Do you remember the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off who had that monotone voice?
Instead of engaging his students, Mr. Robotic tranquilized them. Heads tilted, mouths open, drooling.
As content marketers, we can’t afford to have that same sleep-inducing effect on our audiences. Even readers give sound to the voice, cadence, and tone of our words, also known as their “inner reading voice.”
The antidote to monotone content? Conversational writing.
Why conversational? Conversations feel more personal, less academic. As Donald M. Murray once said, “Effective writing is a conversation with a reader.”
That said, let’s talk. (But before we chat, one caveat: These are tips, not rules. Use them when appropriate, ignore when not.)
1. Ask engaging questions
How do you describe the color of your eyes?
I’ll give you a second.
Most likely, you paused to reflect, then snatched up an image of your irises to arrive at your answer.
For that split second you spent visualizing your response, I grabbed you. All by asking a simple question. Long after I wrote it.
That’s the power of posing questions in your content. Questions engage your readers, simulating the feel of a conversation. They pull in your audience, gives them a reason to care. They show you’re talking to readers, not through readers.
In fact, questions spark what David Hoffeld calls “instinctive elaboration” in response: “When a question is posed, it takes over the brain’s thought process. And when your brain is thinking about the answer to a question, it can’t contemplate anything else.”
Essentially, questions hijack your reader’s attention.
Here’s an example from the introduction to an article from Whole Foods Market:
When walking the produce section, do you scratch your head when faced with selecting a pineapple? How do you know when it’s ripe? How do you cut it? Where did it come from?
At Whole Foods Market, we have “pineapples with a purpose” that are a part of our Whole Trade® Guarantee. These pineapples set a sweeter standard for quality, environmental care and social responsibility. Hailing from Costa Rican farms known for delectable, juicy fruit, they’re grown with the health of the planet top of mind.
The author starts with relatable questions that pull readers into the article – conversation starters.
2. Jab using short sentences
Why favor short sentences?
Here’s Rudolph Flesch’s take:
The longer the sentence, the more ideas your mind has to hold in suspense until its final decision on what all the words mean together. Longer sentences are more likely to be complex – more subordinate clauses, more prepositional phrases, and so on. That means more mental work for the reader. So the longer a sentence, the harder it is to read.
In short: If a sentence is too long, your reader will interpret it as rambling. A short sentence is easier to process.
Rudolph’s explanation continues: “When we try to imitate dialogue or conversation on paper, we naturally stick to short sentences and our average may run to 15 or even 10 words per sentence.”
But here’s the caveat: If you only use short sentences, then you’re comparable to a boxer who only throws jabs. Too predictable. The result? Your reader loses interest and ends the match.
Instead, make short sentences your base just as skilled boxers use jabs as their foundation. But keep readers on their toes. Occasionally, throw in a mid-sized sentence as your right hook.
Check out this display from an Adobe blog article:
Every font has its own voice. Some are quiet. Some are loud. Some are silly. Some are serious. Your font can scream with futuristic fantasy or proclaim your design tastefully traditional. The font you choose will help firmly establish the tone and personality of your project.
Notice how the author employs short and mid-size sentences. They lead with short sentences, then transitions to longer sentences. By using a short, crisp sentence, they deliver the main point in the paragraph: “Every font has its own vice.”
BONUS TIP: Use Hemmingway app to test the crispiness of your sentences. Also, evaluate them using Flesch-Kincaid readability tests. But don’t rely on one editing device. You have the final word, my friend.
3. Run from complex words
Simple words are agreeable. They offer little resistance. Complex words require decoding. Plus, most readers aren’t impressed by complex words. In fact, research shows readers perceive them as signs of the writer’s lower intelligence. Harsh.
That said, here’s Gary Provost’s take on complex words:
These words don’t work because they interrupt the reader with the question ‘What does that mean?’ They create an unexpected noise in his head and remind him that there is a writer at work just as surely as the shattering of glass and the shrieking of an alarm tell him there is a burglar at work.
Whenever your content reminds the reader that there’s a “writer at work,” you shatter the illusion of a conversation. Instead of fancy words, focus on what Gary Provost calls “simple but interesting” words.
Need an example? Check out this snippet from audio equipment manufacturer JBL:
Squuueeeeeeaaaaccchh! You know it in an instant: that piercing, ear-melting shriek blaring out of your loudspeakers. It’s feedback, and it’s a showstopper—in more ways than one.
Notice how the author uses words like “piercing,” “ear-melting,” and “blaring.” None is complex. The author even starts the article with a prolonged “squeach.” Simple, but interesting.
4. Snub the grammar police
If you let them, the grammar police can handcuff your creativity, turning your mind into a prison cell from which imagination can’t escape.
