Stop Talking, Start Listening

Are you struggling to find your ‘voice’? In content writing, as in storytelling, a strong authentic voice is key – but often elusive.

‘Finding your own voice as a writer is in some ways like the tricky business of becoming an adult’, says Al Alvarez in his book, The Writer’s Voice. Any of you who have struggled to make your writing feel like it is just ‘coming naturally’ will agree.

Perhaps it is so difficult to find your voice because there isn’t a 5 step instruction manual. It is an intangible, invisible process. Alvarez says it is a kind of freedom felt in ones own skin, and that ‘it can come in any form provided it is alive and urgent enough to take hold of the reader and make him understand that what is being said really matters’.

Who Are You?

In content writing, as in story writing, it’s important to find a voice, to be authentic. In Holly Dawson’s excellent piece ‘Who do you think you are?’ she explores how writers need to find the courage to be themselves online, but recognises that trying to consolidate errant and multiple aspects of one’s personality into an integral whole, may be challenging initially: “as Jung points out, the dissolution of multiple unauthentic personas can make you feel pretty bad at first”.

This was certainly true for me. By trying too hard to be authentic I ended up like a whirling Dervish. Spinning in panic from one voice to the next, from identity to identity, to try to scope out which was the ‘real’ me. This ‘real’ me was elusive, and wasn’t keen on being unearthed. Either that or I must be a fake, an imposter, unable to find a deep, essential self because there wasn’t one. It was a shock…

Stop Talking, Start Listening

…until I figured out what the problem was. I was missing a crucial part of the puzzle. The person listening. Effective communication is as much about listening and empathy as it is about being oneself. How do I know how to speak if I don’t know who is listening, and if I can’t first listen to them?

What’s a voice if no one can hear it?

It was as if I was asking the famous riddle ‘What’s the sound of one hand clapping?’. What is communication if no one is there to hear you? No wonder I was in a muddle, trying to pick out something bona fide and singular from a chorus that was legion. I first needed to settle on an audience with whom to speak.

Gerald and Karen

There’s this lovely old man called Gerald who lives up the road. He’s a widower, he is one of the few people left round here with a strong Sussex accent, and he is a keen gardener. His face is tanned, beneficent and as gnarled as his cherry tree, and he wins competitions for his super sized onions. He gives me peonies for my garden, and in return I take him leek and potato soup and beef stew.

The way I talk to him is entirely different to the way I talk to my oldest friend Karen. She shared my teenage years, the debauched nights of my youth, witnessed my heart breaks and triumphs, the births of my children. With both of these people I am my authentic self; however, what I choose to show or reveal, and how I choose to communicate, is appropriate to the person and the situation.

In the same way that a singer’s timbre might be immediately recognisable, their pitch, tone and volume can alter while their voice slides effortlessly from key to key.

‘The Implied Reader’

When writing into a sea of multiple faces and possibilities, the pressure of being authentic can be unhelpful. We need to create an ‘imagined’ or implied audience in order to communicate effectively, with direction and passion. It doesn’t mean we are being disingenuous; it simply helps us make informed choices about content and form.

I used to teach creative writing; the ‘the writers voice’ was much discussed, and coveted. To take the pressure off anxious students desperately trying to find this elusive ‘writers voice’, I introduced Wayne C. Booth and his Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he discusses the implied author and the implied reader. The implied author is the imagined writer the reader conjures up based on the way a piece of literature is written. The implied reader is the audience, reader, or person the writer imagines she is talking to as she writes the story. Both are vitally important. The reader needs to be able to identify in some way with the writer in order to engage, and the writer needs to direct their words at a person or people, with certain ideas, values and characteristics.

People First, SEO Second

As part of a marketing campaign this might involve some persona work, and identifying and communicating to your target audience. But, as Holly says, a writer’s tone must feel authentic, and I’ll add to that, sympathetic – and I’m using the Latin meaning of the word. Check out Holly’s previous articles on the Ethical SEO blog about working out your target audience and the need to “write for people first”, SEO second.

So if you are trying to find your voice, our advice is to talk less and listen more. Think of your implied reader. The result will be a voice consistent in timbre, with multiple changes of pitch.