How to be a copy chameleon: mastering different voices and styles in B2B copywriting

A week at Radix could see us writing for seven different B2B brands – which means constantly adapting voices and styles to meet each client’s needs. We share our tips for being a “copy chameleon”.

How can you be a copy chameleon?

Everyone wants copy, but they all want and need it to be different. Switching between the copy demands of clients can be tough for copywriters. How do you meet these requirements?

Many brands rely on a distinctive “voice” to set them apart from their competition. Others may be looking to stand out by taking established content formats in surprising and exciting new directions.

For B2B copywriters, this means we need to be copy chameleons; capable of switching voice and style as fluidly as a chameleon switches from green to a rainbow of reds, blues and yellows.

Looking through the results of a recent client survey, comments suggested that we needed to be more active in adapting to the varied needs that different brands have. Maybe you too sometimes find this constant process of adaptation a tough one to keep on top of.

We wanted to share some of tips for handling this. So I asked our team:

What do you do to be a copy chameleon: how do you train yourself to shift voice or write in different styles for different clients and different projects?

Fiona-Radix portraits 2015, Andrew Wright Photography-3-adaptedFiona

Voice is becoming an important differentiator for a lot of B2B companies. If your products and services are pretty similar to what other vendors offer, it can be hard to differentiate through those products and services alone. So it helps to find a strong voice that makes your brand instantly recognisable and sets you apart from the competition.

For copywriters, this can create something of a challenge. When you have a number of different clients, it can be hard to get into the voice of each one, especially if you’re working on several different clients’ projects in the same day.

It reminds me of an interview I read once with Game of Thrones author George RR Martin. Anyone who knows Game of Thrones will know it has a huge cast of very strong characters, each of whom has a clearly-defined personality and talks in a distinct way; with their own recognisable vocabulary, phrasing, rhythms and cadences.

Martin said that as an author, he often finds it hard to go back to writing as e.g. Arya when he’s just spent the last while writing as e.g. Cersei. So before he goes back to writing as a particular character, he spends time reading sections in which that character appears, until he settles back into their persona and voice.

I like to do the same with my clients: when I finish one client project and move on to writing for a different client, I spend a fair bit of time reading that client’s existing copy, to make sure I get into their voice.

I find it really helps to “inhabit” a client’s personality and worldview before you start writing anything for them – otherwise you risk writing in your own voice, or the previous client’s voice, undermining one of your client’s key methods of standing out.

Matt-Radix portraits 2015, Andrew Wright Photography-10-adaptedMatt

One of the most important things you can do as a writer is read, and the broader your reading material the broader the range of styles and techniques you can call upon. If you only ever read one type of book/blog/comic/achingly-hip style magazine you’re limiting your exposure to different ways of expressing ideas (and limiting your own ability to find the best way to express the things you need to write about).

And if you read with a critical eye (as any writer should), even when you’re writing the most dreary BOFU data sheet, it’s still possible to make the whole thing more readable by combining little techniques or tricks that you’ve picked up from different writers.

I’d recommend at least inserting all these genres into your reading rotation:

  • 20th/21st century literary fiction (to understand the different ways rhythm and structure can be used to elicit emotional responses)
  • Modern crime fiction (the art of storytelling refined to within an inch of its life – there’s a reason this stuff is so popular)
  • Historical fiction (for pointers on how to write convincingly in a completely alien voice)
  • A news source you would never normally read (your writing will be subtly influenced over time by the writing style of your regular source of news, so go somewhere else from time to time for exposure to a different style)
  • Popular science (for tips on making complex and potentially dull subjects engaging)

Kieran-Radix portraits 2015, Andrew Wright Photography-4-adaptedKieran

I think most good writers are naturally chameleonic. It’s through reading and imitation that we learn the craft.

I remember reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a recently-inaugurated teenager. Within minutes of its final page I was sat with a notepad, writing a short story which was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its voice, if not in its events.

I loved that voice. So playful, so intelligent. I loved the descriptions that it shaped (and that, in turn, shaped it); unexpected and funny, but nonetheless indisputably right:

‘The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t’

I wanted that voice for my own.

Over time, writers absorb a wide enough range of voices to develop one that doesn’t already belong to Douglas Adams. But that voice remains in flux. The stuff we read – particularly the stuff we read, and like – can still hijack it for a time, like a virus hijacks the body. Sometimes the case is so serious, we’re stuck with residual symptoms for the rest of our lives. Sometimes, we shake them off within a week.

As I write this, I’m aware I’m reaching for the analytical clarity of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which I’m two-thirds of the way through, and which lying beside the keyboard on my desk. And now, as I read it back, one of the sentences (‘I wanted that voice for my own’) comes to me quite distinctly in the voice of a comic essayist I’ve heard talking on the radio.

This writer’s tendency to adapt to one’s environment is why, after almost five years reading good B2B marketing content, I’m pretty damn good at creating it. (Unabashed self-promotion is another trait I’ve caught through repeated exposure to marketing materials). Sadly, it’s also why I’m currently struggling in my extra-curricular attempts to write literary fiction – so, if there are any companies out there who really want to differentiate, and target the no doubt highly lucrative audience segment of Borges scholars, do get in touch. I’ll re-read Labyrinths, and write you the finest metafictional eDM copy the world has ever seen.

TL;DR: how to change your colours/stripes/spots/plaid

Shifting styles in line with the clients’ needs has to be instinctual. Chameleons don’t hang about with changing their colour and as a B2B copywriter, neither should you. To make this all second nature you need to:

READ EVERYTHING

Okay, not everything, but you need to read as much as possible:

Read as much as you can of the client’s existing copy

Read a variety of different things in fiction, non-fiction and journalism

And pay attention to what you’re reading, how it gets its message across and how it entices readers to keep reading. Doing this means you’ll learn how to adapt your writing to each client’s particular voice as needed.

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