How often do you shrug your shoulders and press delete after reading a marketing email?
Many marketing messages make us cringe. They don’t sound like a human being wrote them. They don’t engage. They lack personality and feel cold-hearted.
It’s not surprising.
At school, we learned grammar rules. We learned how to write and spell, but we didn’t learn how to use language to connect with our readers. We didn’t learn how to engage, persuade, and inspire.
But readers crave a human touch.
When we read conversational content, we instantly feel a connection with the writer. We feel like we’re getting to know him. We start to like him.
As content marketers, we know this is our aim. When readers get to know, like, and trust us, we create opportunities to market our services and sell our products. We know we need to write conversationally, but how?
You might think writing in a conversational style requires recording yourself talking and typing out what you said. But have you ever seen a word-for-word transcript of an interview?
It’s full of wishy-washy words, grammar mistakes, and unfinished sentences. People rarely speak proper English when they talk. That’s normal.
Conversational text is a lot tighter than spoken language. So, writing conversationally doesn’t mean you write as you talk. Instead, edit your text so it doesn’t sound like writing.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” – Elmore Leonard
Specific editing techniques help make your content sound more conversational.
Shall I show you how to use them?
1. Quit writing to everyone
Imagine writing an email to a list of 10,000 people.
When you think about those 10,000 faceless subscribers, you probably sound like this:
Thank you to those of you who have donated to our charity appeal. You can still donate here.
It sounds like you’re addressing a crowd, right? The phrase “those of you” feels impersonal.
Now, let’s choose your favorite subscriber. Imagine your biggest fan — she often replies to your emails with praise, and sometimes with questions. Even though you’ve never met, she’s a friend:
Have you already donated to our charity appeal? Thank you so much. If you haven’t donated yet, you can still donate here.
A conversational tone makes readers feel like you’re addressing them personally. As if you two are having a drink at your local Starbucks.
“I’m going to have a green tea. What would you like to drink?”
2. Don’t write to impress
When you talk with your best friend, what kind of words do you use?
Do you try to impress with MBA jargon? Do you use complicated words?
To write conversationally, skip the gobbledygook and make your content more specific. For instance, look at this copy:
Pioneering software from the market leader. Schedule your social media updates with our award-winning all-in-one app.
Now, here’s the conversational version:
Save time with our new app. Schedule all your social media updates in one go.
Empathy is the foundation of a good conversation. Understand the problems your readers are struggling with, and address those problems using their words.
Write to engage and help.
“Would you like a ginger cookie with your coffee? Or a blueberry muffin?”
3. Make it a two-way conversation
When writing, we can’t see the person on the other end of the conversation. So, we forget to engage our readers and merely write from our own perspective.
Here’s an example of how self-importance sneaks into our content:
Sign up to get on our list, and we’ll send you our weekly email with marketing tips.
Note how “we” and “our” are both self-referring pronouns. Here’s how to focus on your reader instead:
Grow your business with smarter marketing. Sign up now to get weekly emails with marketing tips.
To spot your self-important sentences, look for the sentences with “I” and “we.” Edit them to highlight benefits for your reader.
But don’t feel you need to replace all instances of “I” and “we.” You don’t need to hide yourself.
If you’re a one-person business, use “I,” “me,” and “my.” And if you write on behalf of a team, feel free to use “we,” “us,” and “our,” when appropriate.
A good conversation goes two ways: A little bit about “me” or “us.” A little more about “you.”
“How was your weekend?”
4. Add a dollop of personality
Think about your friends or favorite colleagues. Why do you enjoy chatting with them?
It’s the small stories you share. You might discuss a bad referee decision in Sunday’s match, the movie you went to yesterday, or where you can get the best steak.
Your friends talk about more than their specialty subject.
It’s the same with your content. If you only discuss your topic of expertise, you show yourself as a one-dimensional expert. It’s kind of boring.
Think about how you can inject your personality into your blog posts, emails, or sales copy:
- Share the mistakes you’ve made so your readers can learn from them.
- Use a personal anecdote to illustrate a point.
- Create your own style of metaphors.
- Tell readers why you’re on your mission to change the world.
