Search Optimization

A Ghost Who Knows Your Voice

GhostwritingYou’re convinced you need to blog, publish a newsletter, tweet, or produce white papers. Problem is, you either don’t have time or can’t write well enough to do the job yourself. You think “ghostwriter” but then shrink away after asking:

  • Can an outsider understand my business?
  • Can a ghostwriter sound like me or like my business?
  • Will it take more time and effort to manage a ghostwriter than it would to do the work myself?

All three questions can be answered in a word. “MAYBE.”

I ghostwrite for financial professionals — primarily advisors, accountants and attorneys. When someone asks me whether they’re a candidate for a ghostwriter, I ask questions of my own:

  • Who’s your audience?
  • What are your key messages?
  • Do you have an editorial calendar?
  • What’s the “voice” of your business?
    • Is it edge-y because the business develops cutting edge technologies?
    • Is it reassuring because it’s in health care?
    • Is it frisky because it sells to teens and tweens?

If you can’t answer these questions, you’ve got work to do before you begin your search for the perfect ghost.

Start with an editorial calendar

No matter what kind of product or service you provide, if you’re going to publish anything — from a newsletter to a social media update — you need a plan. Start with key messages and an editorial calendar. If you need help with this or other marketing/public relations tasks,  look for a writer who can provide that expertise.

A ghostwriter should have a working understanding of how search engine optimization (SEO) works, but beware the writer who tries to convince you to write in a stilted style to feed the search bots; this does not serve you well with human readers. If a prospective writer says something like “I  write according to a formula — I’ll put your top three key words in the title and front load the first two sentences with the top ten,” you’re not talking to a ghostwriter, you’re talking to a copywriter. There’s a difference.

Create a pool

Key messages and an editorial calendar in hand, tap your professional circles first. With so many corporate communications departments being downsized, domain experts who write well are a LinkedIn search away. I focus my practice on financial and economic topics because I know them best and don’t require any ramp up time. If someone called asking me to write about biotech I’d decline.

Whether a domain expert can effectively ghost for you is another matter. You’ll need to refine the search by chemistry, mutually-acceptable work styles, pricing, etc.

Audition

A good ghostwriter is in demand. Plan to interview a few potential writing partners and perhaps audition one or two of them.

Already writing a newsletter? Give the writer an earlier version and ask what they’d do differently. Never written one before? Give the writer three news topics and ask how they would propose to learn your voice before delving into the writing process. I use a voice recorder to interview my client on the topics (more on that below).

I will sometimes offer to do an audition piece on spec with the understanding that if the client hires me I’ll bill them for the work, but only if I feel the chemistry is right and there’s no risk on my side that they’ll love my work. If they don’t hire me they can’t use my audition piece in any shape or form.

Getting the voice right

If your business is more than “you” I recommend appointing a spokesperson for whom the ghost writes.  A spokesperson need not be a real person — think Geico gecko. The ghostwriter needs to slip into the spokesperson’s persona so if you don’t want to appoint a spokesperson you don’t need a ghostwriter, you need a copywriter.

I ask my clients to use a digital recorder when working with me; the digital file is easily attached to email. Listening to their recordings, I  glean from their inflection what matters to them most and pick up key words or phrases that they favor. I also find that people say more when speaking than when writing.  Clients may think they have two articles for their newsletter but when they start talking about the subjects I might “hear” three articles and a blog post.

One final note: In a ghostwriting relationship there’s a fair amount of front loading before the ghost can successfully get into a productive rhythm.  Hire someone who already knows your business/industry/profession so they’ll hit their stride more quickly. While a current staff member might be qualified for the job, don’t foist the job on an insider if they’re not the RIGHT person. The right hire will save time and effort.

For more on this topic, here’s my blog.

Good luck.

Tamela RichTamela Rich, “An MBA Who Writes like an English Major,” lives in Charlotte, NC. Follow her on Twitter @TamelaRich or sign up for her monthly newsletter.

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  • Thanks for asking, Brian.

    Writing and speaking both use words, but in distinctly different ways. My job is writing for a client in a way that's appropriately formal for the medium while using phrasing and metaphors that the audience recognizes as being consistent with the client's speech. For example, Warren Buffet often uses references to sex to illustrate his points ("You can't produce a baby in a month by getting nine women pregnant"), while many politicians use the language of baseball.

    Being an intuitive interviewer helps me guide clients to their authentic voices. If we start with a fairly sizable project, perhaps a website or an article or a series of blog posts, we hit a groove pretty quickly. We might begin by roughing out an outline or defining key messages, but I go into interview mode with the voice recorder (preferably) as soon as possible. It also works to start with something someone else wrote -- for example an article in a trade publication or a news item. I draw the client out on the areas of disagreement with the original writer and follow that trail. If they don't disagree, I'll ask the client to tell me about cases where they've applied the article's information and go from there. I can't speak for other professional writers' techniques, but as you see, mine relies on interviewing the client.

    As for different voices, a client might use one voice with employees and another with clients and that's fine. If you take that approach, be consistent with each audience. Inconsistency is a dead giveaway that someone besides the attributed writer is actually doing the work.

  • Thanks for the response! I like your approach. It's seems to be a good way to "find" a company's communications style even when they may not know what it is!

  • This is fantastic information Tamela and something that I know our clients ask about often, so thank you for writing this piece.

    One thing to ask you: You mentioned that there are questions that you ask a prospective client and even listed them above to help them discover their "voice" or how they want their communications to come across to their targeted audience.

    Do you have any ideas or steps that you have used with clients to help them answer these questions? What would they need to think about or how could they determine the benefits of different "voices" (or again, the tone/way in which their communications come across?)

    I've always wondered this and didn't know if there are things you've seen or tried.

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