Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Beyond the Buzzwords: Learn How to Develop Your Writing Voice

Beyond the Buzzwords: Learn How to Develop Your Writing Voice written by John Jantsch read more at Duct Tape Marketing

Marketing Podcast with Anne Janzer

In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interviewed ​​Anne Janzer, a nonfiction book coach and author of multiple books on writing and marketing. Human behavior and cognitive science fascinate her, and she is always searching for clues to improve our communications.

Her newest book The Writer’s Voice: Techniques for Tuning Your Tone and Style; helps you Master the art and science of writing voice. This is a comprehensive, hands-on guide to this little-understood aspect of writing, brand voice, ghostwriting, and other aspects of marketing.

Key Takeaway:

In this conversation with Anne Janzer, we delve into the captivating world of writing, marketing, and the intriguing intersection of human behavior and cognitive science. Anne’s latest book, “The Writer’s Voice,” is a treasure trove of insights, offering a comprehensive guide to mastering the art and science of writing voice. Through our discussion, we uncover the secrets behind crafting a distinct brand voice, explore the nuances of ghostwriting, and gain a deeper understanding of the multifaceted realm of marketing. Join us on this enlightening journey to enhance your writing and marketing prowess, armed with the wisdom Anne shares from her extensive experience as a nonfiction book coach and author.

Questions I ask

  • [00:40] What made you fascinated with the idea of voice in writing?
  • [02:56] Does the voice in writing changes over time?
  • [03:29] What are the most common mistakes people make when they are trying to find their voice?
  • [06:25] Are people able to choose and develop different writing voices?
  • [07:23] How much responsibility do we have with the reader?
  • [12:55] Could you help us define what’s the difference between tone and voice?
  • [14:05] Tell us more about your latest book.
  • [16:18] Can you recommend some exercises for people to do?


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John (00:09): Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Ann Janzer. She's a non-fiction book coach and author of multiple books on writing and marketing, human behavior and cognitive science fascinate her and she is always searching for clues to improve our communication. We're going to talk about our newest book, the Writer's Voice Techniques for Tuning Your Tone and Style. So Ann, welcome back to the show.

Ann (00:38): Thanks for having me back, John. It's great being here.

John (00:40): So let's talk a little bit, obviously voice and style, tone and style, writer's voice. I know prior to you writing your own books, you started writing other people's books, basically writing in other people's voices, right? And tones. Would you say that that kind of developed your fascination with this idea of voice?

Ann (00:58): It was actually. So I haven't done ghostwriting for books. I've done one book, but it was my marketing career. I was a freelance marketer and every week I'd pop over to a new company and try to figure out how to write in their brand voice. And sometimes actually fairly often with the small companies, I would define the brand voice for them. And then as blogs came out, I started ghost writing for executives, blog posts and interviews and all kinds of stuff. So that definitely piqued my interest in writing voice and it taught me a lot and it got me interested in the topic. I think it's the most neglected and misunderstood part of the writing craft, but there are four groups of people that pay a lot of attention. Ghost writers, obviously poets care a lot about voice fiction writers because they're trying to get their characters voices and marketers, marketers because they really care how they show up to their customer as part of that relationship with is the brand voice.

John (01:56): So would you say that you feel like, yes, I have a voice, I know what it is, maybe I haven't perfected it, but I mean I know when I'm doing it,

Ann (02:06): I feel there's a lot of talk about finding your authentic voice and I think voices are like shoes. There are shoes that fit us really, really well, but I wouldn't wear my hiking shoes to the opera. I think we should be able to pull on the right one for the right occasion, and we almost know how to do that instinctively if we're intentional about it. So yeah, when I first set out to write my first book, all of a sudden I was writing in my own voice and not the customers and the first draft started coming out just too much like a corporate it. There was some. So I had to keep going back and it wasn't really until I got the second and the third edition of that book that I really got comfortable in. What's my writing voice for a book? What part of me do I want to be? How do I want to show up for people there? What do they need to hear from me?

