Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Weekly writing coach: hearing voices

Do you put words in someone else's mouth? If you write letters, speeches or op-eds for your CEO or president or anyone else, you need to figure out her voice, pronto.  Without a good basic analysis of your principal's voice, your written efforts are more likely to fall flat or come back with extensive edits.  Here are five ways to start hearing--and codifying--the voices you hear and write for.  And if these are not new to you, are you actually doing them?  If not, plan to take all five steps once a quarter, to be sure your writing stays in tune with your principal's voice.  If you write only for yourself, you can use these steps to better understand your writing and speaking voice:
  1. Listen and analyze:  Whenever you have the chance to listen to the person you're writing for, do it, whether it's live or recorded, scripted or spontaneous.  Then make notes to analyze what you heard.  How does she start out or welcome people, or conclude? What words does he turn to again and again? Why?  Where does she trip up, pause awkwardly or lose a train of thought? 
  2. Consult:  If your company or organization's large enough to employ you to write for someone, others have insights.  So interview them, too--ask the same questions you'd ask the principal, then add their comments alongside those of the person you write for.  Are they in conflict? Time to figure out whether that will pose a problem for you later.
  3. Talk:  Take periodic opportunities to interview, lunch or just meet with the person you're writing for. Insist on it.  Ask questions about her thoughts on how she wants to sound, the image she wants to portray and how that does or doesn't translate into words for her.  What does she read? What does she find funny/hateful/beyond the pale?  Check out my list of questions you should ask the speaker for whom you're writing to help you write speeches.
  4. Keep it real:  If the person you're writing for normally doesn't quote Aristotle, use slang or crack jokes, leave 'em out. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Texan with a folksy appeal despite his Washington insider status, would routinely edit speeches so that quotes from Aristotle or Descartes were credited with "as my dear old daddy used to say..."  The quotes were verbatim, but the credit changed to suit his style.
  5. Capture feedback from edits and actualities:  Add to your stash of knowledge two more insights:  What gets edited, and what gets said or published.  Don't obsess over these, but do take the time to inquire and think about about what happened to tossed-out phrases or words that caused a stumble. 

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