Sound Like You
A small business has many benefits, like being able to move quickly, stay flexible and pivot when needed, something big businesses can’t do as easily.
But, with the lure of getting bigger, sometimes small businesses fall into the trap of getting caught up in stiff language and legalese and ending up not sounding like themselves.
Today, the cofounders of 37signals, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, discuss why small businesses should embrace the fact they can communicate without running every word through a legal or public relations department, as discussed in the chapter “Sound Like You” of their book, Rework.
[00:54] - Jason shares why they usually publish their writing directly — from mind to keyboard to the world—to get their ideas out there as clearly, and quickly as possible.
[02:00] - Why running something you’ve written through a filter often produces something that sounds like legalese.
[03:00] - David shares why writing what you want to read is vital (or don’t share).
[05:49] - Big company writing philosophy is often to ensure that your writing says as little as possible but reaches as many people as possible. It’s why all big companies sound the same.
[07:01] - David shares why you have to create your own interest by simply being interesting, by sharing something novel, of having a stand and a position on something in some regard that’s also not just there.
[07:52] - The smaller your company, the bigger risk you can (and should) take with your writing.
[09:05] - Jason shares some dos (and don’ts) for writing for your small business.
[12:12] - David explains why developing your writing voice is essential and how you can do it in relative obscurity if you are a small company.
[14:49] - How to become an overnight writing sensation (after just ten years of practice).
[15:38] - When you SHOULD go through legal and PR before publishing your writing.
[18:35] - “We have expertise in authentically stating our observations and opinions about the business world, how to run a company, and how to develop good software—so that’s what we do.”
[19:22] - “Everything is interesting if you peel back the layers far enough.”
[20:20] - Why it’s essential to measure your writing for the internet as a body of work, not on a piece-by-piece basis.
[22:03] - The unobtainable formula for creating a hit.
[22:57] - The no-traction way to gain traction with your writing.
[23:42] - Why you should avoid looking at the stats of how many people are reading your writing.
[25:25] - If you have a specific question for Jason or David, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850, and we might answer it on an upcoming show.
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Kimberly (00:00): Welcome to Rework a podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. Yay. I’m your host, Kimberly Rhodes. We’ve been talking recently about the benefits of being a small business. You’re able to move quickly, be flexible and pivot when you need to, something big businesses can’t do as easily, but with the lure to be bigger and to grow bigger faster, sometimes small businesses fall into the trap of not sounding like themselves and getting caught up in stiff language and legalese. Jason Fried and David Heinermeier Hannson, co-founders of 37signals have written about this in their book Rework, where they encourage small businesses to embrace the fact they can communicate without needing to run every word through a legal or PR department. They write about this in a chapter called Sound Like You, and they’re here on the podcast to talk about it. And, um, I wanna start with an observation. You guys write a lot, and we didn’t even have a legal department right? Until recently.
Jason (00:54): Yeah. The no, nothing’s ever been ever actually, even though, uh, we, we’ve had, you know, we, we’ve used outside council, we have insight like we, we have legal people around in the sphere of, of our existence, but we don’t ever run anything by them before we publish it or anything like that. That’s just not how, how we are or how we speak or how we want to be. Um, and we don’t even run it by each other very often. Sometimes we do, if there’s some core thing we’re trying to work out together, we’ll share it with each other or with someone else in the company. But primarily we just publish whatever’s on our minds and it’s like straight from mind to typing to, you know, to fingers, to keyboard, to, to the world, and that’s it. And, um, that’s, I think that’s, I mean, that’s kind of how we try to do everything, which is just be very direct about it and the way we speak and the way we publish as well. So there’s not a lot of intermediaries, I think at some point, or actually pretty quickly, not even at some point, but pretty quickly things can get watered down. People get cautious. Uh, you shouldn’t say it that way, I’m afraid to say it that way. And that can be good advice sometimes, you know. But, uh, on balance, I think most things just don’t need it. And you’re better off getting ideas out there as clean and clearly as you can.
David (02:00): I think the tone just ends up being unique that way too. People are different, but you know what, uh, legal advice is usually surprisingly similar. Um, be mindful of, uh, potential liabilities that you create. Don’t say it in that way, dumb it down. Water it down until it is as inoffensive, as rounded corners as it can possibly be, such that there are no legal liabilities. And from the perspective of say, legal, that’s what they’re there for, right? So if you’ve run something through a filter that produces a certain sound, don’t be surprised when that comes out on the other sound, or side is the sound of legalese. That is what that filter’s there for. But if you don’t wanna sound like that, don’t run it through it. And we’ve never wanted to sound like that. We’ve want it to sound like us. And I think sometimes that gets us in hot water and some things, and in plenty of other times, it strikes a chord that actually is meaningful to someone.