John (02:56): And just as a writer, would you say that that's something that matures in people? I know I started really first writing seriously 30 years ago, and I look back at some of that now and it's awful. And not to say that my writing is brilliant today, but it's certainly changed.

Ann (03:16): I do. I think even if you were writing in a voice that feels authentic and comfortable for the situation, we change, we develop our speaking voices age over time. So why wouldn't our writing voices change as well? Yeah, I do think so.

John (03:29): For me, I'll just use myself as an example. I became more authentic when I became more confident in my writing because I wasn't as worried about using big words or whatever it was I was trying to do. So let's talk a little bit about some of the early mistakes somebody might make when they're trying to find a voice.

Ann (03:45): Sure. Yeah. So one thing we do is we try to write the people around us and then we're not really comfortable. It's like wearing shoes that don't fit quite right. I think other people can tell we're walking funny because our shoes aren't fitting quite right. So I keep going back to the shoe metaphor. I don't know why. But yeah, so people think, well, I want to be an expert, so I'm going to show up with the big words. That's the most common thing I see. And that just backfires so badly with the reader if they're not familiar with those words or you're just making them do extra cognitive work. And I'd rather have them focused on my ideas and not my sentence structures or not my vocabulary. So that's a really common mistake. I think too often people think, oh, I'm going to write a book now, or I'm going to write this important essay and I'm going to put on my serious writer hat and I'm going to try to think back to what I did in college and I'm going to do long sentences and I'm going to really try to uplevel it.

(04:40): And that almost always backfires. It's not comfortable. It's hard for the reader and it doesn't give them really good sense of who you are because you're putting on something that may not feel legit to who you are,

John (04:53): Right or wrong. There's a lot of advice out there, particularly in writing for business circles that talks about writing at the eighth grade level or something like that, whatever the level is supposed to be, somewhere less than you might write your college essay type of work. Does that show up in voice, first off? Is that valid? And secondly, does that show up as part of voice?

Ann (05:13): So first, I think it is valid in the sense that most marketing writing, it's not that your customers are dumb or don't have college degrees, but they're reading it on their phone while they're in line for a Starbucks, for heaven sakes, how

John (05:24): Much don't make me work,

Ann (05:26): Don't make them work too much. And this is so true. If you're writing an email, my goodness, just highlight the things you want people to do with it. So yes, so I think the eighth grade thing is valid. The really interesting thing, and there's a chapter in the book on this, is that most of those grade level things are based on two factors and two factors only. How long your words are, how many syllables there are in a word, and how many words there are per sentence. And so if you just go to some shorter words and shorter sentences, your grade level goes, and so you think, well, is that a legitimate measure? But I think it is because longer sentences make us keep more working memory involved in a sentence before we can close it and compute the idea. So I think that's legit. So that was part

John (06:08): One. Anyone who's edited my work over the years, I use a lot of parenthetical phrases and they just are always cutting those out. Darn it.

Ann (06:17): I am also a huge fan of the parenthetical and you know what, you do what you need to do in your first draft and then you can tune it and revision.

John (06:25): So I'm curious about this idea of selecting voice. I tend to think I write the same voice no matter what I'm writing, but that may or may not be true. But is there kind of like I'm going to choose this voice today, I'm going to choose this voice today dependent upon the situation, or are we really that flexible?

Ann (06:41): Well, we are flexible to some degree. I mean, if you were writing something to a third grade classroom, I'm going to say you would write it differently a little bit. I mean, our relationship with the people we're communicating with voice is just, writing is just another kind of human communication, and we have some native skills for that. What I want people to do is think about being intentional about the choices they make about how they're showing up just because this is comfortable way for you to write and it's the way you've always written. Is this what the reader needs from you in this situation? Do they maybe need more encouragement and less expertise or vice versa? I mean, what does the reader need? And then you can lean into that part of your natural human communication skills.

John (07:23): I was going to talk about the reader. Obviously every reader would probably interpret voice differently. I mean, somebody reads Cormick McCarthy, for example, differently. Probably not everybody gets the same thing out of that. So how much responsibility do we have to start with the reader?

