the art of a compelling ‘voice’ (or: turn your online voice into a gateway drug)
The product is so cool, unique and remarkable that it inspires conversations, buzz, word-of-mouth.
Because – and this point can’t be stressed or repeated enough – brand messaging no longer arrows one-way, from the television or the billboard to the masses. The Internet enables people to talk back to the brand, and to alter its message with, you know, the truth and spreadthat message through their networks to sometimes devastating effect.
Used to be that when Hollywood studio execs had a massive turkey on their hands, they would hype the hell out of it. And hope for a big opening weekend before word-of-mouth got out that the movie sucked.
But now, people can text and Twitter the bad news to their networks before the movie’s halfway over. So much for a big opening weekend.
If the quality isn’t there – if it isn’t baked into the movie – the movie sinks.
So lesson number one: write a great book. Different people have different versions of what ‘greatness’ involves. The important thing is that enough people agree that your stuff is freaking awesome.
But then, how are you supposed to market it? Unlike a song or a movie, a book requires an investment of time and energy. It takes hours or days or weeks for someone to read it before they can pass it on to someone who also has to read it before they can pass it on…etcetera.
This might be why Seth Godin recommends that you start marketing your book three years before it comes out. Three years gives you time to cultivate those people formerly known as your audience, so that when the book comes out they are ready and waiting. (a.k.a. your ‘platform’.)
But how do you market a book that doesn’t even exist yet? That maybe hasn’t even been started yet? Especially if the book is supposed to be marketing itself because of its baked-in awesomeness?
Especially if you’re writing fiction?
It might help to reframe what it is you’re selling (and baby, I know it’s not romantic, but in the end we’re all selling something). You are not just selling a book. You are selling your ability to enlighten and entertain the reader through the content you provide. You are selling them an interactive experience. (If your stuff can make someone feel something, or alters their worldview in some way, it is interactive.)
Which means that you are marketing your unique and distinctive ability to make people feel and think.
And you do that by…providing unique and distinctive online content that makes people feel and think.
This is where ‘voice’ comes in.
It is what you say…and how you say it. Form and content converge so that you can’t separate one from the other. It’s not just a message but an overall feeling, worldview, sensibility, personality. Your voice conveys a deep, instinctive sense, a vivid mental imprint, of who you are.
Online creative whiz and entrepreneur Abby Kerr is interviewing me for a digital product called Freeing The Voice of Your Business. During our initial conversation she made the point that when people buy your products and services – Abby is coming from a business perspective — what they are really buying is a closer relationship with your ‘voice’. Yes, they are looking for information, but they’re also looking for an experience, a feeling.
This made sense to me, since I have shelled out money to get ‘closer relationships’ with the aforementioned Danielle LaPorte and Marie Forleo, who have two of the most distinctive voices around. “Those women,” marveled their website designer, who is currently redesigning my own website, “get so much traffic , it’s amazing.”
So when people in publishing make doom-and-gloom statements about how readers will no longer pay for content because they’re too used to getting it for free, I look at the world of ‘entrepreneurial experts’ like Danielle (who recently raised her hourly consulting rates to $1000/hr and landed a book deal with a major publisher for a cool quarter million) and Marie (whose own business pulled in over a million dollars last year). Both women put out extensive, high-quality content for free. But because their voices – what they say and how they say it – are so compelling, their stuff acts like a gateway drug that only pulls you in deeper.
The blog is not enough: you want a free report, a video, a podcast. Those are not enough: you want to buy a book. The book is not enough: you want a seminar, a retreat, you want to experience the person in person.Even if you don’t know where you’re going, you know that you are on some kind of journey – that this person is taking you somewhere – and you find it compelling.
What this means for writers, I think – especially fiction writers – is that you have to open up your sense of your work, your content, and release your voice so that readers can experience it online. And be compelled by it. And then follow it to Amazon or Barnes & Noble so they can buy your book and get more of it.
I know, I know. Easier said than done.
How do you develop an online voice that is the most compelling version of you?
I would say: through constant practice, trial and experimentation. It’s not just a matter of development but (self) discovery. It’s about knowing who you are and how to best tell that story, consistently, to the world.
As Dolly Parton put it, “Know who you are and be yourself on purpose.”
But you also need to figure out that spot where who you are intersects with what the world wants.
Copyblogger’s Brian Clark talks about “meaning” and “fascination”. A compelling voice has to have both. It brings value and meaning to someone’s life. It is relevant. The ‘fascination’ part has to do with how the meaning filters through (and is shaped by) the personality, the sense of a specific mind at work.
It’s important to expose yourself to as many influences as possible. You are the sum of your influences – so choose them wisely.
Read a lot. Read good stuff. The more you read, the more your brain absorbs the flow of language, the notes and variations. The more ideas you take in, the more material you have to take apart and re-arrange into yourown ideas.
Write a lot. Julia Cameron suggests the use of “morning pages”. Every morning you move your hand across the page until you’ve filled three of them with whatever comes out of your mind. You don’t censor or judge. If you feel like writing, “Holy crap I would really like to be eating pancakes right now” over and over again, that is exactly what you do.
This is a powerful exercise because it acquaints you with your own mind. Nature abhors a vacuum – so when you empty your mind of the thoughts that usually occupy it, new thoughts arise in their place.
Also when you write, you activate a different part of your brain. Your thinking deepens as a result, flashes on new insight, dives in unexpected places.
(Try it. Ask yourself: “What is my message to the world?” or “What are the things that I passionately want to communicate?” or “What are the themes that I need to explore?” and free-write for twenty minutes with no censorship or judgment whatsoever. See what your mind presents you with. You might be surprised.)
And finally, you learn to let go. Your natural writing voice will emerge when you’re relaxed and in the flow. Like anything else: the more you practice, the easier this gets. It’s like learning to drive. What feels so alien and uncomfortable eventually becomes second nature.
The thing is – you can’t invent your ‘voice’ anymore than you can ‘invent’ your DNA. You are what you already are. The trick is to clear away the excess, burn off those internalized voices that pretend to belong to you but belong to your parents or teachers or an old abusive lover or even the culture at large. It’s not about what you should care about, or what you ought to say or how you ought to say it.
It’s about who you are at the core.
It’s about baking your soul into your content in a way that feeds the world.
If it was easy – if it didn’t take courage and effort – then everybody would do it.