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On Business Voice & Unintentional Mimicry {& Why the First Iteration of My Web Copy Sounded Like Someone Else}

in Voice Values How-To

About this column

Your Right Person is listening. Learning to use your Voice Values ensures you’re speaking the same language. Create. Connect. Converse. (Convert.)

Confession time.

{Better listen up. Public confessions are generally not my thing.}

The first iteration of my web copy for Abby Kerr Ink — which was over a year and three iterations ago, in case you were wondering — read nothing like it does now. It wasn’t written in my voice, although I myself wrote it.

It sounded {to my ear, at least} very much like the voice of Sarah J. Bray. Sarah had no clue. At the time, I followed her on Twitter {still do} and had commented a time or two on her blog, but she didn’t know me from Eve. She wasn’t watching for this. She probably didn’t even notice. And at the time, if someone had asked me outright, “Um, does this sound a little like Sarah Bray?” I might’ve said, “Oh, really? You think so? Wow, thanks. That’s a compliment. I love her voice.” But I wouldn’t, at that time, have realized that it was a problem if there were a resemblance. Because we were, after all, in different niches — still are — and our visual brand identities bear no resemblance to one another. My unintentional mimicry of her voice wasn’t a problem until it was. And then I fixed it. And I realized what the hell was going on. And what a really big frickin’ problem it actually is, not just for me, but for you.

What was going on with me when I sat down to write the first version of my site copy over a year ago?

I just copped to it, but in case you missed it, here it is again: unintentional mimicry.

I was unwittingly mimicking the voice, tone, and stylistic features of someone else’s unique writing style.

{I’ve never told Sarah this story before. She’ll be as surprised as I was!}

How did this happen? I’ll tell you in a moment. But first, some backstory and more on what I mean by ‘unintentional mimicry.’

I am a writer. I write across the genres and I write every day. It’s my craft, my mode for understanding the world and my experience of it, and it’s a big part of my identity.

One of the features of the way my writer brain is wired is a hypersensitivity to the nuances of voice.

Holy hell — I often think when reading someone’s latest — this post feels like a mash-up of the last five things this writer read. And how do I know that? The voice is the opposite of a revelation — it’s a re-percolation, like reheating day old coffee, doctoring it with sugar and cream,  and hoping to pass it off in a pinch.

I can hear this wavering, this not-quite-hitting-it-yet note, in my own voice, too, when it’s there. I know when my voice is off and when I’m in a period of synthesizing new information or finding my own language for my ideas. I don’t post during those periods. I’d rather be silent than imitative.

That last bit was not said to stymie you. Frickin’ A, you might be thinking. How am I supposed to go off and write now if I have to watch every word I use?

My answer: write as you. Free you. Sound like you.

What you do have, whether you consider yourself a natural born writer or not, is a voice.

You may not tap into your strongest voice easily through writing. But maybe your voice gets freed through photography or short film. Through cooking or through home styling. Through leading a yoga class or through making handmade goods. Through teaching children or through speaking from intuition. Through marketing a non-profit or through graphic design. Through curating an online boutique or through coaching business owners.

The voice of your creative business, whatever vehicle it comes through, creates the experience your right people have of you, with you, because of you.

The three {of you, with you, because of you} are conflated and that conflation is the most powerful aspect of voice. Your voice is inseparable from you and how you do what you do.

Which is why, when you step out of your voice for a moment or a blog post, or when you go through a period of feeling lost and ungrounded {we’ve all been there}, the whole thing feels wrong to you.

Your voice is as indelibly you in the world as is your fingerprint. It’s unmistakably yours. It passes the test. And anyone can tell from a mile away when you’re moving cleanly in it, or when you’re half-assing it, or when you’re downright faking it.

How mimicry in the digital entrepreneurial space starts.

Mimicry usually starts by imbibing so much of someone else’s voice, through consuming their content like crazy over a period of time, that it comes out your pores and onto the page.

Mimicry happens because you like or love someone else’s stuff, not necessarily because you want to emulate them, exactly.

