15 Tips for Writing in a Conversational Tone
Who are you more likely to listen to: a scholarly lecturer giving a ponderous speech, or a close friend animatedly telling a story? Naturally, you’d prefer the person who talks more conversationally; that same principle applies to marketing and business writing.
People pay extra attention to a message written in a conversational tone. In fact, according to a study by psychology researchers Richard E. Mayer and Roxana Moreno, when people read something that’s written conversationally, it tricks their brain into thinking they’re directly involved.
As a result, a conversational tone is more effective for getting a message across–and getting that message to stick. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find your voice when writing informally. In school, you were taught to write in a strictly formal style; that’s a tough habit to break. Informal business writing might be a grammatical nightmare, but it’s an excellent way to build trust and attract customers.
Here are a few ways to make your writing sound less like a textbook and more like a natural conversation.
Record yourself talking
Record a conversation between you and a friend, then try to transcribe it. When you take spoken language and try to transfer it to written word, you’ll have a better understanding of the ways we play with language to get our point across.
Pay attention to how the other speaker talks as well and how they react to what you’re saying. Do you confuse the other person with the way you order your words? Do you use too much regional slang? This will give you a better understanding on how your audience will react to your conversational copy.
For even more practice, check out some play scripts and screenplays at your local library and study the dialogue.
We speak with contractions because it helps us get our words out faster, so write with contractions to sound more conversational. You’ll also save space in your media by not having to spell out every single word.
This sentence sounds pretty unnatural when you say it out loud:
Do not wait! Our special sale will not last for long!
It almost sounds like something a robot would say. Let’s add some contractions:
Don’t wait! Our special sale won’t last for long!
This sounds much more like something you would actually say to someone.
Speaking requires breaks for breathing, so your sentences should be short–ideally less than 35 words. Shorter sentences also make it easier for your audience to quickly scan for information.
Break up your longer sentences using ellipses, commas and semicolons to visually separate ideas and increase scannability. If your sentence contains two or more complete thoughts, then use a period to chop it up into smaller full sentences.
When we speak we don’t necessarily worry about sentence length or completeness. Add some sentence fragments to your copy to mimic natural conversation. For instance:
Who wants to come home to a dirty house? No thanks! Call Sunny Maid Service Today!
Start sentences with “and” or “but”
This may go against everything your English teacher taught you, but it’s okay to start a sentence with “and” or “but.” We do it all the time when we’re talking and we think of a new point to bring up when our old point is finished.
Starting a sentence with “and” or “but” lets that sentence stand out from the others while still carrying over the thought from a previous sentence. It also allows for shorter, scannable sentences.
We can get the stain out of your shirt whether it’s from coffee, ink or even blood. And that’s a guarantee!
End with prepositions
It’s a common myth that ending a sentence with a preposition (such as “on,” “in,” or “of”) is grammatically incorrect. In fact, this is a great way to make your writing sound more conversational. Not only do we talk this way, it may actually help keep your writing in the active voice.
Here’s a sentence in active voice that ends with a preposition:
We’ll build a new backyard garden that you can be proud of.
Conversely, this next sentence doesn’t end with a preposition, but it’s in passive voice and sounds pretty awkward:
You can be proud of the new backyard garden we’ll build.
Use common words
Conversational writing shouldn’t be loaded up with jargon or overly complex terms (unless you’re specially targeting an audience that understands them). Instead, you should focus on using common words and expressions found in everyday conversation. For instance, “Our flowers look beautiful” can be understood by everybody, while “Our flora look resplendent” is a little too wordy.
Keep your words at three syllables or less whenever possible, since we naturally try to use shorter words when we speak.
This sentence doesn’t roll off the tongue and sounds pretty stuffy:
We’ll make your ceremony look magnificent.
Here’s a more conversational and personable alternative:
We’ll make your wedding look lovely.
We identify with one another through our use of slang–kids have slang words that adults don’t understand and vice versa. Adding slang to your copy will make you sound more authentic, especially if it’s slang that your target audience recognizes.
The occasional naughty word can even be effective, but only use them in extremely rare cases and with the least offensive words possible. “Our sauce is hot as hell!” paints a vivid picture without being too vulgar. Hot sauce is marketed to adults, so the audience wouldn’t be offended by this mild swear word.
