Why all the fuss about conversational writing? Words are words. Or so I thought until my copywriting instructor gave me a piece to write in a conversational tone.
After I submitted the assignment, she read it aloud to me — and giggled. I think it was when she got to the sentence that said, The supplement is the optimal resource to be found in phytonutrient-dense compounds, which include glucosinolates to address neoplastic malignancies.
“Is this really the way you’d talk?” she asked. I cringed. Of course not. I was so hung up on being accurate and following all the writing rules that my content was nearly unreadable.
Today, I’d write the same sentence differently. Something like … Taking the supplement is like eating large helpings of broccoli and cauliflower every day — foods that help prevent cancer by canceling toxins in your body.
Better, don’t you think? And the relief of reliefs — I could write like this in most of the projects I create.
If you’re like me, you hear your high school language arts teacher whispering formal writing reminders in your ear as you put words on paper. And clearly, there’s value in that skill — when you’re in a professional situation, writing an academic paper, or preparing a legal document. You use formal writing when your audience requires it.
“You might think of formal language as the snappy blazer to informal writing’s t-shirt,” say our good friends at Grammarly. “It’s more serious, and features more buttoned-up construction, longer words, and little to no slang.”
But you don’t need to be formal in nearly everything else. You can use conversational writing for blog posts, web copy, social media, email campaigns, books, articles…
Do that and your content is more accessible to more readers than when you write in highfalutin’ academic prose. You’re able to explain your topic in plain English. Readers don’t have to work as hard to understand your point. In other words, conversational writing is like a discussion on paper.
I hear your argument now. A conversation is an interactive exchange — a discussion where two people trade ideas, thoughts, opinions, and feelings. If just one person speaks, you have a lecture. And there’s just one of us talking on paper.
Or is there? As you read, you and I are exchanging ideas. Hopefully, you’re nodding along (at least internally) as I share my ideas about conversational writing. Maybe you’re pushing back on one or two thoughts. Or you may have questions or comments to share.
The truth is that we’re having a conversation. It’s simply not in real-time. And it uses different media than verbal banter.
To master conversational writing, I had to master writing a seemingly one-sided conversation that is actually between two parties. I found I needed practical tips I could follow to make a conversational tone appear on paper. So I made myself a conversational writing checklist.
For instance, this article is for content writers. I’d use a different tone and different vocabulary if I was writing an article to a different audience - like a group of pharmaceutical executives, for instance — and an altogether different tone and language if I was writing to pre-teen male baseball players.
Picture in your mind a person who fits the profile of your ideal target reader. Right now, I’m imagining a young lady I know who is developing her content writing skills. As I write, I pretend that I’m talking with her. She is asking questions. I’m giving her the best information I can as we talk.
POV (point of view) can create a two-way conversation. When you write from first person (I, my, me) and second person (you, yours) your reader feels as if you’re talking with her. Third person — not so much. Save it for the formal writing project.
Extra tip: use more “you” words than “I” words. Doing so allows the reader to feel as if you’re focusing on her.
When you ask your reader a question, you invite her to interact with you — whether in her head or on the screen. BI Norwegian Business School researchers discovered that questions in online content almost always increased interaction, sometimes by as much as 3, 4, and even 5 times.
Stories are everyday fodder in conversations. Think of the time you stood with other parents at a soccer game and told the story of your child’s lost shin guards. The mom at your elbow nodded. The dad on the other side? He chuckled. When you tell a quick story, your content is real and relatable. And if “storytelling” seems too overwhelming of a writing skill to master, just think of it as giving short little examples that are true-to-life.
“I thought I knew how to write pretty well,” I told my instructor.
“You do,” she said. “Now all you have to do is unlearn all those formal writing rules so you can write conversationally.”
Verbal conversations are filled with explanations: what tonight’s schedule will be. Why you feel discouraged. Why you chose the chocolate cake mix rather than the yellow one.
Follow that same pattern as you write and use “because.” It’s one of the most helpful words to use in conversational writing because it explains why, rather than seeking to impress. Readers want answers. When you explain why, you provide those answers.
To experts and geniuses, big words are regular vocabulary. The rest of us? I don’t want to read with a dictionary at my elbow.
Use simple words rather than complicated words. That’s what you do when you talk (unless you’re in the lab doing research with your also-super-brilliant colleague). And wherever you can, ditch those words with three syllables or more in favor of one- and two-syllable words. (I couldn’t find a short version of “syllable” to use here, so that word stayed in).
The average sentence contains 17 words. Sentences with fewer than 17 words are easy to read, say researchers at the American Press Institute. But get to 21 words in a sentence and readers say it’s fairly difficult to wrap their minds around your content. And more than 25 words per sentence and you’ve given readers a chore they don’t want.
Too many short sentences? Choppy content. Not good. Sometimes you speak in run-ons and sometimes you offer one-word answers, so here’s another tip: vary your sentence length.
More than six lines and readers skim over your content. It’s better to break up longer paragraphs into a couple of shorter ones. Better yet — use bullet points or subheads. Like this article does.
There’s a good chance your word processing software offers readability tools like the Flesch Reading Ease scale and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale. You can also use free online word count tools to measure the average word length and average sentence length in your content. And Grammarly offers a free check for awkward construction and typos.
Run your content through one or more tools to find places you can tighten your delivery. Aim for a 6th-8th grade reading ease and reading level in your content and copy.
I’m looking at you, cupcake. Nail this principle and Bam! Your readers will feel like you get them. Woo hoo!
You’re rather than you are. Let’s rather than let us. She’ll rather than she will. It’s how you’ll speak in a convo, right?
Listen to people around you and take note of how often they make a comment that starts with words like and, but, yet, for, so, or. And do the same in your content. But don’t use this trick with every sentence. For if you do, you’ll sound repetitive. And that can get old quickly. So I’m told.
You can’t use hand gestures or facial expressions as you write. Instead, point out how Sarah rubbed the velvety pillow across her cheek as she blinked quickly.
Those words tell you that the pillow is soft (sensory words). Sarah’s fighting back tears (emotional words). Even though you can’t see Sarah, you can tell she’s feeling vulnerable.
“Stop this instant!” he thundered.
“Stop this instant!” she squeaked.
“Thundered” and “squeaked” show specificity. The first turns up the volume. The second turns it down. Use descriptive verbs in conversational writing to replace your voice volume controls that are in place during a conversation.
When you talk, you occasionally pause and take a breath. You emphasize a word … and wait. Maybe you raise your eyebrow.
Alas, paper lacks facial muscles. But you do have white space. To create emphasis, you can use commas, dashes — ellipses …
And one-line paragraphs.
As you move from one section to another in your content use common linking words (plus, because, instead) rather than formal sequence markers (firstly, secondly, in contrast).
If it’s easy to read and sounds like you, then there’s a good chance you’ve written conversationally.
“Write like you talk.” You hear that advice from all kinds of writing gurus. And the basic principle is valuable.
But a word of caution. People talk 150–200 words a minute and include plenty of extra words — “ums” and “likes” and “you knows.” Listen to a conversation around you for a few minutes and you’ll see what I mean.
Then, leave out the excess patter on paper. You want your content to be clear. You know, like, what I mean.
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