Mimicry usually originates unintentionally, but the results can look and feel coy or plastic at best, and at worst, insidious.

Now back to me and Sarah and the first iteration of my Abby Kerr Ink web copy.

Here’s how the unintentional mimicry happened: for two months leading up to the launch of my site, I was eating Sarah Bray’s content for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A lot of her content at that time was focused on doing business as a digital entrepreneur and creating your own rules for a lifestyle that supports your work. This was the conversation I needed right then. So I was reading her, plus Danielle LaPorte, plus Copyblogger {interesting mix, I know} for hours a day for weeks on end. I read years’ worth of archives. {I learn well by immersion.} I absorbed nuance, verbal tics, sentence construction patterns, brand language, everything. My brain patterns in the languaging lobe were altered.

And when I sat down to write my own This Is Me and Is This You and Services pages, they came out sounding . . . like Sarah Bray. With a dash of Danielle here and there and plenty of Copyblogger’s best practices thrown in.

Yep, I was ‘doing it right.’ So I thought. My site sounded good. It read well.

Thing was, it just didn’t read like me. And the result of this: I attracted some clients in those early days who weren’t exactly my right people.

They weren’t bad people {nor are they necessarily Sarah’s people, so don’t think that’s what I’m suggesting}, they just were pulled in by something in my copy — and by extension, who they believed I was and how they believed I wanted to relate to them — that was other than the purest, most powerful expression of me, my best work, and how I wanted to be in the world.

All this from too much reading of other people’s stuff, you’re wondering?

It happened to me. And perhaps mine is an extreme case, because I have some serious linguistic absorption tendencies.

For you, unintentional mimicry might look like this:

  • Leaning on someone else’s signature brand language to say what you mean rather than culling your own phraseologie. This is what you’re looking at when you see the same term floating through five or fifteen or twenty-five sites whose content all feels like it attends the same family reunion. The phraseologie was original to one person but others have appropriated it because they like it and it expresses something meaningful to them.
  • Borrowing an entire concept or metaphor from someone else’s business and offering it to your people as if it were original to you. This happens when the content creator a} doesn’t understand intellectual property, or b} creates and ships too quickly after consuming.
  • Openly referencing someone else’s work without giving them attribution, and the result is that newcomers assume the material is original to you. This is usually an oversight, but I’d encourage all bloggers and online content creators to practice some academic-style attribution and link back to your original sources. This is how we build networks of people and ideas.
  • Mimicking speech patterns or ways of referring to an audience. This is usually born out of your great fondness for someone’s voice, or for the way someone else relates to her audience. The key to shaking this is to envision and cultivate the relationship you want with your own audience. And then work those particularities for all they’re worth. {Because they’re worth everything.}
  • Creating an offer for your people {product, service, etc.} and marketing it based on three or four unusual words in the same order you’ve seen them in someone else’s marketing. Usually you’d do this because the original marketer’s language worked on you, you haven’t seen this kind of offer expressed more aptly/powerfully/specifically than this, and it feels like what you want to say. Watch out, though — this is intellectual thievery.
  • Absorbing and parroting what you’ve learned from your teachers, mentors, and coaches before you’ve had the chance to put it into practice and get some real-in-your-own-life results. Especially worth watching out for if those you’re learning from are in the same niche as you. All the better to free your own voice and work your natural points of differentiation.

In my next post, I have an exercise to share with you that’ll help you see other people’s brand language and voice for what it is — theirs — and see yours for what it is — yours. Exciting stuff.

Have you caught yourself unintentionally mimicking someone else’s business voice, like what I did with Sarah? Or have you seen other people doing this and had thoughts about it? I want you to tell me about it in the comments.

P.S. to Sarah — Love you and your work! Thanks for being so inspiring.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Naomi Niles May 26, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Ha, this is really easy to do actually. So brave of you to put this out there (hugs!).

Ironically, lately I’ve been trying to get in terms with this from the other side. I’ve been noticing quite a few cases of people writing in what feels like my voice. I think they don’t intentionally do it and in fact, I should feel honored because it means that they are absorbing and learning from what I put out, which is very awesome actually.