- Add a personal P.S. to your emails — even if it’s an unrelated comment about the weather or your latest cycling trip.
When you sprinkle a little bit of yourself over your content, readers get to know you.
That’s when content marketing becomes magic.
“Yeah, my weekend was good. My sister came over from the Netherlands. Luckily the weather was good.”
5. Engage with questions
Do you pose questions in your writing?
Research has shown that questions in tweets can get more than double the amount of clicks. And what’s more, they can even boost your persuasiveness.
In his book To Sell Is Human, Daniel Pink explains that a question makes readers think — they process your message more intensely. And when readers agree with you, your question is more persuasive than a statement.
Note the difference between:
You ought to include questions marks, so your writing becomes more conversational.
Want to make your writing more engaging? Add a few questions.
Questions are a powerful technique for engaging and persuading your readers. They keep readers invested in your content.
“The weather is nice today, too. Shall we sit outside?”
6. Shorten your sentences
A standard tone of voice in marketing often sounds boring and robotic, and an academic tone creates a certain distance, too, as if you look down on your readers.
Both styles tend to use unwieldy sentences — and those long sentences are tiring to read. To make your content more readable, chop up long sentences.
Here’s a long academic sentence:
Presenting yourself only as an expert makes you one-dimensional, but when you tell short stories about yourself in addition to sharing your knowledge, you become a multi-dimensional human being, and you become a more fascinating person in your reader’s eyes.
Phew. Did you run out of breath? That’s forty words in one sentence.
Here’s the conversational version with only nine words per sentence on average:
Presenting yourself only as an expert makes you one-dimensional. Perhaps even a bit boring. But when you tell itty-bitty stories about yourself, your hobbies, and your life, you become a real human being. You become more fascinating.
In grade school, we received praise for using difficult words to write complicated sentences. In college, we read verbose sentences stuffed with words derived from Latin and Greek.
That’s how we learned to write to impress.
We didn’t learn how to communicate our message, write with clarity, and be persuasive. To engage our readers, we must unlearn what we learned in school.
Put your readers first. Make your message simple. Chop your sentences down.
“Nice shirt you’re wearing. I like the color. Suits you well.”
7. Don’t drink coffee with your high school teacher
Just thinking about my high school teachers puts me on edge. I get nervous about making mistakes. I worry about sounding crazy. I fear not living up to their expectations.
And that’s how writing becomes stilted.
Following grammar rules usually makes content easier to read. However, certain rules may actually hamper readability. So, give yourself permission to break them:
- Use broken sentences. Broken sentences don’t necessarily befuddle readers; they often add clarity. By stressing words. (Like that.)
- Start a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “or.” Because it makes your content easier to read and less monotonous. More dynamic. Enthusiastic.
- Create one-sentence paragraphs to stress specific statements and give readers room to breathe. A short silence in a conversation is okay, right?
- Feel free to occasionally use … uhm … interjections like “Ouch,” “Phew,” and “Duh.” They add emotion and a touch of casualness to your writing voice.
Writing is not about sticking to grammar rules. It’s about communicating ideas with clarity and personality.
So, please come along for a cup of tea and a chat, but don’t bring your grammar teacher with you. She’ll strangle our conversation with her pedantic remarks.
“Your hair is getting long. You should get a haircut.”
Embrace the power of your voice
Do you ever think back to a conversation you had with a friend? Do you hear her voice in your head?
That’s how readers should experience your content. Let your words linger in their minds. Inspire them long after they’ve read your words.
In a world of endless pixels and meaningless likes, we crave human connections and voices that resonate with us.
So, be yourself. Brew a cup of green tea. Offer your readers a slice of homemade cake.
And have a cozy chat.
Reader Comments (59)
Don Purdum says
Your first point is so on target!
I used to own a high end web development company and one of the biggest issues my clients had was learning how to create relevant, inspiring and compelling content for their sites.
So many wanted to just cherry pick through other sites and create this bland, boring content that was meaningless.
One of the things I did was start teaching them how to write one article, for one person who had one problem/need/desire; and solve it.
