How to develop a voice: Picnic, Lightning

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Lisa Hickey

“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.”
Vladimir Nabokov wrote those words in 1955, buried in a paragraph somewhere within “Lolita.” I never read the book. Nabokov’s voice is, for the most part, too flowery, his sentence structure too complex for my taste. But in 2000, Billy Collins wrote a poem about the random way that death strikes, and used Nabokov’s words as the spark. In 2006, I read that poem, and my voice changed. It struck me (forgive the pun), that those two words: (picnic, lightning) told a complete story and were no more than two nouns held together by a small piece of punctuation. Wow wow and wow. My new goal in life became my desire to do * that*. But first: Why develop a voice? What’s wrong with the one you have? Chances are, nothing. If people for the most part understand what you say, if they don’t doze off in the middle of your sentences, if you can make other people smile and laugh – well, then. You’re doing something right. But…see – embedded in that sentence above is what I try to do better. In every sentence I write, I strive for 1) clarity 2) brevity 3) engagement and humor. I want a voice that’s strong and clear and distinctive and funny. Here are some reasons YOU might want to think about your voice, especially if you are doing a lot of writing, or communicating in the online space: 1) It makes what you say more memorable 2) People come to know you more through your writing, and tend to view you as a friend 3) It shows a certain confidence, especially if your voice is distinctive 4) You can use it to topple stereotypes 5) It gives you a framework to evaluate your own writing

A few guidelines: 1) Ask yourself what you want people’s perception to be when they read something you write. Go so far as to try to imagine the exact words you want other people to say. Maybe it’s “That Steve, he’s a fount of knowledge. So informative. So helpful.” Maybe it’s “Jill always makes me laugh.” Or maybe it’s “Have you read Chuck? Man, that guy can tell a story.” 2) Work backwards. Now it’s easy, right? You want to be known as an expert – make sure most of what you say is fact-based. You want to be known as a great storyteller? Remember: every story has a beginning, middle and end. Stay present, all the way through that journey. 3) Want to be funny? Hint One: wait until you think or say something that makes you laugh out loud. Quick, write it down. Hint Two: Find a group of people who share some knowledge that not everyone does. Think of an insight only that group would understand. Hint Three: Eggplant is inherently funny. 4) What you say is far more important than how you say it. (This should remind you of rule #1 of branding – how you act is more important than what you say about yourself.) 5) Think about your personality. What do you love best about life? about yourself? Really. Let us hear it in your voice. 6) Whatever else you do, strive for clarity. Copyblogger Brian Clark writes: Want to be clear in your writing? Clarity comes from deeply caring if people truly understand. So there you have it. Get out there: Experiment. Practice. My goal these days is to combine the brevity of a message on a bottlecap with the cadence of a poem with the clarity of an instruction manual. And if I can’t get you to laugh with the mention of an eggplant, well. I’ll just keep working at it.

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