How to be a ghost writer – finding your voice

Ghost writer

For anyone who dreams of becoming a writer, there’s an important choice to make.

Are you going to be a fiction writer where you can fully embrace your creative flair and write best-selling novels that readers just can’t put down? Maybe you’re going to specialise and write for a certain genre or audience, like children or academics? Or maybe your forte is working with clients, taking the seemingly mundane and incomprehensible, and turning it into something inspiring, persuasive and compelling…

For me it was certainly the latter.

I’ve always described myself as being creative with words, but I know I don’t have the imagination that’s needed to develop a set of characters, locations and story line for a ground-breaking novel.

Working with clients

Now that’s not to say that I took the easy route. Far from it. Writing for clients presents its own challenges, and they come in many forms.

One of the most interesting things is the opportunity to take on a different personality and voice. In some ways it’s like being an actor, leaving behind all your own fears and inhibitions to take on another character, where you can explore new traits and attributes in a safe environment.

When I write for myself, like in this blog, I am me. It’s me talking to you, just as I would if I bumped into you in the street or met you at a party. However, when I write for a client, I have to become that company or individual, which means every time I take on a new job, I effectively have to get into character, or what I write just won’t cut it and deliver the results the client is looking for.

Who shall I be?

Whether you’re writing on behalf of a company or individual, there are a few simple tricks to successfully get to grips with who they are and how they want to talk to their customers – the art of being a ghost writer. It starts from the very first interaction, which might be on the phone, via email or face-to-face, and is no different to meeting a new work colleague or team member for the first time.

Tip 1. Everyone has a personality

When I’m writing for a company, I need to know how that company sees itself, and how it wants to be seen. It’s about getting to know that company as if it were a person. Where do they live, how do they speak, what do they do in their spare time etc? Are they serious or funny, intellectual or practical?

This personality should come through at every customer touchpoint – website, letter, phone call, advertisement, social media, marketing and so on. And it’s my job to make sure that it does, carefully crafting words that create an authenticity and genuineness that customers trust and believe.

It’s very similar when working as a ghost writer for an individual…although arguably a lot tougher. While the theory is the same, this time we are talking about an actual person, who really does have a personality and a uniqueness that is their personal brand. It’s not something that’s been manufactured by a marketing agency to satisfy a target audience.

For individuals, the most common requests are for presentations and speeches. Not only do you have to get the content spot on, but you have to ensure the individual can deliver it in a manner that’s consistent with their natural flair and style.

How do you do this?

It is definitely something that will develop over time. After all, you don’t really get to know someone from just one interaction. But in that first conversation you should ask a lot of questions to find out whether they’re funny, a conversationalist, quiet and reserved, authoritarian, a leader or follower. Find out what’s important to them, what drives the culture and what their values are. Be prepared to spend time building rapport with a business and the key individuals within it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and make sure you listen not just to what’s said, but just as importantly, how it’s said.

Tip 2. Do you know who you’re talking to?

Even if you’re fully into character, and you’ve got the personality nailed, there’s still an art in delivering a communication. If you don’t know who the intended audience is, there’s a pretty high probability that the communication will fail to meet its objectives.

Let’s forget about ghost writing for a client for just a minute and imagine you’re trying to have a conversation with a 14-year-old who’s most pressing priority for the day is updating their social media profile with a video of a cat they just saw freaking out at its own reflection in a mirror. If you interrupted this critical activity with a conversation about how you got stuck in traffic, spilled coffee down your shirt and missed your first meeting of the day, do you think they’ll really be listening. No.

So, knowing who your target audience and tailoring both the content and delivery accordingly is critical for success.

How do you do this?

Your client will be your primary source of information. They will know (or they should know) their audience better than anyone. They will likely also know what’s worked and what hasn’t in the past, and also where their competitors are succeeding.

In most cases it comes down to basic demographics – age, gender, interests, location etc.

But don’t rely totally on the client’s insight. Do your own research. Social media is an amazing forum for discovering what people like, and also what people like them like. It’s a tangled, interconnected web of knowledge that can prove invaluable in winning the hearts of customers.

Tip 3. Everything needs a purpose

Never, never, ever start work on something if you don’t know what the end goal is. Never.

You might produce a piece of work that is the best thing you’ve ever written, but if it’s not what the client wants and it doesn’t meet the desired goal then it’s all been a waste of time.

If you want to be really strict with a client, then a goal should be SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. However, most of the time that’s more important for the client’s KPIs than yours…unless they’re paying you based on results.

Typical goals include the following.

  • Increase hits to a website or web page by 5%.
  • Achieve an email click-through rate of 1.5%.
  • Position the brand as a thought leader.
  • Sell 20,000 units of a product by the end of the year.

As a side note, be careful if you are being remunerated based on results, especially if you’re a freelancer. It’s common for companies to think Marketing is the silver bullet when things aren’t going so well. “It’s ok, we’ll just create an ad campaign” or “We’ll email all our customers and tell them about our new offer”. In many cases, success will be the result of far more than just marketing activity – is the product itself good, is there strong customer service to support sales, can the customer easily take the action you’re asking them to?

Once you’re clear on the goal though, you can write accordingly. You can educate. You can inspire. You can persuade.

The power of words should never be underestimated.

Have you faced challenges trying to understand a company’s personality or do you have some great tips about how you successfully extract the right information from your clients? I’d love to hear your stories…

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