• Issue #15

What's in a voice?

A megaphone sits unused on a wooden stool.

How accurately could you describe your institution’s voice? Kristin explains.

And later, Carl gives you a quick intro to Mastodon.

Thanks for being here.

Developing Your Institution’s Voice

Are you a content strategist? Do you know one or even manage some?  Quick: what is your institutional voice?

Do you have an answer? GREAT.

Now, does your institutional content match this voice… consistently? How sure are you?

This might be a little basic for you all. But you would be surprised at how challenging it is to develop a unique institutional voice and keep it consistent across your website. So, let’s dig into the craft of voice a little.

What is voice?

“Voice” represents a set of implicit patterns in content that create an unmistakable identity.  This pattern can be found in your content’s word choices, syntax, sentence structures, length variation, and use of metaphor. How often you use certain writing elements, such as repetition or emphasis, will generate a set of expectations about your institution in your readers’ minds.

To give you an idea for this, audiobook narrators practice adding rhythm to their reading styles by prescribing beats per punctuation mark. A comma gets one beat, a semicolon gets two, and a period receives three. It gives the listener a chance to rest a bit between phrasing. Once you hear this difference, you can intuit the rhythm in the content itself.

Why is voice important?

Voice is important because it empowers you to convey extra tacit meaning in your content in two ways:

  1. The characteristics of your voice are imbued into your institution. If your content has a friendly, easy-going sound, a prospective student will assume your campus has a friendly, easy-going vibe.
  2. If your voice is consistent when you convey seriousness, create anticipation, or solicit action, the reader will not only read your words but also experience a modulation in your voice, indicating how they should respond.

Voice personalizes your writing - not for the specific reader, but for your institution’s relationship with that reader. The reader feels like they know the institution you’re writing for.

Voice also conveys your institution’s take on the world. And that gives the reader a chance to determine if that take is one they personally align with and can live with for the next four years.

How do I know if my institution’s voice is unique? How do I keep it consistent?

Here’s some bad news. You have to write, and I mean write a LOT, to develop a distinctive voice. You have to learn all the rules, and then you have to write enough to know when it makes sense to break those rules.

But, aside from writing day in and day out until your fingers cramp, here are some other ways you can develop your facility for writing and write to the voice your institution wants you to:


When you’re reading (or even watching Netflix), and you like a passage or a few lines of dialogue, take a second to note what it is that caught your attention. Was it the word choice, a vivid description, the cadence, the balance?

Here’s a section I find so damn loveable:

“Plato exhibits the rare union of close and subtle logic with the Pythian enthusiasm of poetry, melted by the splendor and harmony of his periods into one irresistible stream of musical impressions, which hurry the persuasions onward as in a breathless career.”

This was written by one of Plato’s lovers. Supposedly, Plato was pretty handsome. Anyway, this sentiment has survived for 2,400ish years.  The phrase that slays me is the “onward as in a breathless career” one. The idea of breathless work conjures this feeling of urgent single-mindedness and passion.

Don’t be surprised if you catch me using “breathless” in another hot take. Ahh, it’s so evocative! But, my point is actively drawing your attention to writing you like and the properties that catch you will train your writer’s mind to be more specific in your own writing.

It’s why they say writers should read voraciously to improve their own writing. This advice is always missing something, though. It’s not the passive reading-for-enjoyment that hones your skills. It’s this patiently considered form of reading that slowly evolves your habits of mind.


Write as though you are writing to one person - and make it someone you like. When I am stuck, I write my drafts in emails. I never send these emails. I just pick a person and write my content as though I am trying to explain it to her. This process helps me first identify the content areas I don’t quite understand yet. Say it’s a new policy. When I start writing to Joline to explain the policy, and I get to a step in the process that becomes hard to put into words, that means I have NO IDEA what is supposed to happen there. I don’t know who the form goes to or how it gets reviewed. So, writing to a real person helps surface the things you still need to work out.

The other reason this works is that, in this format, I write in human-speak and not administrative-speak. Translating it for someone I know helps me translate it for anyone. And, after years of friendship, I am intimately familiar with the signs of Joline’s boredom. It helps keep her zoned-out face in mind when writing technical instructions.


Read it out loud. I am so serious about this. You’ll know right away if your writing sounds natural. You’ll find all the confusing bits and all the places an unfamiliar reader will stumble. You’ll also feel your run-on sentences when you start running out of air.

Having a unique-yet-distinctive institutional voice will help you transmit your character and intentions through your content. People trust people over institutions. So, the more your institution can mimic the sounds of a coherent human identity (with reliable characteristics, whatever they may be), the more likely your audiences will believe your words and the intent behind those words.

Kristin Van Dorn

An Intro to Mastodon

If you’re currently part of the Twitter exodus, surely you’ve heard of Mastodon, the decentralized, open-source, not-to-be-confused-with-the-metal band of the same name, social platform.

And if you haven’t, it’s time to get familiar cause it’s having a moment.

The main thing to know is that Mastodon is similar to Twitter in many ways, but it requires a little bit of effort upfront to get started.

Here’s a quick primer.

Choosing a Server: When you first sign up, you’ll need to select a server (or instance) to house your account. Think of them as individual planets that exist across the greater Mastodon universe.

There are general ones (with the most users) like mastodon.social or mastodon.online, and those that are more specific like journa.host or higheredweb.social.

Just remember to read and understand the rules of each server so you can ensure that their values align with your own.

You can also find additional instances using mastodon.help/instances.

Finding your Friends: So you’ve joined a server and set up your account; what happens next?

That’s where tools like Fedifinder and Debirdify come in. They will generate a list of the people you follow (on Twitter) that are already on Mastodon and show you which instances they’re on.

So while it’s too early to tell if Mastodon will continue to be viewed as the clear “twitter alternative,” one thing’s for sure, things feel less chaotic there.

And don’t worry, not all of the instances refer to their individual posts as “toots.”

Carl Gratiot