How do they do it?
What’s the magic little secret enabling certain writers, without fail, to create copy that entertains and enraptures? They’ve got an uncanny ability to turn even dry and dull subject matter into engaging text you simply can’t put down.
It’s a skill that separates the good from the great. Writers who can turn boring technical texts or yearly financial reviews into engaging reads are the ones who command the top dollar jobs. And with good reason. That shit ain’t easy.
But the question we all want answered is how?
Sure there’s the little bells and whistles that add to a text’s impact. The use of power words, smart editing tips and the ability to play on a readers emotions all help. But they’re the decoration. Before you can start dressing things up you need a solid foundation upon which to place them.
That solid foundation is the ability to engage your reader as an individual. If you can’t engage your visitors through your prose then all the power words and smart editing in the world isn’t going to get people to read your copy. So, what’s the fastest route to engaging copy?
Make it conversational.
It’s a piece of advice now established as a cornerstone of modern writing. Check the work of any marketing or writing authority from Neil Patel to Jon Morrow and Seth Godin and you’ll see how they all employ a conversational tone.
Reading their content doesn’t feel like reading. Everything they create is engaging and accessible to a point hat it feels more like you’re sat opposite them having a friendly chat.
The web is filled with writers, most of whom still write as though they’re penning a high school essay. They’re too strict in following the grammatical rules and pacing that were so important in a time of their lives that has long since passed.
You need to adapt your writing habits for the modern, online reader. Thankfully, it’s not as hard as you might think.
Conversational Doesn’t Mean Slang
A month or two ago I was approached by a small business owner asking me to review a marketing article they’d published on their blog. Their whole angle was to create more accessible content by making it ‘funny, cartoony and human’.
The description seemed a little off, but if it made a rather dry subject more accessible, then I was all for it.
Unfortunately, it didn’t.
The author of the article had tried too hard. Every sentence had some weird colloquial term, contraction or something I’d expect to see in text speak. Nothing seemed to fit with the goal or gravity of the piece.
Instead of reading the article and assimilating the message, I focused on the numerous uses of the word ‘cool’, the forced phrases like ‘hey man’ and the painful use of symbols in place of bad language.
It all felt forced. The author had spent too long trying to make it conversational and accessible and in so doing had made it extremely difficult to discern the actionable message from the article.
I came away from reading it no wiser. In fact, I felt far more confused than I had before sitting at my laptop.
Appropriating what you believe to be commonly used language is not conversational writing. All it does is lower the impact, accessibility and usefulness of your writing.
Conversational writing will be unique to every writer and the audience being addressed. There is no lexical guide or framework on conversational copy. You need to understand and analyse how you would converse with an actual member of that audience.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the ground rules and basic steps for creating your very own conversation copy.
The Basics of Conversational Writing
I’m going to go against the grain here.
There’s a lot of advice which says ‘write how you talk’. Ignore it.
Have you ever listened to a recording of yourself speaking? Or read the direct transcript from a podcast or meeting?
There is so much waffle, so many unfinished sentences and copious amounts of poor language usage.
You need to find the middle ground between written and verbal communication. You want to write in a way that doesn’t sound like it’s been written but also isn’t a verbatim copy of spoken dialogue.
It’s a difficult concept to grasp and its going to take a while to nail your method. However, there are a few basic rules that will help get you off to the right start.
Have a Single Point of Focus
Addressing your audience as a crowd is impersonal.
No one wants to feel like another member of the faceless masses. You want to feel special, right? So does each and every member of your audience. Write your content as if it’s aimed specifically at the individual reading it.
Get rid of any plural pronouns or sentence structures addressing large numbers of people.
Sentences including ‘those of you’ or ‘you’re all’ etc need to be changed to the singular ‘you’. It’s a simple change which drastically changes the focus of your writing.
Whilst you’re at it, take yourself out of the equation. Your focus should be on your audience. don’t mention ‘us’ or ‘we’.
Get rid of any plural pronouns and focus on the singular reader.
This isn’t a School Essay
Big words aren’t impressing anyone.
Using complex grammatical structures, industry jargon or unnecessarily complex language doesn’t male you look smart. It just makes you look like a pretentious dick.
If you feel like you need the big words to feel important, remember the immortal advice of Albert Einstein.
Communicate in the simplest of terms.
Imagine you’re speaking to an old friend. Would they be impressed if you forced gratuitously elaborate words? No, they’d probably make fun of you. So will your audience.
Inject Your Personality
You are a unique individual. Demonstrating personality in your writing is one of the more daunting tasks. No one wants to put themselves out there on the internet to be ridiculed.
But that’s something you’re going to have to deal with. Yes, injecting your personality will make you a few enemies, but it’s also what gathers a tribe of fervent fans.
Overly academic styles of writing strip your writing of personality. It’s a horrible middle of the road style that neither excites nor entertains.
Your readers want to get to know you. Be sure to inject a little personality. (Most of) Your readers will thank you for it.
Open a Dialogue
Have you ever been to a party and met the guy everyone loves to hate?
The guy who talks and talks and talks, not letting anyone else get a word in edgeways.
Do people enjoy talking to him? No, in fact they’ll do whatever they can to get the hell away from him. Don’t be that guy.
Yes, reading an online article is very one-sided. The reader reads exactly what you’ve written. But that doesn’t mean you have to bombard them with information.
