How To Write in a Conversational Tone – A Step-by-Step Guide
Remember the time in high school when your teachers taught you how to write in a conversational style?
Of course not. Because it never happened.
And yet, in the online world, writing in a conversational tone seems to be the key that unlocks the hearts of your readers.
In the previous post, I talked about seven mistakes that dehumanize your writing. Today, I’d like to dig deeper into the process of humanizing your brand through writing in a conversational tone.
The trouble with writing like you talk
Does writing conversationally mean writing in the style you use when you talk to a friend?
If you’ve ever tried it, you know it’s easier said than done:
★ If you’re an artist and you attempt to write a sales copy for the first time, you may end up sounding… not like you. You wonder: How am I supposed to write like I talk when it comes to selling? I never sell my work to friends. And when I do, I don’t need to pitch it to them.
★ If you’re an expert, you may take certain terms for granted because you use them every day. Your friends understand you because they geek out about the same things, whereas the rest of us have no idea what you’re talking about. Your concern is: How do I distinguish between common terms and jargon?
★ If you’re a teacher, you may have a hard time not sounding preachy. (I know what I’m talking about.) You ask: How can I educate people while sounding like their friend, not like a schoolmaster?
★ If you’re a non-native English speaker, you may be lost because you aren’t used to talking in English outside your language classes. This all “write like you talk” thing sounds great, but it doesn’t seem to be of any use to you.
Why you shouldn’t write like you talk and what to do instead
Formal writing leaves just a tiny space for your voice. Writing like you talk, on the contrary, brings forth your personality and your voice, and as a result, it brings your brand to life.
But writing like you talk isn’t the point.
When you speak, you don’t pay close attention to grammar and word choice. Clichés, tons of adverbs, repetitive words, long sentences, unfinished thoughts – all of it is perfectly fine when you speak (at least when it comes to an improvised, informal conversation).
But you don’t want your writing to have the same features.
So, the goal isn’t to write like you talk but to craft a piece of writing that doesn’t sound like writing, but like a casual conversation with a friend (your reader).
To show you what I mean, here’s an excerpt from Nick Hornby’s novel A Long Way Down:
“Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block? Of course I can explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block. I’m not a bloody idiot. I can explain it because it wasn’t inexplicable: it was a logical decision, the product of proper thought. It wasn’t even very serious thought, either. I don’t mean it was whimsical – I just mean that it wasn’t terribly complicated, or agonised. Put it this way: say you were, I don’t know, an assistant bank manager, in Guildford. And you’d been thinking of emigrating, and then you were offered the job of managing a bank in Sydney. Well, even though it’s a pretty straightforward decision, you’d still have to think for a bit, wouldn’t you? You’d at least have to work out whether you could bear to move, whether you could leave your friends and colleagues behind, whether you could uproot your wife and kids. (…)”
See? When you read it, you can almost hear Martin’s (that’s the narrator) voice, and you can imagine him being in the room with you, talking to you, telling the story off the top of his head.
Hornby’s writing feels so natural and vivid, but when you take a closer look, you’ll see there’s a lot of work behind it: the metaphors, the rhythm, the punctuation, the word choice – everything is carefully crafted and the piece has nothing to do with an effortless improvisation.
Hornby doesn’t just write like people talk. His writing is so impressive because he reflects natural speech and incorporates its features into writing.
In other words, writing in a conversational tone is more about writing (and listening – see the next part) than about speaking.
Why you shouldn't write like you talk and what to do insteadClick To Tweet
Writing in a conversational tone works for fiction writers, but it also works for business writers and bloggers. Here’s how to make it happen.
How to bring a conversational tone to your writing – a step-by-step guide
1. Research and preparation
☆ Unlearn what you learned in school
One of the biggest obstacles on the journey to natural writing is your education. I often work with smart, highly educated women who have a hard time giving themselves permission to break grammar and stylistic rules.
I know the struggle. I have two degrees, and I’ve spent half of my life crafting academic papers. It took me so long to stop feeling guilty about using contractions (you’re instead of you are), ending sentences with prepositions, or even dropping the f-bomb (okay, I still don’t feel comfortable about that).
So, what can you do to overcome your education and set your voice free?
Practice being rebellious. Write as if no one is going to read it, experiment, get creative, have fun, forget about grammar – you don’t have to publish everything you write after all.
Study examples of conversational writing. See how writers and bloggers do it and try to do the same with your words, ideas, and topics.
