In Search of Your True Writing Voice

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It’s not easy transitioning from a career in business communications to fiction writing. The hardest part about the transition is finding your voice. In business communications, the writing voice is impersonal, detached and, well, business-like. Communications are focused on the needs of the company or client that you’re writing for. Your personal voice is absent.

When you begin to write fiction, on the other hand, it’s imperative to find your writing voice because your story and characters are all extensions of yourself.

Finding your writing voice matters for several reasons. It establishes consistency throughout your body of work. It gives your writing personality. Finally, it helps readers know who you are. You can’t hide behind your words; you have to learn to write from the heart. That’s how readers will find you and keep coming back to you.

According to the NY Book Editors blog, a writer’s voice is a combination of three factors: the writing style, perspective and tone.

Style is the character of the writing; the words and phrases you use and how you express your ideas. Style is developed by years of practice and experimentation. It also helps to read the works of different authors from different genres to sample their writing style. Over time, you pick up bits and pieces from authors you admire. Style may be short, abrupt sentences or long sweeping poetic ones. However you develop your style will eventually become your hallmark, editors say.

Perspective is how you choose to view a situation and relay what’s happening. Perspective is drawn from your history of experience and knowledge of the situation. For example, when a car accident occurs on a busy street corner, one witness standing on the sidewalk will have a different perspective of the accident than the passenger in one of the involved vehicles and the policeman who arrives to investigate it will have yet a different perspective.

Tone is the attitude or feeling about the story that you’re telling. It can be serious or sad, or it can be humorous and upbeat. Tone gives readers a clue about how to feel about what’s happening in the story.

It can take years to find and refine your writing voice. Here are a few ways to help you find it.

1. Spend time alone with your thoughts. Be aware of the ideas, notions and imaginings going through your head. Note the conversations you have with yourself internally.  Notice your own feelings too. Do you feel cheerful, optimistic, sad, guilty or fearful? What is the source of those feelings? Where are they coming from? It might help to learn meditation to be fully present with yourself.

2. Keep a journal. Most writers do keep a journal. It helps them take stock of their experiences. If you prefer, carry a small notebook in your pocket or purse so you can jot down ideas and observations as you go about your day.

3. Write letters. If you’ve ever written a personal letter to someone, you know how difficult it can be to find the right  words to express how you feel. The practice of writing letters helps you access what you’re feeling in your heart. Writing from the heart is the key to finding your writing voice.

4. Read different authors. When you read different genres and authors, you expose yourself to different ways of storytelling. We naturally pick up bits and pieces along the way from other writers, especially ones whose works we admire. Over time, you will synthesize different styles to form your own.

5. Freewrite. As I’ve described in previous posts, freewriting is the practice of writing nonstop for several pages about anything that comes to mind. There are no right or wrong answers to what you put down on paper. It’s simply a fast, easy way to access parts of your subconscious that you may have kept hidden, even from yourself. You never know what shows up on those freewritten pages. When you go back to re-read what you’ve written, the writing will most likely be sloppy, but you may find hidden gems of heart-felt emotion. That’s where your voice will emerge.

If you want to explore this topic more, I highly recommend the book Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice by Nancy Slonim Aronie.

Finding your true voice as a writer does not happen overnight. It takes practice and dedication to access those parts of you that readers will appreciate.

Certain Words and Phrases Can Undermine Your Credibility

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During the month of June, my posts have been focused on interpersonal communications skills. In this post, words and phrases that can undermine your credibility.

In your work, it’s important to be taken seriously and develop a good reputation among peers, bosses and clients. But sometimes, language can undermine your credibility without you even realizing it.

Communications skills are vital in every business setting, but sometimes gets overlooked in the digital workplace. The way we communicate says a lot about our professionalism and credibility. The way we communicate can reveal our level of confidence – or lack thereof. The last thing you want to do is undermine yourself in front of bosses or clients, especially potential clients.