As a speaker, I know that if I go hyper specific and talk to just one person in the room I will have around 20% of the audience come up to me afterwards and say, “OMG, how did you know…”
Writing conversationally in this context with your advice is powerful. It shows we understand the reader. It demonstrates we get what they are going through and that we are here for them.
Conversational writing helps us be more relevant.
Don’t you agree we need a lot more relevancy out there Henneke?
Great post. Love what you had to share!!!!
~ Don Purdum
Yes, I know the feeling when people email me to ask … Have you written this for me??
And they completely don’t match my ideal reader profile, but it still feels personal to them.
It’s weird how that works, isn’t it?
Deb Palmer says
All excellent points! But, for me, #7 is the jewel.
Don’t drink coffee with your high school teacher.
I knew am Irish writer that would pen chapters daily. One day after I compared my sparse paragraphs to her book, I asked… “How?”
She said, “Americans are taught to worry too much about the mechanics of writing, We just write.”
Thanks for reminding me. I still have a tendency to fuss and fret.
What an interesting story. I hadn’t thought about cultural differences here. My rebelliousness might be typically Dutch 😉
Aaron Orendorff says
The focus in #2 and #3 on (basically) not making writing about the writer (e.g., “I,” “me,” “my,” “our,” “we” — instead … making it about the read (“you”) — was so helpful.
Oh the power of pronouns. 🙂
Oh yeah. The power of pronouns. These humble words have more power and magic than many writers think.
One day, I’ll write a post about pronouns 😉
I received a post from one of the people who write on my blog for editing. I changed his ‘I’s to ‘you’ the result was phenomenal. In a few minutes, his post had higher comments than previous posts by other writers and even more shares on Facebook. Thanks for the great posts. Saved in my Pocket for future reference!
Raja Hireker says
Nice actionable post.
Around 2003 I registered a domain, Write Like You Talk.
Your post epitomises what that website was all about. (I got lazy, didn’t pay attention to the renew notices and then zap… it was gone).
I taught a group of business owners & entrepreneurs how to craft and write direct mail sales letters and effective emails.
Before commencing, there were many who gulped and winced.
How did I put them at ease?
I said to them if they text message, and if they send email and if they can speak… then… this’ll be a breeze for them.
For the majority, it was exactly that.
That’s because I showed them how to write like they speak, to write like they talk, and… how they have to be no-one else but their natural normal selves in their everyday conversations when it comes to presenting in print.
Thanks again for your post Henneke.
Cathie Dunklee-Donnell says
Thank you for giving us the permission to break the rules. And start sentences with “and” etc.
Go for it! 🙂
While a bit of casualness is nice, I think it’s easy to go too far and presume a level of comfort (almost intimacy) that isn’t yet established. I do not like it when someone presumes we’re that close. And if the content is regarding something requiring a large monetary investment, I want the content and author to be professional to establish authority and trust.
I think conversational and professional can go hand-in-hand. You can be conversational without using slang and interjections.
Of course it depends on the business, the writer and the audience how casual you want to make your writing.
I love this! Although I don’t know ANYone who uses the word “shall.”
Apart from me 😉
Molly Thorvilson says
I just want to say: thank you, thank you, thank you!
This post was extremely helpful for me to read. I am in no way a “marketing” person, but am trying to fill those shoes while our company is growing. I just recently started writing blogs for our small company. Your helpful tips were very valuable and gave me a lot more confidence moving forward with writing material.
Glad to hear that, Molly. Marketers aren’t necessarily the best writers, so don’t worry about not being a marketing person. When you put yourself in the shoes of your customers and think about how you can help them, you can create the most valuable blog content. Have fun!
Great post. It seems like this type of writing would be easier over the long haul. Natural is better.
Yes, I do think it becomes more natural over time, but initially it feels like we have to *unlearn* a lot.
Kevin J. Duncan says
It’s the first “Henneke article” since Copyblogger turned back on comments. 🙂
I don’t know how often I shrug my shoulders after reading a marketing email, but I know how many times I roll my eyes. Answer: a lot!
Love your tip for imagining your biggest fan when you write. If we all did that, it would most certainly change the way we communicated with our audience.