Ann (07:38): Yeah, well if we think about it, the voice is reconstructed in the reader's head. It doesn't really live in the page. It only lives when it lands in the reader. And to some extent, that's a little bit out of our control. Someone can show up in a really bad mood and just say, your voice sounds like this or that, and we've all had bad reviews of something. Maybe it's like, wow, okay, I never saw that in there, but okay, you did. So we can be intentional and try to help the reader find it in the way that we hope that they will, that will be most helpful to them. I cited a study in the book, which I think is really, really interesting and it would be interesting to reflect on is when you read silently, a lot of people, they kind of have a little inner reading voice. They're actually narrating to themselves silently and quickly, but they're narrating. And I've talked to people about this and some people are like, oh yeah, I think it's my voice. Or if I know the author, it's their voice. But people kind of hear a voice. So your voice in writing doesn't really belong to you. It belongs to the reader, which is a crazy thought. And

John (08:41): It is interesting. I know sort of along the lines, reading your own writing out loud changes or maybe you put the inflection that you meant to be there, but it certainly can change or it's a good test almost, right? Does this sound like what I want it to sound like? Because that's maybe how the readers or the listener's going to experience it.

Ann (08:59): Yeah, reading your own out loud, reading other people's writing out loud can tell you something about what they're doing, which is always really fun. And then getting the computer to read your work out loud because they don't know what you were trying to say. And you might find out where somebody perhaps won't put the emphasis where you thought, and maybe you want to reconstruct that sentence to make sure that it's crystal crystal clear. So those are all good techniques to get at how the voice lands.

John (09:24): You want an interesting experience? I've done this over the years, read a book and listen to the author at the same time. And that is a really immersive way to hear voice. Yeah,

Ann (09:35): Yeah, I'll bet it is. Yeah, that's a great idea.

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Ann (10:50): Yeah, absolutely. There's a bunch of things that we can do. There's stylistic choices that we make that we can use and experiment with in the book The Writer's Voice, I have people experiment at the extremes. Sometimes try to write something using only one syllable words so hard, but really fun because it makes you think about the words that you choose. We can also try to plug into an emotion or we can try to plug into an intention that is not our normal one and really experiment. I think that most people find that their range of writing voice is much larger than they actually use most of the time. And they may find that as they push out to one side or the other, they find something really fun that they can bring in or that might be a nice addition to the way that they normally write.

John (11:37): Should you fight for some of your voice and style decisions? I know that one of the things that I think it's intentional now in my writing is I will list three things and I will leave out. And so instead of this and this, I'll say this, this, this, and it's intentional, but it drives your Chicago style guide editor crazy. So are there things that once you know they're intentional, and I'm not saying that you always just say it my way or not, but I mean are there things that you might do that are a part of your voice that you say no? That's just like a little trait.

Ann (12:12): Absolutely. Think people use, that's something that you do. People can use punctuation. We can legitimately use sentence fragments if we are using them well and know what we're doing. So a good editor should never smooth out your voice, should never eliminate your voice. They might clear things that are in the way of people hearing the voice and that's legit. But if in your case, if you were submitting to a publisher and this is your thing, just say, this is part of my style guide. This is the John Chach style, this is what I do with list the three. Deal

John (12:43): With that. Okay. You heard it. You heard it here first and said I can stop. I can start sentences with a preposition. Okay, so there,

Ann (12:51): Yeah, absolutely. Go for it. Just say it's intentional. This is my personal style.

John (12:55): Alright, so you use both these words, tone and style, and I'm curious if you could help us define those or at least differentiate those.

Ann (13:03): Yeah. So style to me, and they're so often used interchangeably. The style to me is actually the set of tools that we use to put things on the page. So I have the Chicago manual style. The addition I have is like four inches thick or something. So many style decisions, right? Semicolons not

John (13:24): Get drunk and white.

Ann (13:25): Yes. Yeah,

John (13:26): Much shorter.

