I don’t really talk much about this with my clients or business contacts, but in addition to being a superstar marketing writer (he said, in a shamelessly self-promotional tone), I’m also a firebrand slam poet.
“What’s slam poetry?”
Glad you asked!
In a nutshell, slam poetry is a sub-type of spoken word. Spoken word is poetry that is written to be spoken. It has its roots in the storytelling traditions of traveling bards, and today, it can take a variety of different forms. Originally, spoken word competitions were called poetry slams, and the genre of spoken word recited at slams was called slam poetry.
But now, slam poetry refers to a style of spoken word that is highly rhythmic in nature, with a strong emphasis on the performative nature of the work. Slam poetry is often highly politicized and often talks about sensitive subjects like race, gender, religion, and economics, typically in a way that highlights and rebels against injustices. Slam poets often use very deliberate manipulations of vocal cadence to create specific effects.
I’ve been writing slam poetry since I was 17. And every month I head out to a fun little open mic here in the Okanagan that’s been steadily gaining popularity over the last few years – it’s called the Inspired Word Café.
(I’ve been toying with the idea of putting out an album for the last several years, but who has the time?)
When I first started writing slam poetry, it was something I did for fun, and I didn’t ever think it would have any real-world application for my career. But now I know different.
When you’re a slam poet, the one thing you quickly learn is how writing “sounds”.
(Yes, a piece of writing can have a sound.)
You learn that different words not only have different connotations, but also that those connotations come through in the way the words sound.
The word “cacophony” actually sounds cacophonous. The word “euphony” sounds euphonious. A word like “break” has a very different sound from a word like “separate”, even though they both mean the same thing – and slam poets know how to use these various different-sounding, similar-meaning words to create some interesting effects.
Words like “heretofore” and “whence” sound quite British, while words like “ain’t” and “cuz” sound more American.
These kinds of comparisons are part of what people talk about when they talk about a writing voice.
Every piece of writing has a voice, whether you consciously realize it or not. And when used correctly, voice can be one of the most powerful tools in a copywriter’s arsenal.
But when used poorly, your voice can alienate or confuse your audience, bore the people you’re trying to engage, or even offend your customers.
That’s why it’s so critical that you have a thorough understanding of how to create a solid writing voice and what kind of a voice you should be using. Plus, your voice is one of the few things that your competitors can’t duplicate for their own purposes.
Your business needs a strong voice because without one, you’ll be indistinguishable from the crowd of other service providers who are selling the same damn thing you’re trying to sell.
But with the right voice, your audience will feel like you’re the only one who truly understands them. And when you make that connection, you eliminate all your competitors from the running by becoming your clients’ obvious first choice.
And ideally, the voice you use should match your ideal clients’ inner dialogue as closely as possible. You should be saying the things they think to themselves when nobody else is around.
MailChimp understands this better than almost any company out there. That’s why the company has a lengthy section on voice in its style guide that all of its marketing writers are expected to follow. According to the MailChimp style guide:
“MailChimp’s voice is human. It’s familiar, friendly, and straightforward. It’s fun, but not silly. It’s confident, but not cocky. It’s smart, but not stodgy. It’s expert, but not bossy. It’s weird, but not inappropriate.”
The more you read about what MailChimp’s voice is supposed to be, the more you realize that they might as well be describing an actual person…which is exactly what’s supposed to happen. You know you’ve done a great job of creating your brand voice when your brand actually sounds like a human being.
Groupon is another company that does a great job of defining its brand voice. Groupon’s guidelines for creating the brand voice include a variety of writing devices that its team should use in marketing emails. Groupon’s guidelines tell writers that they should incorporate absurd images, sweeping and dramatic nonsense, hypothetical worlds and outcomes, fake proverbs, mixed metaphors, and fake history.
Take, for example, this instance of fake history that Groupon used when advertising a deal on a fitness class:
“When strongmen of the past wanted to show their superhuman brawn, they coddled kettlebells or other, potentially stronger strongmen.”
When you have a solid idea of what your brand sounds like, you make it extremely easy for people to identify with that brand – because you make your brand sound like a person. And that’s important because people don’t forge emotional connections with corporations. They forge emotional connections with people.
But one thing that people don’t always realize is that your voice needs to turn OFF as many people as it turns ON.
A strong voice is polarizing. If you’ve successfully created a strong voice for your brand, you should be driving away customers and clients who clearly aren’t a good fit for you – and that’s a good thing because when you know who your ideal clients are, and when you tailor your marketing just for them, you get more of your best clients and less of the clients you don’t really care that much about.
