Can You Hear Me Now?

It’s spring, which can only mean two things:

  1. I’m a year older than I was last spring.
  1. It’s time for the high school talent show.

I’ll spare you the decrepit details on #1, so let’s talk about the second.

Each spring, here in my little town of Hopkinton Massachusetts, the high school puts on a talent show.

Although technically accurate, it should really be called a music show.

Because while there is the occasional brave soul who steps up with performance art or stand-up comedy, a good 95% of the twenty or so acts are musical.

And let me tell you, these kids are talented. Guitars, drums, mandolins, horns and lots and lots of singing. It’s an event I always try to attend.

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But there is one problem: The audio is never very good. More specifically, it’s hard to hear the voices over the instruments.

This year, I figured out why. Most kids don’t appreciate the significance of the microphone.

They sing towards it, more or less. But not directly into it and not consistently. It’s like listening to a live demonstration of The Doppler Effect (look it up), minus the passing train.

For me, this one factor is the difference between the best and the worst performances. Nearly everybody up there can sing; I just can’t hear most of them.

When it comes to writing, “voice” is also the difference between the best and the worst.

My belief in you as expert; my willingness to pay attention; my overall assessment of you as somebody I might hire … it’s not really about your level of talent.

If it were, we wouldn’t call it marketing. We’d call it, “An efficient marketplace in which the most qualified professionals rise to the top and are consistently chosen by objective, rational prospective clients.”

Not only is that a terrible name for a field of study, it’s not the way the world works. Because while reality and marketing are well acquainted, they’re not blood relatives, let alone identical twins.

As in the talent show, what matters most is how easily I can hear you above the noise.

In particular, it comes down to whether or not I can hear an actual, authentic, human being behind the words you write.

Do you have to be smart and experienced and knowledgeable? Sure. The problem is that all your competitors have that in equal measure. (At least as far as your prospective clients can tell.)

What they don’t have is your particular voice and personality. The voice and personality that helps me feel like I know you, can trust you and might want to meet you.

But if you hide that behind a fog of, “please listen closely as our menu options have changed,” corporate blah blah, you sound as formulaic and unrecognizable as the fourth consecutive guitar band in a high school talent show.

We may understand what you’re saying, but we feel no connection. And we certainly won’t notice if you never sing again.

Which is why I have two recommendations for finding – and using – your authentic voice when you write:

  1. Tell stories from your own experience.
    When things happen to you, write about it. When you attend a high school talent show, look for the connection between that experience and a larger business lesson that relates to the work you do.

    Not only does that make it more interesting, because your experiences are unique, they help people get to know you better (an important step on the road to them hiring you).

  1. Use “non-business” words in your business writing.
    “Decrepit,” “brave soul,” “fog,” “The Doppler Effect.” Did you think those words just showed up accidentally? No, I put them there on purpose to sound more human. Fo’shizzle.

    If you take them out, because you’re trying to look “professional” in a business setting, all you’re doing is blending back in with the dull and undifferentiated crowd.

Here’s the bottom line. “Better writing” is (mostly) not the result of better information or more compelling insights.

More than anything, it’s about finding and using your authentic voice in a way that other people can see who’s standing behind the words.

If you can do that, I can almost guarantee you’ll place well in this year’s talent show.

And speaking of talent, to watch my son Jonathan performing a song from the show that I bet you know, click here (that’s him on the right, singing into the microphone thank you very much).

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you have any special talents? Explain.
  1. Do you have any tips for maintaining an authentic voice in your writing?
  1. Why do they keep telling me that the menu options have changed? Do they think I had memorized the previous order?

Share your comments below!


24 thoughts on “Can You Hear Me Now?

  1. Gwen Kendall

    Fo’shizzle I too dislike those “Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed!” Our small business has real people who answer the phone every day — well except weekends when we’re all having fun doing other “stuff”!

    LOVE your insight and humor which is always evident in every single newsletter of yours, Michael Katz!

  2. Bruce Horwitz

    1) Of course, aren’t we all special! Does grating on people’s nerves count as a special talent?