Ask a question or two throughout your content. It breaks up your prose and incites the reader to think about what you’ve said. All of which leads to higher engagement and hopefully a handful more comments and shares.
Get to the Point
Modern readers have the attention span of a goldfish with Alzheimer’s.
Online readers don’t have the time to read pages and pages of information unless it’s super interesting and relevant to them. Get to the point and break up your copy by using short sentences and paragraphs.
Create content your readers can easily scan and find exactly what they’re looking for.
Don’t be Afraid to Break the Rules
Starting a sentence with and or but?
How fucking dare you!
Seriously, does anyone really care? Do you ever start speaking to a friend and think, ‘hold on, I’ve just broken one of the golden grammar rules I learned in school!’. No, of course you don’t, and you shouldn’t when writing either.
Rules were made to be broken. As long as you’re not breaking all the rules bending a few here and there can actually help add energy and excitement to your copy.
The Practical Guide to Writing Conversationally
Now those general rules are out-of-the-way let’s move on to a more practical guide to creating some kick ass, conversational copy. This is the four step process I use when writing about anything, and it’s served me pretty well.
Step 1 – Give Your Audience a Face
Remember when I said write to a single person?
Well, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Writing to the faceless internet is pretty uninspiring and often results in copy that fails to impress. You end up with horribly vague copy that doesn’t resonate with anyone.
You need to pick a face from the crowd and write all of your content as if it’s specifically for them.
There’s a number of way you can do this.
1 – Create an audience persona
Audience personae are used extensively in marketing. Basically you create an explanation for a single person that best represents a segment of your audience.
It’s how big marketing firms target their messages so they have the greatest relevancy and impact.
2 – Choose an actual audience member
Is there someone who frequently emails you or comments on your work?
If yes, imagine you’re writing all of your copy to that one person. Should help give you that personal tone you’re after!
3 – Choose a friend
This is my preferred method. I create all my content as if speaking to a specific friend with whom I debate everything from business and politics to whether Beyoncé is a hypocrite.
Imagining that you’re not writing for the internet but are in fact just having a chat with your mate makes creating content so much easier.
Step 2 – Finish your Research Before Sitting Down to Write
Remember at school when you had to write essays on topics you knew nothing about?
If you were anything like me you had three books open and would be researching the topic as you penned your masterpiece.
That’s not gonna fly any more.
Because It robs you of the opportunity to inject your own thoughts and personality.
If you’re researching as you write you don’t understand the topic. You’re not going to have some great epiphany that adds a revolutionary new take or moves the discussion forward if you’re still trying to figure out which bits of information are relevant.
All you’ll do is add another similar voice to the multitude of others out there. No one’s going to care about what you’ve written, they’ve already read it from the source you pretty much copied it from.
You need to give yourself some time between the research and writing phases to fully internalise what it is you’re learning about the topic. Use that time to turn it around in your head, think about it from different perspectives and how it affects different groups or situations.
Jon Morrow’s offered what’s undoubtedly the best advice I’ve ever seen on this. He says: ‘For every hour you spend working, you need to spend 10 hours thinking. Or put more simply, 10x thinking, 1x doing.’
That 10 x thinking time is necessary for you to put your own spin on the topic. Without it, you’ve added nothing of value to the ongoing conversation.
3 – Turn Your Brain Off to Write
Writing isn’t editing.
They’re two very distinct and separate stages of the creative process. Trying to do them at the same time is a recipe for disaster.
If you’ve ever tried it you’ll know what I mean. You write one sentence but you know it’s not perfect, so what do you do? You go back and edit it right then and there.
It’s the perfect example of two steps forward one step back. It gets you nowhere fast.
The critical part of your brain is your own worst enemy when creating. It’s always going to tell you the last sentence you penned has a misplaced comma, a spelling mistake or simply doesn’t flow with the rest of the piece.
You can either take heed of what it has to say, jump back to the start and edit until perfect, or let the creative part of your mind run free and do what it does best. Create.
Personally I tend to over edit when I’m writing because I don’t know what it is I want to say. I’ve either not internalised the topic or the piece has lost its direction.
When you’ve fully understood the topic formed your own opinions, you won’t have this problem. Hell, you’ll be struggling to get all your thoughts out onto the page in time!
Make peace with the fact that what you create on your first draft will be far from perfect. Turn off your brain, write whatever pops into your mind and worry about cleaning it all up in the editing phase.
4 – Edit By Reading Out Loud
Your inner monologue is not to be trusted.
If you’ve ever said something and realised it sounded better in your head you’ll know what I’m talking about. It can be pretty embarrassing.
The problem with writing is that all you have to go on is that little voice in your head. You’ll sit at a computer for hours pouring your thoughts out onto the page.
You’ll sometimes often write something which you think sounds great, but when its verbalised it makes little sense or doesn’t fit with the piece. That little voice skips over syntax and pacing errors because it knows what you were trying to say.
Verbalising your writing should be the last check in your editing and proofreading process. It forces you to read every single word and will make any errors blatantly obvious.
Conversational Writing is the Foundation for Successful Copy
Writing conversationally has become par for the course in recent years.
These tips aren’t a magical solution that’s going to drastically increase the accessibility of your copy. That’s going to take a hell of a lot of practice on your part.
What they are is a framework. A guideline that if followed and coupled with some good old-fashioned elbow grease should help you to create copy that gets read, shared and enjoyed.
Also published on Medium.