I’ll be tweeting this right away. Thank you for sharing your ideas with us, Henneke. I hope you have a wonderful and blessed week, my friend. 🙂
First I was super-excited about writing a post now comments are back. And then I got strangely nervous …
Thank you for sharing, Kevin, and for stopping by!
Ankit Agarwal says
Like Like and Like. The biggest take away is making it about the reader. Often overlooked as a small part but probably the greatest role in success.
Secondly making it a conversational voice is so important. After all it’s not a robot reading your text but a person peaking in your mind.
Thanks for unknowingly correcting my mistake. Will reflect soon on my blog.
Great. Go for it!
Jeff Korhan says
Henneke – Your comment about empathy being the foundation is spot on. When I’m mindful of that everything else (eventually :)) falls into place.
I find that practicing empathy is a writer’s (and business person’s!) most important tool. Thank you, Jeff.
Really encouraging article! For the most part, this is how I write it makes writing from my heart so much easier. Thank you for the tips, I will work on the “Two-Way” conversation and “Questions” tips even more in my writing now.
Writing from the heart could easily be tip #8 🙂
Sandra Wilkins says
I’m in love with this post!
The part about following grammar rules especially resonated with me.
As a content writer, it’s sometimes difficult to influence how people think of writing for online use – especially where grammar is concerned.
So, thanks for giving me a resource that can educate my colleagues on the importance of writing conversationally.
Yes, I know. Some bosses or clients get really upset when you start a sentence with “And.” I tend to refer them to the Apple website where almost every paragraph contains a sentence starting with “and,” “but,” or “because.”
David Franzen says
Exceptional, as always, Henneke! Nice one.
Thank you, David 🙂
Kathy Savino says
Is there a reason my comment wasn’t posted? Perhaps because it was not in full agreement? I’m hoping this is a forum for discussion.
Pamela Wilson says
Kathy, that was your first comment on this site and it was being held in moderation. I’ve approved it now.
We’re interested in hearing all takes on our content, as long as it’s respectful (as your comment was).
Kelly Kuhn-Wallace says
B2B is the worst. The very presence of a cubicle farm requires long sentences and bullet points.
Company cash in hand, people buy all of the things. So we sell to the people. We market to the people. We WRITE TO THE PEOPLE. #tshirts? #fangyrl
Yes, I also get confused when people say that B2B is different. It’s still people who make purchasing decisions, right? Companies don’t make decisions. So, you write for people, not for faceless companies.
I am using most of the points mentioned here and it works pretty well for my readers.
What a valuable and thoughtful roundup of tips! This brings to mind another piece of advice I read somewhere (can’t recall at the moment) that frames conversational writing in the context of rhythm. Too many short sentences sound abrupt. Too many long ones sound self-important and clunky. A mix of long and short is key.
Yep, that’s true. Rhythm has a big influence on how we perceive content. When reading, we listen to our inner speech, and experience the rhythm of the sentences.
All great points! I echo Jeff Korhan’s comment on empathy. Be it marketing copy or end-user support, empathy is huge in building those bridges and drawing engagement out in a “I’m a human to” way. One of the big things I constantly have to remind myself of is long sentences. Usually I write it, let it marinate over night, and then come back and edit the heck out of it. Short, concise sentences with meaning. A lot tougher than it sounds. Thanks again!
You might find the Hemingway app useful. It highlights long sentences, so you know which ones to chop up. The web version of the app is free.
Diane Miller says
i’m always on the lookout for jewels to help me improve my writing skills. Your tips are real gems! A huge thanks for sharing! Can’t wait to experiment with some of your ideas…
Warm regards, Diane
Thank you for your lovely comment, Diane. Happy writing!
Kenny LeOng says
Learnt new things today. Never crossed my mind that I can actually write the way I speak to connect with my audience. I always knew its easier to capture an audience attention with questions in between when speaking. Now its time to start practising writing contents in this new light without having to worry about grammar anymore. Thank you for this great post.
