A well-quoted stat in marketing circles states that 8 out of 10 people will read a headline, but that only 2 out of 10 will actually go on to read beyond the headline. The deciding factor may very well be the tone of your copy: how you sound, who you seem to be.
Neil Patel, co-founder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar and KISSmetrics ran an A/B test on two versions of the same blog post — one written in a formal tone, and the other written conversationally.
Here’s what he found:
The conversational tone post came out the clear winner.
In this post, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about how to achieve a conversational tone in your writing. We’ll cover:
Ready? Let’s dig in.
Conversational writing feels like a one-on-one conversation between your audience and you.
It’s real, meaningful, and relevant. It should create a kind of intimacy—ideally by using language and phrasing familiar to the audience. And it avoids stodgy words and sentence construction at all costs!
Let’s look at an example.
Little Black Kat Creative is a graphic design firm that produces unique, custom designs. Her website invites the audience to have some fun with her, and uses an easy-to-read conversational tone that reflects the way one would talk to a friend. She uses calls to action like “Become my BFF” and “Say Hello”. She even makes her terms and conditions sound interesting by calling them “the boring but important stuff”.
On Instagram, Kat, the woman behind Little Black Kat Creative, shares her personal story to build even more intimacy with her followers.
And it totally works.
Conversational writing helps you to:
Some simple rules help to distinguish conversational writing from formal writing. Here are a few:
Formal writing uses longer sentences and words, complex sentence structures and language that would make your university professors proud. If you’re writing an academic paper, it’ll help you to sound smart and studious.
But out in the rest of the world, formal writing often imposes a cognitive burden on your readers. Conversational writing, on the other hand, allows you to sound, well, human. And humans tend to prefer doing business with other humans.
The tone you adopt in your writing depends on many factors: the kind of business you’re in, your target audience, your messaging goals…
But unless you’re writing academic papers or working in law, you can likely safely use a conversational tone in almost all of the content you produce: from blog and social media posts, to email copy, web copy, landing pages, etc.
Because ultimately, with any communication piece, your goal is to convey your message clearly, memorably and in an engaging way. You want your audience to pay attention.
By consistently using conversational writing style, you make your brand accessible and memorable. Seth Godin has been doing this for years and has built a brand that is memorable not only for its thought-provoking work, but also for its ability to engage a wide cross-section of audiences.
Unlearning the impetus to write formally takes some work. Follow these 11 tips to create an easy, conversational tone in your writing.
Avoid using all the words you would never use in real life, like “utlize” instead of use. No one says “utilize”. Remember that you’re writing to connect, not to impress.
Also, avoid industry jargon as much as you can. Write so that anyone can understand what you’re talking about.
The United States government created an amazing list of plain language words and phrases to use in your writing.
Bookmark this list and check it whenever you write.
Using the second-person “you” means you put your readers at the centre of the conversation. You talk less about yourself and more about them.
Kathy Sierra, co-creator of the bestselling Head First series, explained this best:
“So one of the theories on why speaking directly to the user is more effective than a more formal lecture tone is that the user’s brain thinks it’s in a conversation, and therefore has to pay more attention to hold up its end! Sure, your brain intellectually knows it isn’t having a face-to-face conversation, but at some level, your brain wakes up when its being talked with as opposed to talked at. The word “you” can sometimes make all the difference.”
Keep your sentences short. Break long sentences into many short ones.
Because long sentences reduce readability.
A long sentence can make readers’ minds wander off mid-sentence. It takes more focus and time to process the information when a new piece of information is already vying for your attention. By shortening your sentence, you make your point easier to read and understand.
Look at Hiut Denim’s website for a great example of short sentences. The brand applies a conversational tone by using short sentences, simple words, and clear writing:
Do you say, “I will go to work,” or “I’ll go to work.”
In conversation, we use contractions. In conversational writing we do it too.
In an active voice construction, the subject of the sentence carries the action of the verb. But in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is being acted upon by the action. It not only makes the sentence longer, but it’s also harder to understand.
Look at these examples:
Active voice: You can return your order.
Passive voice: Your order can be returned.
Which one gives customers more confidence?
The answer is obvious: The active voice.
A question makes your audience stop to think about their answers. It changes the flow of your writing. It keeps your audience involved in the conversation.
Case in point: instead of saying, “Check out our blog to learn useful self-care tips and tricks,” The Body Shop asks you questions. They write a description as if they’re talking to you like a friend.
Conversational writing style gives you the freedom to break the rules. That’s useful when you want your copy to come across as friendly and approachable.
Here are some grammar rules you can break:
Bombas uses short sentences (e.g., “Refund it. Send you socks.”) and also breaks grammar rules (“Happiness. Guaranteed.”) in its Happiness Guaranteed policy.
A good story can change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours. It can appeal to personal emotions and create empathy. Our brains simply love stories.
Cuddle + kind applies this tactic to their Instagram posts, like in this example:
Instead of telling what the fawn is made of, the brand humanizes it by giving it a human character and telling the story of “Elliott.”
When you start your writing with a story, you activate an emotional trigger.
Let your character — or brand character — shine through.
When you reveal a little bit of yourself through your content, your audience will become more curious and attracted to it. They’ll want to know more about you.
And that’s where a long relationship begins.
It’s a good idea to imagine you’re writing to a friend. Make your audience feel like they’re in your fold. Here’s an example from Barkbox of a fun approach and super casual tone on its website. It’s created an approachable and honest brand voice that pet lovers can relate to.
Read your copy aloud and ask yourself if it sounds like writing? If you can write the way you talk, it’ll naturally come across as conversational.
Or, try explaining what you’ve written to a friend. Then, replace your draft with what you just said to them.
“If you simply manage to write in spoken language, you’ll be ahead of 95% of writers. And it’s so easy to do: just don’t let a sentence through unless it’s the way you’d say it to a friend.”
—Paul Graham, Co-founder, Y Combinator
Using a conversational tone in writing is a great way to engage your audience. So give it a try. Break some rules and give your readers a good reason to keep reading. Take the time to edit your copy to make it more conversational. And hopefully it will eventually lead to more actual conversations with your customers.
Looking for guidance on how best to engage your audience? Get in touch, we’re here to support with content strategy, implementation and blueprints for good storytelling.