Ann (13:27): Well, it doesn't tell you what order things need to go in a book. I mean, this is the bible of stylistic decisions. So there's thousands of decisions and we do most of them without thinking about them. And that's fine, but it's the tools that we have and tone is what those tools create. So style is maybe the painter's brushstrokes tone is the picture right, and the picture is perceived by the viewer tone of your reading. Is that the tone as interpreted by the reader? So I use stylistic things to project a certain tone and hope that it worked, cross my fingers and hope it works.

John (14:05): So we're going to get into the format of the book itself, but I'm curious, I know you did some research kind of led you to your decisions about what went in the book. Tell me a little bit about that project.

Ann (14:15): So I did two things. One is that I interviewed a bunch of people about how they felt about their writing voice and what they thought about it. And I really found this again, sense that it's something that most writers just don't really give that much thought to. And yet when you ask them questions about what they would change, they all have things that they would want to change about their writing, which I think is interesting. And then I was working on this book and I started creating exercises to play with the different ideas. And I got a group of people, bless their hearts, let me send them these exercises once a week. Crazy things to do. Some of 'em I really found out were way too hard or too involved. So I dialed them back and I just tested them on people as well as myself of course.

(14:56): And that it was interesting because John, I said out to write a traditional book, it was going to be a book and maybe there would be an accompanying work. And I was halfway through it, all this research, I may have maybe 23,000 words of a draft. I mean, I was really in the book and I said, you know what? Reading a book about writing voice and hoping to be a better writer is reading a cookbook and thinking that's going to make you a better cook. It is not. You got to actually do the cooking, you have to actually do the writing. So midway through, I just abandoned it and I merged the workbook and the book together, cut a lot of the traditional parts of a book out, put in a lot of the exercises in the book, said write in this here. I made it really welcoming for people to pick up a pen and write. And I'm really,

John (15:44): Because showing a picture, it's big old workbook, right? It's

Ann (15:47): Big. It's workbook format. I really want to just get that idea that my gosh, you better pick up a pen when you get this thing and it's okay to write in it because that's how you're going to get the value from it is doing the ideas in it.

John (16:00): Yeah, actually, one of the books I wrote had prompts in it every day and you were supposed to write, and I can't tell you how many people wrote back to me and said, oh no, I can't write in the book. You need to produce a workbook.

Ann (16:10): Precisely. I'm one of those people. It's like, I must've gotten my hand slapped for writing a book when I was a child because it's like, even if there's prompts, it's like I'm not going to write in that. What are you nuts?

John (16:18): So talk a little bit about some of the exercises maybe. I mean, there are many, many exercises. So maybe pick out a handful and say, well, here's what you'll encounter on this exercise just to give people a flavor.

Ann (16:31): Yeah, so sure. So I'll give you two really radically different ones. One of them, which I really enjoy, is just to strip out everything except the punctuation. And it's something that you've written and it's so interesting because it tells you something about your sentence structures.

John (16:45): Wait a minute. So we're just left with periods and commas, is that what you're saying?

Ann (16:48): Periods, commas, semicolons, dashes, just the punctuation kinds

John (16:52): Of exclamation points for me,

Ann (16:54): Exclamation points you get to see. It's like, wow, I really do use a lot of exclamation points. And I did this and then I did the same thing for other writers that I admire in different genres. So for a literary writer author who I'm on his email list, I did it for one of his posts and his punctuation was much more free flowing than mine. It was very interesting. So that was kind of fun. And then on another extreme, one of these exercises where I asked people to test their extremes. I have an exercise called fancy or folksy, and to take the same thing and write it in asite or obscure or fancy, just, I mean set the dial to 11 on that. I mean, just go be crazy, be nutsy. Just do something super out there. And then to do something that's super folksy or slimy or just way more than you would ever do. And I had so much fun doing these, first of all. So it's like a warmup. It loosens things out and it also makes you think, wait, there was that thing there. My metaphors got looser when I got folksy. Or, it's very interesting. You test the extremes and then you find maybe your center could be a little one way or the other. So those are two of the kinds of exercises. That's fine.

