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Supporting image for How to Develop a Voice for Your Brand – @ambercadabra
How to Develop a Voice for Your Brand – @ambercadabra
The Agents of Change

To communicate effective with your audience, your brand needs to speak to them in a way your listeners – and prospects – can relate to, understand and trust. But how do we do that effectively when there are so many different styles that appeal to so many different people? The key is to find the most authentic, unforced version of who you are and what you stand for, and build on that.

Amber Naslund has helped numerous brands – spanning all aspects of business – to find their brand’s best voice to resonate with their particular audiences.

Rich: Amber Naslund is a seasoned marketing and communications strategist, with deep experience in digital transformation and the power of social media. Her professional expertise spans nonprofit management, corporate communications, marketing, professional services, and social business strategy.

She has successfully run multimillion dollar fundraising campaigns, built and led executive communication and professional services teams, and launched and grown international brands. As an entrepreneur and executive, she has advised Fortune 500 companies like L’Oréal, American Express, AMD, Dell, Avia, CDW, Kraft Foods, and Coca-Cola – as well as their executives – on social business strategy and new workforce culture.

Amber is also the co-author of the best-selling social business book, The Now Revolution, which sits on my bookshelf right now. She delivers dozens of keynote speeches on corporate cultures, social business and communications at industry conferences and private events every year. Amber, welcome to the show.

Amber: Thank you, that sounds so impressive when you read it.

Rich: If you want, I will just introduce you wherever you go.

Amber: That sounds great, I’m going to hire you as my personal introductory guy.

Rich: Sure. Speaking events, just walking down the street you can run into people.

Amber: Yeah, who needs a business card when you’ve got Rich.

Rich: Exactly. I don’t come cheap. So one of the things I know you’re pretty well respected for is your ability to talk about developing a voice for your brand. How did you come upon this area of expertise?

Amber: That’s actually a funny and winding story, but I credit that mostly to two places. One is my mother, because she is the one that got me into writing, and when I was a kid if I asked her what a word meant or how to express something, she would tell me either to write it out or look it up. So I had lots of practice expressing myself that way as a kid.

Then I went into nonprofit work as a professional, and I think in the nonprofit world – especially fundraising, like I was doing – there’s a specific need to tell a very compelling story, but to tell it very authentically and in a way that people can connect to emotionally and to believe. So I got to kind of cut my chops on that in the fundraising world, because if you don’t do that well, nobody’s going to give you money. So I got lots of practice.

Rich: That makes sense. So why is it so important for a brand or a company to develop its voice, and what does that mean exactly?

Amber: Well today I think it’s the sheer volume of noise and competition out there that demands that brands have to have something distinctive to say. There’s only so many unique stories in the world, but everybody has a unique perspective on the story they bring to the table. So I think being able to do that in a world that’s increasingly noisy, competitive. 

The digital era has brought an entirely new level of voice competition to the fray, and I think doing that is a combination of two things. One is there’s mechanics behind it, understanding best practices of communication and a little of the “do’s and don’ts”. But then there is the unique aspect of what each brand or person or organization brings, and that’s the unique input into that persona.

So you can have all the best mechanics for communication, but what do you uniquely bring to the game that nobody else can replicate. Which of course sounds much easier said than done. But the combination of the mechanics and then that super magic sauce that only you can bring, is really what makes a distinctive, important voice.

Rich: Ok, so you said brands must have something distinctive to say. So is it then the story or the words that we use?  When you first started talking about developing your own voice, to me that’s often about word choice or your visuals or something like that. I mean, obviously there’s a million other companies out there doing digital marketing, so for me, I’m probably going to say a lot of the same things about SEO or mobile marketing. But I always thought that developing my own voice was about “how” do I say it. Do I say it seriously, informative, irreverent, do I drop F-bombs like Gary B. That’s more in my mind what it means to be developing my voice or my brand’s voice. Are you suggesting that it’s more than just that?

Amber: Absolutely I am. So you hit on a couple of the things that I would put in the category of “mechanics”. So the word choice that you use is a function of vocabulary, and then you talked a little bit about personality. So are you irreverent, are you incredibly formal, are you a little bit cheeky. All those things are choices that everybody makes, none of which are right or wrong. The important thing there is there’s a place for all of those things. I think the key is finding the combination that works for you.

But then you touched on the thing that is the unique aspect of any “voice”, which is the story.  As you said, there is only so many words to go around, and there’s only so many combinations of words and personality and platforms and media to go around. So what really makes one person or one brand stand out from another is that unique story, the legacy that they’ve   created, the customer experiences that they have to share, the hands on in the trenches stories that can relate to other people.

So whether you’re a marketing agent or whether you’re a nonprofit organization, whether you’re an e-commerce company, somewhere in there there’s a whole bunch of things that uniquely make you, you.  And the combination of that with those mechanics is really what makes up your voice.