Some of the writing rules and conventions you probably learned in school are:
- Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
- Don’t begin a sentence with and, but, or because
- Don’t write one-word sentences
- Paragraphs should be between 50 and 200 words
- Don’t use phrasal verbs
- Don’t use contractions
- Don’t use informal or taboo words
- Write impersonally
And now, I grant you permission to disregard those rules.
Can you come up with more rules worth breaking?
☆ Surround yourself with real English
To forget about academic, textbook-y, and formal English, spend as much time as possible reading and listening to the conversational language:
- Listen to podcasts (dialogues are better for this purpose)
- Read blogs
- Read contemporary novels
What you listen to and what you read shapes your style. The more you expose yourself to the natural language, the more natural your writing will become.
☆ Listen to your clients and talk their language
This is huge.
The surefire way to avoid jargon and delight your readers is using their own words.
Where do you find their words? Well, it depends on your audience, but here are some suggestions:
- Listen to your existing clients carefully and take notes.
- Go on Quora and search for your topic.
- Go on Amazon, find books in your field, and read reviews.
- Join Facebook groups where your readers hang out and search for your topic.
Create a swipe file and collect expressions your (ideal) readers use when they talk about your thing, as well as the problems they struggle with and the words they use to describe them.
A real conversation includes talking AND listening. Conversational content needs the listening part, too.
The secret of persuasive #copy: Don’t write like you talk; write like your clients talk.Click To Tweet
☆ Write for one person
Writing to the dark or to a faceless crowd makes you sound formal, impersonal, and boring. Besides, it invites fear, perfectionism, negative self-talk, and other enemies to your writing process.
Writing to one person makes you sound like you. Talk to one person – one particular person – and make it a conversation.
☆ Make it a conversation
Okay, but how do you make it a conversation when the only one who’s talking is you?
Can you guess?
Yep! Asking questions is a powerful method: Inviting your reader to think, guess, agree or disagree with you is what transforms a monolog into a dialog, engages your reader, and makes your writing sound like a conversation.
Here’s what you can do:
- Use question tags (isn’t it? don’t you?) or their alternatives (right? ok?).
- Make your reader think about her own experience (“Remember the time when you… ?”).
- Invite her to guess the answer (“What’s the number one fear among adults?”).
- Invite her to come up with her own examples (“Can you come up with more rules worth breaking?”).
☆ Use “you”
Addressing your reader supports the conversational effect.
Also, did you know that “you” is the most powerful word in the English language?
☆ Use short sentences and paragraphs
Unlike in academic papers, when you write for the web, four lines are enough.
Even one line is enough.
Once you get used to it, it won’t feel so weird.
☆ Get rid of adverbs
Very, really, basically, mainly… In spoken language, we use adverbs all the time. But in writing, they weaken your message. If you delete the adverb and the meaning doesn’t change, get rid of it. It’s
really that simple.
☆ Replace full form by contractions
We’re, you’re, you’ll – contractions aren’t acceptable in academic papers and formal emails, but they make your writing sound more natural. Forget about your high school teachers and university professors and use contractions whenever you can.
☆ Replace the passive voice by the active voice
The passive voice sounds impersonal and cold. If the passive voice is giving you a hard time, use a tool like the Hemingway app to identify the passive sentences and rephrase them.
☆ Use this simple hack they didn’t teach you in school
Firstly, secondly, in addition – as you may remember from your English lessons, these little expressions you use to make your writing or your speech coherent are called discourse markers. (It sounds ugly, I know.)
Now, in writing, we use different markers than when we speak. Here’re some common discourse markers for formal writing:
- On the other hand
- In conclusion
And here’re some informal discourse markers we use in speaking:
- I mean
- You know
Okay. And here’s the magic: When you edit, replace writing discourse markers by those that are intended for speaking. It will instantly make your writing sound informal and conversational.
☆ Read it aloud
Now it’s the time to make sure your writing doesn’t sound like writing. Read it aloud, or try recording yourself and listening to the recording without looking at the text.
Does it flow naturally? Does it sound effortless? Does it sound like you?
Everyone talks about writing conversationally. This post shows you exactly how to make it happen.Click To Tweet
What to do now?
Next time you write a blog post or another piece of writing, stay away from:
- Passive voice
- Words your clients would never use
- Discourse markers for writing
- Long sentences and long paragraphs
And try to use more:
- Active verbs
- Discourse markers for speaking
- Words you’ve stolen from the mouths of your clients
- Natural, everyday expressions you’ve stolen from blogs, podcasts, contemporary novels, and casual conversations
What do you think, can you write more conversationally now? Let me know in the comments.
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