Every time you speak, you may be sabotaging yourself with your language  which can impact your success in business and in your relationships. The most disconcerting thing is that most of the time, you may not be aware of how you’re putting a roadblock in your business success with your words and phrases.

So which words and phrases should we avoid? Career and presentation experts say the following are the biggest culprits.

1) “I’m no expert,” “I may be wrong,” and “This might sound crazy”

Experts say these phrases appear to warn listeners that what you’re about to say is trivial and irrelevant and not to be taken seriously. You come across as insecure in your thoughts. Why would they take your statement seriously if you don’t?

Before: “I may be wrong, but shouldn’t we do a little more market research before launching the new product line?”

Preferred: “Shouldn’t we do a little more market research before launching the new product line?”

2) “Just,” “I just thought,” etc.

Similar to the phrases above, any phrase containing the word “just” expresses uncertainty about your statement. It downplays your message so recipients aren’t likely to take it seriously. When you eliminate the word “just” as well as its companion phrases, you’ll come across more assertive and confident.

Before: “It’s just that it might be better to delay the project until next week.”
Preferred: “It might be better to delay the project until next week.”

3) “Does this make sense?”

When you conclude your presentation or speech with this question, it’s as if you doubt your own words and you’re looking for confirmation from your audience that they understand you. But a much simpler way to accomplish that is to ask, “Do you have any questions?”

4) “I think,” “I believe,” and “I feel”

Experts say these phrases act as a buffer that dilutes your message and shows a lack of assertiveness. You can always replace it with more confidence-building terms such as “I’m confident” or “I’m optimistic.”

That said, I don’t think these phrases should be avoided altogether because they do have a place in our everyday language. Since they’re often used to express opinions, they may be better suited for casual conversations. If you want to make an impression, however, avoid these buffers.

Before: “I think you’ll be impressed with the new production.”
Preferred: “You’ll be impressed with the new production.” Or “I’m confident you’ll be impressed with the new production.”

5. Avoid fillers.

Ever listen to someone’s presentation filled with “um,” “you know,” “kind of,” and other meaningless phrases? Speaking that way lends doubt to the content of the presentation, writes Jerry Weissman, founder of Power Presentations, Ltd. The speaker comes across as ill-prepared and not very knowledgeable. They may know the information inside and out, but their presentation, complete with “ums” and “you knows,” makes you wonder if they really do know what they’re talking about.

According to Weissman, the following fillers should be avoided:

“Sort of”
“Kind of”
“Um”
“Actually”
“Basically”
“Really”
“Anyway”
“Pretty much”

For most people, the hardest part is being aware of their language and how they come across in presentations. Sometimes it’s easier to notice these transgressions when other people speak, but see if you can pay more attention to your own speaking habits. Maybe record yourself when you give a short speech. How many times do you fill your presentation with “ums,” “you knows,” etc.?

Communications are often filled with unnecessary words and phrases that can undermine your credibility in business situations. Be aware of how you speak and self-edit so you make a strong confident impression with everyone you meet.

Just for fun:
Stop Saying Sorry When You Want to Say Thank You — comic

Tips for Self-Editing Interpersonal Communications

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Our personal communications is as vital to our success as our marketing and sales strategies, maybe even more so. The way we present ourselves to the outside world says more about who we are personally and professionally than any strategic plan. More often than not, what we do and say can either help our business or hurt it. For evidence of that, you only have to look at public figures like Roseanne Barr to see how swiftly things can change with one poorly thought out comment.

That’s why it’s important to learn self-editing techniques. Self-editing is the process of reviewing, revising and correcting your own communications. It is similar to the self-editing process for a manuscript, except it is geared toward social media, emails and correspondence, such as cover letters.

A poorly worded email can make you look ignorant, while a well-crafted letter written in an angry tone can make you look unprofessional. Neither one will help you achieve your business goals.

What you say – and how you say it – gives the recipient a clear idea of who you are. Further, what you say or write may not always be exactly what you mean. Ever write something that sounded fine in your head but when you or someone else read it back to you, it didn’t have the same meaning? Somehow the meaning got lost in the transition from your head to the paper or computer.

