The most common piece of advice that we give the makers we work with is this: sound like yourself.
Usually we don’t say it like that. But sounding like yourself, telling your story, and expressing your values and personality through your business communications is the subtext to many of the practical pieces of feedback we give, when looking over line sheets or websites or emails to stores.
We frequently say to makers:
- Your wholesale catalog looks great, but consider adding a page describing your production process and showing photos of you in the studio.
- Replace those generic photos with photos of your line that are styled in a way that reflects the ethos and spirit of what you’re doing. Present your work in all of its quirky splendor.
- Don’t worry about sounding bigger than you are. A gorgeous photo of a maker hand-printing skirts at her kitchen table is a lot more interesting and compelling than photos that feel like they were ripped out of a JCPenney catalog.
- On your wholesale terms page, instead of saying, in all caps, “KAVALON THREADS WILL NOT ACCEPT RETURNS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION BY KAVALON STAFF WITHIN 30 DAYS OF INITIAL PURCHASE,” you might be better saying simply, “If you’re not happy with anything about your order with us, we want to make it right! Drop us a note within a month of getting your Kavalon goodies letting us know you need to return or exchange something and Julie will be glad to help you figure out a solution.”
In other words -- communicate who you are and what you do honestly, in your own voice and aesthetic.
Of course, we give the advice we need to hear ourselves. And I’ve been noticing recently that there are a lot of small ways that I’m not being fully myself in my work, either. It’s subtle and it’s never a conscious choice, but sometimes I write in a voice that really isn’t my own because I think it’s what people want to hear… or the right way to do it… or the effective way to do it. Sometimes I make a choice about pricing or what to put on the website that seems, while not dishonest or bad, just a little lame to me -- but I do it because it is the “smart business choice.” I’m not talking about anything dramatic or unethical -- I’m just talking about tiny silences, small twinges, and subtle aesthetic choices. But all of those little things can add up to a lot in how we feel about our own work. And I’m starting to make some changes, so that my “outsides” better match my “insides,” consistently.
This exploration has started to feel vital. It has started to feel like the source of what is most important in the work.
But, it’s really hard to actually do sometimes.
The irony is that as creative business owners, the entire PURPOSE of the endeavor is for our work to be creative, authentic, and freeing. If we wanted to feel like frauds, we could probably make more money doing it in an office setting for a faceless bureaucracy.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve taken so many risks for my work that to risk REALLY showing up as myself in everything I do feels like a bridge too far. It feels like, “I’ve risked everything to do work I love -- and now I need to play it safe and make sure that this works out.”
Alternatives to sounding like yourself:
- Sounding like your cool maker friend
- Sounding like the corporations that email you discounts every day.
- Sounding like the “power suit” version of yourself.
There is power in acting out new ways of being. But the thing about faking it until you make it is that it’s very possible you’ll never feel like you’ve “made it” so you’ll just… keep… faking it. And ultimately, the art, brands, and people that we’re most drawn to are those who are skillfully most authentic. It’s hard to connect with people who are faking it.
“Words create worlds.”
- Abraham Joshua Heschel
Words create worlds. When we are fully ourselves in the words we use and the things we make, we create more authenticity and inspiration and generativity in the world. I know I find myself deeply inspired when I come across examples of people being fully themselves in a business or creative context.
For instance, there is a little chunk at the very bottom of Demetria Provatas’s website for Woodland Keep where she asks for donations. She could have said something like “The long term sustainability of this site depends on donations by readers like you. We appreciate your generosity.” But instead she said:
Woodland Keep has a lot of big bright dreams for the future. Land of our own, a brick oven, a baking space/studio, baking equipment, a cabin, a space to grow our own food/ingredients. With all of these dreams, plus more, the temptation to put ads on this page, to create empty merchandise, or to invest time in shallow work grows, but at our heart we know these things would defy the values and intent of this project - so, if you like what's happening here and you feel so inclined to invest [in] its humble growth any donations given would be very much appreciated. And either way - thank you for following along! This project wouldn't be the same without you! Xx
I don’t know about you, but the directness, honesty, and vulnerability that she shows in that paragraph makes me feel much more connected with her work than I would if she’d chosen more generic, “professional” wording.