I wouldn’t recommend ignoring grammar completely because most grammar rules help readers understand your meaning. You don’t want to make it sound as if you don’t know your grammar at all. 🙂
Richard Brady says
Great post Henneke,
We train newly qualified lawyers in the skills needed by International lawyers. Getting lawyers to write English that non–lawyer clients can understand is one of our biggest challenges
Would you mind if I re-post this on our linked in and Facebook group pages? We will give you full accreditation, etc.
British legal centre
Stefanie Flaxman says
If you’d like to direct your colleagues to this article on LinkedIn and Facebook, please just share a link to the article, rather than reposting the text.
Here’s the link to share:
Jasper Oldersom says
What a delight to see you here on Copyblogger.
I have to confess, some marketing messages do make me sick. The worst experience I had ever was when I signed up for someone’s email list and was put on a shared list (someone I didn’t give authorization to email me).
Writing in a conversational style is important if you want to make a real connection with your readers.
I love this sentence: “writing conversationally doesn’t mean you write as you talk. Instead, edit your text so it doesn’t sound like writing”. It’s an important distinction.
As always, your tips are invaluable.
A 2-way conversation is a great one. It certainly isn’t necessary to get rid of every “I” or “we”, but I sure like it when a writer is talking to me directly. When I write to my readers, I make sure to use the word “you” very often.
I lit up a little when I read “from the Netherlands” — just goes to show how powerful injecting a little personality is!
Questions are powerful. I like using them throughout my articles. I never actually measured, but I dare to say it has improved interaction in terms of shares and comments.
Funny how writing for school is exactly opposite from business writing. You’d think they want to prepare you for the “real” world.
Breaking a grammar rule here and there is absolutely okay. Until now I avoided starting a sentence with “And…”.
I’m going to get rebellious and break that rule now and then ;-).
Thank you so much for this fabulous article, Henneke. Always fun to learn from you!
I love writing here. Even more so now comments are back! 🙂
And yep, often people think that writing conversationally means writing a first draft as if you’re talking. But in my experience, it doesn’t work like that. I need to edit the text to make it conversational.
Thank you for stopping by to comment, Jasper. Good to see a fellow countryman here 🙂
Passion and feelings and friendliness in writing was trained out of me for 12 years as I have a strict science background. Creativity, passion and feelings aren’t supposed to be a part of science (and that’s a good thing). But some of us come out of school and want to speak to the public and we then need to write interesting and engaging pieces.. Whew, It’s not easy!! This article has a lot of the key pointers that I’m still working on today (Even after 9 years of blogging). It’s always good to read them again… Not to mention it’s a lovely, engaging post..fun to read and everything!
I always think that unlearning is much harder than learning something new. Once you know what to look for, though, it becomes easier.
Thank you for your lovely comment, Luci.
Stephanie Gifford says
Great read! It is definitely true that the shorter and personalized the content sounds, the easier it is to read. The writing education given in schools almost makes this ability more difficult. Since that is the way we were brought up to write, being able to throw that out the window is freeing and a little intimidating at times. But once you get used to it, it isn’t as bad.
Yeah, unlearning what we’ve learned long ago is tough. I think I have an unfair advantage as English is my second language, and I feel freer to “play” with the English language than with my native language, Dutch.
Absolutely loved this. Thank you! 🙂
Thank you. Happy writing!
Orlando Ballesteros says
A great read and I will definitely apply some of the concepts here. Thank you very much for this article.
Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss) says
Fantastic tips Henneke! I love that your post’s so short, yet includes so many concrete examples to bring the tips to life.
I’ve shared it at work, because we’re focusing on how to communicate better.
You’ve discovered my secret weapon in blog writing … examples 😉
Glad you enjoyed this, and thank you for sharing!
Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss) says
P.S. You might like the PACE approach, which stands for making your writing (or public speaking) Personal, Actionable, Conversational, & Emotional.
To see the overlap with the 7 tips above, please go to:
Mauhammad faisal says
You stressed a lot on not consulting grammar rules. How can a person write impressively without exact grammar rules. Am i right?
I’m not suggesting you should ignore grammar completely. On my own blog, I’ve written a few times about following grammar rules to create a smooth reading experience.
However, certain grammar rules do not promote readability; and these are the rules that you can break.
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