More important, what you write or say can have lingering and sometimes devastating impact. One poorly thought out tweet posted in a knee-jerk reaction can cost you clients and customers. In conversations, what you blurt out cannot be taken back. Ditto with social media and emails. Once it’s out there, you can’t get it back, and the damage to your business and reputation is already done.

We are all guilty of these communication miscues, but there are ways to refine our skills to prevent this from happening too often. I’m just as guilty as the next person, so I’ve learned from my experience to self-edit my interpersonal communications with the same attention to detail as any writer would a manuscript for publication.

Before writing that cover letter or email to an upset customer or responding to someone’s Facebook post, take a few minutes to follow these tips to self-edit your communications.

Step 1. Using a note pad or blank sheet of paper, write everything down that you’d like to say. Spill your guts. By putting it all down on paper, you won’t be in a position to hit Send or Post right away. If you’re angry, or upset or excited about a situation, writing your ideas down on paper first will help dispel some of that emotion.

Keep in mind that you will not use everything you write down in your final correspondence. But just like writing a novel, it will help you get all your ideas down first. Then you can edit it later.

Step 2. Set the letter aside for a few hours. Let it simmer on the backburner. Go and do something else for a while – head to the beach, play basketball, take a nap, watch a movie, anything to get your mind off the letter. Your emotions will simmer down by then too so you will be able to think more clearly.

Step 3. Come back to your letter after sufficient time has passed. I recommend at least a day if you are truly upset about something. Otherwise, a few hours will be sufficient. Review what you have written. Underline or highlight the important points you want to make that still ring true. Keep it to only two or three points however, so your final letter won’t be overly long.

Step 4. With a red pen, cross out the sentences and sentiments that do not belong, things you wrote in anger or excitement, or extraneous content that does not add value to your letter. Whatever is left can be reviewed and edited for appropriateness or to help you support your key points.

Step 5. Rewrite your letter, email or social media post with the highlighted information left over from your draft. Chances are it will be more concise and less emotional than before. That’s a good starting point.

Step 6. Review again for spelling, grammar and punctuation. Misspelled words shows carelessness and lack of attention to detail. It also shows you didn’t take the time or didn’t care to proof your work.

Step 7. Pay attention to the tone of your letter or email. You want to come across as professional, clear-thinking. Although if you are writing a letter to support a cause or persuade someone to take action, a little emotion may be necessary. But don’t overdo it.

Step 8. Avoid personal attacks. Focus on the issues you are writing about. There are ways to express dissenting opinions rationally and intelligently without resorting to personal insults, which only makes you look bad.

If in doubt about your ability to self-edit your personal communications, have someone you know and trust proof it for you.

This same process holds true for social media posts. Write down what you want to say on paper first, set it aside for a few hours, then come back to it. You may decide to tone it down, revise your comment or not post it at all. There is no reason to respond to someone’s comment on social media right away. Buy yourself some time and put thought into your response. What you say and write reflects on you, for good, bad or worse.

Self-editing is an important part of the personal communications process. By following these simple steps, you can communicate with colleagues and customers with greater confidence and integrity, and they will see you as someone with whom they want to do business.

Make a Positive Impression with Handwritten Thank You Notes

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There will come a time in your career when someone will do something special for you. It could be anything from buying you lunch, to passing along a job lead or introducing you to a new client. When that happens, it’s up to you to show your gratitude.

But in our busy workdays, how many of us think to write a thank you note and actually take the time to do so? Even if we do think about it, how many times have you sat staring at the blank page wondering what to say?

It helps to work from a formula to get the task done quickly, efficiently, and with sincerity. Be sure you use professional quality note cards or stationery to write your message. Most thank-you notes I write contain three sentences: a thank-you intro, detailed sentence, and a closing remark.

First sentence: Thank the recipient for the gift, meeting, gesture of kindness, advice – whatever they did for you.

Second sentence: Explain why you appreciate the gift, meeting, advice or gesture.