It took me awhile to come to grips with it though. I mean, it’s one thing when people use your ideas and content. But, when it’s your voice, it feels a little odd. Like, disjointed or something. LOL

I’m pretty cool with it now though as long as people don’t plagiarize. I think it’s inevitable for two reasons. First, some people are still finding their own voice. And secondly, if you feel passionately about something and share hopefully useful stuff, people absorb it.

On the flip side, I’m sure I’ve unconsciously adopted a voice or two along the way. I read a lot, like you, and it has to have affected my writing too.

Nowadays, most of the time when I write I pretend I’m writing to my husband. He’s not my target audience. But, I feel most myself and most passionate and confident when talking to him. So, it works out better for me.

I know I told you this in private, but I’ll tell you again publicly. I’m really impressed by your projection the last year or so. There’s a lot of awesome things in the future for you, my dear. :)

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Abby Kerr May 26, 2011 at 6:54 pm

Hey, Naomi —

I appreciate your take here, both on finding yourself being mimicked and on how you approach freeing your own voice when you write.

Didn’t go here in the post, but I will go here in the comments: YES about it feeling strange to see yourself being mimicked. I see that occasionally, too — mostly people who hang out in my world a lot absorbing my brand language and creating content for their people using it. I try to feel flattered rather than annoyed. It’s actually more understandable when it comes from someone you know, like, and trust as a person. Recently, though, I saw a new service being marketed by someone who’s definitely aware of me though not a client or someone who’s in close communication with me. This person used a very unusual phrase verbatim from my Lustermaker service in the framing and marketing of their own service. Yeah, I was pissed. But I have to remember: there are specific reasons I language things a certain way — they work for my people in our relationship. They may or may not have the same effect in this other person’s marketing.

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Lisa Verdi May 26, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Yikes! Really appreciate this wake-up call, Abby, as someone who is also able to consume and process tons of content and therefore is susceptible to this phenomenon of phases, tone, speech patterns etc slipping into my writing unintentionally. Another good reason to unplug, especially during key times of content creation so it really comes from within and is expressed through my own unique voice!  

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Abby Kerr May 26, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Yes, Lisa — the unplugging thing works for me, too. I’m convinced we can’t actively consume and create in the same headspace. :)

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Nichole May 26, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Okay, Abby, so I’m developing this ridiculous “my people” crush on you. Amazing, amazing, amazing. You’re kicking me in the butt, speaking the words I need to hear, and giving me the courage to fly. Well done!

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Ebony Robinson May 26, 2011 at 6:55 pm

This is very transparent and honest on your behalf. At first I didn’t quite understand what you were talking about but I quickly understood how when inducing so much internet information via “doing” research for inspirational blogs, or twitter, for your own project can cause a regurgitation for lack of a better word of what sounds like someone else. I’m a small business owner and a blog reader and writer and work very hard to keep my post and visual display of my brand as authentic as I can. Thank you for your honest. I love reading your post.

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Abby Kerr May 26, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Thanks, Ebony. Felt it was important to put this piece of my own story out there to bridge the gap for my people between what happens when you catch yourself mimicking and what happens *next*. The *next* part is what I’m really excited about. ;)

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Abby Kerr May 26, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Wow, Nichole! So cool to hear that. Some strong words here and I was hoping that they’d reach the right people right where they’re at.

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Lucinda Rae May 26, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Oh, Abby! Firstly I’m soaking up your transparency here. I’ve really been going through this myself, and so here’s to me replying with my nakedness.

In thinking of this, I believe I’ve had others’ voices sort of stick in my head (and come out in the past when trying to write things whether I’ve wanted it to or not). It’s even kept me from writing about the things I love in concern that I’m an echo. Recently it’s felt like a little id crisis as I didn’t know who’s voice I was channeling, and realized it was a few styles of voice. I was hiding behind other archetypes. To get into the deep essence of me (which Sinclair is so helping me with), suddenly I have 6 or 7 different blog posts I have partially written on my desktop that’s been stuffed inside and now they are ready to pop out. This is so freeing.

