"Many people operate in ‘default mode,’ and they ignore their hunches, their deeper intuition, and their unique vision, and instead settle into the fold. Over time, they become more of a reflection of everyone around them – or a faded photocopy of a photocopy – than an original source of ideas, energy and life."
Todd Henry’s Louder than Words reminds the reader about the essential nature of our authentic voice. The core idea is that each of us has something unique to contribute in our professional and personal lives. Stifling or ignoring this true voice is a recipe for a half-life of sorts where we miss the opportunity to achieve a deeper purpose. Henry defines voice “as the expression (idea) you make through a medium (platform) in order to achieve a desired outcome (result).” Everyone from artists and writers to engineers and lawyers have an authentic voice which is required to achieve the best outcomes.
Louder than Words draws inspiration from an almost spiritual view of work and life but is really more of practical handbook than an existential tome. The books is filled with relevant stories and exercises to guide an individual and team-leader through finding and utilizing their authentic voice.
The Voice Engine
"Developing your authentic voice is not just about personal gratification. It's about achieving impact. In order to do that, your work must resonate with others. You must be mindful of not only what you want to communicate but also how it will be received by your audience."
The idea of the “Voice Engine” explains the three interlocking components of an authentic voice: identity, vision and mastery. Identity is the idea of who you truly are. What experiences, passions, challenges and hopes define you and cause you to strive towards a vision and mastery? Your identity is the core of authenticity because pursuing work which you do not genuinely identify with can never be authentic.
Vision is the destination you strive for in your work. It’s the place where you want your audience (customers, readers, clients, etc.) to come to through your work. Vision is less a specific goal than a North Star to guide you along the path.
Mastery is the way you grow in the skills of your craft to deliver your vision. This comes from practicing core competencies, emulating existing great work and regularly taking smart risks to advance your craft. Mastery is not a destination but an unending journey of improvement.
Henry posits that any great work requires the creator to have identity, vision and mastery. Whenever we’re “stuck” in life or work, it’s helpful to consider each area to hone in on the sticking point. For example:
- If the project we’re working on is unfulfilling it likely doesn’t align with our identity.
- If a team is working hard but feels aimless then a lack of vision is likely to blame.
- If the work feels important but we’re not achieving the results we want it’s likely a lack of mastery. We don’t have the skills needed to achieve the vision yet, which results in an “aspiration gap.”
Commit to a Path
"If you try to be effective at everything you will be effective at nothing. You must choose a path. This is the first and most significant responsibility of any creative professional and it's the origin of all unique authentic voices."
It’s always difficult to turn down opportunity but it is required to develop a truly authentic voice. Bouncing from area to area or trying to “do it all” precludes the possibility of becoming excellent and providing the unique value we are all capable of creating. This is not to say that you should be myopic and ignore the world around you. Quite the opposite. You must choose a path to the exclusion of others but your voice is unlikely to resonate if you shut everything out.
Have you committed to a path? Or are you pulled in every direction in your work, always chasing the next “thing.” Building an authentic voice takes patience and effort over time so consider carefully the path (or lack thereof) that you’re on.
Define Your Intended Audience
"The most important method for refining your vision is to closely and specifically define your intended audience."
The idea of knowing your audience isn’t new but Henry places extra emphasis on it in the context of our authentic voice. He provides some excellent guiding principles for thinking through the intended audience of any project:
- Think of a specific person rather than traits when thinking and talking about your intended audience. Your audience is made up of individuals who you need to relate to rather than demographics like married men age 30 to 45 with children. The person would ideally be someone you know and can reasonably ask “what would they think of this?”
- Your intended audience should feel like whatever you’re creating was made for them personally. Remembering that you are connecting your vision with real people helps clarify your actions and thinking.
- Don’t change your intended audience in the middle of a project. If you find that what you’re working on won’t work for the audience you planned, making slight adjustments for a different audience is unlikely to be successful. Pause and take the time to consider the new audience from the beginning and don’t be afraid to toss completed work that is no longer relevant.
Henry provides some guiding questions to help us think through our intended audience:
- Who is your intended audience for a project you’re working on?
- What are you trying to achieve for them?
- What expectations will they have and how can you exceed them?
- How can I surprise and delight my audience in unexpected ways?
Louder than Words is an excellent read because it helps tie many of the philosophical ideas behind the nature of work with practical tips for achieving an authentic voice. I would recommend this to any creative professional (artists, designers, entrepreneurs, etc.) but would especially recommend it to those who don’t consider themselves in a creative field. Thinking about the voice behind our work is essential to personal fulfillment and professional achievement in any field, but those who consider themselves “non-creative” may actual take away more from the book.
Do you feel like you are using your authentic voice fully in your work in life? What areas of identity, vision and mastery can you focus on more to let your authentic voice resonate?