how to be an original*
I met President Clinton last week, at a cocktail party in the presidential suite in an ex-pat hotel in Haiti. Later, I was part of a group that had dinner with him, and the next day toured the Academy of Peace + Justice. (The Academy is a free school sponsored by Artists for Peace + Justice for kids from especially poor and troubled parts of Haiti. They get three meals a day along with an education. You can’t nourish the mind if the body is suffering. The body is the mind and vice versa. But I digress.)
“Nice bracelet you’re wearing,” Clinton said to me at one point, referring to a Haitian-made bracelet I’d bought for ten dollars at the hotel gift shop.
“Thank you. It’s made out of safety pins.”
What strikes me about Prez Clinton is his singular voice. We were at a table with extremely accomplished and high-powered men (they were mostly men), but as soon as that throaty, smoky voice rose through the conversation, people were instantly attentive. You could be blindfolded and not even know that Clinton was in the room and recognize that voice. You’d wrap your sense of Clinton’s personality around it, as well as the history and associations the name ‘Bill Clinton’ has for you and whether those associations resonate or piss you off. Chances are, you would not have an indifferent reaction. That voice gets under your skin. Love him or hate him, you wouldn’t – or couldn’t – ignore him.
The power of voice.
Around the same time, entrepreneur and brand editor Abby Kerr posted this piece on her blog analyzing the online voices of Danielle Laporte, Marie Forleo, Chris Guillebeau, Havi Brooks, Charlie Gilkey, Laura Roeder – and me. (And how delighted am I to be included in such company? Thank you, Abby, you rock. Plus you have wondrous taste.)
Glancing down that list of names, of people whose online work I am familiar with and in a few cases know extremely well, I was struck by how singular and distinctive their voices are. Unlike the above example with Clinton, they convey those voices through writing rather than talking – but as Abby notes, there’s often
a direct and very cozy link-up between how people write and how they speak. Google ‘video’ plus the name of any person I profile below and you’ll see what I mean.
So I started thinking (again) about voice. So many creatives are turned off by the concept of ‘brand’ – and its old-school corporate bullshit associations – that I don’t think they understand that, at least online, your voice is your brand.
(You may not believe in your brand – but darlin’, your brand believes in you.)
The reason why Danielle LaPorte could charge $150 for her self-produced digital program called The Firestarter Sessions – basically an ebook, some downloads and short videos – and experience the kind of success she could then channel into a quarter million dollar deal with a major publisher, has everything to do with her voice. Her voice is the artistry that sets her apart from some anonymous online marketer packaging similar information. (I bought Danielle’s program [and liked it very much] so I can speak directly to this.)
People who were already fans of Danielle through her blog eagerly purchased this because they wanted the information, yes – but they also wanted to hang out with the sense of personality and identity they have constructed around Danielle’s unique writing style. They have an emotional connection with Danielle’s brand. (I use the word ‘brand’ very deliberately here, to stress the difference between connecting with the idea of Danielle vs actually connecting with Danielle herself. I am talking about fans, not stalkers.)
When people fall in love with your voice, they will follow you anywhere.
The above is paraphrasing something Dean Koontz said in an interview in Writer’s Digest that I read a loooooong time ago. After twenty years of writing fiction in several different genres, he noticed how his fans would follow him from genre to genre once they learned to recognize him through the multiple pseudonyms his publisher(s) advised him to use. Which is what led him to say – and I am definitely paraphrasing here – that that advice about using pseudonyms was actually pretty stupid.
But for people to follow your voice – or even want to follow – it has to be the kind of voice that they can immediately recognize through the great din of online conversation, including the constant online static as well as the ongoing signals that other powerful voices are sending out to their people.
Your voice has to be singular. An original.
I would say – I mean, I am saying – that a compelling, original voice has four things.
(I would list the four of them here…except I want to keep you in suspense.)
A compelling online voice has relevance.
You talk about things that your audience cares about: that helps improve their lives in some way or connects to their interests, goals and passions.
You serve your audience through your content.
This is why I don’t think it’s (usually) very effective to post excerpts of your fiction on your blog (except in certain cases, which I won’t go into here). It’s not just because blogging is a different form than novel-writing, with its own learning curve and set of expectations from an audience.
