It can be disconcerting being the voice of someone else. You may find that you start adopting mannerisms and language that you’ve never used before, because you’re focused on creating in a voice that’s not your own.
For example, in a previous job where I managed a social media feed for a senior official in our organization, I frequently neglected my own social media presence because it was a little weird being two people on the internet.
Writers often talk about finding their own voice, but writing for a brand requires us to write in someone else’s voice or style. You may be copywriting or you may be creating content for a company’s blog; either way, you may feel like you’re writing as someone else.
It can be tough to learn how to step out of your style comfort zone and write in a style that’s not your own, but with a few tips and tricks, and a bit of practice, you can learn how to write like an expert in any voice or style.
Companies work hard at creating a specific voice for their brand. This voice is what lets them connect with their audience, to create trust and loyalty
These companies may be selling a product, offering a service, or building a community of like-minded people. Their brand helps them do each of these things, and helps them stand out in a crowd of other companies doing the same thing.
When you write for a company with a strong brand, you may have to write in something other than your own personalized tone. You have to fit into their established voice and vision.
Brands connect with us because they have a certain voice. For example, you may like the whimsy of Oreo, or the warm-hearted diversity of Cheerios.
Pick a well-known brand. Think of their logo, their tagline, and the images they use to send their message. Behind those tangible expressions of the brand is the infrastructure of messaging and word choice—their voice and style.
They have vision and mission statements, messages, and most likely a style guide that makes up the foundation of their brand. Not all of these things are readily available—you’ll have to do some research to find some of them—but all that research will make you an expert in that specific brand.
You can write for any brand once you learn what their foundation is, and the best way to do this is by practicing writing in a voice other than your own.
Read the vision and mission statements. Some organizations have one of these, some have both. Some also have additional types of strategic language to describe the principles they believe in or actions they take. Depending on the organization, this language may come from the senior leadership, the marketing team, or another group.
Regardless, this language is a good place to start understanding what the organization does and why they do it. If the organization stands behind the vision and mission statements, they often use them in their communications.
Read through the boilerplate. Many news releases have a section at the end of the release that is the same on every piece of content that goes out the door; that’s the boilerplate.
What phrases are used? What is used there that you also see throughout their website or social media?
Words that get used over and over point to key ideas for the brand and give you an idea of how they are expressed. Find those, and you’ll find part of the voice you want to use to write for them.
Look for quotes from senior officials in releases and features. If you go back through a company’s press releases or articles written about that company, you’ll find quotes from senior company officials. Often, these quotes contain messaging that supports the brand, and certain phrases are used again and again.
A lot of behind-the-scenes work goes into creating a brand. Organizations often craft messaging using specific phrases or a specified tone to support the brand. This messaging is used in a variety of ways. It’s generally not intended to be as formal as a tagline, but instead crafted with flexibility in mind.
As an example, let’s look at a December 2016 press release from Coca-Cola. Below are two quotes from two different executives.
“Every day, millions of people around the world reach for an ice-cold Coca-Cola,” said Marcos de Quinto, Chief Marketing Officer, The Coca-Cola Company. “The new ‘One Brand’ approach will share the equity of Coca-Cola, across all Coca-Cola Trademark products, reinforcing our commitment to offer consumers choice with more clarity. This is a powerful investment behind all Coca-Cola products, showing how everyone can enjoy the specialness of an ice-cold Coca-Cola, with or without calories, with or without caffeine.”
“There is nothing quite like the taste of an ice-cold Coca-Cola,” said Rodolfo Echeverria, Vice President, Global Creative, Connections & Digital, The Coca-Cola Company. “The campaign creative was designed to celebrate the notion that the simple pleasure of drinking an ice-cold Coca-Cola makes any moment more special. The universal moments and storytelling depicted in the campaign were created to resonate with our consumers globally.”
Can you pick out the key phrases or ideas? It’s even clearer when you read the whole release. Some keywords are “ice cold,” “choice,” “celebrate,” and “special.” Key ideas are everyday moments that are special and simple pleasures.
When you’re writing for a company or brand, look for these kinds of messages to help you set the right feeling.
Look for style cues. Is their social media voice straightforward or snarky? Are they okay with going a little blue in their online content? Do they use lots of descriptive language (our whole team is delighted that an amazing thing happened), or do they keep it simple (our whole team is happy)?
Organizations often have a style guide that outlines both their specific rules for writing (for example, picking sides in the ongoing Oxford comma battle) and guidelines for their voice, which could be things like words not to use, how often to insert line breaks, and whether your language should be family-friendly or if you can go blue.
Once you find the indicators of a brand’s voice and style, you can put them into practice. Let’s look at a few different types of writers that specialize in writing in other voices. What you can learn from each of these types of writing can help you master writing for a brand.
Speechwriters are experts at getting into someone else’s head. They craft whole narratives by listening to their subject and expressing the right phrases and messages in that person’s specific voice.