Rich: Alright. So you shared with us the beginning, your journey in terms of where you are to become a master or an expert in finding your voice. Are there specific steps – if we’re just starting out or don’t feel that we’ve developed a good voice – that marketers or entrepreneurs can take to really start to develop their voice and create whatever it is, whether it’s irreverent or informative?

Amber: Yeah, there absolutely are. And I’ll try to keep this succinct because you can go down the rabbit hole with this one. But I think a lot of people get overwhelmed thinking what they want to be and what they want to communicate, and so I’m a fan of starting with what you don’t, what’s out of bounds for you. IN other words, you mentioned Gary B  and he’s famous for dropping 75 F-bombs within a speech, and some people may think that’s amazing and that should be part of their rant. They like that irreverence and edginess. Other people, that’s completely off limits. So creating a list of your hard limits is an important place to start. 

The second is to look at other voices online – or off – that you admire or that resonates with you in some particular way, and start to ask yourself why they do. Is it the tone of their voice, is it the personality that they infuse. Is it something about their backstory or their legacy that you find particularly compelling? Some people are really turned on by the Tony Robbins of the world, and some people are really turned off by that style. So trying to investigate a little about what you feel resonates with you and what doesn’t is a good place to start, especially if you’re not quite sure where to begin.

Rich: I would guess that finding a space – if there’s a Venn diagram – of what does my audience want to listen to, and what am I comfortable with.  People may be drawn to a Tony Robbins, but if that feels really alien to you, I can’t imagine you can fake it for very long.

Amber: Exactly. There is definitely an element of authenticity that has to go into this. Nobody is good at sustaining something that they have to fake for a very long time. From a personal perspective I’ve often struggled with the fact that my style tends to be a little more irreverent, and I tend to have a little bit of an edge to my personality. There are lots of times where professional decorum would dictate that maybe I should back off on that because I’m a professional representative of companies and I need to walk that line very carefully. And I’ve learned that some of that is just who I am.

I can temper cursing online, but I can’t necessarily temper being passionate about the things that I believe in. And trying to do that has the end result of me having a very stilted inauthentic voice. And frankly, I end up with not much to say because I feel censored. So making sure that you’re finding that balance. There’s a place and a niche for everyone, and again, there’s no right or wrong in this. It’s really a matter of what resonates with you, and of course what resonates with the audience you’re trying to reach.  

Rich: Alright, that’s interesting, and that actually begs a question. I have been the voice of flyte new media for coming up on 20 years now – which is crazy – and I’ve also been primarily the voice behind the Agents Of Change – literally, as part of this podcast – but also when I was doing some writing for that as well. What’s the difference between your own voice and the voice of your business?

Amber: I get that question a lot, and similarly I’m usually playing one role as the marketing exec for a company or the evangelist for a company, and then I have my own personal brand online. I think the difference is when you’re in the role of being the voice for an organization or an entity, I think in that case you have the obligation and the duty to always keep in mind the audience or the community or the customers you serve. So the voice that you have in that capacity needs to serve that audience, because frankly they’re the ones that are fueling that business or organization. So we need to keep their interests and tastes in mind when we do that.

Chances are if you’ve done a good job in understanding the customer, you have a pretty good idea of what they’re looking for from the voice or representative of the company. When you’re on an individual basis, obviously the only person you really need to please at the end of the day is you. But when you’re in a company capacity, you definitely need to keep in mind that there are other stakeholders that need to care about that kind of stuff. So whether it’s other employees, your customers – and frankly the public audience as a whole which is made up of your potential customers or prospects in the future – those people are watching and listening, so it’s always important to bear in mind that your future customers are probably paying attention, too.

Rich: Ok, as we’re working through this and we’re running a small business with maybe multiple employees, how do we develop a voice – or can we even – that multiple people can use? I mean, often the owner of a company isn’t necessarily the person blogging and podcasting. I know when I’m working with my creative designer, he’ll create a brand spec for how to use the logo and colors and all that stuff, is there something similar that we can develop either formally or informally when it comes to voice?

Amber: Yeah, I think so. But I’m also a little bit of a non-traditionalist when it comes to this. I come from the world of traditional marketing and branding, so we always had the brand book and all that stuff, and there has been lots and lots of effort given by our PR firms and our agencies saying, “Here is the brand’s voice, here are the kind of words we want to use, here is the tone we’re after.” And I think to a certain degree it can provide those sorts of guide rails.

But frankly I think if you have multiple people where a community or team is running your frontline social media, or you have a handful of people who are your executive bench, and they are the ones going out and doing industry speeches, I think it’s actually counterproductive to try to ask all of those for one singular voice, because it almost feels forced, you feel like you’re handing people scripts and asking them to follow along, versus leveraging the strengths of each individual person.