But it’s actually rather difficult to get strangers to read your work. You may not be asking for money, but you are asking for valuable time and attention with no real guarantee that there’s anything in it for them (how do they know that they’ll find the experience worthwhile, other than your unproven untested word for it?). Your creative work doesn’t yet have any relevance for them, at least as they perceive it.
But when you know your audience – and you will learn them more deeply as you go – you learn what they care about, and where that overlaps with what you care about. That place of overlap is your place of service.
I gave a workshop in which I had the attendees do the “I am…” exercise in which they pretend to be their own Ideal Reader. They write a first-person stream-of-consciousness description of Ideal Reader that includes her hopes and dreams and tastes and routines and hobbies and fears that keep her awake at night…as well as anything else that comes up.
One guy said, “Is it normal for your Ideal Reader to end up sounding a lot like yourself?”
I think it is. I think that choice between ‘writing for an audience’ and ‘writing for yourself’ is often a false one. There’s power in writing the kind of book – or blog – that you yourself want to read but can’t find because it doesn’t exist yet.
It’s your job — your destiny, if you will — to bring the damn thing into being.
As individuals, we have a heightened sense of our own differences (which we are consciously aware of) rather than our underlying commonality (which acts as an unconscious frame of reference for those differences).
We’re more alike than we are different.
The bad news is: you’re probably not as unique as you think.
The good news is: you’re probably not as unique as you think.
You can find a way to serve yourself as well as your audience; you can find the point where you and your audience are one and the same.
Which is why you can’t form a deep understanding of your audience without also forming a deep understanding of yourself.
A compelling online voice has power and authority.
This comes from having a strong, informed, and highly personal point of view.
To stand apart from everybody else, you have to take a stand on whatever it is that you’re passionate about.
In his book RETURN ON INFLUENCE, social media guru Mark W Schaefer notes the “rise of the citizen influencer”. The rules of influence have changed. Content creates value not necessarily when it’s based on real-life performance, but gives people “access to insights they didn’t have before.”
(Otherwise known as thought leadership.)
[Content] can create influence even in the absence of experience and true authority….
“There is often a disconnect,” explained Mitch Joel, president of the Montreal-based digital agency Twist Image. “…just because somebody has a knack for writing or can put some great ideas together, it doesn’t mean they have a knack for taking those ideas to market and delivering a return on investment.”
Although it’s probably an excellent idea to look to your life story, your personal history, for areas of natural authority, what matters online isn’t necessarily your real-life experience so much as the quality of your insights and your ability to back them up.
In other words: know your shit.
I can’t stress this enough.
Substance matters, especially when it’s in short supply.
Read. Talk to people. Get informed. Think on it. Think on it again. Let different ideas come together.
If you’re truly passionate about whatever it is that you’re writing about, you want to do this anyway (and already are).
Another option is to use a kind of curated authority: point the reader to other voices, other sources, to build a sense of expertise that stems from other people as well as your ability to put the pieces together.
You don’t have to be the guru figure who knows it all. You can decide to specialize in whatever subject you want to know more about. Your blog becomes a quest for knowledge, for you as well as for others. The best way to learn anything – is to to teach it to others. You can say, in effect, Let me show you this cool thing I just learned. You can figure it out as you go, just so long as you bring the kind of passion to your material that gives it credibility (and charisma).
A compelling voice has Big Meaning.
And by this, I mean it’s telling a larger, overarching story. It gives a sense of purpose, a thrust of narrative, to your online presence. It’s the plotline that runs through all your posts, the philosophy that ties everything together, the prism through which you filter your material to find what’s relevant for you and your audience.
It doesn’t have to be complicated.
It probably shouldn’t be complicated.
It could be as simple as, ahem, you are a creative badass.
And when you know your Big Meaning, you know what to edit out as well as what to put in. As Austin Neon expresses in his book STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST, creativity involves subtraction:
In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s really important to them. Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities.
…It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom.