When I was a speechwriter, I often asked to spend time with the person I was writing speeches for, not so much to ask them questions about the specific topic they needed to cover, but to learn their mannerisms and style.
One of my bosses was a plain-spoken engineer, and people trusted him because he never tried to obfuscate or doublespeak, not to anyone. While I wrote moving, sincere—and frequently complex—speeches for him, I did so in a way that avoided flowery phrases and long run-on sentences.
(By the way, if you’re reading this and you need to hire a good content writer for your brand, look for someone with experience writing speeches.)
If you want to get better at creating branded content, try writing speeches. Pick a great historic speech and study it, looking for the types of cues that showcase a particular voice and style.
If you want to put your new skills to practice in a real-world setting, do some volunteer work for a local nonprofit that needs a speechwriter.
This may seem like an odd suggestion for non-fiction writing, but it’s helped me learn how to write in styles and voices other than my own and how to switch between different voices.
If you can tell a fan fiction story, you can tell the story of a brand.
When you write fan fiction, you’re writing in an established universe, most likely with established characters. There are rules for that universe and each character already has a clear identity, and thus a clear voice and style.
Even if you play with the rules, like gender swapping Merlin the boy wizard to Merlyn the girl wizard, you’re still most likely going to write within the established voice of the story.
For example, if you’re writing in the BBC show canon, Merlyn will hide her magic and find a way to befriend Prince Arthur. She’ll be good-hearted and patient, and appear to be a bit of a klutz. She won’t make speeches; sometimes she’ll speak earnestly, sometimes sassily, but never like the nobles in the castle.
If you can learn how to capture the voice of an existing character, you can learn how to write in a brand’s voice. Character catchphrases are just another version of company taglines.
Switching between fandoms can teach you how to quickly and cleanly switch voices. Hawaii Five-0 is nothing like Stargate SG-1, which is nothing like Gilmore Girls. Characters, settings, style of action—capturing all these things is like being able to use a specific industry’s jargon.
Here’s an exercise you can try. Pick your favorite television show—one you watch each week, have several episodes of recorded on your DVR, or have access to on a streaming service. Watch a few episodes and make note of specific phrases the characters use, the style of story that is told, and any other characteristics that stand out.
Then pick a story prompt—you can find them by searching Tumblr or Pinterest, or just google “story prompts” and go down the rabbit hole of awesome (or not) story ideas—and write a 1000-word story using the notes you took. See if you can capture the voices of the characters and the style of the show. Post your story and ask for feedback on how you did, or watch the show again and compare your writing to what you hear and see on the show.
I’m sure you’re familiar with book series that have an author’s name on them, but which are widely known to not actually be written by that author (we won’t call anyone out here). Ghostwriters take the voice and style of an author or a person, and create original content that is credited to the (usually more famous) author or person.
It’s not just for novelists. Senior executives and officials may have someone (or a team) writing for their social media feeds. Speechwriting, for example, is a form of ghostwriting.
When you ghostwrite for someone, you become their voice. You have to phrase things as they would, in a cadence they would use. It’s more than the messaging and taglines, it’s their personality.
You can use the same idea to practice brand writing.
Take a piece of writing you like—it doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, an article, a blog post, or even a Twitter feed.
Take some time to pick apart what makes that voice and style specific to that writer. Do they use specific phrases? Do they use certain words over and over? Do they structure their sentences in a specific way?
Make notes and then write a similar piece of content, pretending to be the author that wrote the original piece.
Then take a piece of brand content, like a press release or an article, or even an ad with a lot of text. Again, note things that stand out, and then write a release or article pretending to be the author of that article.
Both these exercises are the same thing—taking someone else’s words and writing your own pretending you are them. It’s role-playing with words.
Use the slogans and taglines. Note what verbs and adjectives they use. They might be action oriented (running, quickly, driven), or emotional (believe, sense, beautiful).
Look for the kinds of messages we talked about earlier that you can find in press releases and other company documents like blog posts or newsletters. These messages are used over and over again, even if they are phrased a little differently. Find those, and practice using them.
The simple fact is, every company or publication has their own voice and style. If you want to write for them, you have to learn how to color within those lines.
Sometimes, it might feel like you’ve lost your voice or your sense of self. The trick is to learn how to spot the style cues and distinct voice, and then make that voice your own.
Learning to switch between brands takes practice, because it’s not just remembering the right tag line, it’s switching personas. It’s like an actor getting into character—you have to take on a different personality to create good content for different brands.
But it’s a useful and valuable skill that, with practice, can be mastered. When you learn how to create unique content within a particular brand’s style, you can pitch your ideas in ways that let you write what you want while being what the brand’s audience needs.
It’s the best of both worlds. So get out there and strengthen your voice by learning how to write in someone else’s!
Photo credit: Helloquence
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.