In my 20s, during my quarter-life crisis, after it became clear that Hollywood and I didn’t have a future, I was trying to figure out what to do with myself. I held a series of boring temp jobs, the most mind-numbing of which was answering phones for an exterminating company.
So what did I do with all that free brain space? I wrote the entire sixth book of the Harry Potter series (before the actual sixth book was released). Longhand. On yellow legal pads. One hundred and ten thousand words. The exercise kept me from going totally insane and my friends and family enjoyed it — but what I didn’t realize at the time is that it was also an incredible exercise in understanding the intricacies of a writing voice, in this case, J.K. Rowling’s.
Fast forward ten years or so, and my job consists of writing blog posts in various voices as well as teaching other business owners to develop their voice. Without a doubt, the art of channeling voice is a skill put to use every single day.
What is brand voice (and why do you need a strong one)?
In the most basic terms, your brand voice is defined by the words you use and how you use them. But more than that, it’s the place where what your customer needs and your experiences come together.
If you’re just trying to solve a problem for people, giving them a how-to or a step-by-step solution might be useful, but it’s not branded. It has no voice, and no soul. If, on the other hand, you’re just talking about your personal experiences, that’s journaling, which is not going to sell for your business. The power comes when you combine the two. Then you become not only helpful and interesting, but also unique.
When you think about your favorite online guru, you probably can come up with some words to describe what their writing or brand voice is like. And if pressed, you could probably pick their writing out of a lineup because they have such a strong brand voice.
Of course, it can take years to truly find a voice that represents you, and it's not something you ever fully figure out, but rather a process that continues as your brand grows and develops.
As you get more confident, so does your writing style. Here, are three key questions to ask to start uncovering your own brand voice.
What does your voice sound right now?
The best place to start is where you’re at, so ask yourself: is your writing voice currently a good representation of your brand? I once had a client who was a surfing coach. She ran retreats in California for women, and she taught them to surf and get back in touch with their spiritual side. But her website sounded like it had been written by a corporate lawyer. As it turns out, she had been in the corporate world for years, and that was the only way she knew how to write. I told her she was missing an incredible opportunity to distinguish herself by using the vocabulary unique to surfing and spirituality. There was a major disconnect between what she was doing and how she sounded.
But how do you know if your voice is a good representation of your brand? How do you analyze your own writing voice? I have a process I call the Voice Identification Process, and when I go through it with a client, I ask them a lot of deep, thought provoking questions. But my goal is less about what they say in their answers and more about how they answer: what words and phrases do they use? How do they describe what they do?
You can look at your own writing and analyze the same things. Analyze existing copy, Facebook updates, even your personal writings or journal — whatever is closest to how you want to sound. This may take you back to high school English class, but the vocabulary I use to analyze brand voice and the concepts you need to examine your own voice are tone, diction, and syntax.
Diction is the words you choose. Do you say “get,” “acquire,” or “invest”? They may mean the same thing, but they have very different connotations. Syntax is how you string those words together. Short sentences convey confidence, efficiency, strength. Long flowing sentences are more about poetic description, evoking feelings, strong emotions. Tone is the overall feeling. Is it conversational or corporate? Personal or impersonal? Emotional or logical?
I've written an ebook that goes into this in more detail (which you can download at no cost here), but once you’ve identified these elements, you’ll have a good idea of how you sound, and you can ask yourself: Is that how you want to sound? If the answer is yes, you can document what you’re doing so that you can keep doing it. If the answer is no, you have an idea of where to start to change it.
How do your customers sound?
So you’ve identified how you sound, but is that a voice your potential customers will relate to? As with my surfing coach example, your voice might sound one way, but your customers expect or want it to sound another way. It is important to remember that marketing is a conversation, but too often we think we’re the ones that should be doing all the talking. Take the time to “listen” to your potential readers and customers — whether that’s in person or online. How do they talk about their problem? What words do they use?
It’s a natural evolution. It’s a very involved process that often involves going deep with yourself and the reasons behind your business.
The best way to make sure you’re using the words your customers use is to keep a file of things your audience actually says — emails you receive, comments on your blog, Facebook or Twitter discussions. How can you mimic their voice back to them? Corporate executives want a lawyer to sound one way; while small business owners want a lawyer to sound a different way. You have to figure out how your particular niche wants to have your marketing conversation.
How do you want your customers to feel?
Voice conveys a feeling. So an important aspect of defining your brand voice is asking yourself, how do you want your readers to feel — and how can you use words to make them feel that way?
How to put your brand voice to work
Once you’ve uncovered your brand voice as it stands now, or worked out a strategy to get closer to where you want it to be… What’s next? First, it's important to remember that your brand voice applies to everything you write from a Tweet to a book. The best brands have consistent voice across every channel. This is not to say that you immediately need to rewrite your entire website, but it's never too late to start considering your brand voice every time you write something new.
I recommend creating a brand voice style guide to not only help you remember how you’ve defined your brand voice, but also to help any contractors or employees you bring on. It’s simply a guide that documents the tone, diction, syntax and style you’re going for with your brand voice. And I’ve created a template you can use to create your own right here. Uncover your unique brand voice, document it, and then start using it across all your content channels to differentiate your brand and create content people are eager to consume, like, and share.
Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.
When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.
2016: What rules?
Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.
Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.
And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.
And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?
Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.
Digital policies for 2020 and beyond
While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.
Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy
Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:
- If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
- While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
- If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
- Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
- Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?
Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.
Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply
The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:
- Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
- Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
- Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
- Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
- Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
- Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
- Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
- Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.
Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles
Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.