Third sentence: Reiterate your interest in the job, client or product offering, or mention something specific about what you learned.

Closing sentence: Close the message by offering to return the favor, or how you plan to use the gift.

Example 1:   Thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview for a Customer Service Associate with XYZ Company. I enjoyed talking with you and learning more about your organization. Based on what I learned about XYZ, I feel my skills and experience would be a strong match for your needs. I welcome the opportunity to answer any further questions you have about my background.

Example 2:  Thank you for joining me for coffee last week. I enjoyed our conversation and appreciated learning about your company’s latest product innovations. I believe your new products will meet the needs of an underserved market. If there is anything I can do to help you promote these products, please contact me.

I have always preferred handwritten notes better than email. Handwritten notes show that you’ve taken the time to THINK about what you are writing. Because so few people are likely to send thank-you notes, let alone write them by hand, they’re more likely to make you stand out and make you more memorable.

Emailed messages are likely to get lost in the in-box, and texting is too informal that recipients may not take your expression of gratitude seriously.

If you’re looking to make yourself stand out to potential employers, clients or business associate, sending a thoughtfully-crafted, handwritten thank-you note may be the very tool you can use to make a strong, positive impression.

Practicing Gratitude in Your Work Life

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One of the most memorable “gifts” I received during my career was a greeting card for Thanksgiving from a printing vendor. The message on the card was simple, yet powerful. “At this time of Thanksgiving, we want to express our gratitude for your business.”

The fact that I received this greeting card in November before Thanksgiving and before the usual rush of cards and gifts in December made it stand out. The message from my vendor came across as sincere and more thoughtful because it did not get lost in the rush of the holiday season.

November is a month to remember our blessings and express gratitude for the things we have and the people who share our lives. That makes it the ideal time to express our gratitude in our work lives, whether it’s sending thank-you notes to our vendors and associates, or buying a cup of coffee for a co-worker to show appreciation for their efforts on a work project.

Before the holiday rush sets in, think about what you are grateful for, especially in your work life. It could be anything from the technician who fixes your smart phone to the indispensable assistant who makes your business run smoothly. Maybe it was a former boss who gave you good career advice or a teacher who encouraged you to keep writing.

If you are not sure what you are grateful for, try this exercise. On a piece of paper, jot down at least five things or people you are grateful for in your business. I think you’d be surprised at how many people have helped you become the successful business person you are.

One of the most powerful means of communicating gratitude is thank-you notes. I believe the most effective, and most memorable, are handwritten because I think they come from the heart. In an age when emails and texts dominate the communications landscape, handwritten thank-you notes are often overlooked. The handwritten thank-you notes I’ve received from bosses and other business associates always made me feel deeply appreciated, and they confirmed that I was doing a good job. I still keep a few and re-read them whenever I feel in doubt of my abilities. I will write more about thank you notes in an upcoming blog post, so stay tuned.

Other outward expressions of gratitude may include healthy treats like a fruit basket, gift cards, a cup of coffee, while other forms of gratitude, such as personal affirmations, prayers and meditation, are more private.

Even just verbally saying, “Thank you for your hard work on this project. I couldn’t have done it without you” goes a long way toward establishing good will and respect, and reflects positively on you and your business.

At this time of Thanksgiving, take the time to be grateful for every person and every situation that have served you well in your career. Of course, saying “please” and “thank you” should always be part of your everyday business vocabulary.

Tips for Naming Your Blog

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Last week, in my post Six Questions to Ask Yourself Before Starting a Business Blog, I wrote about how to determine whether a blog is right for your business. The next step is coming up with a name that best captures the focus of your blog business.

But coming up with a name for your blog or website can be an arduous task. So many names to choose from, so many URLs available.

But I found as I went through this process, that not every name available was suitable for my business, and the names I really wanted had already been taken. I had to get creative to generate a blog name that best reflected who I was and what I offered to the business community. I also had to keep in mind my own personal brand. How did I want clients and colleagues to see me?

