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The Secret’s in the Sauce: Voice matters.

I watched a different kind of episode of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s Travel Channel show, “No Reservations” yesterday. It was a re-run, but since I’m not a regular watcher, I hadn’t seen it before. And it was really interesting.

Why? Because it was less about food and Bourdain’s chefdom than it was about his career as a professional writer. If you’ve lived under a rock for several years, or are simply  not a foodie, you may not be aware that Bourdain is an accomplished author as well as a successful restaurateur. His debut work, a half-memoir, half-exposé titled Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, was a surprise success, both to the author and the book industry. He’s had an admirable string of successful books since then.

Book cover, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

It’s not my point here to review or describe these books, but to bring up a point that every writer should be hyper-aware of: Voice matters. Bourdain says he believes he’s a better chef than a writer, so I’d love to taste his food, because my God, this guy can write.

You know he writes his own TV scripts, because they are so evocative of his own personality: incisive, witty, detail-oriented observations of whatever locale he’s visiting, the people he meets, the cuisines he experiences. And “experiences” is the operative word here, because that’s what makes Bourdain, Bourdain. He fully engages all senses in every single thing he does. And the very able writer in him shares these experiences with engaging, compelling prose packed with his singular descriptive, appreciative and often caustic narrative.

True to full-on Chef Mode, he’s got an ego the size of Montana, for which he doesn’t apologize. But his writing, whether TV script, book or magazine article, keeps this from becoming tedious because his narrative is often self-deprecating. He’s not averse to making himself the butt of the joke, often citing some foible or perceived character flaw in himself. This device also has the effect of bringing him down to our level, the “just an average joe” who’s doing the best he can despite himself. You get the feeling he’s just ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with all the accolades and attention, yet all the time fully aware of how lucky  he is to have these things.

On camera, Bourdain is the jokester, the preternatural pre-teen always testing the boundaries of good taste with potty humor and sexual references. If you watch closely, you can see just the wee-est little bit of shyness and discomfort in front of the camera. He can’t hide his constant underlying surprise that people are so interested in what he has to say about food and people the world over. Beneath the tough, New York City veneer, you can see an awestruck kid who made lots of bad choices growing up and still came out on top, but expects each minute that it will be his last as a star. It’s as though he knows this whole celebrity thing is just a house of cards, one puff away from collapsing and leaving him back in the kitchen to his own devices. The effect is both enlightening and endearing. But it’s the voice-overs that give the show — and his books — their real impact.

His commentary lifts the edge of his ego so we can peep inside at the soul of an essentially decent, compassionate man with a curious mind and an artist’s soul. It works because Bourdain writes exactly the way he speaks. Sure, he might don the chef’s coat for appearances, but he doesn’t gussy up his words with more syllables than he’d ever use in real life. He doesn’t affect a new author vocabulary. All the bodily function references and gross-out visual descriptions he clearly uses so frequently keep him honest, grounded in his reality, offering the viewer/reader his absolute here-I-am-love-me-or-leave-me attitude and worldview.

Whenever I watch his show, I bounce back and forth between “God, this guy is full of himself!” to “God, this guy can write!” And the telling thing is that I always come back for more.

Bourdain admitted in yesterday’s episode that he never “agonizes over craft” in writing. He doesn’t need to. He’s not reaching for literary immortality. But his use of voice and language is so uniquely his own, I posit that his writing is at least as exciting and evocative as that of many classic novels.

Book cover, Anthony Bourdain's Typhoid Mary

I will likely never read Bourdain’s foodie or travel books. But he’s got a novel out and a nonfiction docu-drama about Typhoid Mary. I may just have to pick those up, because ego or not (and let’s face it — what author doesn’t have one?), this guy is a refreshing, entertaining and accomplished writer whose voice another writer could learn a lot from.

Books Craft Promotion

Your Public Face: The function of voice in your website copy

Typewriter keys

This morning I received a post from an old friend and colleague who lives in a rural area and is just starting out as a freelancer. She’s building her website and wanted to know whether I thought she should use first person or third person voice in her web copy.

It’s a great question, and one I hope you’re paying attention to, as well. Doesn’t matter whether you’re selling products (including books) or services (especially writing, and lots of authors make part of their living as freelance writers), you need to consciously decide the tone your Web copy needs to have. Here’s what I told Lisa:

It depends what I’m trying to do with the site. I use first person when I want to be more informal, friendly, approachable and personal. I use third person when it’s all business. I think it makes the business sound maybe bigger than just this little one-person shop. Which is true, because I do use subcontractors if a team approach is necessary, so often the effort behind any given project is a group one, not a just that of a single person.

I’d say that since you’re starting now, go with first person. The Net is getting way more personal in every way, and since at this point of the global economy we’re all something of a commodity, the only way we CAN stand out is to differentiate the personal experience. This includes customer service, of course, but in the beginning, it’s all about sounding approachable, talented and easy to work with.

There are all kinds of blogs and stuff that deal with this issue.

I tell my clients: If you’re on Facebook, your presence can be personal or business or both, so write your profile copy and posts accordingly. I use FB for both. But my websites (I have quite a few now) each take a different approach based on the audience I’m trying to reach, which is how EVERY piece of marketing/promo in your kit should be. The key is to remain consistent in voice for each separate piece, i.e., don’t flip-flop back and forth between first and third person or present and past tense, etc.

The other thing is that, unlike past years, you should revisit your web copy at least once a year to make sure it’s still current and maybe freshen it up a bit. Net Years are fast and short, and things change quickly. Updates also boost your search engine rankings.

She also asked, in typically straightforward and humorous fashion, “And how much person do I really need? Not sure everyone needs to know I own a farmette and am a chicken freak!?” Here’s my reply:

I say: Include what’s germane to whatever it is you’re trying to promote and leave the rest out. Your Web copy has but ONE job: Get the prospect to call. So you have to get right down to business, because these are busy people and they don’t have time to indulge your personal stuff.

However, once you have them on the phone, if you pay attention when you’re talking with a new prospect, you can sometimes pick up on clues that they may be interested in some of the same things you’re passionate about. Grab those and run with them!

If you hear someone mention they’re interested in or enjoy farming or livestock, jump right in and tell them, “Oh, me too!” And enthuse a little bit about your chickens or whatever, then wait to see if they take that bait and chew it awhile about their own stuff.

THIS is exactly the kind of small but important thing you can bond over with a potential client, and — given that your skill set is what it needs to be to get the actual work done — can be the deciding factor in you being the person they choose to work with. After all, all else being equal, who wouldn’t choose to work with someone they enjoy outside the actual work, rather than just some old someone?

The caveat to this advice is that the bonding needs to happen over something real. Don’t be insincere and make stuff up just trying to find some common ground — that’s the oldest trick in the book in the Smarmy Salesman’s Guide. (No, it’s not a real book, but I’ll bet you’ve met someone who subscribes to its rules!) People can sense when they’re being lied to or jerked around. Besides, it’s bad karma, so just don’t do it. Find that bonding agent where you can and hope that your knowledge, skills and experience can dazzle them where you can’t find common ground outside the work.