It’s important that your slang is accessible to your target audience. Don’t use out-of-date slang or words that only makes sense to a particular group unless you’re targeting that group specifically. For example, “cool” has been a slang term for such a long time that everybody knows what it means. “Keen,” on the other hand, is an out-of-date term.
You know what really helps your copy sound conversational? Asking a hypothetical question. It makes the reader feels more engaged because you’re speaking directly to them and giving them something to actively figure out on their own.
It can be helpful to immediately follow-up your questions with an answer so that the reader doesn’t have time to think of the wrong answer. For example:
Where’s the best place to get quality, organic produce? Just down the street at Green Market Whole Foods.
Similarly, this ad promoting a rugged, no-nonsense gym uses a hypothetical question to appeal to its audience, turning a potential flaw into a positive.
Write with an active voice
We talk with an active voice because it’s the easiest way to organize our thoughts. Writing in active voice means the subject of the sentence is the thing performing the action.
Passive voice is the opposite, when the subject is the thing being performed upon. We don’t usually talk in passive voice because it sounds unnatural to the ear.
This passive voice sentence sounds awkward when spoken out loud:
The place where you can get the best deal on your tires is Jacobs Automotive.
Instead, it should be written using the active voice:
Jacobs Automotive can give you the best deal on your tires.
Use examples, similes and metaphors
We add examples and metaphors to our speech to make complex ideas easier to understand. Write with examples, similes and metaphors to not only sound more conversational, but to strengthen your message.
For example, saying “We’re dependable” is okay on its own, but try adding a simile.
We’re dependable, like the best friend you can call after midnight.
This gives the audience something they can relate to from their own lives to associate with the message. Similarly, the ad below appeals to inventors by using a famous example (Ben Franklin).
Write like you’re telling a story to a friend
Communication is essentially storytelling. Frame your copy the same way you would frame a story to a friend. Pretend like you’re trying to tell them something in an e-mail, where writing is less formal and more conversational.
The best stories have a clear message, moral or call to action. If you told your friend a story about something that happened at work, your end result would be to garner a reaction–perhaps to have your friend sympathize with you or give you advice.
Take those principles of communication and apply them to you copy. How would you tell a story to your friend if you wanted to convince him to try a new product or service?
Speak to the reader in first/second person
Formal writing is always written in third person, but conversations take place using the first and second person pronouns. First person pronouns make your brand seem more personable and second person pronouns engage the audience, bringing them into the message.
Use plural first person pronouns to represent your brand; for example, “We’re the best in the business” and “Our representatives are happy to assist.”
However, if your brand is just one person, then using a plural pronoun will make your copy sound like British royalty. In that case, you want to use singular pronouns, such as:
I have twenty years of experience in professional photography.
Second person pronouns are always singular except for certain slang terms like “ya’ll.” This makes it easier to reach a wide audience while still making it sound like you’re having a personal conversation with each one. Sentences like “You won’t find a better deal” and “Your home is in good hands” could apply to both individuals and broad groups of people.
Write to your target audience
If you have identified your target audience, you should have a better understanding of the appropriate conversational tone that will relate to that audience. After all, having a conversation with your best friend is much different than talking to your grandma.
For example, if you’re targeting a specific area, your copy should include elements of the local lingo. A take-out menu from the Midwest would advertise its “Ice Cold Pop” instead of “Ice Cold Soda,” while an ad in the South might use a tone of voice more tailored for that region.
Don’t go overboard
Real conversation can be downright inefficient sometimes. We start sentences that we never finish, go off on unrelated side-tangents and use empty filler words such as “like.” As such, your writing should only mimic conversation, not replicate it exactly.
Conversational tone isn’t appropriate for every situation either. Depending on your audience, brand or product, you may not want to be too informal. Some pieces of copy, like a legal disclaimer, require a formal tone by default. A funeral home should be conversationally sympathetic, but avoid using slang and humor.
Read everything out loud
When you’re done writing your copy, read it out loud–preferably with an audience. Pay attention to the places where you have to stop and take a breath. These are places where you could probably do with shorter words and sentences.
Make note of any section that sounds awkward or feels like a tongue twister to say. Clean up these areas of your copy so they’re clearer.
Don’t panic if you don’t start immediately start writing conversationally–it takes practice to get it right. However, it’s important to track your progress over time to see how your audience responds to your style. And when you speak to your new customers, if any of them say “You sound just like you do in the brochure,” you’ll know you’re on the right track.
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