(03:00): One of the things that we’ve done for so many years is to write a lot and well before this whole genres of writing about something that’s sometimes related to your business and sometimes just general observations is this content manage, or, sorry, not content management. Well, I guess it is a form of content management. It’s content marketing. That it is this product that’s instrumental in trying to achieve some result, trying to do some signups. And as much as perhaps that works for some people, some of the time it generally does not produce the kind of writing I, for example, am interested in reading. Would I go like, do you know what, what I should read right now in some content marketing? Do I have some content marketing books or blogs that I can look up and I’ll consume some of that? No, I’m interested in hearing what real people think about something that matters to me or I didn’t even know mattered yet.
(03:54): And I try to write what I want to read, and I know the same is true for, for Jason. So we really try to protect that sometimes to almost an excessive degree. And as I said, like we have gotten in, in trouble over the years from just blurting that out. But you know what? That’s the price in part of striking that unique tone. You don’t get that tone if you run everything through three layers of filtering. You get what you got on most corporate websites, a bunch of clever sounding stuff that doesn’t say anything. That doesn’t mean anything. That doesn’t stand for anything. Because as soon as you say something and you stand for something and you mean something like, you know what, that could potentially be a little spiky and it, might turn some people off and you’re like, we are very comfortable with the risk of potentially turning someone off. Hopefully not. Like it’s not the intent, the intent is to give a new angle on something, spark some debate, plant a seed, any of these, uh, uh, sort of ideas that, that we have. But it has to be genuine. It has to be authentic. And it only gets to be like that if there are no filters on top of the expression.
Jason (05:08): Yeah, you can also very quickly see or understand what’s written by committee and what’s written by a person. And I think, you know, this is something we talked about previously in another episode, but like, you look at mission statements in general and, and they’re so clearly written by a committee and they have no sharp edges at all. They’re perfectly round pebbles that that won’t hurt anybody, that don’t mean anything. But they’re, you know, perfectly committee written in a sense. And we’re trying to stay as far away from that as possible. And again, it doesn’t mean that other people couldn’t improve something you’re writing or give you some perspective or point of view on something of certainly they can. And when, when we are seeking it, we, we look for it, we ask for it, but otherwise it’s just straight to straight to publish.
David (05:49): And part of that I think is the risk tolerance. And that’s where small companies are unique. If a founder, an executive, or someone else at a small company decides to say something that means something, uh, that’s a risk. Like some people could read it and maybe they’re mad or they write in, if you are somewhere inside a huge corporate behemoth, you’re not gonna run any risk in that regard. Having that voice to the outside world, because what is your upside? You basically just have downside. Well, if it goes wrong and I say something that, uh, some people don’t like, you know what? My job might be on the line. If it’s your business, okay, it’s your business on the line, but it’s also your business on the line. You’re the one putting the chips in there and you can accept a totally different risk factor than someone else might be able to accept if they’re in this huge company, which is why all huge companies sound the same because they do run through all these layers of filtering and it produces exactly the same sound, this bland corporatism, full of jargon, full of everything else to make sure it says as little as possible to as many people as possible.
(07:01): And there’s not a lot of return there, but they also don’t need it. If you’re a small company and you are trying to make a dent in the universe, you are trying to get ahead. Like, do you know what? Those tactics are not gonna work for you. You cannot put out a bland press release and expect anyone to have to faintest interest in reading what you have to say. Apple or Microsoft or IBM or any large corporation that has a huge brand, they can put out the dullest writing you’ve ever read, and tons of journalists will actually parse over that and see if they can find something interesting to report on. There’s no possible universe where that happens to you as a small or medium sized business owner. You have to create your your own interest by simply being interesting, by sharing something novel of having a stand and a position on something in some regard that’s also not just there.
(07:52): Like it’s not put on. This is why I hate content marketing so much as a term, because it sounds so instrumental. It sounds like you’re not writing something that you actually believe you’re just writing something to get this result. And you can see that sometimes when people do take a position on something, you’re like, eh, is that actually what they think? Or is that just what they think other people think that they should think? And it’s like, eh, again, no patience for that whatsoever, but embrace the risk in the sense that the upside that you can get out of it actually matters at a small company. And the downsides, you know what, eh, not that critical. You’re not at this huge stage if you say the wrong thing as a, as a small company, in many cases, it just doesn’t matter. You don’t have to spotlight on you. If Microsoft, IBM, Apple says the slightest wrong thing, oh yeah, all the spotlight on the world is on there. So they have a totally different risk profile, which is why they end up with this kind of muffled writing. It is why they end up with all these filters, because that’s a logical strategy to follow at that level. If you try those same tactics on your situation with five people or 10 people or 20 people, yeah, it’s not gonna pan out.