For many business owners and entrepreneurs, their full name is their brand, like J.K Rowling or Derrick Rose. In most cases, the full given birth name works because it’s short, snappy and memorable.

But other names are not. I did not think my given name was memorable or snappy enough to use for my blog. I also had a potential dilemma with my last name – Ludes – which has alternative connotations that I did not want associated with my writing business. (Ludes is the nickname for a drug called Quaaludes, a sedative and hypnotic drug. Its official name is Methaqualone.) Naturally, I did not want my writing business associated with a drug. It is not how I want clients and colleagues to remember me.

An alternative is to use initials or a different form of your name. It’s a way of personalizing your blog without revealing your full name. For example, Regal is an abbreviated version of my full name – Regina Ann Ludes. It made sense to use an abbreviated version to create my brand identity. It captures the essence of my personality and matches my ability to communicate with tact, diplomacy and integrity in the business world, just as any member of royalty might.

This naming process also helped me define the focus of my blog – to write stories identifying situations that demonstrate proper use of communication tools and strategies, to show what works and what doesn’t. How you and I communicate is an extension of our personal brand. When you communicate well, you present yourself well. How I write also speaks about my personal brand.

A third option is to create a name that defines the purpose of your blog or website business. For example, writer Carol Tice created a blog devoted to sharing tips and advice for writers called Make a Living Writing (www.makealivingwriting.com). Although she also has her personal website that promotes her own writing business too (www.CarolTice.com).

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when creating a name for your blog or business.

Determine your brand identity. How do you want people to remember you? Is there a quality about you that stands out – a phrase you use, a piece of clothing, a unique name? Ask friends, colleagues and family members what they think of when thinking of you or talking about you. They are in the best position to know how you stand out. Their responses can help you pinpoint the strengths that you want to emphasize in your blog name.

For example, perhaps they see you as a passionate person, someone who cares deeply about certain issues, like animals, women’s rights or the environment. Consider using the word ‘passion’ as part of your brand identity, then use it as your blog title.

Make a list of possible names. Play around with variations of your key word or phrase, and make a list of them. Then do a Googe search of these names and variations to see which ones have been used already. Check out the availability of the URL on sites like Go Daddy or Register.com. Test out different names with your family and friends and get feedback from them. Which one works best for your blog or website? Does the name accurately reflect what you do and who you are?

Be clear about your business focus. Choose a name that matches that focus. I almost chose Regal Ink as a blog name. But when I searched URLs, Register.com offered an alternative name, Regal Tattoo. Apparently, my initial desire to use Ink as a symbol for my writing business may be better suited for a tattoo parlor – not the impression I wanted to give. So I scrapped that idea.

Consider the cost of the URL. Most URLs are inexpensive, less than $10. But some words are determined to be more popular and sought-after. The word Regal fell into that category. For some URLs, I’d have to pay nearly $2,500 to use it for my business. No name is worth that much money. So I was forced to find another alternative, like hyphenating the URL or adding the word “the” before my blog name.

However you go about identifying your blog name, remember that it should be unique and easy to remember. A well-crafted blog or website name is key to marketing your services to others. Make sure the name you choose accurately reflects who you are and what you have to offer clients.

Six Questions to Ask Yourself Before Starting a Business Blog

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Does your business really need a blog?

Whether you manage a start-up or have worked at a small business for a while, you might wonder whether a blog will help your business grow. One of the biggest mistakes many business owners and managers make is assuming that they need to be on every social media platform and have a blog in order for their business to succeed. But that may not be the case. I know plenty of small businesses that are successful, and they became successful without having a blog.

For example, my accountant and her business partner have been in business together for nearly 20 years. Their business is thriving. They don’t have a blog and they don’t need one because they provide good service to their clients. They built their clientele the old-fashioned way – word of mouth advertising. Good service always breeds repeat and referral business – with or without a blog.

