshops when I’ve expected 12 people and only 4 turned up. I had to do some rapid re-planning for group exercises. But I have learned to adapt to almost anything (I think).

When I’ve done training sessions in large corporate environments, I sometimes got the sense that people had been told to come to my workshop, but didn’t really know why they were there.

At times like this I felt like a stand-up comedian in front of a tough crowd. But like the best stand ups, I had belief in my material and kept going, trying to engage with my audience and find a common point of interest that would get them on my side.

Common points of interest would often be ‘things that other people write that make us squirm’, or ‘my boss says I shouldn’t say…’

My favourite training sessions

The best writing training sessions are when people are really engaged and ask questions or challenge points I make.

When someone asks me ‘Why?’ or says “But we have to do it like this…” I know they are taking an interest and I have a great opportunity to make that session really relevant.

Always learning, always improving

All writers are magpies. We steal inspiration, words, phrases and ideas from anywhere and everywhere, then make them our own. I do the same with training courses. I’ve had the benefit of some excellent ones, from Dark Angels26The Writer and Scarlett Abbott, to name just a few.

As well as learning about the subject of the course, I try to take away something that I can apply to my own workshops.

Was there a good ice-breaker? How was the session structured? How was the information presented? And when I can, I’ll pick the brains of other people who do training sessions. They are always very generous.

I’ve learned how to create and run my writing training workshops by watching, listening, thinking and doing; through experience and analysis. I’m always looking for things that I can learn from, so I can improve my skills as a trainer.

What are your top tips for a great training session? How do you prefer to learn?

Need writing training in your business? Want to find out more about the workshops I offer? Please get in touch.

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Why be inspired to a greater love of words, in business and in life?

Why? It’s always a good question to ask when you’re trying to understand something. Why do words matter? Why are they worthy of love, thought and respect?

As a member of 26 I was asked to provide my answer, which is now included along with the thoughts, wisdom and humour of other 26 writers in ‘The Book of Because.’ Here’s my contribution:

Because words connect.

Photo of the Book of BecauseWords we love roll round our mouths like
ice cream on a hot day.

Because words conduct business.
Words on stone tablets saying “Pay this
soldier a pig and four sacks of grain”.

Words that fly through the ether to appear
on a screen.
Words link to our past and shape our future.

Because words can be as sharp as a blow or
as near as a whisper.

Words are a gift our bright blue planet
bestows on only one species.
Because, above all, words are human. 

 

Thanks to the editorial team at 26 Characters, Faye Sharpe, John Simmons and Neil Baker for bringing this project together and to Rodney Mylius for the elegant and tactile design.

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Five handy business writing tips

Want to improve your business communications, but don’t know where to begin? With 10 years of experience of writing for business, I’ve learned a few things along the way. So here are my top five tips for improving your business writing.

1. Get started

Research, ask questions, talk to customers, fill your brain with facts, figures and knowledge, but there comes a time when you just have to knuckle down and get writing.

The first thing you write is unlikely to be anything like the finished piece. But if you don’t start, you can’t finish.

I will often start at the top of the page with a factual statement of my purpose in writing. For example: Write 100 words on the history of the company for an audience of people who are just starting out in business.

Hand with fingers numbered 1-5

2. Be a reporter

As a journalist, I was used to asking the key questions who, what, where, when, how and why? As a copywriter, I still ask them every day.

Most important of all is ‘why?’. Why does a customer want or need this? What difference will it make to them? Answering that question really takes me to the heart of a sales communication.

3: Structure it

Start with the most important piece of information, then add to it. Try to stick to one idea per sentence or paragraph.

  • Give your audience signposts and make sure the text is easy to read.
  • Bullet points and lists are great for drawing attention to key points. 
  • Subheadings help readers skim to the part that’s most interesting to them, or to pick up reading if they’re distracted part way through.

4.  Edit it

It’s not unusual for me to spend longer editing and rewriting than I do writing.

In business communications, I’m always on the watch for jargon and cliches. The handy short cuts that may be familiar language in a specific business can be alien or meaningless to people outside of it. So they need to go.

Cut big, then cut small. I consider the piece as a whole, then paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence before looking at it word by word.

I’ll look for repetition, for unnecessary themes or complex phrases and either eliminate or find a better way to say them.  

Editing tip – leave it

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in something you’ve written, that you lose perspective. No matter how tight the deadline, I like to step away from a piece of business writing – make a phone call, get a drink of water and then try to come back to it with new eyes.

Not only can this be a good way of spotting errors, but it also encourages me to be critical of my own work.

In an ideal world, I shouldn’t have to proof-read my own copy, but in reality, I have to. I use a number of tricks to con my brain into thinking it’s seeing something for the first time.

I read it aloud. Start from the end. Turn the paper upside down. Read every word one by one. If I spot a mistake, I look for the one next to it.

5. Test it

Does your writing do what you set out to do? Check it against your brief or statement of purpose.

Get a second opinion before you publish. Do they understand it? Did they encounter any mental speed bumps? Bits where they had to go back and read it again? Did they spot any errors?

Once it’s out there in the big wide world, what can you learn from your customers’ reactions to it? Are there metrics you can measure in terms of responses, awareness and sales? What can you learn for your next successful communication?

What are your top tips for successful business writing?

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