Finding your voice

A primer on how - and why - to write authentically

Remember that feeling of walking into your school cafeteria and sorting out where to sit? Unfortunately, the pressure to fit in doesn't end at school. Lots of people still feel this way at work.

It’s not surprising that we sometimes hide parts of our personality or values in an effort to fit in at work or go along with an organisation’s values or culture.

The rules for this used to be unspoken, but increasingly it’s explicit. Last year, Coinbase’s CEO said don’t bother bringing your views to work — all that matters is our corporate mission. Basecamp followed suit a few months later and promptly lost a third of their team.

It may seem strange to suggest when companies are showing staff the door for being themselves, but bringing your true self to work is a superpower. 

There are tons of benefits to being authentic. Research shows that forcing ourselves to conform is exhausting and hinders our ability to perform. Compare that to acting authentically which frees up mental energy so we can focus on our strengths. This doesn’t even cover the proven psychological benefits for our well being and mental health.

Writing is one of the most powerful tools we have for communicating at work and is a lever for showing our true selves. Authenticity doesn’t automatically make your writing good, but it does make it effective. So how do we do it?

Vulnerability = leadership

Showing vulnerability takes guts, builds trust, and separates leaders from managers. Why?

Research from Harvard Business School sums it up:

“Vulnerability...does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be yourself. It means replacing ‘professional distance and cool’ with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure…

While we may try to appear perfect, strong or intelligent in order to be respected by others, pretense often has the opposite effect intended. We tend to see right through them and feel less connected. Our brains are wired to read cues so subtle that even when we don’t consciously register the cues, our bodies respond…

Why do we feel more comfortable around someone who is authentic and vulnerable?  Because we are particularly sensitive to signs of trustworthiness in our leaders.”

Authenticity is a hallmark of leadership; how can we amplify this in our writing at work? 

We have to communicate in our natural way and overcome any fear of sharing personal experiences — whether they are positive or negative. Learn how to make your own anecdotes part of the story of your project, product, or campaign.

Speak (only) when you have something to say

A corollary to our lesson on vulnerability is that being authentic doesn’t mean making a million decisions every day on how to bare your soul. It’s about knowing the parts of you that are most important and when to show them. This applies to our writing too.

Determining what’s important to you (and how to show it) can be boiled down to an easy formula. Know something? Say so. Don’t know? Don’t hide it.

Our natural tendency is to avoid looking like we don’t have the answers and it’s easy to default to obfuscation in these cases. But hiding uncertainty in jargon, complex terms, or vague assessments should be avoided at all costs.

Learn how to say (or write) “I don’t know”, “This didn’t work”, or “I don’t understand”. Allowing for ambiguity is vulnerability in action and allows us to consider the perspectives of others. 

Break the rules

On a more practical level, bringing authenticity into our writing means finding our own voice. 

This doesn’t mean always going off the cuff with no preparation or totally ignoring the basics of the craft. We have to know the rules to break them. We still have to be willing to edit, take feedback, and rewrite.

But once you have these foundational elements in place, don’t try to copy someone else. You’ll end up failing anyway, so just be yourself.

Want to crack a joke? Find your way to do it. Don’t understand why we write “Best” at the end of our emails? Then drop it. Think writing with emojis is idiotic? Write single spaced. Focus on content and ideas more than grammar or anything Patrick or I tell you to do.

My go-to technique for this is pretty old school. I read aloud to myself what I’ve written. If the main parts aren’t clear or don’t sound like me, I rewrite.

After all, the only kind of writing is rewriting.

(This entire post is worth a caveat — all this depends on your work place being a safe space where honest voices are tolerated. If this doesn’t reflect where you work, take these points with a grain of salt or figure out how you can adapt them to your workplace.)

Finally, I’d like to ask a favour. If you like our newsletter, let us know why and what types of topics you’d like to see us cover more. We want to make sure our writing will help you improve at work.

And, if you like what you read, please share on your social networks. It would help us out.