Written by Karyn Keene

Pablo Picasso. Leonardo Da Vinci. Vincent Van Gogh. Claude Monet. At the very sound of their names, images, colors and styles fly to mind. I always thought these great masters were born with their unique style. However, while walking through an art museum, I was surprised to discover that each of these masters learned first by imitation.

The tour guide explained that in art school (or in apprenticeships), these painters first learned to perfectly imitate their predecessors. Only then were they allowed to experiment with new ideas.

As I stood gazing at Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows, I realized there was a lesson here for all storytellers looking to develop their voice. In our era of individuality, the thought of copying someone else seems absurd. Yet how much time (and angst!) could we save if we first learned to imitate those we admire, and then discover how to express individual style?

Personal branding requires that we have a unique voice, especially if we are to distinguish ourselves in the sea of social media. This takes careful crafting of the English language and an intimate understanding of our personality, which are both extremely difficult to imbibe into 140 characters.

Step 1: Describe Yourself

List 20 adjectives that define you and narrow them down to 3 or 5. Are you sarcastic? Sweet? Epic? Sincere? When choosing these words, stay authentic. People want to love the real you, so don’t make a fake personality.

If you are having trouble describing yourself, ask your friends and family to describe you and see what you get. This is a good idea to try anyways, to be sure that the adjectives you chose are close to how others perceive you.

Step 2: Find Others Like You

Look for masters in your field and sub-culture (remember the importance of defining your sub-culture?). Choose 2-3 who you can imitate successfully and who share a few adjectives with you. Then read their books. Watch their movies. Read their social media streams. Read until you can hear their voice in your sleep.

If you are doing it right, it’ll only take a few months for you to naturally imitate their style.

Step 3: Start Writing Like Them…

Before you write a social media post (especially one that is promoting your work), find what you want to communicate. Then, write the post in the voice of someone you are imitating. Write it again in another voice. Then again in another. You should have a few distinct sentences on your page in different voices. Before you get stuck in their vernacular, walk away.

Step 4: …End Writing Like You

After you take a break, it’s time to turn these imitations into your voice. Think again about your adjectives, your authentic personality, and how you want your voice to sound. Pull out your favorite pieces you have written and edit them. Your new perspective will help you slip into a unique style. Once it sounds mostly right, publish it.

This process of imitation and voice crafting can take some time, and it’s going to be messy. Be prepared for your voice to be scattered for a while. This is okay. In fact, this is good. The more you practice with your voice, the more you will discover what works for you and what doesn’t. This process is how you will find a voice that is uniquely yours.

Step 5: Unleashing Your Voice

Eventually, like the great painters we discussed earlier, you will reach the point where imitation no longer is necessary. You’ll have learned by copying and will reach a point where you can simply be yourself. Your voice will flow out with ease. Sure, it won’t always be easy to say what you want, but now your style will come naturally.

Do you have any ideas for how to craft your voice? Share them in the comments below.

To learn more about Personal Branding, take a peek at our series on Social Media Platforms, Building a Website, and  Finding an Audience.