I always like to say that if you’re not turning off at least a few people with your voice, you don’t really have a voice to begin with.
So how do you go about creating a strong voice?
Quite simply, you need to think like a slam poet.
You need to pay attention to the way words sound, to the personalities that phrases have. You need to figure out who your ideal reader is and then write the way that they’d probably talk.
Let’s take coffee as an example.
“Cup of Joe” and “café mocha” both refer to caffeinated beverages – and yet the two phrases have very different connotations.
“Cup of Joe” contains associations with concepts like blue-collar work, masculinity, and a can-do attitude.
“Café mocha”, on the other hand, sounds more like a city-slicker drink for professional middle-aged women and teenage girls who want to act fancy while still drinking what is basically hot chocolate.
(Now, a quick note before we go any further. I’m not saying that burly lumberjacks can’t enjoy a café mocha or that city-slicker women can’t drink black coffee. Rather, what I’m saying is that given the mental schemas and stereotypes that people form in their minds, people generally associate black coffee with blue-collar men and café mochas with metropolitan women rather than the other way around.)
This is just one narrow example using one word, but if we were going to broaden this out a bit, I’d say that if you want to sell to blue-collar men, you’ll probably want to use words that blue-collar men would use. If you want to sell to city-slicker women, you’ll want to use words that city-slicker women use.
A strong voice is also a voice with presence and personality.
Whatever you decide your voice is, you need to make sure that you say things in a way that makes you sound confident. Don’t waffle – commit. If you’ve decided that your business is going to sound like a sweet, soft-spoken kindergarten teacher, then you should make sure that everything you write is written as if a sweet, soft-spoken kindergarten teacher would say it. Don’t make apologies for your writing voice and don’t explain why you write the way you do – just write, damn it. People will either identify with your voice, or they won’t. And if they don’t, then they’re not the people you’re targeting and you don’t have to worry about them.
Your voice can be a lot of different things. But the last thing you want your voice to be…is boring.
Have you ever had to listen to a speech where the presenter was talking in monotone? It’s torture.
And when your writing has no discernible voice, it’s the written equivalent of talking in monotone. It makes your business sound like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And you don’t want to be like Ben Stein. Nobody likes Ben Stein.
(Just kidding. Ben Stein is awesome. But geez, they made his character a total bore.)
So what are the technical elements of a strong voice?
There are two core elements that you can use to create a compelling writing voice: Diction and syntax.
Diction refers to what words you use, while syntax refers to the way you structure your sentences and paragraphs – and together, diction and syntax are what give your writing a characteristic “sound”.
If you look hard enough, you’ll see that diction and syntax – the words being used and the order they’re being used in – are the two main factors that differentiate any two writers’ voices. Diction and syntax are why we can say that Shakespeare (“From you have I been absent in the spring/ When proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim”) writes in a very different voice from Eminem (“Imma be what I set out to be/ without a doubt, undoubtedly/ and all those who look down on me/ I’m tearing down your balcony”).
And when it comes to business writing, you can use diction and syntax to come up with a compelling voice your audience will love.
If you haven’t found your business’ voice, I’d strongly encourage you to. How do you do that?
A good way to start is by writing down adjectives that describe your business. Is your business gutsy? Classy? Hip? Edgy?
Another exercise you’ll want to do is the ideal client description. Picture your ideal client in as much detail as possible, and then write in the voice that your ideal client will most want to hear. If your ideal client is really sarcastic, incorporate sarcasm in your marketing.
You can also look at some of the books, articles, or blogs that you yourself enjoy reading. Take a look and try to spot commonalities regarding voice. After all, we tend to read that which we aspire to be.
And finally, if nothing else works, just free-write. Write whatever comes to your mind, and don’t worry if it “sounds” wrong. Whatever you end up writing, that’s your real voice – and if you feel afraid to publish what you wrote, then you’re on the right track.
With a great writing voice in your marketing assets, you can build impressions in your buyers’ minds that are just as detailed and vivid. The more you understand how to create a great voice, the easier a time you’ll having convincing buyers to do business with you – because when they see that you use an appealing voice, one that resonates with who they are, that’s when they’ll realize that you’re the only one they want to do business with.
What kind of a voice are you using in your marketing assets? How can you use diction and syntax to create a more compelling voice?