I hear voices in my head. In a good way.
You probably do too. There’s the voice you use when you’re around friends and family, the one that sounds most like the “real” you. Then there’s the one you switch to when you’re trying to impress someone, a voice with big words and the occasional study reference.
When you’re on social media, you probably use that first voice, the one with all the jokes. And when you write blog posts, there’s a good chance you switch to the second voice, the one with all the footnotes.
But you also have a third voice. It’s the one you use with clients. The one that’s friendly but authoritative. The one that explains things with words and coaching cues they understand, and motivates them in ways that address their goals and acknowledges their struggles.
And it’s that voice—the one that connects with the people who need your help—that’s most likely to build an audience for your content.
Before I give you some ways to channel that voice into your health and fitness writing, let me explain who I am, and how I learned what I’m about to share.
Game of tones
My first grown-up job, nearly 30 years ago, was writing jacket and marketing copy for Putnam-Berkley, one of the biggest book publishers of its time. I racked up more than 1,000 book covers in every conceivable genre, and an equal number of pages for the monthly catalogs we produced for booksellers.
What I wrote to convince a reader like you to buy the new Stephen King was different from the writing in the catalog, where the goal was to convince a bookseller to order a lot of copies. And both were different from what I wrote for the back cover of a Star Wars novelization or a Tom Clancy thriller or a western or a romance novel.
In my next job, as a writer and editor at Men’s Health, I had two challenges: The first was to give readers the information they’d paid for. The second, and equally important, was to do it in the Men’s Health voice, which was distinct from any other publication back then. It’s imperative and masculine, promising benefits with a couple of laughs and a bit of swagger. It’s the voice of someone you’d want to have a beer with.
Compare that to my subsequent years with Weight Watchers. WW’s brand was calm and earnest, with the voice of your nonjudgmental friend who minored in social work. It was like switching from classic rock to ASMR.
Mastering a voice like that requires knowing which words to use, and which to avoid. The second category, they told me, includes words like “exercise” and “workout.”
Sounds crazy, right—a weight-loss brand shying away from basic fitness terms? As they explained it to me, about a third of WW members exercise in the classic sense. The middle third walk and do little else. The other third do nothing. Our content needed to keep all members engaged, which meant that we didn’t want to intimidate or put off people who have no desire to go to a gym.
So instead of “exercise,” we used “movement” or “physical activity.” That way we could reach everyone and exclude no one.
My point: A brand’s voice is everything. It has rules. It has nuances. It also transfers well across any medium, which is why a clear voice is so effective. Once you capture it for your brand and audience, creating the content you need becomes a lot easier.
How to find your voice
Let’s get back to those voices in your head.
Consider all the conversations you have with your clients in a typical week. Do you talk the same way to each one? Not likely. How you instruct and motivate a middle-aged guy who just got divorced and wants to lose 25 pounds before he starts dating again will be different from the way you coach a 25-year-old woman who’s training for her first obstacle course race. And both of those are different from the way you talk to a 65-year-old who just had a hip replacement.
Once you identify the nuances that make your coaching effective with different clients, the next challenge is to re-create them in your blog posts, or anything else you write.
I’ve divided the following tips into three categories: your brain, your language, your audience. Each is a distinct battlefront in the struggle to get and hold your readers’ attention. But each, as you’ll see, overlaps with the others.
Part 1: Training your brain
Stop fast-forwarding through ads
And while you’re at it, stop deleting all your spam. Pay close attention to the language copywriters use to speak directly to their target customers. Chances are, that language repels you, but that’s okay. They’re not trying to reach you.
Analyze the stuff vying for your attention. Compare the copy that targets you specifically, based on something you showed interest in, to the spam that hits your inbox just because it can. What attracts or repels you? What can you learn?
Don’t accidentally repel those you want to attract
I made a point earlier about how your speaking voice relates to your written voice. It’s true in general, but the specifics matter. Your spoken language doesn’t need to be as precise because it comes with all kinds of verbal and nonverbal cues that signal your intent and authority.