But you know who matters more than appeasing grammar police? Your reader. Therefore, when appropriate, break language laws. And when you do, don’t feel guilty, feel liberated. Why? Because some grammar laws deserve disobedience. In the name of clarity. In the name of conversational copy.
One such grammar law? Never end a sentence with a preposition. Dismiss it.
Here’s evidence from Columbia Gorge Organic that doing so works:
Every single CoGo™ product has its own Farm to Bottle story. Our labels tell you where our produce is grown, how the juice is made, and what happens once it leaves the farm. Why? Because it’s good to know where your food comes from!
Imagine how that last sentence would sound if it didn’t break the law – “Because it’s good to know from where your food came!”
Not as conversational, right?
Well, as William Zinsser once said: “I think a sentence is a fine thing to put a preposition at the end of.”
BONUS TIP: Study well-written fiction for its conversational tone. To the delight of their readers, fiction writers often ignore the grammar police.
5. Focus on “you”
I don’t know your name. Nor are we in the same room. Yet I want your attention. How do I go about capturing it? By focusing on “you.”
When you use forms of second-person throughout your content, two things happen:
- You convey that you are talking to your readers.
- You communicate that your message is for their benefit.
Why is this important?
Research shows that we have a self-bias:
People show systematic biases in perception, memory, and attention to favor information related to themselves over information related to other people.
But how do you ensure that your content is “you” centric?
Imagine speaking to a friend. With that mentality, the word “you” will sprout throughout the content. And the reader will feel as though you tailored your message for them.
Check out this example from adidas:
You can make your bike ride as leisurely or as intense as you’d like. When using a stationary bike, you can either ride at a steady resistance and speed, or do a HIIT cycling class with moves that work your legs, core, and arms all in one 45 minute period. If you’re riding outdoors, you can choose a challenging route that will break a sweat, or you can cruise on flat ground at an even pace and enjoy the scenery. Overall, even though it’s one bike, you can mix it up so every day feels different.
Every sentence uses “you” at least once. The effect? The reader can imagine themselves peddling away, drenched in sweat.
6. Exchange “we” for “I”
Depending on the context, the word “we” sounds impersonal, especially when it’s used to establish trust with the reader. The use of “we” says: “I’m here. But I’m not really. I’m merely a representation, a symbol.”
The problem? Symbols are faceless, intangible.
Whereas the word “I” has a single image – your face. It shows that you’re invested in the conversation and gives readers a target to aim their attention.
Using I instead of we in your #content shows that you’re invested in the conversation and gives readers a target to aim their attention, says @ContentStride via @CMIContent. #WritingTips Click To Tweet
Just remember, you can’t be all “I” and ignore benefits for the readers. Here’s an example from Home Depot on how to do it right:
Some of the rails had water damage and the deck floor was discolored and faded. She and I were talking about it one day and she asked me if I could help her give new life to her deck. Well, of course I can! It’s kind of my thing, you know?
The author is telling the reader a story. The use of “I” makes it more like a conversation as does the concluding thought, “you know?”
It’s also helpful when using “I” to make sure the author is identified – not a faceless representation of your brand.
That said, it’s OK to use “we” when referring to yourself and the reader. Within the right context, you establish unity.
7. Outlaw confusing jargon
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath discuss the “curse of knowledge”:
Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.
One of the symptoms of the curse of knowledge? Jargon.
For those who know the jargon, its use can be welcoming, endearing. But for the uninitiated, it screams, “You can’t sit at my table!”
Research shows jargon dampens readers’ interest in topics like science. As Hillary Shulman, lead author of one study, puts it: “The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong.”
How do you prevent jargon from sneaking into your copy? Here’s Gary Provost’s advice:
Write as if you were in conversation with your readers. Listen to the dialogue that would occur. Are you readers going to stop you and say, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, what’s a grumdocle?’ If they are, then don’t use grumdocle, or explain it when you do.
Therefore, pluck jargon from your message.
As Hoa Loranger of Nielsen Norman Group puts it: “No one has ever complained that a text was too easy to understand.”
8. Harmonize your sentences
Each word is a note; combined, they form melodies, fine-tuned by punctuation. Therefore, don’t write content for your readers. Instead, compose music customized for their ears.
That’s how you approximate speech, tone of voice. That’s how you approximate conversation.
Insert transition words between sentences to establish flow, a rhythm. Why? Because disharmony destroys your reader’s comprehension. It interrupts the conversation.
As Gary Provost once said: “The ear and the brain are tuned in to the patterns of language. It is those patterns, the music of spoken language, that you want to duplicate in your writing.”
That said, listen to this melody from Grubhub:
Don’t ask us why, but there’s something epic about a cheese pull that we can’t wrap our heads around. It evokes emotions buried deep inside, ones of desire and love for all things cheese. Sultry and mysterious, bold and brilliant, the cheese pull is a work of art. Here are the 10 best foods for cheese pulls. Order up and get pulling.