Kimberly (09:05): So for our marketing for 37signals, I mean, that’s all written internally, not like outside copywriters. For someone who’s listening as a small business, like, do you have any tips for how to jump into that and sound like yourself and not, you know, try to put it through this filter. I don’t think it, you guys, writing comes naturally to y’all. I don’t think it comes as naturally to everybody else. So any tips that you can share?
Jason (09:29): Well, you know, one thing is if you’re not a good writer, don’t write. Maybe you’re better on camera, maybe you’re better on audio. Like find the thing that you happen to be good at and do more of that, you know, that, that I, I find that there’s a sense that you have to force yourself into something that you’re not really good at. Sometimes that’s a good way to learn, obviously, but figure it out. Like I think Gary Vaynerchuk historically has been a great example of this. Like he was just particularly good at being on video. He’s really good on video in a way that he’s not in writing. He’s, he’s probably a strong writer, but his native platform is talking out loud. That’s how he built his, his brand or whatever. And I think that that’s what you gotta figure. So there’s lots of different ways to get attention, lots of different ways to share information.
(10:14): Um, perhaps you are a good speaker, but a bad writer and you want to have a ghost writer write a book for you. I know some people who’ve done that and the books are, are fine. They’re good books and like, they’re just, they wouldn’t been able, they wouldn’t be out, they wouldn’t be books had the person had to write the book. They’re just, they don’t have the attention span for it. They don’t have the, the, the stamina for it. But they can talk about a subject for two hours, once a week and after a certain period of time, you know, you, you have a really good ghost writer who really understands your style. Like, it’s not the way we would do it, but it’s a totally viable way for someone who’s trying to get something out, but they, they’re just blocked for other reasons.
(10:49): So I, I would, you know, in my, my point is like, try to find out what you’re good at, practice a few things and, and, and do more of that. And don’t try necessarily to, to do something you’re not good at. I think also to David’s point about risk tolerance, if you find yourself saying something that doesn’t sound like something you would say or you’re afraid to say or anything, like, that’s just a sign. Whether or not it’s on video or, or writing or you know, whatever’s. Don’t, don’t say that. Don’t do that because it’s not gonna feel like you, it’s not gonna sound like you. I’ll give you an example of this. When we are doing our, our most recent book, it doesn’t have to be crazy at work. Um, there was some internal controversy over the word crazy in the title. And so some people are saying, why not say like, it doesn’t have to be chaotic at work or it doesn’t have to be silly at work.
(11:37): I forget what some of the other suggestions were and David and I were like, that’s just not how we would say this. It’s also not how other people say this. People say it’s crazy at work. Like, that word matters. And you could tell that if we were to substitute one word for another word in that, in that situation to take a little bit of the edge off, perhaps it would’ve fallen pretty flat in my opinion. Um, and when you do that over the course of an entire, that’s like one sentence or one title, but if you do that over the course of the whole thing with six paragraphs and every other sentence is not something you’d write or say or want to say or you’re afraid of saying, just don’t say it. It’s just, it’s not worth it.
David (12:12): I think the other thing is to some extent we are not the writers we are today because we were born that way. It took quite a long time to develop that voice, that style. Even if there was perhaps the seeds for that at the beginning that we, we had some of it, it was quite rough. I’ve been writing on the internet for 25 years and a surprising amount of it is actually still online. And I’ve occasionally gone back to read some of my writing from like 2001, 2002 and I go like, who is what that no, that’s bad, right? And you also have to embrace, again, the small spotlight of being a small company means that you can develop your talents in relative obscurity. We have another chapter actually about doing that in, in general and embracing obscurity on that level that if you eventually want to become, say, a good writer, that takes a lot of work.
(13:12): It, it takes years and years of effort to get there. For me, I got there by reading an awful lot and then just writing and writing and writing. In fact, um, I prefer to write something every day, like not all of it’s good, but just being in the, in the mode, in the gel of writing something, sometimes it’s just internal and other times it’s external. I’ve been writing a lot on, on Hey world, I actually just looked at it. I think we started Hey World like two years ago and I’ve written 180 pieces that’s, uh, not quite a piece every day. It’s a piece every four days. Um, and a lot of that is not like whatever, something that’s gonna stand 20 year test of time. I’d like to believe that some of it is is stuff that I could look back upon in 20 years and go like, you know what?
