If you’re a ghostwriter or freelance writer, it can be difficult to find your client’s voice. It’s not as important if you’re only doing a small one-off project like an email, but it’s critical if you’re ghostwriting a book, a speech, or a series of blog articles for a corporation.
Here are a few ways you can find your client’s voice, and one secret to finding it when the client doesn’t even know what their voice should be.
1. Listen to how they talk
More importantly, you want to talk with the person whose name is going to go on the work. That means if you’re writing for a CEO, make sure you talk with the CEO. Not their staff, not their go-betweens. Your client may have a certain turn of phrase or favorite word they use, and you want to know what they are; the go-betweens will not.
Several years ago, I helped the CEO of a Fortune 500 insurance company ghostwrite his book on CEOs and social media. We met in his (gorgeous!) office to talk about the project, and he said a few words and phrases that I came to learn were his way of talking. He used, not bigger words per se, but unusual words — like “per se.”
I wrote those in my handy-dandy Moleskine notebook to refer to later. They actually never came up again, but it helped me understand that he chose his words carefully and had a particular speech pattern, so I needed to remember to follow it when I turned his words into text. We also spoke by phone every two weeks, so I was exposed to his speaking style more and more.
Also, he and his social media director noticed my note-taking and commented on it. They said they felt good about their choice because I was clearly conscientious. I had never thought of it that way, but who am I to turn down accidental recognition?
So, always take note of the little speech patterns your client has. Whether they know it or not, they have them and will feel good that you recognized it.
Plus, even if you never refer to it again, it makes you look like you know what you’re doing.
2. Read your client’s past work
This is what they think they sound like. It may be conversational, or it may be instructional. It may be light and airy or it may be serious and business-like. It may have a lot of second-person references — “what would you do?” — or it may be cold and impersonal — “Apply the lotion liberally to one’s epidermis and return it to the basket.”
Make sure you read a lot of your client’s work, because their regular ghostwriters may have changed over time. Or they use a lot of different writers all at once, which may allow for a little more flexibility. Still, all those writers may have a similar voice as well, so follow the crowd.
3. Ask them what they think their voice is
Make sure you can match up what they think their voice is and what you’ve read and heard. Maybe they say they want to be friendly and approachable, but their past work reads like it was written by a child-hating robot.
Or they want to have a tone and voice that conveys seriousness and stability, but they can’t stop sounding conversational.
Ultimately, what they tell you what they want is what you should strive for, but you should also feel confident enough to point out the inconsistency. Just say, “I understand you want X, but your past work sounds more like Y. Are you changing from your past voice?”
If they don’t agree with your assessment and they think their written work sounds like their desired voice, and that you don’t know what you’re talking about, do two things:
1) Try to match their past work rather than what they tell you. They think the past work sounds like their desired voice, so they’re looking for that. Let them tell you otherwise.
2) Make sure you get paid upfront.
4. The secret to finding a client’s voice when they don’t know what it is
What do you do when your client doesn’t have a voice, or when they’re not really good?
Years ago, I was an aspiring speechwriter and was asked to write a speech for a candidate for the U.S. Congress in my home district.
The candidate was running unopposed in our party’s primary because no one wanted to run against the opposition incumbent as he always won. Still, she needed the backing of all our party’s county chairmen, 12 in all, and she was in danger of not getting it.
She had given a speech at a district dinner that was a 45-minute vomit of anything she could think of; she was supposed to speak for 10 minutes on healthcare.
I got a call from my own county chair telling me that this woman needed major help, and could I help her with her speech? If she blew it again, the party wasn’t going to back her at all. They would rather run nobody that year than endorse her. So my speech was going to make or break her candidacy.
I called the candidate and we chatted on the phone for nearly an hour. She was really nice and fun to talk to, and she told me about her views. I took notes, but she rambled and I wasn’t sure what she actually wanted to cover or how she was supposed to say it. She didn’t have a voice in particular unless it was just one long, rambling sentence.
But I knew about this trick, and I thought I’d better use it.
I knew her speech had to be under 10 minutes, which equaled 1,000 words. That’s because the average person speaks between 100 – 150 words per minute. And she spoke a little fast, but I wanted to make sure she didn’t go over. So, 100 words x 10 minutes = 1,000 words.
I hit the three major points she wanted to hit, and stuck only to the important information without all the little tangents and tidbits she had shared during our call.
And, most importantly — and this is the big secret! — I wrote in short, punchy sentences, like a newspaper writer. Why? Because we all like to think we speak that way, at least when giving speeches. We all like to think we give speeches that are easy to hear, easy to read, and use lofty, soaring language about big ideas.
So I wrote short, punchy sentences about the big ideas.
When the dinner came, she gave the speech, and everyone loved her. Best speech of the night, very inspiring, blah blah blah, and the county chairmen all agreed unanimously to support her candidacy for the Congressional race.
(Narrator: She got 33% of the vote, just like every other candidate had ever done in that district.)
After she got home, she called me and gushed about the speech. “It was great. Everyone loved it, and you captured my voice perfectly!”
Well, no, I captured my voice perfectly. That was already my writing style, so I just wrote to my strength. It just happened to be the style that most people prefer to speak in.
I didn’t tell her this, of course, because that would be dumb.
Instead, I wrote several more speeches for her throughout her campaign, all using the same short, punchy style. And she rocked it. People loved her speeches and she was able to make her points without confusion or droning on.
All because I wrote in “her” voice.
When writing for a client, you absolutely need to do everything you can to find their voice. Record them talking, have conversations with them, take notes in a notebook, and read their past works.
But if all else fails, write short, punchy sentences in the same way a newspaper writer would do it. If you don’t know what that sounds like, read Ernest Hemingway’s Big, Two-Hearted River.
It’s a short story, about 7,00 words, written at a 3.4-grade reading level, and has 17 adverbs in it. It’s my favorite Hemingway story and one that I model my own writing style after.
Write in that manner because it’s what people think they sound like when they give speeches. And it’s the way they think they write.
If you can capture your client’s voice, they’ll be happy, and they’ll keep you coming back for more.
And if they piss you off, just make them sound like a drunk pirate instead.
Photo credit: Caleb Oquendo (Pexels, Creative Commons 0)