Granted, there are plenty of reasons to have a blog. Small businesses with blogs generate 126 percent more leads than businesses that don’t have a blog, according to Social Media Today. (Check out their awesome infographic about blogging.) Also, 81 percent of consumers trust the advice and information from blogs, and 61 percent of consumers made a purchase based on a blog post. Think of a blog as one more tool in your arsenal to market yourself. It’s the cherry on top of your banana split.

But deciding whether to have a blog often depends on two main things: what type of business you operate, and who your clients are. For example,  not-for-profit groups can benefit from a blog as a way to build community support for their cause. Likewise, it’s important for associations to keep a blog to keep its members informed of industry news and association events. While it’s important for a business start up to have some sort of online presence, a blog may not be the most important concern for the short term. Business owners have many decisions to make; whether to start a blog should not be one of them. Focus instead on providing good customer service, and clients will reward you with follow up business.

Before starting a blog for your business or group, here are a few key questions you should ask yourself to decide if having one is worth your while.

1. Do you have the time to devote to it?

Blogging takes a lot of time. Writing one story can take up to three or four hours, especially if you do a lot of research for it. Multiply that time by three to five times per week, or whatever number of weekly posts you strive for, and you can see how easily the work load can pile up, just for your blog. That can take a huge chunk of time away from managing other aspects of your business.

To have any impact, your blog must be updated frequently with good, valuable content. For example, I commit to posting to my blog twice a week. Other businesses I know post at least once or twice a day, while smaller businesses might only post once or twice a week. As long as you post regularly, your readers will learn to expect it from you. Any sudden absence of posts and your readers will wonder where you are. If you cannot commit to working on your blog on a consistent basis, your clients may wonder how committed you are to them.

Bottom line: if you don’t have the time to commit to writing regularly to your blog, then you may be better off without one. Of course, if you still desire to have a blog but don’t have time to work on it, the best solution is to hire someone to manage it for you. Be sure they are good, experienced writers who understand your business and are available to prepare stories on a regular basis. Be prepared to pay them well for their time.

2. What kind of business are you in?

Some businesses are better suited for a blog than others. But I know plenty of small businesses that are successful on their own, and they don’t have a blog. Their success comes from building strong relationships with their clients. Dental offices, accountants, attorneys, and other service professionals usually succeed without a blog, while not-for-profit groups and associations who want to stay in touch with their members or promote their cause can benefit.

3. Why do you want to have a blog for your business?

Are you trying to sell a product or service, demonstrate your knowledge and expertise, or attract new clients? Be clear about your goals. If you want a blog just because you think you should or because your techie nephew says you should, then you may be better off not having one for the time being. If you don’t know why you are doing it, your blog will lack focus and you will quickly lose interest in it.

4. Who is your audience?

Knowing who your clients and customers are and why they do business with you is key to understanding whether or not they will read your blog. Are they reading it because they like the content you are sharing? My accountant doesn’t have the time or the inclination to write a blog for her business. She doesn’t need to because she knows her audience well enough to know that they will keep coming back to her for her service and expertise, not because of a blog.

5. Do you have specific expertise or perspective that other professionals in your industry do not have?

Clearly, if this is the case, you might want to invest the time and energy to manage a blog. However, if you have nothing unique to share, it will be more difficult to come up with compelling content for your blog that sets you apart from competitors.

6. How comfortable are you with writing, and are you good at it?

Let’s face it, many folks just don’t have good writing skills. You could have the best ideas for stories inside your head but if you don’t write well, those ideas will come across as inarticulate and confusing. You could hire a professional writer to translate your ideas, but be sure that the writer has industry knowledge and is able to grasp the concepts you are trying to convey.

Experts say 95 percent of blogs are abandoned after only 120 days. There is nothing more frustrating than visiting a blog that hasn’t been updated in several months. If your blog looks neglected, what does that say about the way you handle your business? Will your clients feel neglected too?

While having a blog can help you attract new clients and showcase your knowledge and expertise, it is not a requirement for success. If anything, it’s a luxury. If you can’t do a blog right – post consistently and provide meaningful, valuable content for your readers – then you are probably better off not doing one at all.