Sarah sitting against spray painted wall in alley
Me among the angels, 1996 // photo © Michael Carnella

A DIY Guide to Authentic Messaging, Brought to You By Gen X and Grunge

I’ll level with you – I hate blogging for myself. I’ve put it off for months. Years, even. 

The irony of my inertia is not lost on me. As a messaging strategist and writer, I know that high-quality, regular blogging is incredibly valuable to any business.
It’s one of the only legit ways to build SEO. It’s social proof that you’re an industry expert. When promoted correctly, it gets the right kind of eyes on you and your business. 

But where I get hung up with blogging for myself is on the “high-quality” aspect (which then directly affects the whole “regular” aspect). 

I don’t doubt my writing ability. But I often ask myself, what can I possibly add to this larger marketing/communications conversation about authentic, transparent storytelling and messaging that hasn’t already been said? 

I’ve gotten so sick of industry buzz words that every time I see “authentic” or “transparent,” I want to kick myself in the face. To me, these words are one step away from “synergy.” [Okay, maybe that’s a tad hyperbolic, but still]. 

Don’t get me wrong – authenticity and transparency are indeed the foundation of any effective messaging strategy. In your business, your personal life, wherever. You really won’t (and shouldn’t) get anywhere meaningful without them. 

It’s just that the business world’s approach to these themes has become, like everything else in business, heavily commodified. Overused, fatigued, beaten-to-death selling points. 

The sheer volume of info on being authentic and transparent would put the Library of Congress to shame. I’ve dug deep into the internet’s endless resources myself. Some things land with me, others not so much. 

But that didn’t change the fact that I got to the point where I felt like an imposter every time I even thought about blogging. Like the best I could do would be sitting down to compose a blog post riddled with jargon and content marketing platitudes. As if anyone needs to read another one of those posts, ever. 

It wasn’t until I recently read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project that I finally got the message. [Yes, I know an optimistic read like this is not very Generation X of me, but don’t worry, I approached it with saturnine skepticism]. She said that one of the fundamental principles of her happiness project was remembering to “always be Gretchen.” No matter what. 

I shot straight up when I read it. Embarrassingly enough, it was the first time that sentiment really clicked for me, and it had zero to do with business. For God’s sake already, I thought, just be Sarah. Sure. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. 

So who is Sarah? In the broadest sense, I’m a Gen Xer. Through and through, for better or worse. And the only thing that’s consistently made me feel like me is the nineties grunge era in which I came of age. So much so that I moved to Seattle the first chance I got

Now, Gen X is far from perfect. Perhaps Xers have indeed caused everything today that’s both great and awful. After all, Google, Amazon, and Twitter – just to name a few overlords that fundamentally changed how we exist – were all founded by Gen Xers. 

But it’s where my roots are. I was drawn to the tenets of grunge. Empathy, feminism, equality – and most importantly, being okay with not being okay.

These things not only helped shape me as a person, but also grew my sensibilities and insight as a writer, expanded my sense of morality and empathy, and made me feel like I wasn’t alone in a time that I very much needed to believe that was true. 

The skinny, blonde, loser kid who once spray-painted “God is gay” in his hometown grew up to be the frontman of one of the most influential rock bands of all time. And how did Kurt Cobain use his mainstream success?

To declare that women are the future of rock ‘n roll. To ask, in his album’s linear notes, that homophobes, sexists, and racists please leave Nirvana the fuck alone. Don’t buy their records, and don’t come to their shows. He did this before it was popular or safe to say these things. 

Grunge was a surreal and welcome departure from the ‘80s era of excess, male domination, and vapidity. 

Our teens are our formative years, and grunge molded me. I still carry with me the lessons that defined my youth, gave me a sense of purpose, fleshed out my sense of fairness, hope, and staying true to myself. 

It’s why I founded my business to serve fellow purpose-driven brands – people who give a damn about making the world better for everyone. Folks who genuinely care about moving the needle in the right direction, even if it means their own lives are a lot harder because of it. 

Maybe the voice of Gen X did die with Cobain in 1994. We were already a wary, cynical bunch of teens and twenty-somethings that really had no damn clue what we were supposed to be doing. Maybe we just kinda let it all go. We never wanted the spotlight anyway, right? 

But our own Gen X-iness did us a huge disservice. Those who strongly identify as Xers or grunge-lovers in the cultural sense have no clear voice today – not anywhere, really, but definitely not in the realm of business and entrepreneurship.

Think about it: Gen X is barely a defined marketing demographic. It’s either Boomers or Millennials. As if there aren’t 66 million people, just in the US, that fall somewhere in between. 

I got to thinking, what if Gen X and grunge still had something to say all these years later? What if they could help people think about and get inspired to be authentic and transparent with their messaging in new ways? 

What if getting back to our roots and reconnecting with who we really are is the only way we’ll move forward in the wake COVID-19? It is not business as usual, and will never be again. And that’s a good thing.

So, friends, what follows is my humble attempt to share, through a Gen X and grunge lens, ways you can be naturally authentic and transparent in your messaging so that your audience loves you and wants to get on your level. 

Here’s how this series of bi-weekly blog posts works: I’ll choose a 90s album that changed my life and write a post that’s inspired by each song on the record. First up, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Nirvana’s Nevermind. 

I hope you find these posts valuable in some small way, even if that just means getting the impulse to unearth all your old records and rock out and feel way better for a while.

Okay, here goes. Being Sarah. 

Track 1: Smells Like Teen Spirit – or, How to Reignite Messaging that Matters

Drawing of teens at a punk rock concert

“Oh, well, whatever. Nevermind.”

If Gen X knows about anything, it’s being jaded. I mean, doing things is exhausting, right? But truth be told, Xers can’t take all the credit (?) for cornering the jaded market. That award goes to adulthood in general. 

It’s natural that every now and then – or every hour or so, given the whole global pandemic thing – life overwhelms us. We get run down. Nothing seems to fit. There’s so much resistance. It takes a gargantuan effort to win the smallest success. The to-do list is out of control and never-ending.

What were we fighting for, again? And why?

It’s a huge drag, but as purpose-driven business owners, it’s much more insidious than that. How can you talk excitedly about yourself, your mission, and your work if the spark’s gone? Your entire messaging strategy weakens. It becomes nearly impossible to communicate your purpose authentically. Your content has no “oomph” behind it anymore. How are you going to draw in new clients and donors when you don’t even know what to say?

Finding purpose in our teen years 

Reigniting that purposeful spark means returning to our teen years. Teenage angst is a powerful thing, and it happens for a reason (besides hormones). Our adolescent years are when most of us start coming to terms with the myriad injustices of the world. 

We see that there’s tons of stuff that’s not fair. That lots of things and people and situations suck. Our own glaring shortcomings and inadequacies are amplified, which fuels the internal angsty fire more. We’re drawn to art, music, books, movies, role models, historical figures that help us sort out what’s important to us and what is not.

In short, we start to find our purpose. 

All of this shapes our core values, which we use to figure out what we want to fight for, and what matters. The best part? We’ve got that endless stream of energy to rise against.

But as we creep into our twenties and beyond, the fight gets a whole lot harder.

Adulting happens. And with its crushing weight of responsibilities also comes the harsh reality that staying committed and purposeful is really, really hard.

Real progress is excruciatingly slow. The trajectory of change is one step forward and 10 steps back. Obstacles abound. And everything costs a million dollars. 

Purpose-driven business owners like us still know why we’re fighting the good fight. But it’s only natural that we’re going to hit a wall at some point. 

Totally normal, but society wouldn’t have you think so. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that losing your purpose in your business, a relationship, or personal pursuits is often the mark of failure at best; descent into mental instability at the worst. You’re a grown-ass person. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps already. Adults are supposed to be, well, adults. 

As a kid, I’m pretty sure if one of my parents had set their fork down at the dinner table and said, “You know, I really feel I’ve lost my purpose and direction,” I would have felt my scalp freeze. Now, I would slap my palms down on the table a la Michael Scott and shout, “Thank you!”

Purpose and your messaging

The funny thing is, sometimes we don’t even realize that we’ve lost our purpose. Sometimes it happens so gradually that we might not even notice it enough to name it. It can manifest itself simply as exhaustion, stress, or busy-ness. 

But there’s one place a lost spark will almost always rear its ugly head: when you try to create genuine, from-the-heart content. If you’re seriously struggling to describe what it is you actually do and why, you could be suffering from major purpose-fatigue. 

I’m not talking about being able to craft your messaging into perfect, beautiful copy – that’s a talented copywriter’s job. I’m talking about you can’t really think of what it is, you know, you would say it is you actually do around here.

Your purpose – why you do what you do – is the basis of messaging that matters to your audience. It’s the only thing that will make them care, period. Simon Sinek was dead right when he said, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” 

In other words, your purpose informs your content. Your content and messaging is what resonates with your audience. Your audience is why you get any sales or donations. Your sales and donations are why you can continue to grow your mission and do good work long-term. Purpose and messaging go hand-in-hand.

Here are some very common ways that lost spark or waning purpose shows up in your messaging: 

  • You can’t seem to say what you want to say to your audience, no matter what
  • You’re visiting loads of other websites searching for messaging/CTA examples and inspiration 
  • When on those websites, you lament “how much better” that person’s messaging/purpose/website/passion/work is than your own 
  • You’re struggling super hard to find anything to say that sounds genuine or “like you” 
  • You’re heavily focused on making your messaging “safe”
  • Your mission and/or vision statements start to sound like just words to you 
  • You avoid beginning on any content or messaging project at all

If this sounds like you, don’t worry. There’s a way back to the good stuff.

Getting your purpose back and creating awesome messaging

Illustration of diverse people rocking out to music

I’ve got a fool-proof way to get you back on track with messaging that matters. You’ll need to go back to way before the reason you started your business. You as a human run way deeper than that. 

The key is to go back to your teen years. Revisit what you were most passionate about then, and think about all the reasons why. 

We tend to all distill our teen years down into a series of irreverent vignettes and embarrassing moments. But by doing this, we really end up devaluing these crucial formative years. It’s a shame because there’s so much more there

I’m certain that if you dig deep enough, you can trace back to your teen years the reason why you started the purpose-driven work that you’re doing right now. Trust me. You had some experience, some realization, some major “a-ha” that brought you to where you sit right now – even if it was via a long, meandering journey. 

Here’s what to do:

1. Put on one of your favorite albums from your teen years and listen to it, front to back.  Grab a beer or three and choose an album that got you really riled up. Made you feel like you belonged. Or brought you comfort in rough times. Just choose whatever artist and album you feel really “got” you.

2. Pick your top 3-5 lyrics from that album. Choose the top 3-5 lyrics (stanzas) from the album that resonated with you as a teen, and think about why. Write it all down. It can be tough to choose only 3-5, but that’s the point – you want to get back to the stuff that really matters to you.

3. Link the lyrics and what they mean to you to the work you’re doing right now:

  • Do you find that they align at all?
  • What are the commonalities? What’s totally different?
  • What passion is still there, burning in your chest, and what is not?
  • Did you make a conscious decision to get rid of certain passions that these lyrics inspired, or did they just kind of fizzle out along the way? If it was the latter, how could you bring some of that energy back into your work?
  • What did you discover about the world as a teenager that’s stuck with you and has mattered to you consistently since then?

4. Translate it all into messaging points that matter for your audience. Now comes the important part – connecting your reignited purpose to the needs and desires of your audience. Specifically, how can your reignited, burning purpose better serve your clients or donors?

  • Take your findings in Step #3 and connect each of them to a specific client outcome. This will help you tie your purpose to how it helps your clients. Remember, it’s not enough to simply be passionate and purposeful in your messaging (although that’s huge). You have to clearly explain to your audience how what you’re talking about will improve their lives and solve their problems.
  • For example, you might say: “I forgot how much I loved Social Distortion! ‘Life goes by so fast / You only want to do what you think is right.’ That’s exactly why I started this business. Life is effing short, and I’m sick of focusing on the wrong things. I only want to do what I think is right – which is why I’ve dedicated my life to working on ________.  Plus, the sentiment ‘only doing what you think is right’ really matters to my clients/donors because they ___________, and I can help them by ___________.”

5. Practice writing copy with the messaging points you’ve crafted.

  • Play around with a grabby new headline for your homepage that cuts right to the heart of what you do and why that matters.
  • Rewrite your bio or About page with a deeper understanding of who you are and how you came to do this meaningful work.
  • Write a blog post on what you’ve been scared to say, but what your 15-year-old self would have no problem screaming aloud.

Your purpose was coded into you a long time ago. Your teen spirit carried it, close to your heart, forever yours. It’s still there. Reconnect with it, and you’ll find that you’ve got way more to authentically say than you ever thought you did.

Need help crafting a messaging strategy for your purpose-driven brand that’s 100% you? Or do you just want to chat about Gen X and grunge? Hey, I love doing both those things! Connect with me anytime