How a Ghost Writer Captures Voice

PropelGrowth Blog - Financial Services Marketing and Content Strategy

Ghost writing tips from Melanie Wold.
The following article is by Melanie Wold, a journalist who ghost writes for PropelGrowth clients. Her specialties include global oil and gas markets and geopolitics, financial markets including FX and equities, big data/market data, electronic trading technology, algorithmic trading, and global regulation.

How to Ghost Write in Someone Else’s Voice

I am a ghost blogger, a ghost writer, a corporate writer. I write what other people think but cannot express clearly — or what they simply do not have time to write.

I was asked the other day to explain to a colleague how I manage to capture the voice of my clients when I am writing for them. Hmmm… I thought that it was easy for me to step into my clients’ brains, because I know them so well. But apparently it is not that easy. So I had to think about it.

When I talk to my clients, I write down the things that they are passionate about and underline them. Recording an interview is fine for fact checking, but there is nothing like note taking to remind you of the important parts of the conversation.

Use Humor

To get under the skin of some of my subjects, I tend to joke around a bit. If they laugh, or joke back then I know that humor is acceptable. If there is a stony silence, well….

Dig for Personality

The same goes for understanding the subject’s personality. I have over three decades of experience in market data, technology and digital publishing so I do know some people and some things. I throw in an “I met so-and-so at that company when I was at Telerate in London.” If the client begins to reminisce a little, it gives me a better idea of who she is and where she comes from — metaphorically speaking. If all I hear is a grunt, and the client goes back to his favorite subject – himself, his product, his company, his mission statement – I know that I had better stick to the facts.

If a client tends to be a bit…well…dry, I try to get some details about his hobbies or interests. Many techies are interested in more than Star Trek reruns, amazingly. Some are musicians and teachers and rugby fans.

If a client runs on a bit too much about his company or product, I tend to get a little assertive by interrupting his flow and asking pertinent questions, like I would do if I were interviewing him for a news article. This tends to stop the flow of BS and focus the client on the ‘why’ of his company/product rather than the ‘what.’

I think a good blogger should walk in the shoes of his audience, and not wear the corporate communications officer’s boots. In other words, if he addresses the needs and concerns of his customers and/or industry peers in his blog, they will be eager to read it – and will subscribe. A blog about a serious industry issue with an opinion backed up by facts and figures will not only get comments, it will also get shared. Making the subject matter topical lends an immediacy to it, and the shared content helps to raise awareness of the blogger and his company.

Creating Interesting Characters

But, first, I have to create the persona of the blogger. And it essentially boils down to me treating my client like a character in a novel. When you learn about writing fiction, the most important thing is character. If your characters are flat, wooden, or simply boring, no one will read your book. The same goes for your blogs. Your subject has to sound interesting, like a rounded and fully fleshed person. Otherwise no one will read their blogs, no matter how well written or pertinent.

While I was puzzling over the ‘how do I do it’ question, I turned to a friend of mine who is a ghost writer for celebrities and nearly-famous people.

How Another Pro Does It

Holly Robinson is an award-winning author and journalist who has ghost-written more than a dozen books. She specializes in being the voice of celebrities and nearly-famous people — usually of Latin American origin. Holly speaks Spanish, and has lived in Mexico, but she is not Latina. So how can Holly, a white American mother of five, get into the persona of a Latin celebrity?

Remarkably, Robinson says it is not necessary to meet the person face-to-face, and most of her clients are too busy for a meeting anyway. But she insists on speaking with them rather than conducting interviews by email.

“Email is the worst way to interview people because you don’t get those accidental stories that crop up in conversation and make an interview so much richer—people are too controlled via email,” said Robinson.

Finding the Voice

Once Robinson has the answers to her questions she then needs to find the ‘voice’ of her subject. “I pay close attention to how long their sentences are, what kind of imagery the person uses… and how formal or conversational the person’s speaking style is.  Then I try to model that.”

Not everyone you write for will be a celebrity with a juicy past or a sordid tale to tell, and it is the ones who don’t that present the greatest challenge to a ghost writer. But, if you want a blog or bylined piece to be interesting and relatable to a large number of readers, you have to pry the personality out. No one wants to read another puff piece on how great someone thinks his or her company or product is.

Robinson uses her own personal stories to get people to open up, or even “feeds” emotions to them. For business articles, it is possible for the writer to do this by offering asking your subject what good stories he has about his customers. Many business people in sales and marketing have some great stories to tell, they just need some encouragement to get them out.

6 Steps for Writing in Someone Else’s Voice

I think the to-do list of writing in someone else’s voice is this:

  1. Get into their brains by asking the right questions and really listening to the answers
  2. Listen to their speech patterns and origins; pick up on their passions
  3. Elicit emotions by ‘feeding’ them loaded questions.
  4. Get them to tell a story
  5. Don’t be afraid to try humor
  6. Imagine your client as a character in a book

It comes easy to some of us, others will have to work harder. But if you get it right, your clients will be thrilled. One of my clients once told someone that he could not tell what I had written from things he had written himself. That makes me feel like I’m getting it right.