How do you write for different audiences? And how do you do this without losing what makes your writing uniquely yours?
These are questions we’re often asked. Here, Jamie Jauncey considers whether these are the right questions to be asking, and how we as writers can find the middle ground between reaching our reader and staying true to our voice.
I have always struggled with the question: how do I write for different audiences? It’s one that crops up frequently in corporate or institutional settings and it seems to me to suggest that we’re in search of a kind of ventriloquism that offers us a range of different voices to suit different occasions.
The problem is that the question directly contradicts the need for a consistent personality in our voices as writers. That personality – the youness of what you say – is what lends a human quality to what you write and enables your readers to engage and connect with it. (If you doubt this, just consider the opposite: how hard it is to absorb something written without personality.)
We as individuals are the unique sources of the intellectual and emotional energy that will inform, persuade, convince, entertain or whatever else our purpose in writing may be.
It matters not what we are writing about. We as individuals are the unique sources of the intellectual and emotional energy that will inform, persuade, convince, entertain or whatever else our purpose in writing may be. To mask that personality with an assumed voice is to do disservice to our subjects and our readers. Even when we write collaboratively, our readers are more likely to respond well when a single voice rings through.
Innocent, the soft drinks company, offers a text book example of how to employ a single and unwavering voice. From its beginnings as a kitchen table venture in the early 2000s, Innocent developed in under five years to become the fastest-growing food and drink company in the UK. The brand and its success were built primarily on tone of voice: an affable, humorous, quirky, innocent persona that reflected its all-natural products and the free-spirited ethos of the three founding friends.
Some people loved the Innocent voice. Some people hated it. But it worked because it was as authentic as any corporate voice can be. Then came the imitators. ‘We want to sound like them,’ the cry went up. Hey presto, a legion of other consumer products, utilities, even financial services, were suddenly proclaiming themselves everyone’s jokey friends. Of course it was ridiculous and inauthentic and ended mostly in failure.
Authenticity comes from congruence between who you are and what you say. This requires confidence in one’s natural voice, literal or metaphorical, rather than any kind of ventriloquilism. For example, I am by accident of upbringing and education an anglophone Scot. Since my accent is RP (received pronunciation), people automatically assume I’m English. But I don’t affect a Scots accent in order to be better understood by my neighbours. My natural voice, however it sounds to others, is the one in which I express myself best.
In my career as a writer, meanwhile, I have written annual reports for banks, novels for children and practically everything in between. Of course these have required subtle variations in pitch, but I believe an identifiable trace of my voice would be present and distinct in everything I’ve ever written.
What is substantially different each time is the content, the thing I’m writing about. That’s where the shift in pitch is triggered. So I would naturally employ some elements of my vocabulary to argue a university’s case for research funding, others to explain an organisational change process to the employees of a manufacturing company, others to write a poem commemorating the centenary of the Armistice, and others still to write an email asking a favour of a friend.
Rather than ask how to write for different audiences, then, it would seem to me more apt to frame the question this way: how do I write about different things? The answer to that, I suspect, is a lot less elusive for most people; and the starting point, surely, is to know what you’re talking about and why you’re talking about it.
Jamie Jauncey is a business writer and trainer, who has spent the last thirty years helping organisations and individuals to find their voices and tell their stories. As a Programme Director at Invisible Grail, he works alongside universities and their people to help foster greater impact in their writing and communications. He is the author of ‘What’s in a story?‘, ‘Imagine the future‘ and ‘How kind are your words?‘.
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