I love the above bullet points to look out for, and especially that last one. I’ve been looking forward to reading this post but I’ve been specifically trying to stay away from your site and amazing writings as it dawned on me, recently, that I’ve been mesmerized by your voice. What’s even crazier is that I’m realizing as you’ve come more into your Brand Editor role, we’re even doing similar things as I’m moving into my own space. Yikes! I adore you and you inspire me, so I hate to have to ignore your thing to avoid mimicry. (can you tell you’ve been a background mentor for me?)

How do we… when there are subjects our mentors have spoken on that we (I) want to speak on? Just a couple days ago I wrote a post on baring your real self in your biz / brand; which I’ve read about in several places (that “authenticity” word that’s used a lot), but, lately I’ve really ‘gotten it’ and am finally owning it. My lover voice is coming through and it leaves me feeling giddy because it’s real. I’m coming from my pov. It inspires me and I want to inspire others, but admittedly, it IS still new to me.

So… WHEN do we allow ourselves to ‘own’ our thoughts that we are now actually being lived?

And I don’t want to just talk about graphic design but ‘bigger’ things and tie them back into my scope.

I’ve been having the occasional mental convo with you about all this in the shower, while sipping tea, driving… Ha! I’ve REALLY respected the stuff you do and now, in YOUR unique voice, but in seeing that there are even more similarities in us than I originally realized, it especially makes me want to discover myself and how my people are different than yours, or others in similar related-bizes, that much more (and still read your awesomeness. (<——See? That word was Jack Black.)

(sorry this post got SO flipping long.)

Big XO to you and your brilliance and honesty. :) Lu

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Abby Kerr May 26, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Lucinda —

Your thoughtfulness on this issue is so considerate and will open up big, BIG things for you! One thing I didn’t really go into in the post but needs to be said: none of us own the IDEAS we’re working with, but the language and the elements of voice can certainly feel proprietary. For sure I’m writing about topics that lots of others have written about before and will write about in the future — and that’s true for you, too — but the WAY I message it is specific to my audience. Same with you. As with so many things in life, it’s not the WHAT we’re talking about, it’s the HOW, underpinned by the WHY.

What do you think?

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Lucinda Rae May 26, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Oh yes. That HOW and those what’s / why’s are huge. Sometimes by brain doesn’t seem to be programmed for them, and it’s such a great framework to begin with. My right-brainedness can really benefit from that space. And so true about the ownership, great reminder. That idea-creative realm already holds the truth. I’ll be chewing on this for a while: “it’s the HOW, underpinned by the WHY.” Thank you :)

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Andrea Lewicki May 26, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Yep, I’ve caught myself doing this before. When I’ve caught it, the piece stands out as strange against the rest of my stuff and it takes a while to figure out why.

It’s especially easy for a newcomer to mimic someone else’s voice because of inspiration and admiration, sure, but also because of imagined expectations — if I offer something in a voice that’s new, I might worry that it won’t fit and won’t catch. I’ve read a few things in the last week by up-and-coming people using metaphors and stories that I know came from someone else. Perhaps the mentions were intended as a tribute, but unless credit is given, there’s no way to be sure.

It’s also easy to develop a little insular bubble – following and reading a “core” group of people and hanging out in a little community of fans. Being a fan is sweet, but it’s not a contribution. Thanks for catalyzing some clarification in my own mind. :-) I’d much rather be recognized for my contributions than for who I hang with.

The most useful thing for me so far is understanding what my own voice sounds like at its best, and learning to have more confidence using it. I like what Naomi said about pretending to write to her husband. If I pretend I’m writing to people I admire, of course I’m going to sound like them – they’re in my head! 

Abby, I’m really glad you wrote about this!

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Abby Kerr May 26, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Yep, yep, yep. Glad this post stirred you up in the right ways, Andrea.

And can I just say, for the record, that MOST of us go through this: whether it’s a prolonged season or a specific instance, most of us find ourselves unintentionally mimicking somebody at some point in the evolution of our voice. It would have been my absolute HORROR to have thought I consciously picked up on Sarah’s voice and brand language. I value my own individualism so much that to sound unoriginal horrifies me. But we also have to accept that this is usually part of the learning process.

>The most useful thing for me so far is understanding what my own voice
sounds like at its best, and learning to have more confidence using it<

Love this.

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Mcgrealkelly May 26, 2011 at 8:54 pm

“The Sirens are the elusive and forbidden form of the alluring voice. They are nothing but song. Only a silvery wake in the sea, the hollow of a wave, a cave in the rocks, the whiteness of the beach – what are they in their very being if not a pure appeal, if not the mirthful void of listening, if not attentiveness, if not an invitation to pause”–Foucault

Thought you’d like this ;)

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Abby Kerr May 26, 2011 at 9:41 pm

LOVE. Also love:

“Tell what is yours to tell. Let others tell what it theirs.”

— {remind me who wrote this}

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Mcgrealkelly May 27, 2011 at 12:03 am

Margaret Atwood. :)

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Catherine Caine May 27, 2011 at 12:53 am

Oh heck yeah. I’ve started blocking out Mondays as my Getting Things Written day – guess who isn’t logging on to ANYTHING before the writing gets done?

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Abby Kerr May 27, 2011 at 1:04 am

Love that idea, Catherine. So smart to get into the week with a fresh, clear head and your own unique take available to you at top of mind.

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Meg May 27, 2011 at 1:12 am

I had not come across that term, “unintentional mimicking” before reading your post but as soon as I heard it I got a pinging in my gut.  I have had experience with this and have been on both sides of it.  I did not recognize that I was mimicking some of my business idols & favorite online folks until it started happening to me & my brand.  Sorting through all of the angry and frustrated feelings of being “ripped off” by another artist working in my field forced me to examine where and how I had done that when I first got started.  It was a painful & sticky experience and a hard revelation to realize that I stolen phrases and concepts from other artists out of uncertainty of my own voice & a great respect of theirs. Once I realized what was going on I WOKE up and started being much more thoughtful & careful.  Thank you for sharing this!  –Meg

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Abby Kerr May 27, 2011 at 1:19 am

Hi, Meg —

Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. I haven’t seen ‘unintentional mimicry’ anywhere else, either, at least not in our context, but it’s the combo of words that feels right to me for what we’re talking about here.

Great point you made: when we see others doing it to US it also increases our sensitivity in the opposite respect. We become even more careful not to do it to others. What’s truly exciting is how powerful our own purest stream is.

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karen wallace May 27, 2011 at 2:11 am

Brilliant post Abby! I love this. And what a voice you have! I cringe inside just thinking about copying someone else – unintentional or not. But what hit home for me most, today, is this: 

“I know when my voice is off and when I’m in a period of synthesizing new information or finding my own language for my ideas. I don’t post during those periods. I’d rather be silent than imitative.”

I’ve been feeling this lately. Synthesizing new levels of being in my new business, and listening for how my voice sounds in this newness. And I’ve got so much writing I’ve started and abandoned because it just.wasn’t.right. You’ve helped me see that it is better to be silent (instead of berating myself;). thank you. xx

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Abby Kerr May 27, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Hey, Karen —

The silent thing probably feels extreme to some people — some people process best through a messier coming-into-voice than I do, and that’s fine. Glad to hear that you’re finding some peace with your process right now. I have to think that even our silent periods are productive! {BTW, your voice is quite distinctive. I look forward to more from you!}

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Anonymous May 27, 2011 at 2:20 pm

great post and so needed! I cringe when I see people imitating other people – and its so easy to do! Good stuff Abby.

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Abby Kerr May 27, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Thanks, Jen. It seems to happen a lot, doesn’t it? Claiming one’s own strongest, purest voice is the way out of imitation. :)

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Linda Eaves May 27, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Abby: I’m really enjoying this topic. Thank you. I’ve found that takes sampling and synthesizing for the “mine” to emerge. It’s especially uncomfortable to be doing it out in plain sight! My brain keeps saying, “Hurry up already!” But yeah, we know the result of that grumpy voice, yes? Creative Chastity Belt. So, I look to my emails and chat conversations as a check against comfortable, flowy, communications vs. me putting on my business face (or someone else’s) when I’m writing. Am noticing the changes and development – an interesting process. Honestly though Abby, if I hear ‘ve used a word that was someone’s phrase, (and I have) well, right after it feels like sh*t and I’m embarrassed for a minute. No excuses, I want to explain how it goes down for me. Sometimes it’s a genuine curiosity thing like trying on a dress that looks good and I want to see if a similar style would work for me – and other times the thought or phrase just drops in as an orientation to start from. Soon, it shifts and the unique “mine” emerges. I look forward to more on the voice topic. 

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Abby Kerr May 27, 2011 at 9:05 pm

>Creative Chastity Belt<

Ack! You've nailed it, Linda.

The process of letting 'yours' emerge is different for all of us. I LOVE how you've found a gut-check in your email communications and such. Beautiful way to pick up on what wants to come out in the open for you. :)

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SusanJ May 27, 2011 at 4:53 pm

This is really well put Abby and so easy to do as you’ve said. I myself was immersed in Sonia Simone’s teaching as a member of her Remarkable Marketing Blueprint and, while her voice rarely ended up in my posts, I wrote a first version of an e-course sign up page that was exactly her style and tone. (I changed it very soon after once I saw it!)

This comes up for me more when I’m writing web copy, because I have a really hard time figuring out where and how to start. So I do tend to draw inspiration, from one or maybe 20 different things I like and once I’ve started, my own voice seems to take over.

As I was reading your post, I was reminded of the scene in the movie Finding Forrester, when the reclusive writer gives his young student a passage of his own writing to copy over and over. Gradually the student’s voice takes over as he changes more words in each recopying to create something uniquely his own, but in following the masterful writing structure of his mentor, his ability to craft a story greatly improves.

This feels a little like my process sometimes, as my best stuff seems to emerge over time and through revision as my own understanding deepens.

I so appreciate the chance to reflect this! Thanks for presenting it!

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Abby Kerr May 27, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Hey, Susan —

Adore your contribution here, especially the reminder of the Finding Forrester scene. Thank you. Such a great example to bring in here because what we’re doing, as creatives in any genre, is learning first by studying, then by imitation, then by synthesis, then by creating in our own voice.

Stay tuned for the next installment!

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Emma July 26, 2012 at 5:09 pm

I love this because it doesn’t just apply to marketing. It applies to every day life and how we “market’ ourselves to friends, acquaintances and relatives. In high school, I developed personas to adapt to those around me to avoid confrontation and disagreements on opinions. However this stunted my growth as a human being and prevented any genuine relationships because I was always trying to mirror the ideas of those around me.

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Abby Kerr July 26, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Excellent point, Emma. Thank you for adding it to the convo.

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DIY solar and wind energy March 15, 2013 at 9:56 am

I hardly drop remarks, however i did a few searching and wound up here %BLOG_TITLE%. And I do have a couple of questions for you if you don’t mind. Could it be just me or does it give the impression like a few of the remarks look like they are left by brain dead folks? :-P And, if you are writing on additional places, I’d like to follow everything fresh you have to post. Could you list of the complete urls of all your communal sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?|

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caroline April 1, 2013 at 11:12 am

Fantastic, googled branding and came across you. Delighted, just what I need as I was going down the same path but but realized it and left the blog on the shelf until now.. happy to have found you, great, great advice and ‘voice’, you own it, i love it. thanks,
caroline

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Melissa August 27, 2014 at 4:01 am

Hello Abby – Even though I’m joining the conversation 3 years late, I’m not a random spammer, but someone who found you through the fantastic ‘Oeuvre o the E-letter’ e-book where it is wonderful to read the perspectives and hear the voices of so many small business owners I read and respect. Your post here is so thought-provoking, giving a depth to what can be easily waved off as unintentional mimicry at best, blatant plagiarism at worst. I really appreciated it and it give me good food for thought as I go about working on establishing my own voice and voice values. Thank you!

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