To develop your authentic voice, you must cultivate three things: a strong sense of identity, which means doing work that is rooted in something substantive and personally meaningful; a consonant vision for your work, meaning a sense of the ultimate impact you want to have; and mastery of your skills and platform.
A strong, authentic, compelling voice is the expression of identity, guided by vision, and achieved through mastery. These three work together as a part of the lifelong process of growth and discovery. Developing your authentic voice is the result of lifelong layers of learning, experimentation, and failure.
While it's possible to piece it all together over time through trial and error, I want to help you accelerate the process by building practices around each of these three core drivers.
Identity is primarily defined by the question "Who are you?" If I informally ask you that question, there are a number of ways you could respond. You could tell me about your childhood experiences, your job, your hobbies, your political views, or any number of other defining characteristics.
However you respond, it would be a story about how you perceive yourself and your place in the world.
In fact, your sense of identity is a collection of these stories. Whether the stories are true or false is somewhat irrelevant, because it's whether or not you believe them that defines how you behave.
Regardless of what you profess to believe, your actions reveal the truth. When you act in a manner that's inconsistent with your true aptitudes and passions, it can create frustration, and over time can lead to a sense that you're not living up to your creative potential.
Thus self-knowledge is a critical ingredient of identity, because when it is lacking you are more likely to compromise your true thoughts and beliefs. This is especially true when you are under pressure to deliver results.
You must have a rooted understanding of why your work matters to you, what makes it unique, and why you believe it should also matter to others.
I can often tell when someone is having an identity crisis, because the person will communicate in one of two ways: broadly, so as not to offend anyone; or so specifically and reactively (in order to appear confident) that he or she self-contradicts when the winds of public opinion grow unfavorable to the previous stance.
Your work must be rooted in something of substance so that you don't blow with the winds of change or challenge.
The second part of the voice engine is vision, which is primarily defined by the question "Where are you going?" If you set out to build a bridge between two points on a river, you'd better first determine
- The purpose of the bridge and the kinds of vehicles that will be crossing it
- Whether you have sufficient resources and materials to complete the project
- Whether or not a bridge is even the right solution to the problem of crossing the river
To apply this metaphor to your work, it's important that you be able to articulate the kind of effect you wish to have, and how you want the world to be different through your efforts. You should at least have a sense of how you wish to connect with an intended audience, and how you plan to impact them.
Though you don't want to become paralyzed with inaction out of fear of getting it wrong, your vision provides you with a set of guiding principles to help you stay aligned and measure your progress.
Many people falsely believe that brilliant contributors just follow their whims and let their "gut" decide from moment to moment where their work will lead them, but this is largely untrue. Though they rarely have all of their steps mapped out, the majority of the great creators and teams I've encountered at least have some sense of where their work is leading and the ultimate impact they want to have.
They have a "north pole" toward which to navigate, even if only in a general sense. This vision is what guides their efforts as they continue to refine and develop their voice.
The final piece of the voice engine is mastery, which is defined by the question "How will you get there?"
As you sharpen your skills, you have more tools in your toolbox and give yourself more options for expression.
It's obvious that people who sharpen their skills and hone their instincts are far better positioned to create value, but in the midst of the daily fray we often forget to devote energy to personal skill and platform development.
Brilliant contributors know that an opportunity exists only if they are able to recognize it and take advantage of it.
To use your voice in ways that matter, you have to hone your skills so that you are prepared to jump on opportunities as they emerge. Mastery is also about honing your instincts and engaging in daily practice so that you develop the kinds of perceptions necessary to make intuitive leaps.
No matter how skilled you are, if you don't have an outlet for that expertise, you will not succeed.
So your answers to these three questions, "Who are you?" "Where are you going?" and "How will you get there?" give you a map for developing your authentic voice. However, when one or more of the drivers of the voice engine are lacking, there is likely to be an outage in your ability to resonate with your audience.
IDENTITY + VISION - MASTERY = NOT CREDIBLE
You can have a clear sense of identity, and you can be guided by a compelling vision, but if you haven't developed the skills necessary to share your work effectively, then it will fall short. You can yell louder than everyone else, but you will still achieve little lasting impact. This is often the situation early in your career, as you are gaining your footing but still lack the skills necessary to accomplish your vision. You lack credibility, because your skills and platform for influence don't measure up to your ambition.
IDENTITY + MASTERY - VISION = NOT CLEAR
Your audience craves clarity, and will seek out work by those who know where they are headed. Without a vision for your work you are like a ship at sea, unable to weather the storms of contrary opinions or challenges to your point of view. Your work may waffle and ramble to the point of confusion, and even early fans of your work will eventually lose hope and abandon you if they can't discern where you are leading them.
Your vision is the compass that keeps you on the right bearing even while "making it up as you go."
MASTERY + VISION - IDENTITY = NOT CALLED
Without an identity-infused voice, your body of work will ultimately be hollow. Your audience is likely to discount you if your work feels inauthentic. This often happens when someone is chasing trends rather than aiming for impact.
This is not to imply that all clever attempts to gain attention for your work are misplaced, but your body of work will be inconsistent if it's not rooted in something that matters to you.
IDENTITY + VISION + MASTERY = COMPELLING
When all the parts of the engine are working together, they fuel the discovery and use of your authentic voice. A greater sense of identity leads to a refined vision, which provides motivation to continue to master new skills.
Through this greater mastery, you achieve influence, which then ideally helps you better understand your place in the world, and leads to a deeper understanding of the value you want to create. The cycle continues to repeat over and over throughout your life.
As you examine the above equations, which do you think most accurately describes you at the present time? Which of the three drivers are you best at and weakest at?
The above is an edited excerpt from my book Louder Than Words (Penguin Random House, 2015).