“Rise of the puppet master”: how a ghostwriter writes…
15 December 1975. The St Paul’s Primary School Christmas Puppet Show, Nuneaton. A 7-year-old boy starts ad-libbing. He makes the King speak in the Headmaster’s aristocratic drawl.
His class-mates giggle. The parents laugh. The other teachers smile. A bullet is dodged.
A 7-year-old boy has discovered his verbal identity: accurately mimicking others’.
That boy grew up to be me.
Within a couple of minutes of meeting you I’ll have your mannerisms, facial expressions and voice patterns.
Sorry, can’t help myself.
But at least I can now use this gift responsibly. I’m a corporate ghostwriter.
As the copywriter for Nominet UK, I wrote conference speeches and bylined feature articles for the Directors and senior managers.
I would turn four bullet points on a Post-It note into 400 words.
I could make a three line email into a 30 minute speech.
And it always sounded like the author of the scribbled note or rushed email. Our corporate spokespeople had never sounded better. Or more like themselves.
So how do I do it? It just happens. As my fingers start across the keyboard I enter into character, hearing their words in my head. They keep talking, I keep writing. I try not to interrupt. I see them at the podium. I watch their expressions change in HD as they speak: a questioning eyebrow; a concentrated frown; a self-assured grin. I’m told I mirror their physical ticks as I silently mouth the words.
Occasionally “the real me” surfaces and tries to talk over them. But as I listen to myself I can hear where what I’m saying jars with their vocabulary, cadence and tone of voice. I rework it until I’m sure it’s them again.
Now I’m a freelance creative copywriter, and when I take on ghostwriting projects (I’ve recently done video scripts, speeches and have a couple of book projects in the pipeline) I often don’t have the safety net of writing as people I’ve known for a while.
These days, I regularly need to sound just like people I’ve only just met. Quite a challenge.
And that’s where being a natural mimic really pays off. As a ghostwriter I’m putting words in people’s mouths, but in a good way. I’m helping them say what they want to, just more fluently.
It’s them. But on a really good day.
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because I mimic brands too. Can’t help myself. Just do it.
If you ever find yourself needing to copy someone else’s verbal identity, here are my three ghostwriting tips:
- Be a sponge at the briefing. Meet face-to-face if you can. Absorb the way the person says things, as much as what they say. Watch them as they speak. Commit mannerisms to memory.
- Dial yourself down when you start writing. That particular word or phrase might sound good to you, but it probably sounds like you. Not them. Picture the person saying the words. Is it authentic?
- Ask them for a list of words they really like, and words they hate. It won’t give you an exhaustive vocabulary, but if you avoid the hated words, you won’t get unnecessary rewrites.
Gareth Cook has over 20 years’ experience as a corporate writer in the Financial Services and Internet sectors.
He’s an independent creative copywriter and friend of Verbal Identity who specialises in delivering ‘just the right words’.
He’s also a performance poet, comedian, drummer and cyclist. All at once. It’s quite a show.