Elements of Storytelling 8: Voice

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 8: Voice

A clear, unique, personable voice hooks audiences every time.

Case study: No Meat Athlete

no-meat-athlete-book-cover

What it is:

No Meat Athlete was a blog that became a brand that became a thriving business for Matt Frazier, an applied mathematics PhD student and amateur marathoner. It began as a chronicle of Matt’s quest to qualify for the Boston Marathon after switching to a plant-based diet.

Why it matters:

Nutrition and fitness blogs are rarely sustainable businesses. The sector is over-crowded, trend-driven and audiences are fickle. No Meat Athlete succeeded where most fail thanks to Matt’s inimitable voice. He tells readers everything they need to know in just three sentences:You’re not here to be preached to. And I’m not here to preach. In fact, I’ll come right out and say that a plant-based diet might not be for you. But I’ll also say this: You won’t know until you try.”

The tone is frank, warm, equable, and non-judgemental. Matt makes no apologies for being neither a professional runner nor nutritionist. Instead, he addresses readers as equals and fellow explorers. He writes in the enthusiastic, endearing voice of someone who has discovered something brilliant and can’t wait to tell you about. No Meat Athlete has grown into a brand that includes books, running groups, merchandise and more but Matt’s voice hasn’t changed. He is still the excitable, passionate, chatty guy you want to go running with then hit the pub for a vegan beer ‘n’ burger afterwards.

In his own words:

You can run without being a “runner.” I did it for five years.

Even once I had run a handful of marathons and was close to qualifying for Boston, when I lined up at the start of a race among all these passionate runners, I still felt like an imposter.

I was just a tourist, doing what runners do, but without feeling like I really belonged.

Sometime during the training for my Boston-qualifying race, where I finally succeeded in breaking 3:10:59, something shifted in me.

Shortly after qualifying, when I was in that happy, weirdly cloudlike space you find yourself in after accomplishing something you’ve worked at for so long, I read Born to Run. And damn if I didn’t feel like a runner after that.

For the first time, I could say that I really loved running, not just as a means of staying in shape or for accomplishing goals, but for its own sake.

And so I became a “runner.” Quotes and all.

Read more

Practice: “You can’t recognize and then strengthen your voice if you don’t hear it—and hearing it in your head isn’t the same as hearing it spoken aloud. Get in the habit of reading what you write out loud. I print and read everything before I send something out and also whenever I’m feeling all snarled up in my organization.

Want to accelerate your voice development? Read out loud to another person without any feedback. This is utterly maddening to your inner approval junkie: “But what does she think about my writing?!?” The magic comes because you turn toward yourself and listen for where you are being true to what you wanted to say and where you’re skirting the truth, where you dug deep and where you skimmed the surface, settling for clichés. Of course, there are plenty of times when getting specific feedback from other writers is useful—but not when it comes to honing your voice. via Jane Friedman

Remember: “Style cannot be copied, except by the untalented. It is, finally, the distillation of a lifetime of reading and listening, of selection and rejection. But if it is not a true voice, it is nothing.” ~Mavis Gallant

Poetry Challenge – East Coker by TS Eliot

Kat & I

Kat & I

Nobel Peace laureate and Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi spent over 20 years under house arrest. She says that one of the things that kept her together was memorising poetry. Once it’s in your head, she added, nobody can take it away from you. Thinking about that inspired me to set myself a poetry challenge: memorise one poem a month during 2015.

That will give me a stock of a dozen poems to carry with me everywhere, always.

For January I’ve chosen a portion of ‘East Coker’ from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. My dear friend Kat introduced me to this poem a few years ago and it has become deeply rooted in my psychic landscape, both for itself and because it reminds me of how blessed I am by her friendship. This is for you my love!


East Coker

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Recommended – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

The first time I read ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ was last week. It is so incandescently brilliant I started buying copies for the right people. Then I worried that maybe I read it too quick, that it wasn’t as good as I thought. So I’m re-reading it and holy jesus, it is even better.
billy lynn
Quick summary: The novel chronicles one day in the life of 19-year-old soldier Billy Lynn, who’s on leave from Iraq. It’s Superbowl Sunday. He and his squad are completing a ‘Victory Tour’ as honored guests of the Dallas Cowboys.

America. Money. Grief. Sex. War. Love. Death. Booze. Cheerleaders. Religion. Football. Guns. Loss.
Billy has to navigate it all with nothing more than his instinctive dignity and the brute education of Army life.

I don’t know how Fountain does it but it’s done. The characters leap off the page. The plot is fast and tight. The writing is coruscating. It’s a novel Hunter S Thompson might have written if he kept his shit together (it does for the Superbowl what ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’ did for that legendary sporting event).

Here’s a sampling of Fountain’s astonishing prose:

“She was still capable of sad, skewed smiles from time to time, forcing the cheer like Christmas lights in the poor part of town.”

“The Look, his gaze so frank and open-ended that Billy can’t help but wonder, Why me? At first he feared it was the start of some hideous gay thing, gay thing being virtually his sole reference point for prolonged eye contact from a fellow male, but lately he doubts it, a conclusion which required no small broadening of his view of human nature.”

“Okay, so maybe they aren’t the greatest generation by anyone’s standards, but they are surely the best of the bottom third percentile of their own somewhat muddled and suspect generation.”

“‘I’ll say this for nina leven,’ a man confides to him, ‘it shut the feminists up.’
‘Ah.’ Billy consults his drink. The feminists?
‘You bet,’ the man says. ‘They aren’t so interested in being ‘liberated’ now that we’re under attack. There’s certain tings a man can do that woman just can’t. Combat, for one. A lot of life boils down to physical strength.'”

“The money vibe can be felt at once, a faint hum, a kind of menthol tingling of the lips.”