You don’t get the benefit of the doubt when you’re writing for an audience who isn’t in the room with you. Something a client would understand as hyperbole might look like arrogance, or an insult to the reader’s intelligence.
To connect with the audience, you have to imagine what it’s like to be them.
What are their lives like? What are they dealing with? What do they want to conquer? Picture where they’ll be when they read your words. On a subway headed home? At their desk at work? In their pajamas in bed? Are they stressed or happy? Half-asleep or energized?
You may know what they need, but until you can feel all their feels, you won’t be able to convince them you have the solution they’ve been looking for.
Part 2: Mastering language
Use words wisely
Your brain is filled with training-specific nomenclature you’ve learned through years of education, reading, and contact with people who think like you. Sometimes you use those words with clients, but would they understand if you weren’t there demonstrating and cueing the points you’re trying to get across?
True mastery of language means knowing multiple ways to describe the same thing. You don’t sacrifice any authenticity by explaining your ideas in words your audience will understand without Googling them.
Keep it short
Brevity matters. As a magazine editor, I learned to trim any story to fit the allotted space without losing anything important. If pressed I could compact 100 words down to a 10-word caption or even a five-word subhead.
The easiest thing to cut: The part where you tell readers what they already know. If you lead with, “You want to lose weight and don’t have time to exercise three hours a day,” you’re wasting your reader’s time.
Don’t ignore the nuances
Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Words you think are interchangeable can convey different meanings to different audiences. It’s why one reader will react favorably to “toned” but be turned off by “lean and muscular.” One reader wants to be “strong” while another wants to be “sexy.” One wants to “get in shape” while another wants “more energy.”
We could be talking about the exact same program, but if your words don’t connect with your target reader’s aspirations, you won’t hold their attention.
Part 3: Understanding your audience
Spring forward, fall back
Ten years ago, if you’d tried to lure a female audience with words like “badass” and “fierce,” you’d have made approximately zero headway. Today those words have been used so often, for so many products, they may already have lost their ability to inspire and excite.
I’m not the target customer, so I can’t say.
But that’s my point. You’re probably not your own target customer either. And if you’re not in close contact with the people you’re selling to, there’s a chance they’ve moved on from words that once triggered them.
On the flip side, your mastery of up-to-the-minute buzzwords may have no impact at all on readers who don’t follow trends and may even distrust someone who uses them. You can’t sell “self-care” to someone who doesn’t care.
Give ’em the real you
Not everyone is funny. Or alpha. Or an influencer. Or whatever ideal version of yourself you think you should project. So even though we all want to show ourselves at our best, your voice still needs to come from a genuine place. You can hide what you are, but you can’t fake what you aren’t.
Instead of thinking how you can be funnier, if that’s not your strong suit, try to convey the best you to your audience. What do your clients like best about you? Is it your service? Your knowledge? Your sincerity and empathy? Your everyday approachability? Write like that person.
Be a creator, not an artist
Perfectionism comes from fear, and boy, does that apply to writing. If you find yourself endlessly rewriting, editing, and tweaking, ask yourself an honest question: What are you afraid of?
If you don’t think you’re getting your message across, ask a colleague or mentor to look at your work with fresh eyes and give you an appraisal. But if the problem is that you don’t like the way you’re coming across, you need to ask yourself some hard questions. Are you trying too hard to be funny? Are you trying to cram in too much detail because you’re afraid you won’t look as smart as you think you are?
Step back and remind yourself this isn’t about you. It’s about the value of what you have to say. If your message isn’t strong enough to stand on its own without those jokes or memes or citations, maybe you just need to make it better.
Never, ever lie
Amid all these words about words, let’s remember not to use them to exaggerate, obfuscate, deceive, overstate, mislead, or perjure, no matter how cleverly you present the fib.
If you can’t tell the truth, you can’t sell the truth.
A version of this article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Fitness Marketing Monthly.