You can deny it if you want, but we’ve all done it: We’ve pulled big words from a thesaurus, intending to casually throw them into conversation. We’ve agreed with something someone else said, making a mental note to look it up later. We’ve stuffed our conversations with buzzwords in an attempt to exaggerate our experience.
We’ve tried to sound smart.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to sound smart…until it suddenly starts making you look less intelligent than you are.
The problem with trying to sound smart is that there’s no universal definition for “smart.” While a big-game hunter may be impressed by your newest skinning technique, an avid gardener may shrug his shoulders. It’s not that your technique isn’t impressive (my hunting friends assure me it is) — it’s that these people have very different perspectives.
That means the surest way to sound intelligent is to meet your audience where they are. If the standard in your industry is to write in a dry, straightforward manner, you’ll have the best chance of influencing your colleagues with a direct tone void of emotion. If people respond best to content that’s witty and conversational, you’d better adopt the tone you use with your best friend.
A thought leader isn’t really leading conversations in his arena if he isn’t approaching people in a way they will understand and respond to. Having the wherewithal to pick up on how people present themselves in your industry demonstrates that you know your stuff — and people. And that’s no small feat.
Emotional intelligence (or EQ) is just as essential to your success as your intellectual ability is. And the voice you write in communicates your level of EQ to your audience — which, in turn, helps them determine whether to read further and take the information you present seriously.
Alison Green is a former chief of staff who works as a workplace and management consultant. Most would consider her an expert on management and hiring simply because of her experience.
But what makes her content stand out among the glut of management articles is her tone. She humanizes managers while offering insight on how to deal with them.
In one post, she wrote, “Bad managers come in all shapes and sizes — some are jerks, some are passive pushovers, some can’t delegate or give feedback or set clear expectations, and some are simply incompetent.”
She labeled all the things her readers might be worried about but afraid to say (they want to keep their jobs, after all) and then explained why a bad manager could hurt their long-term prospects. She takes risks in her writing and models the behavior she wants them to exhibit in the workplace.
This might lead you to wonder, “What does a company leader sound like, then?” Our CEO, John Hall, is a great example of someone who’s built his reputation on traits that are reflected in his content. In person, he’s an advocate of direct communication, two-way relationships, and humor (a good honesty cushion if you ever need one).
In his articles aimed at other leaders and entrepreneurs, he addresses challenges and explains how he’s overcome them, cutting right to what they want to know.
“Forbes recently recognized my company as one of America’s Most Promising Companies,” he wrote in a post. “My initial excitement was followed by a gnawing fear: What if other people see what we’re doing and want to do the same?”
John put his finger on the pulse of what holds many entrepreneurs back — fear. He talked about his own experiences with it and never tried to slather himself in false confidence. His typically self-deprecating stories and examples are both amusing and inviting, two of the traits he knows leaders need to find success.
Capturing the right voice and approach can be difficult when you’re in an industry that doesn’t have immediate connotations or is in early growth stages. There might not be enough content in your field to know whether your tone should be no-frills, sarcastic, or flowery.
As an example, consider Rachel Bertsche’s blog. Bertsche moved and set out on a quest to make friends in her new city, going on “friend dates” and becoming an expert on friendship. She wrote a book on the unusual subject and found treating her audience like a friend engaged them best.
In one post, she discussed Newsweek’s finding that most people choose their adult relationships between 22 and 28. In it, she wrote,
“According to these researchers, we’ve only got a six-year window during which we become friends with the majority of our lifers. The span makes sense if you think about it — 22 is when we graduate college, and 28 is just about when the average American gets married (as of 2011, the average age of marriage for an American women is 26.9, while the average age for an American man is 28.9).”
Her chatty tone and use of common slang, combined with statistical evidence and a friendly approach, make it easy for people to accept her as a friendship expert.
Whether you’re trying to spark a conversation among big-game hunters or 20-somethings looking for friends, it’s crucial to approach your audience in a way that will sound smart to them. After all, you can’t be a thought leader if no one’s following your thoughts — or you.
What kind of voice works best with your audience? How do you capture it?