(14:03): That was, that was pretty good. But the point being that if you wanna get good at something, don’t just look at someone who’s already good and then your first attempt in comparison, like, oh yeah, it’s not like as edgy as or as clever as or as clear as therefore I can’t do it. Decide is this something like, is the learning process itself something that gives you energy? That is a key determination for me. When I started writing and I wasn’t very good at writing, I liked writing. If when I started driving a race car, taking photos or anything else like that, I like the process of, of becoming better. But you know what, when I picked up the guitar to learn how to play guitar, I did it like two sessions, three sessions. Like, I don’t like this. I would like to be good at playing the guitar.
(14:49): I think that’s, I, it’s a lovely instrument. I would love to be good at playing the guitar, but I knew very early on in the process, I don’t like learning this. I don’t like doing the motions. I don’t like the callouses you have to develop. I don’t like anything about learning this instrument. That’s probably not a good venue for me. And I think this connects to what, what Jason says, if that’s how you feel about writing. Like it’s this alien thing that you’re forcing yourself to. Yeah, it’s gonna sound forced when it comes out. If you like it, it might not sound great the first time it leaves your fingers, but keep at it and eventually perhaps it will. And the same thing goes with video. The same thing goes with any of these other mediums. A lot of the people you’ll read or hear or watch for the first time and you go like, where did that come come from? Yeah, it came from 10 years of practice. That’s where,
Kimberly (15:38): Right, well we’re talking about sounding like yourself. Small businesses have the opportunity sound more like themselves cuz they don’t have to go through legal and PR. My question is, when should small businesses go through the stages of a PR review or a legal review as opposed to just typing it and putting it out? Are there situations where those layers are necessary?
It probably depends on the business you’re in. If you’re in the medical, uh, you know, medical, uh, devices field, like you probably should have someone look at that, you know,
(16:44): But, um, I think that the, like anything, the habits or the things you do early on or the habits that you form, and so if you feel like you can’t publish anything without three people looking at it, without a lawyer looking at it, without a PR firm looking at it and, and you feel inadequate or unable to publish without that, then you’re gonna keep doing that. So I would caution against it. Also, to David’s point, no one’s gonna read it anyway. No one knows who you are anyway. When you’re small, this is the right time to practice just publishing. Um, it’s typically when companies get bigger or more well known or in in, you know, in the spotlight where they start to get particularly nervous and they want more, you know, more eyes on it. But early on I would just write, give it to a friend, give it to a colleague, give, give it to a part, whoever it is who you think might give you some feedback that would be useful, might be nice, but I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t squeeze it through the sieve of like, I need to make sure that every word is, uh, safe.
(17:40): Like that’s not really kind of the, I think the, the the way to do it.
David (17:44): I think it would also just be fraudulent for us to offer much advice in this arena because we’ve literally never run anything through any of these filters. Um, so I think that just, it didn’t go with our domain. As Jason says, we do not work in medical device technologies. We’re not a public company. I think that’s another domain where this happens all the time where things, even people I’ve known, right? Um, and I know what they sound like and then I see them on an earnings call and I go like, who is this alien that you’ve installed in your human suit? And what are these words coming outta your mouth? Because they come out in this very structured form that’s very much about the risk tolerance of you have to speak in this specific jargon to, to say things within the box. Um, and again, is is that, is that what you wanna sound like?
(18:35): Does that sound like you to the title of this essay? No, it does not. It sounds like a robot and I guess sometimes there’s a need for robot speaking, but you know what, then we don’t really have a lot of advice to you. I don’t have an advice of a securities lawyer telling you what you can say during the quiet period or even after period and forward-looking statements and all this other, um, stuff that puts constraints on what you can actually say. What we have expertise in is authentically stating our observations and opinions about the world of business and then how to run a company and how to develop good software. So that’s what we do. And I think that domain is endlessly interesting. This is the other thing, sometimes people feel like, well I can’t write because there’s nothing I’m not interesting. My business is not…
(19:22): Everything is interesting. If you peel back the layers far enough, everything is interesting. And I think that’s actually where more people get stuck is in this delusion that just because they’re so versed in what they’re dealing with that it’s not interesting because they know everything. No, for any outsider, this can just be absolutely fascinating. I remember once watching this YouTube video about a guy that made, um, saddlebags, um, you remember this Jason, the the guy he makes him outta this leather. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Saddleback Leather and, and he talks about the most interesting minutiae about how to needle the thread of holding the buckle together and something. And I’m like, I had no idea that making a damn leather bag could be this riveting. And it’s riveting because this person really knows something. He was an expert at this field, a field I had no idea was that deep.
(20:20): Um, and he presented it really well. And that’s the thing, when you run a small business, usually the reason you are in business is because you’re good at something. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something that you are good at in that domain, otherwise people wouldn’t be buying from you presumably. So just keep scratching in that, keep going deeper into that and you’d be amazed how interesting that can be. And I think this is what, what I find even after now riding on the internet for 25 years, I have a very poor gauge on what will hit and what won’t. Like, as I said, I write once every four days on Hey world, um, according to the last two years statistics. And there’s a bunch of stuff there where like, oh, I think this might be really interesting and no one gives a damn, and then I state the obvious or the trivial in my opinion and boom, it’s a big thing.
(21:09): This whole thing with, uh, us moving off cloud was one of those throwaways, I just, I put it down, it was not that long of a piece. I think it was like eight paragraphs and I wrote it in like six minutes and half a million people read it. And I’m like, wow. I I feel like I barely said anything. I feel like I said everything that everyone in the industry already knows or is already in tuned with and no, it just strikes something. So that’s the other part here is when you look at is it worth it? That’s the other question that often comes, well, it’s gonna take a lot of time and is it worth it? You can’t look at one piece, five pieces or 10 pieces. You gotta look at it as a body of work. When I look at the writing that I’ve been doing, those 180 pieces, for example, over the last two years, there’s only a handful of those that were like really big hits that traveled very far and would rang up the metrics on the content marketing scoreboard.
(22:03): And then what about all the other stuff? Well, yeah, you, you can’t get the one without the other, you can’t get the interesting stuff that really travels without trying a bunch of times. This is a writing on the internet, at least in terms of travel is very much a hits business. You don’t know what’s gonna hit if, if you had a formula for creating a hit, yeah, you could just create a bunch. No one has that formula. Not in video games, not in music, not in TV productions, not in anything. The the hit is very often a hit because it’s just novel because there’s some assumptions here. You’re tickling in a way you did not even know that you’re tickling. So what I really wanna say is don’t do it if you only have the stomach for trying five times – worthless waste of effort because I guarantee you nothing is going to happen on your first five pieces.
(22:57): And I’d go even further than that. Nothing is gonna happen on your first 50 pieces. You should be so fortunate if something happens even on your hundredth piece. I think Jason you mentioned, um, Gary V he started with the wine library thing. He made hundreds of episodes before that thing got anywhere near something you would call traction. He just stuck with it year in, year out. So I think decide with yourself up front, a is the act of doing this actually something I could derive energy from? Because if not, there’s no way you’re gonna have to stamina. No way. If you are deriving energy from it, expect it to take a long time.
Jason (23:42): I think people are actually, are at a significant disadvantage today than when David and I started writing. When David and I started writing, there was no counters, uh, there, there weren’t counters on everything. I didn’t know how many followers I had. I dunno how many people read the thing. I don’t know how many people liked the thing you just wrote. Now it’s gotta be incredibly intimidating to start because, and we’ve seen this, we, we’ve started something, we’ve, we’ve explored TikTok a little bit and we’ve been doing more YouTube videos and like the the, you know, what you do is you, you start to look at these numbers because they’re all over the damn place and it’s like this big game and you’re like, oh my God, only 45 people saw this or read this, this sucks or this isn’t any good or whatever. I mean you’ve got all these very low numbers staring in you in the face when you’re beginning anything.
(24:25): Now that’s a pretty intimidating, uh, picture to look at all day long, which is like, no one’s seeing what I’m doing. It’s much better not to know. No one’s seeing what you’re doing and then just doing it because you want to do it and that that’s a much better place to be, but it’s actually pretty hard. Which is one of the reasons why with Hey world, we decided against having statistics all over the place. The only thing you can see on Hey world, from your point of view, from the office point of view, is how many people are subscribed to your newsletter, the email newsletter version of it. But you can’t see how many people read an article. You can’t see what your articles are. Most popular articles. This might be useful information to some degree, but it’s certainly not when you’re first starting it’s, it’s pretty bad, really bad. So I think it’s harder and, and my only advice, I it’s, it’s even like almost impossible to give this advice because every platform is all about numbers these days. But if you’re gonna write something on your own blog or something like that, you’re using, you know, whatever you’re using, try not to look at the stats cuz they’re gonna be terrible for a long time.
Kimberly (25:25): Yeah, well and it’s one of those things, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Probably the more you’re writing, the more you’re sounding like yourself and more comfortable in your own tone I would imagine too. Right? So with that we’re gonna wrap, but if you wanna read more from the team at 37signals, our tech team has a blog over at dev.37signals.com. You can read what they are up to in their own tone and hear are what they got going on at the tech world. Rework is a production of 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website at 37signals.com/podcast. And if you have a specific question for Jason or David, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 and we might just answer it on an upcoming show.