You never know when you are going to be inspired by the written word.
I recently read a great article written by Tom Hanks that was a tribute to his friend, Nora Ephron, the well-respected author, screenwriter and director. Ephron, who passed away from leukemia in June, directed Hanks in the movie “Sleepless in Seattle” in the early 90’s. Following that initial collaboration, the two developed a long-standing friendship.
In “A Life of Voice and Detail” in the June 27, 2012 issue of Time, Hanks writes, “It was her journalist’s curiosity that made Nora the directing talent she was. Her writing was always voice and detail. I once sent her a piece I was trying to write, and her response was three words: ‘Voice! Voice! Voice!’.”
As a copywriter, Nora’s “Voice! Voice! Voice!” comment resonated with me. While the literary definition of ‘voice’ refers to an individual’s writing style, I think voice goes beyond word choice and punctuation; it’s something more encompassing and less tangible. Voice is the viewpoint that personifies your message and infuses your writing with a soul.
Voice works when someone hears it. When we read a wonderful piece of writing, we are connected to it; it speaks to us. Just as every speaking voice has unique inflection, tone, and sound, all good writing has its own distinctive character. There are several authors I have read over the years whose writing has spoken to me because their voices are so singular:
Laurie Colwin was an author and a contributor to Gourmet magazine during its heyday more than twenty years ago. When I was first married and feverishly teaching myself to cook, I read Gourmet religiously and never missed Laurie’s column. Naturally she wrote about food, but her warmth and humanity exuded from every article. I wanted to be in her kitchen. Her words drew me in and taught me that food is about much more than physical sustenance. Laurie, who passed away in 1992, had lots of fans. Anna Quindlen once wrote this about her, “… Laurie improvised in the kitchen more than she followed recipes, and she proved in her novels, her essays, and her short stories that a good writer doesn’t substitute the accumulation of detail for emotional resonance.” Laurie’s voice definitely resonated with me.
Rick Reilly is a national sportswriter who holds the distinction of penning the back page column for Sports Illustrated for many years. He left the publication in 2008 to join ESPN, and Sports Illustrated has not been the same without him. Although I am not a sports news junkie, I always turned to “The Life of Reilly” column right away when Sports Illustrated arrived at my door. Rick is incredibly knowledgeable about sports of course, but his real specialty is people. His articles could be wickedly funny or deeply touching, but they always captured his sharp insight into human nature. While his platform was sports, his voice was always dead-on when it came to analyzing the human race. I imagine he’ll be doing color commentary again for the Summer Olympics this August; I’ll be tuning in.
J.K. Rowling is of course the author of the legendary Harry Potter series. Rowling wrote about magic, but her words were magical, too. She thoughtfully created character names and places that were a play on words. Remember Diagon Ally? Her unique wordsmith techniques added extra intrigue to her spellbinding plots and enchanted scenery. The word geek in me especially appreciated how Rowling’s clever word play was just another way to immerse the reader in the magic. Rowling’s voice was all about spinning the web of her fantasy tale, charming and captivating us down to the last detail. She definitely hooked me.
These authors demonstrate that staying true to your voice creates writing that resonates. If your goal is to connect to your reader, then a strong voice helps convey any message more powerfully, whether it’s an article, website copy or a love letter. You need to know where you are coming from if you want to take the reader with you.
So how do you find that voice?
Listen: Even though voice is all about perfecting your sound, the best way to start is by being quiet. Especially for copywriting, when I am not writing from my own voice, it’s so important to simply listen. What does the client want to say about their product? How does the client want to communicate their message? Listen carefully to define the voice that will meet your client’s needs.
Learn: Get to know everything you can about your audience. Understanding your target is the best way to develop a point of view that will connect with them. How do they think? What do they purchase? Where do they shop? What do they read? Educate yourself so your voice rings true with your target consumer.
Focus: It’s easy to get off track when you’re writing, especially when you have a lot of information to convey. But zeroing in on the key message is critical to staying on track. Delete the extraneous stuff. Focus on the key points that echo your brand and amplify your message, and your voice will be heard.
Tom Hanks’ voice was loud and clear in his tribute to Nora Ephron. I heard great respect, love and a profound sense of loss for his dear friend and her many gifts.