Most late-night talk shows have the same basic format – a monologue, some jokes, some guests. So why would a viewer prefer Jimmy Fallon to Jimmy Kimmel, or vice-versa? Why does Stephen Colbert on CBS feel so different from Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central? What makes someone want to watch Samantha Bee or Larry Wilmore, and not Bill Maher?
The answer is voice, and point of view. Each of these shows offers something different, and their fans find something in the voice of each that makes them laugh. Or think! The voice of your show or channel is the most unique thing you have to offer. (Unless you’ve invented a totally new format that’s never been seen, in which case, you can probably stop reading.)
But voice is not created in a vacuum. It can be a collaborative effort (every show listed above has a room full of writers), it can be working within a set of parameters given by a client, or honing your solo viewpoint to best effect. Are you adding a thoughtful perspective or just another hot take? Are you giving yourself room to evolve? Are you making sure the voice you present is your own, and not just an amalgamation of trends or other people’s work?
When to use your voice
Ask yourself, is your own unique unicorn of a voice necessary for every project? If you’re doing something like reviewing video games, criticizing films, or making sketch comedy, then yes. Absolutely! Your thoughts and your opinions and your point of view is what you’re selling, and hoping that it finds an audience.
But what if you’re creating a video for a client, operating within strict parameters? Your voice can be a hindrance in that instance, and can even be seen as self-indulgent. So how can you give the client what they need while making sure you still do work you’re proud of? Treat those parameters as a puzzle. If you can’t use certain words or phrasing, then bust out the thesaurus. Video too long? Challenge yourself to winnow down for brevity, and make sure that every second counts.
When working with a group, it’s important to find a balance where everyone pulls their weight, but no one feels their voice is drowned out, either. Collaboration can be difficult at times, especially when creative people are involved (just look at, oh, any band), but when it’s done well, it’s probably going to result in some of the best professional work you’ll ever do. Just make sure you find partners who not only respect your opinions but offer opinions that you can respect in turn.
Even if your name and face are attached to a project, you may or may not be portraying “yourself.” You already know how to do this – how you speak and act around your boss is likely very different from how you are around your friends. The polite, respectful version of yourself is just as real as the goofy one, but you exaggerate different strengths based on audience expectation.
I have a friend whose career in children’s entertainment means that he has to present himself in a very family-friendly way. His online presence is fun and positive, because his fans (well, his fans’ parents) might be turned off if he talks about things like politics or dating. Is he, in real life, a fun and positive guy? Sure he is, but he’s exaggerated these aspects of his personality online to create a character that looks like him, sounds like him, and shares his name. That’s his voice, and it it aligns with his goals as a creator.
You should project a voice that is suitable for your audience. For instance, if you’re doing makeup tutorials, try different techniques or tools that you may not be used to, because your audience will trust your opinion on what works and what doesn’t. If you want to reach an audience of primarily adults, it’s probably a good idea to keep juvenile humor to a minimum. And if you find that your audience really responds to something you’re doing, keep doing it!
One of my biggest fears as a writer is that I’ll come across an excellent joke or turn of phrase, tuck it away in my brain, and then use it as my own work, forgetting the source. It happens, sometimes in very high-profile ways. George Harrison accidentally ripped off The Chiffons. Sam Smith accidentally stole Tom Petty’s melody. John Fogerty was sued for stealing from himself.
The problem, of course, is that it’s smart to stay abreast of what’s going on in the creative world. Writers should read, all the time. Musicians should listen to as many songs as they can. If you’re making videos about candy, then damn it, you should look at every book about candy you can get your sticky little mitts on. It’s okay to be influenced by the masters of the past and the innovators of the present, but it really does take constant vigilance to ensure you’re advocating for your own perspective and not just parroting back someone else’s words. No one likes a copycat. Or parrot.
Developing your voice
I hate to break it to you, but the best way to develop is through trial and error. Listen to your (literal) voice, read your words, watch yourself in front of the camera. It can be crazy-making, but being able to accurately assess your strengths and weakness won’t result in anything other than a better end product. Keep doing what’s good! Stop doing what’s bad! Take some outside voices into consideration, and incorporate what’s helpful (“Can you speak up?”) and feel empowered to totally disregard what’s not (“u suck”).
And keep in mind, if something sticks, then you may be stuck with it. Going all-in on snark can be fun (trust me), but if you want to branch out into something more serious or personal, then you may experience some pushback. Striking a balance between a voice that makes sense for you right now, is popular with your audience, but also leaves wiggle room to mature isn’t easy, but this is what you should strive for if you want to make sure you will continue to be heard.
Ashley Spurgeon the Head Writer at Made In, is funny in real life and on Twitter.