When we climb a mountain, we make progress one step at a time, and we often find ourselves through this process. Online progress is made one word, image, video, and interaction at a time, and we can find ourselves online, too. To do so, we need to practice being as authentically “us” as possible with each tweet, status update, Vine, or Instagram. But who are “we,” especially when we have an entire, dynamic institution to represent? We have to find our voice. Voice underlies everything we do online. And it’s easier and more sustaining to find it than to manufacture it.
Finding one’s voice and showing up as authentic can feel as daunting as taking that first step. Most people asked to manage online engagement aren’t experienced writers or photographers or videographers. We have to make our way through practicing, by reminding ourselves of true north one step, one post at a time.
This practice invites play and experimentation.You can experiment with being serious, sassy, silly, or all of these, or something else entirely, depending on what you’re saying and when you’re saying it. You can explore ways to make your voice welcoming, and to say things in a way that sets the stage for new relationships. You’ll get more comfortable over time by trying things and seeing how they feel to you and how the audience responds.
In this section, you’ll learn how to play with your voice before, during, and after you post social media content. Exercises will ask you to deliver the same information to different audiences, testing different writing styles and tones. You’ll meet people and organizations that are interesting, informative, and fun to follow because they’ve found their voices and use them authentically. You’ll reflect on the values and attitudes you want to model and use as touchstones as you experiment and play with discovering your voice.
If, at this point, you feel overwhelmed that’s just right. At this point in our journey, discomfort and disorientation are understandable signs. The digital landscape changes so fast that feeling disoriented, and feeling your way back to true north, is a skill in and of itself. Push yourself now, reach for your edges. This is a safe environment to be disoriented.
|15 minutes to skim
1 hour exercise
30 minute reflection
30 minutes to explore links
15 minutes to read again
2.5 hours total
Interviews Practitioners on Finding Their Voice
Including voices expands the brand—we’re more embracing, more porous.
We reached out to John Killacky, Executive Director & CEO at the Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont, to gather his insights about cultivating an online organizational identity that invites multiple voices to show, share, converse, and play.
I realized that I should simply be myself.
We reached out to Ranger Greg Dodge, who writes the Nature Watch blog at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina, to learn about how he uses his voice to give audiences a peek at the “nature in between” the larger exhibits.
Exercise Play with Your Voice
Step one: Review the Year
Think about what your organization has produced over the last year. Think about events, programs, publications, products or anything else that comes to mind. Settle on a specific example to work with for this exercise.
Step two: Create an Imaginary Blog Post
Tease out a memory, detail, or series of events from the example you chose that 1) feels special to you, and 2) would likely resonate with your audience.
Imagining that your organization has a blog on its website, create the following three pieces of content for it:
- A headline for your blog post
- A short summary that could be used as a teaser for the post
- A photo that could be used for your post and teaser
Do not write an actual blog post. Writing the headline, summary, and identifying relevant media allow you to play with voice, iterate, and rewrite quickly.
Step three: Craft Messages for Media Platforms
Imagine that your organization publishes regularly on the following channels:
- Monthly Email Newsletter
- Quarterly Direct Mail Postcard
Craft a series of messages for these platforms that will speak specifically to the types of users that follow you there. You do not need to already use these channels to do this exercise, but if your organization does, consider the voice you already use and notice if you adapt it for this exercise. Also, feel free to add additional channels if that seems fruitful to you.
Create content that is specific to each channel. Play with how you use your voice, tone, and the media affordances of each platform.
To continue playing with voice, repeat this activity with another example or select an event, publication, product or program that will occur in the future.
Reflection Stream of Consciousness Writing
Step 1: Gather Your Supplies
For this reflection, we invite you to write in an unfiltered, stream of consciousness style way. To do this you’ll need:
- about 30 minutes
- several sheets of paper and a pen you enjoy using
- relative privacy (if you share an office, let your officemate(s) know you’ll need some quiet time… or put in headphones but don’t listen to music)
- a thoughtful and open mental space
- a timer (your phone does this nicely)
Step 2: Set a Timer and Write
Set a timer for a minimum of 7 minutes (more if you want) and answer the following question: How can you use your voice to serve your community’s needs and aspirations?
