The Art of Voice Establishment

by | October 20, 2020

I joined the Matterlab team in February of 2020 (great time to start a big new thing, right?). Since then, I’ve had several opportunities to give my introduction to others about how I ended up in nonprofit communications. The story always ends in the same place: I desperately wanted to be closely connected to the work that connects people and changes lives. But I’ve noticed the starting point of my career narrative always varies.

Sometimes I start with the part where I graduated college and dove into magazine writing. I was convinced I found my forever thing writing feature content about small, female-owned businesses with big visions. I didn’t. Sometimes I start with the part where I worked in tech start-ups and wore many hats, perhaps most notably developing messaging and communication strategies for big, new, nationwide initiatives. And sometimes I start with the part about my personal journey into nonprofit, developing local, environmental education initiatives at an organization whose work focused on Africa.

For a while those starting points to my personal story felt very different to me, but they’re not. See, for 11+ years, in both corporate and nonprofit settings, I’ve been in the business of voice and message establishment. This is the clear and meaningful common thread that spans all sectors and roles for me. Each major moment and milestone I might describe in my career journey has been rooted squarely in helping programs, companies, and organizations talk about themselves in a meaningful way that connects to a bunch of different audiences — thereby creating greater conversation, not just great messaging sent down a one-way street to nowhere.

I have a memory of sort of career-altering interview I conducted with a 30+ year interior-design veteran during the ‘writing feature content about small, female-owned businesses with big visions’ part of my own journey. Her style was unique because she focused heavily on history to design a space. As we talked, she held a piece of thick, hand-woven lace from the late-1800s in her hands. She closed her eyes and painted a picture of the woman who may have made this intricate fabric 100+ years ago. She described the dimly-lit room with precision – everything from the modest size to the creaky floor – and finally, when I was fully present in the history, she extended the fabric to me so I could run it through my own fingers. (This was back when interviews were in person.)

I remember being struck and humbled by her connection to her work. She was entirely certain of why she was in her field, and her expertise was unquestionable. However, she had never nailed down an “elevator pitch,” if you will, for her business, over many decades of success – and she had no idea how. Every time she tried to talk about her business, she gave examples of projects, but they were only pieces of the larger puzzle and didn’t give appropriate weight to the meaning of her work. She needed to find the right voice – the voice that was reflected in the final product of those spaces, where history had been revived through her artistry – and she needed to bring it to life through the right messages, from among so many she could use.

This experience opened my eyes to how many business owners and organizational leaders have incredible, even life-changing ideas with absolutely no idea how to talk about them (or themselves). I started to imagine how much greater their reach could be if they had an established, identifiable voice and narrative that was carried through all communications. It would give them the humanizing base they need to connect with any audience – regardless of the audience’s familiarity with their work.

This propelled my then nearly full-time side hustle as a freelance communication strategist. I zeroed in on incredibly passionate female business owners in the maker space. Not unlike nonprofit leaders, creatives tend to be highly mission-driven and ready to get to work – but talking about their work is, well, uncomfortable and unnatural. These wildly smart, dedicated women could tell me all day long the many reasons why they started their businesses, but they couldn’t tell me who they were as a business.

Without an established voice and message, you quickly find your organizational backstory does not suffice. It’s too jargony, too complicated, too out there to communicate with someone who isn’t already in the weeds with you. So you frantically search for comparisons. (Think: We’re the Airbnb for pets type of comparison.) When that doesn’t work, your extremely clear mission and purpose get lost in the hyper-explanatory series of “It’s kind of like…” statements.

In those moments, those who are speaking on behalf of the organization – leader or intern on their first week – should feel empowered with the voice of the organization to know how to elevate the messaging best represents the work and even their individual work history as it pertains to the organization.

Funny how this started, right? About 750 words ago, I admitted that even I have not found my voice and story as a member of the Matterlab team; so instead, I told a jumbled version from my own, personal voice. Telling that story in my own voice sounds something like this:

It’s been a wild ride! I’m the first person in my family to attend college. When I started, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. What I did know is that I was intrigued by human connection, which is how I landed in my first interpersonal communication class. Since then I’ve held comms-related roles at magazines, in tech, and in the social sector. All over the map, I know. But what they all have in common is voice establishment. In every role, I have helped people and organizations find and share their voices in order to reach more people and do more good. Now I’m here! I get to do what I absolutely love for organizations who are doing the good and powerful work that will change the world. The way I landed at Matterlab was unexpected and welcomed. As a working mom, this is the work I know I should be doing. This is the work that leaves me energized and eager to share with my family at the end of every day.

And when I speak as a member of the Matterlab team, which works on behalf of a greater mission, here is how that story goes:

My name is Jessie Collins, and I’m a Vice President at Matterlab. I started my work at Matterlab after 11 years as a communication strategist specializing in organizational voice establishment. After working with every profile from creative start-ups to 75-year old institutions, I’m here now because I believe we have work to do in the education sector – work that will truly change lives and close the opportunity gap. We have a better chance of generating real impact if we elevate the right voices and expand that reach through clear messaging. I’m also the mother of two insane and brilliant children. The work I do at Matterlab is work we celebrate as a family – because at Matterlab, we partner only with the organizations we believe can and will change the world, for all of us.

Connect your work to your why.

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