In my observation the most successful and/or engaging bloggers may have started out by choosing a specific niche –- the standard beginner-blogger advice – but over time, they carve their own niche. They write out to the edges of their original topic into other, related topics…but they do it in a way that’s organic, that emerges naturally from the progression of their writing. They grow and evolve. They start out intending to write about one thing, and end up writing about something else.
This is how blogging becomes a process of self-discovery: you write your way through your mind until you begin to realize just what it is you believe in the first place: those deep things you hold sacred and, slowly, become self-aware and courageous enough to bring to light. And show to others.
This is what it means to be authentic.
A compelling voice has fascination.
There’s a freshness to it, a sense that here is something we haven’t quite seen before. Something accessible, yet unique. Something beyond the mundane, yet we can still identify with it, relate to it, recognize ourselves in it.
Sally Hogshead has a book called FASCINATE dedicated to the seven psychological triggers that we are biologically hardwired to respond to: trust, passion, alarm, rebellion, power, prestige, mystique. We are naturally inclined to use one or two of these triggers in the way we communicate with other people.
(You can go here to find out more about Sally’s work, as well as which triggers you use. I’ve taken the test more than once over the months and my own triggers appear to be, if you’re curious, a combination of mystique, rebellion and prestige.)
Hogshead encourages you to find ways to amplify your natural triggers and develop a greater awareness of how to work them to your advantage (as well as learning how to adopt other triggers when it serves you).
This reminds me of Marcus Buckingham’s books about figuring out what your strengths are – your ‘strengths’ being the activities that make you feel revitalized, alive, and at your bestest, mostest ‘you’ – and steadily leaning into them, eventually organizing your life around them.
David J Rendall, in his book THE FREAK FACTOR, takes a similar approach: encouraging you to develop formidable distinction in the world by doing even more of what you already do too much of.
I like that. I think of it as leaning into your freak points. You can bring this to your online life as well: do more of what you love (maybe you think video is awesome) and less of what depletes you (maybe you think long-form blogging kind of sucks). You can become aware of how your communication naturally plays to the seven fascination triggers – and do more of that, or do it better (or both).
Austin Kleon advises you to start out by imitating your online heroes (we all do that in the beginning, at least to some extent) – and then identifying those areas where you can’t do whatever your hero is doing, because you’re doing your own thing. Then do more of your own thing.
I like how Donald Maass defines originality in his book THE BREAK OUT NOVELIST. Originality, he says, doesn’t come from any
element on which we can work. It cannot. It isn’t possible. Originality can only come from what you bring of yourself to your [work]….It is not a function of your [work]; it is a quality in you.
Where so many manuscripts go wrong, he says,
Is that if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author’s experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force readers to see the world through a different lens…Novelists by and large do not trust themselves. They do not believe that their perspective is important.
We are not raised to be originals, even those of the self-esteem generation who were wildly applauded for something as basic as crossing the street without getting squashed by a truck. We are raised to tuck in the excessive parts of ourselves, to curb our eccentricities. We’re told to never let them see us sweat. Or cry. Or show vulnerability, which in the mind of this culture translates to weakness and pathos.
An online voice should not simply be “a persona”. An online voice should be a natural and authentic expression of who you are; you write yourself online as easily as you talk to others offline. The problem isn’t that branding, at least in this context, is awful, fake and bad; the problem is that showing who you are, especially online, feels difficult and risky, exposing and vulnerable. You have to be willing to go there, to unearth the deeper parts of yourself, to say things that maybe no one else is saying. To put your own, true thoughts on the line.
Most people won’t do that.
Most people can’t do that.
It takes skill and a certain level of artistry to translate your inner life to the outer world in a way that engages people. Like anything else, you get better with practice. But you need to master your tools and devote yourself to the process.
The reward – and it is great – is that when you can show the reality of who you are, you pull in people through the truth of your message rather than the sleekness of your persona (which people don’t trust anymore anyway). Instead of editing yourself to fit your tribe, you can curate your tribe to bring out the best in you. This frees you up to stop worrying about what other people think. You can focus, instead, on learning yourself and others, developing your gifts, and finding that special spot in the world where you can stand tall, sing loud, and have impact.
Because your perspective is important.
* with thanks to Matt Petersen, because he is awesome.