    2) Try to think about telling your subject to a spouse or friend and avoid jargon.

    3) Actually, they change menu choices just to be sure that you can’t get where you are going quickly. What really annoys me is getting a message (email/snail mail) that says “if you have xyz issue, please call us at 321-555-1212, and when you get there, it is the general help/info line, not specifically aimed at xyz AND maybe doesn’t even have your issue as a menu item…so you have to wait to get to the human anyway.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Bruce! If #1 were well paid I think you’d have found your calling.

      And I like your #2 a lot!

  3. Dana Leigh Lyons

    1. My handstands and backbends are decent. And I’m honing my skills as a Siamese cat whisperer.

    2. I try not to be too careful. More like I’m talking to a friend over coffee than a room full of coiffed strangers in uncomfortable suits.

    3. What? You don’t memorize the menu options?

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      1. Photos please.
      2. “Coiffed Strangers in Uncomfortable Suits” would be a great name for an ’80s rock band.
      3. Embarrassed to say I have not been.

  4. Susie

    Well Michael, yours was a good post. But your son, well, his band left me smiling through the whole performance! I love seeing talent bloom and flourish and young people putting it out there. Exhilarating!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Susie! I agree. I find it particularly fun at these things when my wife points out some kid who’s now way bigger than I am and reminds me that he was some kid from 10 years ago that I hadn’t seen since!

  5. Ramona

    Hey Michael! I really like that these business lessons really apply to communication in all areas of life, and no larger than life as in show business!

  6. Michael Rhoda

    1. I can hypnotize chickens…a skill I picked up in El Salvador in 1979. Have yet to commercialize this talent, though.
    2. I read out loud what I’ve written to see if it sounds conversational. In the process, I will often replace words or phrases as I go without even realizing it until my wife/unofficial editor says, “that’s not what you wrote.” Usually, those on-the-fly revisions are improvements.
    3. I don’t mind if their menu options have changed because they had me at “your call is important to us” (as they put me on hold).

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I’m still stuck (hypnotized?) by your #1, Michael! Tell us more (and does this mean you can help them stop smoking?).

      1. Michael Rhoda

        All you need is a willing—or at least captive—chicken, a patch of dirt, and a 6-inch twig. You gently but firmly place one hand around the back of the chicken’s neck while positioning its “chin” on the soil. The chicken’s body should now be somewhat in a “downward dog” yoga stance. With your free hand, you repeatedly draw a straight line in the dirt with your twig, starting just in front of the tip of the chicken’s beak and drawing directly away from the chicken at a distance of about 4 inches or so. As you repeat this process, you will feel the chicken’s neck muscles begin to relax and you’ll sense an overall calmness in the bird. At that point, you draw away from the chicken with your twig for the last time and slowly remove yourself from the area. The chicken will remain in a trance in that position until a passing truck backfires or some sudden movement catches its attention.
        Now that I’ve given up my secret, my Plan B occupation is no longer an option. I better make this email newsletter thing work …

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Why am I not surprised that my familiarity with what’s cool is outdated (does this mean I should stop shouting Booyah! at sporting events and Bar Mitzvahs?)?

    1. Bruce Horwitz

      dial a human is the reason their menu choices have changed! as DaH says:

      Sometimes a company discovers you know the “back line” or shortcut prompts and they change them so that they can “maintain employee efficiency”

  7. Diane Spadola

    1. I can twist cherry stems into knots with no hands….
    2. I try to tell the story as if sharing it over dinner to people who really really like me…I call it the “Sally Field” technique. If they laugh, it’s a keeper, if not….
    I try again with a different bunch of people….
    no seriously, I rework or tell a different story.
    3. Because, like inserting new keywords in your web site to cheat the google SEO algorithm, it gives us (the callers) the impression that they are updating their customer service lines continually, when it reality…..NOT SO MUCH.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      1. I’m kind of afraid, then, to ask how you do it. Hypnosis?
      2. Great tip.
      3. Could be!


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