What’s Grubhub’s secret? Varied sentence length, along with varied sentence structure (syntax).
Some sentences were medium-sized. Some were short, some long. A few led with a command.
One sentence began with four adjectives. Combined, these elements instill a sense of movement, a sense of rhythm – the feel of a conversation.
9. Italicize words for emphasis
Within the flow of a vocal conversation, you emphasize words on impulse. How do you mirror that vibe in your writing?
Search for organic opportunities to italicize words. How? Read your text aloud. In doing so, you’ll find words that beg for recognition.
As Donald M. Murray once said: “The ear, not the eye, is the final editor.”
Here is an example from Zappos that allows the reader to emphasize the italicized word in their head:
Believe it or not, there is a science to color matching.
BONUS TIP: Research shows we skip words when we read aloud. The solution? Microsoft Word’s read-aloud feature. Although this feature has a monotone voice, it catches every word, allowing you to concentrate on listening to your writing. You can hear words that would benefit from italicizing and areas that would benefit from editing.
Use @Microsoft’s #ReadAloud feature to help you identify words that would benefit from italicizing and areas that would benefit from editing, says @ContentStride via @CMIContent. #WritingTips Click To Tweet
10. Slice into bite-sized chunks
A long block of text is the visual equivalent of listening to someone speak without pauses. The problem? Your reader can’t catch a breath to digest each point. Therefore, slice your copy into bite-sized chunks.
Visually, set it up so the text looks inviting, to match the essence of a pleasant conversation. Prioritize short paragraphs. Also, insert white space between each. The result?
Easier on the eyes, easier on the comprehension.
As an example, scan this article. It’s packed with subheads, along with short paragraphs separated by white space. All designed to make the content digestible. The subheads reflect a shift in talking points; they direct the conversation.
Now, imagine if this article was one large block of text. Not as appetizing, huh?
11. Splurge on contractions
When you have a moment, eavesdrop on a conversation. Observe how often you hear contractions.
You’ll discover that we gorge on them. But why?
Contractions iron out speech. Without them, our speech would have bumpy wrinkles. Listeners would feel them. That said, the same rationale applies to your writing. When you find opportunities to use contractions, pounce on them. Here’s William Zinsser’s take:
Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like ‘I’ll’ and ‘won’t’ and ‘can’t’ when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing. ‘I’ll be glad to see them if they don’t get mad’ is less stiff than ‘I will be glad to see them if they do not get mad.’ (Read that aloud and hear how stilted it sounds.)
Observe how Dollar Shave Club used contractions:
You haven’t shaved in three weeks, and you’re staring in the mirror. You’re looking at your beard… or so you would technically call it. It’s patchy. It’s scraggly. Some parts are weirdly thick and other parts are pitifully thin. There are spots where no hair grows at all. It’s not a beard: It’s a facial disaster that needs to be put out of its misery and shaved off immediately. Why, oh why, you wonder, can’t I grow a damn beard?
Just read the robotic copy without contractions:
You have not shaved in three weeks, and you are staring in the mirror. You are looking at your beard … or so you would technically call it. It is patchy. It is scraggly. Some parts are weirdly thick and other parts are pitifully thin. These are the spots where no hair grows at all. It is not a beard: It is a facial disaster that needs to be put out of its misery and shaved off immediately. Why, oh why, you wonder, cannot I grow a damn beard?
12. Exude personality
The word “personality” stems from the word “person.” When you imbue your writing with personality, your words breathe life. Your content feels human. The result? Your reader can hear your “voice.”
As Jacob Nielson once said: “Some amount of personality (the ‘author’s voice’) makes sites more attractive: users don’t like bland impersonal corporate sites.”
That said, “bland” and “impersonal” are two adjectives you’d never associate with Lume. Check out this snippet from their website:
Historically, deodorant was first marketed to women in 1885. All efforts to control odors prior to that were concerned with overpowering personal aromas with perfumes rather than preventing body odor.
It took men just a little bit longer to get on board, and the first men’s deodorant was introduced in 1935. We are glad you caught up, we really are, you are doing great.
Enter Lume. *Cue the heavenly choirs* Personal hygiene has been revolutionized. And it is about time.
Viva la revolución!
As you can see, Lume exudes personality.
Your content is your classroom
Each time a reader clicks on your article, they enter your classroom. As the teacher, you must earn their trust so they can complete your assignments, whether subscribing to your newsletter or buying your product.
But unlike Ferris Bueller’s teacher, if your content is monotone, your audience will do something worse than doze off. They’ll disperse, never to return.
Yet, conversational copy stimulates the opposite effect. It opens the door for connection – from one human being to another.
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Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute