What we talk about when we talk about voice, part three

What we talk about when we talk about voice” will be a running series of blogposts on the 
topic of good writing in general and good writing for educational institutions in particular.

by Patrick Kelly
CRANE editorial director

Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea;
not only that one thinks it but also feels it.
–Friedrich Nietzsche

Style, personality, and prose that makes readers into believers

Independent schools don’t want to attract customers. They want to create believers.

And, before the initial campus visit, before the shadow day, before the parent coffee and the new family orientation and the first day of class, what does a school have at its disposal?

Writing.

Let’s go back to East Bay School for Boys. Here’s how the school starts the “Our Story” section of the school website:

East Bay School for Boys started with girls.
(http://www.ebsfb.org/node/48)

Who’s not going to keep reading that? Who doesn’t get a sense of personality, of intelligence, of wit and style and confidence from those eight words?

http://theunnovelist.com/best-opening-lines/
http://theunnovelist.com/best-opening-lines/

We remember great opening lines for a reason—they generally subvert our expectations, and establish a style that does not solely rely on facts.
I am an invisible man. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. It was a pleasure to burn. East Bay School for Boys started with girls. It fits right in!

 

Clintondale High School, a “school of choice” in metro Detroit, gets to the heart of the matter this way:

Something had to change.
(http://www.flippedhighschool.com/ourstory.php)

That simple, declarative, and powerful statement grabs attention and is the perfect frame for Clintondale to tell its story about how the entire school adopted the “flipped classroom” model. There’s no slow windup, no throat-clearing, no jargon-laden strings of prepositions flimsily held together by weak verbs.

Instead, there’s voice. There’s personality. There is style and substance and verve and the feeling that you are not going to be bored by reading this. There’s a compelling reason to keep going—and, perhaps, to become a believer.

Here’s a “Welcome” from a head of school that doesn’t simply say “Thank you for visiting our website! We hope you enjoy learning about our school through this virtual portal!” but paints vivid pictures of what she sees each day:

When I walk through our light-filled hallways and see our 4th graders discussing the nuances of evolution and revolution then and now, Kindergarteners installing Goldsworthy-inspired art in our hallways, 2nd graders preparing to present their history of the Seaport to a community board hearing, 4-year-olds performing plays based on original beanstalk stories that grew out of their study of edible plants… I know we have unearthed a secret that many have spoken about but not enough experience: powerful, deep learning is joyful. (http://www.blueschool.org/welcome/
Full disclosure: Blue School is a CRANE client).

http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/2013/02/14
http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/2013/02/14

As humans, we’re naturally drawn to stories. To voices that sound interesting and like a real person might actually be talking to us through this otherwise cold screen, or from this glossy piece of paper. To styles that, as Nietzsche said, convey not just information, but feeling.

Stories—whether a novel or a viewbook, a poem or a direct mail series—and voice necessarily live in concrete details. They dwell in the land of the specific. And they activate imaginations in ways that The Official Style never will. Whenever we can describe in detail what fourth-graders are actually doing, instead of how “we challenge them through a rigorous and age-appropriate curriculum,” everybody wins. The school, yes.

And more importantly, all those readers out there, for whom we’re writing in the first place.