Thursday, January 28, 2010

Talk like Barack?

Want to talk like Barack Obama? Or do you prefer a little Jon Stewart? It’s easy to change your writing voice to fit the occasion.

My No. 1 advice here is that you write in your own voice first. Focus on content. Only after you know your content is relevant and compelling should you then begin to apply a final varnish.

Voice is varnish, the glossy finish you apply at the end of your creative process.

To talk like Barack, do this:

· Add sweeping references to time

· Emphasize continuity and evolution

· Make all efforts and problems collective

· Use colloquialisms like “look,” “you’re going to see,” “you’re going to have”

· Use multi-syllable words unless talking about human beings

Let’s say, for example, your company is introducing … um, well, let’s call it a tablet computer. The PR team is asked to pitch a case study about the “Smart Tablet” being used by teachers in the classroom. But someone says, “Can you make it inspirational, kind of like an Obama speech?”

The marketing department will hand you this:

Fireside Inc., the leading provider of innovative computing technology, today announced that the Springville Central School District has become the first educational institution in Texas to deploy the innovative new breakthrough Smart Tablet computer with elegant form factor and intuitive interface featuring the X-Blast 1400 operating system, potentially revolutionizing the delivery of classroom instruction.

To Barack-ify it, say goodbye to leading provider, form factor, intuitive interface, deploy, breakthrough, revolutionize and delivery.

Add Abraham Lincoln, use the word “kids” for the human recipients of the instruction, and replace Fireside and Springville with “all of us.”

New version:

I think Abraham Lincoln described this best. And perhaps I’m paraphrasing a little bit here, but he basically said, look, I think it is very important to acknowledge that we can collectively give our kids a decent education much more effectively than we can individually.

Sounds like him, doesn’t it? Problem is, the person who told you to sound like an Obama speech didn’t really mean quite that. To get through the approval process, you’ll need to reel it back in.

My suggestion: Keep much of the original lead paragraph (minus the jargon and hyperbole), but replace multi-syllable words with one-syllable words where possible – for example, say school, not institution.

Let your executive sound like Obama in a quotation. Delete Abe Lincoln, but keep the feeling of “we’re all in this together.”

“I’ve got kids of my own and, as a parent, I recognize the enormous potential for the technology industry to lend a helping hand to schools. Collectively we can do a tremendous job of helping youngsters acquire the education they’ll need to carry the dream forward in the decades that stretch before them.”

At the end of this post, I’ve listed Obama words.

But now let’s look at Jon Stewart, host of the satirical news program “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Maybe your marketing department likes the fact that he’s smart and funny, and wants to appeal to consumers who would like to think of themselves as smart and funny, or wish they were.

Unfortunately, you might end up with something like this:

Speaking of education – and someone’s got to – a mentoring program in Texas is giving teachers new tablet computers. Some believe the tablets are smarter than the teachers.


OK, so now you realize that you don’t really want to sound like Jon, though it was a nice idea.

Still, you can capture a bit of his smartness, if not his humor at the expense of others, by doing this:

· Focus on the “why”

· Add connotation

· Emphasize contrasts

· Use highly precise vocabulary

It might look something like this:

Looks like a clipboard. But a tremendous amount of ingenuity makes the Fireside Smart Tablet an eloquent new contender in a teacher’s instructional arsenal. Traditional textbooks and ordinary notebooks are at a disadvantage in several respects. For one thing, the Smart Tablet’s infrared sensor captures the notes scribbled in the margin and files them. And a built-in microphone matches the notes to the lecture. So in terms of accuracy, it is, well, impeccable.

Many companies fear this degree of clarity and attitude in a product comparison. And key people in the approval process tend to appreciate formality and decorum.

So what I’m really saying is: Voice matters less than you think. People hate it when I say this. They miss a beat in the conversation as their eyes quickly shoot directly to mine, then dart away and soften while they censor their thoughts. It's like I've taken something from them. They love to feel they are writing in “the client’s voice” or “a cross between the voice of Barack Obama, Jon Stewart and Sandra Bullock.”

But what matters more than words are deeds. Keep it plain, keep it clear, and keep your customers’ needs front and center. Actions do in fact speak louder than words.

Barack Obama: enormous, important, recognition, if you have, then you’re going to see, you’re still going to have, we’re going to see, and once we’ve completed that assessment, then I think that we take a look at, and the question is, that tells me we’re probably in the right place, legacies of the past, certain amount of lag time, transition period, formative years, acknowledge the degree to which, perpetuity, continued grievances, unsentimental, pragmatic, mutual, meeting of the minds, provide social justice, system that works, complete disorder, allow people to advance based on, pursue prosperity, being thoroughly scrubbed, point number one, individual determination, relinquish capacity, mechanisms of, cut out, whole bunch, consistently spoken out, civic institutions, again we are tested, and again we must answer history's call, the spirit that has sustained this nation for more than two centuries lives on in you, the people

Jon Stewart: maniacal, eloquent, upsetting, vexing, indicted, obtuse, periphery, penetrate, dictate, credibility, disparage, fake, intervention, vociferous, scandal mongering, unpunished fraud perpetrated, theatrical farce, cahones to stand up to him, distinguished gentlemen, being swayed, lawns to mow and kids to pick up from school, hiding things, why is…, why are…, fractured mirror to reveal greater truth, play craps, bet with the table, ended up losing