John (18:03): Alright. Because nobody's going to listen unless I mention AI today.

Ann (18:06): Yes, yes.

John (18:07): Where do you think will, I mean there's lots of opinions about AI and writing in general, but where do you think we land with style and tone and voice?

Ann (18:16): So this is so interesting because as I was writing and working and researching, AI was really chat. G P T was evolving in crazy ways. And a part of me first thought, oh my gosh, if you can just ask chatt to make your writing funny, it's going to do it and maybe no one needs this book. And I've completely switched. I think that AI actually is making us think about voice more than we did. So it's very interesting. I think the book is timely in a way I didn't expect with that, which is we read something first and we go, oh, that was written by ai. There's no human there. So we're aware of when voice is off or missing or generic, and I think we recognize the value that there is in a real human voice connection. What's really who we are, that human connection

John (19:05): Theoretically. Wouldn't machine learning be able to read enough hemmingway to produce hemmingway voice?

Ann (19:10): Sure. I mean, you can ask it to write something like this author, that author Hemmingway and people are, so if that's what you want to do, if you want to upload everything yours and say, write in my style, you could do that for little transactional writing and things. But I think that the reason that we connect with someone, if you're writing as a solo printer or small business owner, I think your value is yourself, is your personality. And I abdicate that, is to give up something that is important to your brand. I think that AI could be an incredible tool as part of the writing process. And I'm working still on how I integrate it into my writing process. Yeah,

John (19:52): It's a great assistant, but I'm with you. I think where the real edges of voice or I might say something like, well, that was a load of crap. I mean, I might write something like that. I don't think AI would ever write that. And I think that's the edges of our voice that it'll never be able to pick up because it might be how we're feeling that day.

Ann (20:12): That's right. It's not. It's for the most part, trending to the middle, trending to the norm, language patterns, that's what i's looking for is language patterns. So I don't want to advocate that. And I think when I read something from you, John, I can see your voice. I can see your written, I can picture you, and I don't want to lose that. So if AI helps more people get things out into the world that are authentically their ideas and their thoughts, then it's great. But I just would be really careful about asking it to write for you,

John (20:42): Have it write metadata on your webpages all day long. Title tags, go for it.

Ann (20:48): Please, please. And it's a lovely non-judgmental brainstorming buddy. You can give it an idea. It comes back with ideas and you're like, yeah, that's okay. Actually, that metaphor is kind of lame, but it made me think of this other one, which I think is better. So I use it for those kinds of things. There's a lot of uses, like I said, it's a tool. We can use it well, we can use it poorly. I think the great writers will learn how to use it well and be more effective and

John (21:11): Efficient. And that's a great point. I mean, I think even for marketers, it's not going to replace marketers, but somebody who is strategically focused, who is using AI might replace marketers. That's the key. It's like you almost have to be using these, but you have to be using them in the right way.

Ann (21:30): That's true. And so that's a learning curve. We're all climbing still.

John (21:34): And of course a year from now you and I'll be having a totally different conversation about too. Right? Exactly. That's part of the climb, right? And you want to tell people where they might connect with you and obviously pick up a copy of the writer's voice or any of your other works.

Ann (21:48): Sure. The easiest thing is just to look for my website, which is my name Anne with a silent e I have an email list that I share writing practices every other week, and once a month I do a drawing for writing related book. And it's just entertaining if you want to be part of that. And the book is available in any place you can buy books. If they don't carry it, you can order it from them. But it's called the Writer's Voice.

John (22:13): This seems like a good workshop. Are you doing a workshop with this?

Ann (22:16): That is in my fall thing to figure out because yeah, it is practically that workshop built into it, right?

John (22:23): Yeah. But doing it with a cohort I think would be kind of fun.

Ann (22:26): I think it would be a lot of fun to share those exercises with people. So I think you're

John (22:30): Right. Well, Anne, it was great catching up with you and having you spend a few moments at the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. And hopefully we'll run into you one of these days soon out there on the road.

Ann (22:38): Yes, thanks a lot, John. It's great being back.

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