RECAP | Homegrown: The Sound of Our Own Voice with Jonathan Opp

This month’s Homegrown featured our own past President Ex Officio and current Advisory Board member Jonathan Opp. Jonathan is Chief Poetics Officer & Partner at New Kind. He previously worked with brand teams at Gateway, IBM, and Red Hat.

While at Gateway, Jonathan discovered one of the first tips he shared with us, how to internalize a brand voice. The trick is to imagine the voice of a character and write as you think they would speak. A copywriter suggested imagining the voice of Tom Bodett, the spokesman for Motel 6. You know him, he’s the one who will “leave the light on for you.” While at Red Hat, Jonathan imagined Kevin Spacey to craft a voice that was smart, direct, and honest with a little bit of snark.
Jonathan said the best lesson he learned in his college grammar class: Forget the rules! The key to breaking the rules is making it apparent that you are doing so on purpose. Grammar is a tool to help you find your sense of style. When we read, our brain translates the written language into spoken language. Together, grammar and the use of characters to embody your brand’s voice help readers to hear your brand’s voice the way you imagine it.
If grammar is a tool, then voice is your tool for persuasion. Brands are personalities, they elicit emotions, and to be a great brand they have to stand for something. They need to be a voice that stands apart. The brand voice you choose gives energy to your brand.
Jonathan outlined four chapters that make up the process of crafting a brand voice. Starting with the two key elements of voice: Your perspective and your personality.

Chapter 1: Discovering Stories

Perspective is something unique to say, while personality is a unique way to say it. To attain this, start with your unique story to tell—your brand and your own personal story. A brand story is a discovery, you have to go out and look for it. Start with an audit. Answer these questions about your company:

+ Who is it?
+ What does it care about?
+ What does it want to be?
+ In a constantly changing world, what about your organization has always been true?

When you uncover the core of your brand story, you have defined your mission.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” ~Simon Sinek
Your brand story is not just about the products or services you offer, it’s about what people can do with them. People buy self-esteem, accomplishment, belonging, self-fulfillment, satisfaction. Tap into these unspoken motivators to unearth talking points the reader can relate to. Start with a basic value statement then ask “why?” Keep asking why to get to the core value.

Chapter 1: Discover stories

+ Voice audit

+ Simplify messages

+ Universal truths

+ Find your why

Chapter 2: Personify the Brand

Personality is how you say what you have to say. It’s how the Tom Bodett in Jonathan’s imagination spoke for Gateway, or Kevin Spacey inspired phrases like “Your mother was right. It’s better to share.” for open source leader, Red Hat.

People are complex and it can be hard to describe what a personality is, partly due to the fact that situations dictate how personality is expressed. The more you understand the story, the better you can write for different situations.
Jonathan shared three activities that he uses with clients to help establish personality for their brand.
Activity: Celebrity Spokesperson

If you could choose any one celebrity to represent your company who would it be? The value in this exercise is the conversation that goes into choosing the celebrity more so than choosing who that person is. The discussion uncovers the values and traits that define your brand. What traits in the chosen celebrity’s personality do you want to leverage for your brand’s voice?

Activity: Plot your Personality

Compare your current brand messaging with what you want it to be. Plot it on a scale. Is the personality:

+ humble or arrogant
+ serious or funny
+ sincere or sarcastic
+ all business or all fun
+ subtle or direct
+ logical or emotional
+ informative or persuasive

Use the plot map to refocus and revise your messaging.

Activity: Legendary Character

This exercise is more about identifying roles than establishing personality traits. Create a character that embodies the spirit and culture of your brand. What is their role? As you write your brand story, position users and customers as the heroes in the story. Your role is as a mentor that guides the hero.

Chapter 2: Personify The Brand

+ Celebrity spokesperson

+ Personality traits

+ Legendary character

Chapter 3: Create Standards

Brand Standards are the structure that ties things together. The purpose is to allow individual creativity while maintaining cohesiveness across the brand. Outline what few things need to be the same so that everything else can be different. This allows your team to speak as a chorus of individual voices.

Brand Standards Guide/Voice

+ Story

+ Mission and values

+ Voice principles

+ Messaging architecture

+ Core messaging

+ Audience personas

+ Style guide

Your team needs to understand that your brand is shaped by its personality. They way it looks, sounds, and acts expresses the mission and values of the organization. It’s the values that influence the mission. A mission is not stating what you do, it states why you do it.
People need to understand why they need the guide and why it’s important to maintain the brand standards. It is critical to understand who they are speaking to. Focus on emotions and be clear the document is for everyone. Create the guide with the client—they need to feel a part of it. Stakeholder buy in will be better if they feel ownership in creating the brand standards.
Write the guide in the voice of the brand. Create it as a living document the embodies the brand. Be the change you want to see in the brand.
Be sure to include examples of what to do along with examples of what not to do. Think of the rules as guardrails that keep your team on track and on brand. Don’t put in anything that you would not be proud to see in the outside world. Live the brand in the brand guide.

Chapter 3: Create Standards

+ Speak as a chorus

+ Codify language

+ Reinforce the brand

Chapter 4: Express your voice

“Remember the reader and the result.”  ~Lindsay Camp
When writing for your brand you need to understand the reader and their problem so that your message is something they can relate to.
“You can’t write if you can’t relate.” ~Beck
When you begin writing, imagine having a conversation with the reader. Don’t write a research paper for a mass audience. Converse with one person. Assume this person is in a hurry and you only have two minutes of their attention. What do they need to know in order to do what you want them to do?
“A man in the street who talks to himself is listening to a fool, A copywriter who talks to himself is a genius” ~Malcolm Gluck
When you begin to write, go back to your brand’s greatest hits, your best examples, and re-read them to help internalize the voice. Notice the style and use it to influence what you write next.
Shorten your sentences like Hemingway did. It forces you to write more like you would speak. Aim to be short and direct like the Holstee manifesto. A Manifesto is a great way to tell story of how your brand started, and explain your global movement.

Jonathan uses to keep readability stats in check. Aim for 12 words or less per sentence. Say things with small words. They sound important.

Write like a designer, use hierarchy to guide attention, chunking to make it approachable, simplify to reduce an idea to its essential message. Don’t be afraid of a little seasoning: Alliteration, repetition, and rule breaking can liven up your writing.
We have a gift as communicators, we find meaning, purpose, and the good in our brands. Jonathan asks, What good will you use your voice for?

By Amy Lyons
Published October 25, 2015