So for instance, when a lot of people come to see me talk they like that I’m sure energetic and I tell a lot of jokes.  And that may work for me, but it might not work for my colleague, Don, who’s a lot more formal with the way that he presents. He’s incredibly data driven and he’s a super data geek, so his strengths are in the authenticity of the content that he provides. If he tried to force it with a bunch of goofy antics and jokes like I might use on stage, it would come across as incredibly inauthentic.

So I think there’s a point where you have to give people some guidelines, but also allow them to use the differences of their personality and their individual experiences to create a voice within that box that works for them.

Rich: Alright, makes a lot of sense. So another issue that might come up with people involved in digital marketing is how many social platforms we have to work on. We’ve got a Facebook page, we’ve got a blog, a podcast. How can we stay consistent in our voice across these platforms, or should we? Should we let the platform itself kind of dictate the voice that we use?

Amber: Yeah, I do think it’s a little bit of both. Sort of like I said before, I think there’s something to be said for drawing yourself a sketchy little box and saying I’m not going to stray too far in any particular direction. But each of the platforms out there has a definitive niche that it fits.

So LinkedIn is more professional by nature, and if you throw a goofy meme in the newsfeed, people kind of react weird like that doesn’t belong here. Snapchat is quite the opposite where it’s very informal and super spontaneous. So anything that feels a little too contrived is out of place there. So I do think that you have to be mindful of the dynamics of each of these platforms and adjust accordingly.

I also give everybody the guideline that don’t try to be everywhere. I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed and say these are the next three new shiny objects that are on the scene, and we all have to claim to be there. And frankly that may not be the right fit for your company or audience. So picking a couple of platforms and doing them exceedingly well is always going to be more valuable and have more impact than trying to do everything but do it poorly.

Rich: You must see a lot of mistakes that people are making. What are some of the things that make you cringe when you see people out there working on their voice or their brand’s voice?

Amber: One of the ones that’s my favorite on an individual level is the all too common disclaimer. So maybe people will put in their Twitter bio or their LinkedIn bio, “these thoughts are my own”. And I understand where that comes from, because everybody wants to do a little bit of “CYA” and make sure that they’re not speaking on behalf of their company when it’s just them. The reality is those disclaimers don’t so anything except help the company disclaim you if you misbehave. So what it doesn’t do is remove accountability from you.

I think one of the hard truths for a lot of people these days is trying to separate your online and offline personas, or your personal and professional. It’s virtually impossible. If you represent a company online, and you’re also online personally, with the exception of locking everything down to private audiences and being incredibly mindful of what you share and how.

 I think it’s very difficult to not allow the peas to touch the mashed potatoes. And I think it’s a little unrealistic, actually, to think that you can maybe go out there and go on a rant on Twitter or Facebook and say something about politics these days and not expect that to reflect on your professional work. So I think being mindful of the fact that those two things kind of do go hand in hand, and that you do need to be responsible for those things, is really important. 

On the brand side, we actually sort of touched on where one of the biggest mistakes I see is brands trying to dictate to the letter what their public representatives and employees are allowed to say or not say online, to the point where they stifle conversation. And then you get employees who would like to participate and be part of brand-side conversation, but are so afraid of stepping on a line or getting in trouble that they don’t. You’re quashing a level of employee advocacy that you could have, whereas I think the solution is more education and teaching and training about the implications of online behavior, but not trying to dictate to the letter what people can and can’t say.   

Rich: Alright. Before we got on the call, you and I were chatting a little bit, and one of the things that you mentioned was this term, “strength of voice”. Can you talk a little bit to that?

Amber: Absolutely. It’s kind of my pet phrase right now, and I’m not sure that that phrase will stick, it’s a little cumbersome to me. But it means something important. To me,” strength of voice” is the ability to say something with enough conviction and courage and believability that other people are compelled to not only listen, but take action.

So for some it’s about having influence, but to me y9u can have a strength of voice and a conviction without a lot of volume. So you may be talking to one person or you could be talking to a million, it doesn’t really matter. I think today what compels a voice – between being one of many and being something that really stands out in the marketplace – is actually to have a strength and conviction and this courage and passion behind it that allows people to know that; a) it’s human, b) it’s driven by something more than vocabulary in a script, and c) that it is something that you want to share with other people and hope that they’ll come along with you.

So I think what separates the men from the boys or the girls from the women, is that ability to have a strength of voice, not just one that’s loud.

Rich: That’s a good distinction. So this has been great and I’ve learned a lot, I’m sure people are going to want to dig a little deeper.  So Amber, where can people find you online?

Amber: Oh gosh, all over the place. You can find me on Twitter at @ambercadabra, if Twitter is your jam. You can find me on the web at ambernaslund.com, and of course on all the usual sites, Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat, I’m all over the place.

Rich: Alright, we’ll have those links in the show notes. Amber, thank you so much for coming here and sharing your voice with us. I’d love to have you back sometime.

Amber: Thank you, Rich, I’d love to do that.

Show Notes: