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Holistic branding and marketing posts by Diana Chaplin.

 

Communication: A Personal Path to Learning and Loving Words

Diana Chaplin

If you asked me when I was 6-years-old what I wanted to be when I grew up I’m pretty sure “content strategist,” “copywriter,” or “entrepreneur” were nowhere on that list of aspirations.

How could they be? It was 1988 and the internet was still in it’s infancy, unbeknownst to almost everyone, especially to little me living in Latvia in a Russian family during a huge political transition from communism.

And regardless, I was an introvert who felt way more comfortable around animals than people and probably wanted to be a vet, zookeeper, or forest fairy.

I was the kind of kid who thought Baba Yega – the mythical scary old witch who lives in the woods and eats children that every Russian kid knew about – was just a misunderstood elderly woman who wanted to be alone in nature. If you Google “Baba Yega witch” you’ll see the creepy side of what I’m talking about, but I always pictured her more like this…

For some reason I can’t explain, seeing things from the perspectives of others was always my default method for understanding the world.

Even now, when I’m preparing to write copy for a business or entrepreneur, before I write a single word I close my eyes and project myself into the mind of the desired recipient of that information – the audience or customer – and think about who they are, what they care about, what inspires or deters them, and what might motivate them to take action. I think it is really just conscious empathy dressed in marketing.

But back then, as a kid, I didn’t understand myself yet, or anyone for that matter.

What I did know was that I loved books, that I wanted a family of my own someday, and that I wanted to be an “independent woman” {ok maybe I didn’t think those exact words but the concepts of freedom and autonomy were definitely my desires from the moment consciousness kicked in… perhaps as a result of generational osmosis after years of said communism in my family’s political reality at the time?}.

I also remember having this weird feeling that I was somehow different from the people around me, as if I’d been switched at birth or was really an anthropologist studying their strange behavior rather than quite belonging. I didn’t know how to articulate this at the time so my solution was to blend in until I could figure it out.

I moved to America when I was 7, suddenly pulled from a world I knew into a small one-bedroom in Brooklyn with my young parents. I remember turning on the TV and despite knowing that people in America spoke English I was still shocked and disappointed that even the small comfort of my favorite Russian kid shows was gone.

I felt alone and lost. I missed home, and I couldn’t blend in anymore.

Little did I know how much this immigrant experience would shape how I perceive the world, interpret information, and communicate with others.

Always an observer, I became hyper-aware of all the linguistic, cultural, and social elements around me, simply because I had to learn how to BE in this new world.

I was an outsider and would forever seek to bridge the gap between people who are “in” and have an understanding of something, and those who are “out” and need to be guided towards that understanding. On a deeper level this, to me, is what good content and copywriting is all about: welcoming someone in.

To make things more interesting in my first few weeks in America, because I didn’t have all the necessary documentation to go to public school right away I ended up going to a Jewish school where Hebrew was taught in English… and I still only spoke Russian. Talk about another cultural and linguistic twist! Kids really are resilient though because I made it work, figured it out, and I don’t remember struggling that much. This was the new normal and I rolled with it.

I transitioned to public school about a year later, and from there excelled in all things language and communication: English, literature, grammar, poetry and creative writing, even Spanish. Reading, writing, and interpreting different lives and events through words became a strength, like a muscle I got comfortable with flexing over time.

I still didn’t know what I really wanted to DO, and I still loved books.

In college I majored in Communications at the University of Massachusetts, though I don’t think I was totally clear on what exactly that meant before I started classes. I chose it mostly because I thought it sounded broad enough to be “practical” and more legit than being an English major.

Looking back, I realize it was my intuition guiding the way, because I didn’t put that much thought into it and I wasn’t worried about it either. I just wanted to leave home and be on my own. I loved my classes though, and it ended up being a great fit for me. This was where I expanded my understanding of the written word, and layered in the psychology behind communication, as well as how different media can be used to convey a message and inspire various thoughts or emotions in the recipients of that information.

This was where a sense of passion kicked in, and I started to realize that something in the realm of communication was going to be a part of my life forever.  

College, and my early 20’s, was also when I experienced a personal renaissance of sorts. I fell in love with the lyrics of Bob Dylan and learned to play guitar, ultimately writing many songs of my own. I wrote, a lot, all sorts of things related to exploring reality, human behavior, philosophy, social and cultural norms, man’s struggle with nature, feminism, and other such things I’d probably be too embarrassed to share now. But in hindsight, reading and writing about all of that was a cathartic experience that needed to happen. It was my 10,000 hours. I had to get it out of my system in order to reach a deeper level of understanding of all things, including the workings of my own mind.

After graduating I STILL had no idea what I was going to DO or BE.

Our educational system really fails in this regard. From an early age we are put on an assembly line of learning semi-relevant things with immense pressure as we are continuously pushed towards the next grade, the next test, the next institution, all with the promise that there will be something golden and worthwhile at the end if we just stay focused and study hard. And the day after graduation we are left with a gaping hole where a future should be, holding a diploma that is often meaningless unless it is in a highly specialized field.

I didn’t want to leave Massachusetts after graduating so I stayed through the summer, working for an incredible woman who was physically challenged and needed personal care yet who was also an outspoken disability rights activist and getting her Master’s Degree in public health. She was an outsider too, so we got along perfectly. I even joined her on a trip to Seattle for a disability rights march where we joined hundreds of activists to demand better treatment, access, and rights for people with disabilities.

I was a medium, a carrier, a bridge, one foot in the world of the able-bodied and one in the world of the disabled and vulnerable.

Communication is the thread that brought the two together, understanding is the humanity that made it relevant. Like all the experiences that came before, this was another step in my unique journey towards becoming a professional intermediary.

I returned to New York at the end of summer and after a few false starts with jobs that weren’t a good fit I landed an assistant position at Penguin publishing. It was on the sales team in the children’s and young adult books division and I was thrilled. Finally, I thought, BOOKS! This was where I was meant to be.

Unfortunately, though I was exposed to many books, authors, and behind-the-scenes processes my job consisted more of spreadsheets and sales research than anything creative enough to be quite fulfilling. I was really good at it, but I frequently came home in tears and suffered from debilitating migraines. Clearly something was off because every day was more soul-crushing than the last. It was also a disappointingly corporate culture and yet again I stood out big time because I just didn’t go along with the crowd when it came to appropriate {super uncomfortable high-heels and wrinkle-free lady suits} attire, after-work drinks and cigarettes, and basically every other level that humans can relate to each other.

But in the 5 years I was there I learned many of the supportive skills needed to be successful in any career: organization, professionalism, get-it-doneness, performing under pressure, technical knowledge, motivation, patience. It was important and I’m thankful for that.

Along the way I became interested in health and wellness, and after years of enduring being grossly dissatisfied with work I finally manifested a job at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition {I say “manifested” because the interview process was grueling and took several weeks, and each night I used every ounce of my concentration to visualize myself being there, already having the job}. It was a starting position I was overqualified for, at half the salary, and I had a 9-month old baby at the time, but I said yes, YES! I knew this would be a pivotal role and that the money would come, and later it did. The funny thing is that the job I started doing had little to do with writing, but in the 4 years I was there I gradually created a role for myself as a Content Manager and copywriter. Communication and wellness, the two loves of my life were finally joined.

I learned to harness the power of words into a vehicle of action on behalf of a product or service.

This was the role in which I learned fancy marketing terms like “content strategy,” “conversion,” and “user experience.” Prior to this my writing was more about exploring concepts, sharing ideas, and telling stories. Like this post, it was long and detailed, there was never a need to leave things out. That’s vastly different from writing for marketing purposes. One is mellifluous and full of adjectives, while the other must be concise and fully refined. It took years of working on this craft that felt like what I imagine carving a statue from a slab of stone must be like, painstakingly cracking and chipping away all the extraneous bits before you finally arrive at the masterpiece within: a 5-word headline that perfectly captures the heart and soul of something good.

In case you’re not familiar with it, the Institute for Integrative Nutrition is an online nutrition school that certifies holistic health coaches. In my role I got to witness and interact with countless graduates who became very successful in the wellness field, many of them bravely venturing out on their own and becoming self-employed. This community of entrepreneurs was ultimately what lead me to where I am today, with the courage to leave the job security and familiarity of New York and finally return to western Massachusetts – a place I longed for in my heart ever since leaving over 10 years prior – with my husband and 2 boys this time. Complete.

Since then I’ve evolved my content strategy and copywriting experience even further as a freelancer. I’ve worked with clients that range from entrepreneurial schools to sports consultants, non-profit organizations and wellness coaches, creative makers and alternative health centers. I’ve used those skills and my self-employment status to cofound a coworking space in my new town, and to support entrepreneurship in many forms.

This story is far from over as there is much more growth and evolution still to come.

Working with a diverse range of clients has already been an exhilarating learning experience and I can’t wait to see what else is in store. Perhaps this is only the first chapter of my love affair with communication.