And the artist and illustrator Phoebe Wahl finds ways to be deeply authentic in every word and photo of what she does. You wouldn’t think that a product page and description would be the time to be radical, deeply authentic, and inspiring, but I’m probably not alone in feeling emboldened by the spirit that comes across here. Her photos are aligned with her ethos and aesthetic, as is the fact that she shows gorgeous models of every body type. But what struck me the most is the way that she allows her voice and values to carry through even to the description of the sizes she carries and how sizing works:
This Warrior Woman tee is 100% cotton, made in the USA by American Apparel*. It fits like a fitted classic tee, but with more of a scooped neck. Very soft cotton, in a 'cream' color. THESE TEES RUN SMALL! I recommend sizing up one or two sizes, depending how you like your fit.
Designed and illustrated by Phoebe Wahl 2014, hand screen printed by Red Boots Design in Bellingham, WA 2016.
*2X-4X women's tees are Port & Co. brand, 100% cotton, made in China. (Please let me know if you are aware of a distributor of blank tees in plus sizes that are made in the USA! I'm on the lookout for options, since AA doesn't go above XL for most women's styles.)
She’s not trying to sound like she has it all figured out. She’s making her intentions clear. She’s communicating what she needs to about the product. And I love the honesty, clarity, and integrity that comes across throughout.
Of course, everyone’s ethos is different. So if you and your line are about minimalism or oddball irreverence or haughty glamour then that is what should come through in the styling of your photos, production descriptions, and purchase confirmation emails. Only Phoebe Wahl should sound like Phoebe Wahl.
Why does it matter?
Why does being ourselves in our business, telling our story authentically, and allowing our “outsides” to match our “insides” matter?
It matters because as a maker, the only advantage you have in the marketplace is your story. What you make is not the cheapest. It’s not guaranteed to not break. What you make is not world famous or perfectly executed. The reason that stores choose to buy what you make over something else is because they are buying into your perspective, your story, your voice.
Every photo we make, every sentence we write, and every aesthetic decision we make is a part of communicating who we are and, if done well, inviting people to be a part of that.
It matters because how you do it is what you get. And making your work a practice of faking, of misrepresentation, of anxious grasping, of going along to get along will only create more of that franticness.
It matters because we do this work to make something we believe in -- and to undermine that in how we show up in our businesses is a shame.
Why don’t we do it? We’re afraid.
As I write this, I’m butting up against the very thoughts I’m trying to encourage you to move past. “This might be meaningful to me, but other people won’t resonate with it,” I think to myself. “People are going to think less of me if I share my weaknesses around this” And of course, “Ok, now you’re just rambling -- no one is going to have any idea what you’re talking about.”
As far as I can tell, I’m not alone in having those thoughts. Some reasons that I think we’re afraid to consistently speak in our own voice, with our real aesthetic, according to our values, in our businesses:
- We are afraid that it’s not professional.
- We think the way to make money is to sound like a big company.
- We are afraid that somehow we’ll put ourselves at risk.
- We want to run with the big dogs and think we need to sound like them too.
- We think our way is too wishy-washy or unsure for people to trust.
- We are faking it until we make it.
- We are afraid people won’t understand what we mean.
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect…
We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”
- The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action (excerpt) by Audre Lorde (by the way, it’s way 100% worth your time to read the whole essay)
Why don’t we do it? It’s freaking hard.
Here’s the truth: it’s not as simple as deciding you want to sound like yourself. It’s not as simple as bravery. It’s also about practice and skill. Perhaps you have a vision for how your styled photos should look and feel, but when you pull them up on the computer, there is something about the lighting and perspective that just doesn’t align with what you had in mind. Or maybe you try to communicate your personality in your writing, but you’ve never felt very comfortable with the written word.
“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”
- Miles Davis
Ira Glass speaks about this gap that exists between the vision we have for our work and the skill with which we execute that vision, especially at the beginning.
Honestly, I think that makers like Jenny Lemons and Gopi Shah are respected because they are both brave enough to do their work in full integrity and because they have put in the work over a span of years so that they are able to execute their vision fully and skillfully. They had the taste. They had the integrity. And they worked their way through the “gap.”
That’s why we call the process of establishing yourself in a craft or art “coming into your own.” Your own (voice, aesthetic, values, story) may be clear to you but you still need to learn to come into it.
There is no path, the path is made by walking.
Whether you’re afraid to sound like yourself or whether you struggle to execute it, there is really only one solution to all of the above:
Do your best to sound like yourself, in all aspects of your craft and business, and you will get better at it over time.
Even the best of the best are only doing it 80% of the time. And those who are just starting out are probably truly telling their story 20% of the time. But we can inch toward fullness and wholeness. And there are rewards all along the way.
Like they say, there is no path, the path is made by walking.