Keep writing until the timer goes off and stop writing when the timer goes off no matter where you are in your stream of thought. If you get stuck and do not know what to write about, write about the experience of being stuck.
Step 3: Take a Short Break
Set your timer for five minutes and spend that time doing nothing. Do not check your email or phone or computer. You are free to stretch or walk about or stare aimlessly or close your eyes.
Step 4: Set a Timer and Write Again
Set a timer for the same amount of time you set it to answer the first question and answer this question: What values, attitudes, and behaviors do you model?
Step 5: Take One Last Break
Set your timer a final time, five minutes, and again spend that time doing nothing. At the end of this exercise, you can reread your writing, file it, or even throw it away. The point of the exercise is to do the exercise, not necessarily to revisit what you’ve written unless that feels fruitful to you. Remember there’s no wrong way to do this.
Go Further Resources on Voice
Finding your voice is important work for anyone who experiments with digital engagement. Here are a few resources and readings that will help you discover who you are and communicate that to others.
# 1 – Voice and Tone, from Mailchimp
Mailchimp provides a guide for its employees to help them communicate with the spirit of their voice. It not only serves as an inspiration for how you might disseminate your own voice throughout your organization, but also comprehensively covers areas you might want to play with or focus on finding a voice for—like customer service, email, video, social media, etc. An especially helpful feature is the way the site identifies the likely emotional state of the audience at the time they’re engaging with you and your content.
# 2 – The Four Steps to Finding Your Voice, Stephen R. Covey
In this short guide, Covey explains why finding an organization’s voice is similar to finding your individual voice, and suggests how to go about it by asking yourself four key questions. Written in 2008, this guide is built around what Covey calls the four needs: the need to live, to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy.
# 3 – Storythings
A British-based consultancy that works globally, Storythings creates a weekly e-newsletter with curated examples of effective story telling on digital platforms. Their website is rich with compelling examples from nonprofits, social enterprises and businesses, and offers inspiration for new ways to tell the stories of your organization.
The BBC has a continuously updated “Academy” website with information for people who are creating and reporting news for digital platforms. Beyond its close look at the importance of writing styles and image selection for digital vs. print or other platforms, the guide also addresses legal and other administrative concerns. If you are looking for a U.S.-based hub for digital journalism training, consider the many free courses for individuals and groups offered online by the Poynter Institute’s News University.
# 5 – Writing off the subject, Richard Hugo
From The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, this much-loved essay (PDF download) provides the remarks Hugo made at the beginning of his poetry classes. You can return to this essay for decades and discover new insights that relate to your writing and your craft. Relevant to our course is Hugo’s description of the ways the subject is discovered by the process of writing, not known before we begin.
Finally, pay attention to the online content you find persuasive, memorable, thought-provoking, and fun. We can learn a lot by paying attention to the kinds of content that draw us in and make us want to share, link, and engage.
Think Deeper Know What You're Getting Into
How is voice a responsibility?
Your voice is a reflection of your organization’s mission, content, and character, but having a megaphone that reaches large audiences comes with responsibility as well. What you share can provide a connecting point, but it can also cause individuals to question if they have a place at your organization. In thinking of voice as a responsibility, a few questions arise that can help to look at your practices anew. How do you decide when or what to share? Who do you celebrate? How is your voice an invitation? How might your voice be a barrier?
How can your voice amplify the voices of others?
Rather than thinking of organizational communications as only one-way, digital engagement involves entering into a dynamic, multifaceted conversation. Within this realm, what values do you want your organization to exemplify and how might your voice be an extension of these values? As you grow your audience and gain a larger platform for sharing your ideas, how could your voice also benefit stakeholders who might not have the same reach? How might amplifying the voices of others also serve your mission?