Cut the crap: how to nail conversational copy (and avoid sounding like a corporate drone)
I’m going to take a huge leap of faith and assume that – at some point in your life – you’ve been sent an email, visited a website or opened a blog post that has completely bored the life out of you.
You might have needed the product. You might have been interested in the company. And you might have wanted to learn more about the topic. But as soon as you saw that indecipherable stew of lingo, buzzwords and corporate speak, all knitted together with overly formal and unnecessarily complicated language, you couldn’t take it anymore.
Before your eyes completely rolled out of the back of your head, you clicked the cross button and got on with your day.
That’s because – despite the fact that boring, corporate and overly formal copy doesn’t convert – it’s still surprisingly common.
And that’s a shame, because every piece of dry, shitty, corporate copy is a huge missed opportunity. (To paraphrase David Ogilvy, ‘nobody has ever been bored into buying anything’.)
Quite simply, bland, boring copy doesn’t work anymore. (If it ever did).
Not convinced? Here are few examples to prove my point:
Remember those days at school when you used to have to read 20 pages of a boring textbook and then write a summary of them?
I bet you can still remember how boring it was.
Now, try and remember what the 20 pages were about.
And, if you can manage that, can you remember any of the details?
(I had to read 20-odd pages about the Battle of Marston Moor, but that’s about all I can remember.)
How many emails have you received that read a little something like this:
I hope this email finds you in good health.
I am writing with regards to your current business goals. I am Deputy Chief of Sales at Bland McBoring Corporation and it is my job to aid businesses in the agile mobilisation of cross-platform, multi-generational sales material.
Going forward, I envisage BMcB Corp facilitating an inordinate amount of growth for your business.
If this proposition doth please you, I’d love to arrange a meeting at your earliest possible convenience.
Kindest and sincerest regards,
Mr. Herman P Winkleface IV, Esq.’
How many have you replied to? (We’re talking positive replies here, not those of the four-letter expletive variety.)
If you’re in the UK and can’t handle reliving the last General Election, scroll down a roll or two.
All matters of politics aside, take two minutes to check out the speech that Theresa May gave after the last election:
Now, bearing in mind the fact that you’ve literally just watched it, write down three things that she said.
I’m willing to bet that you can’t think of anything other than ‘Now, let’s get to work’.
And that’s for a good reason.
Here’s the full transcript – check out how many times she addresses the audience.
She uses ‘we’ five times, but only to refer to the government. Never to the population of the UK.
She uses ‘I’ four times.
And, importantly, she doesn’t use ‘you’ at all, choosing to refer to her audience as ‘the people’.
In short, she pretty much writes the rulebook on how to write crappy copy that bores your audience to death.
But, when she says, ‘now, let’s get to work’ she breaks that pattern and she grabs our attention.
And it’s not just effective because it’s the only moment that she broke from her matronly delivery and overly formal sentence structure.
(‘What the country needs more than ever is certainty, and having secured the largest number of votes and the greatest number of seats in the General Election, it is clear that only the Conservative & Unionist Party has the legitimacy and ability to provide that certainty by commanding a majority in the House of Commons.’ What a mouthful.)
It was effective because it was conversational.
It spoke directly to the listener (finally) and suggested a sense of togetherness and connection.
And, most importantly, it used a contraction (‘let’s’) which helped to build a sense of familiarity and honesty because it lacked pretence.
So, what does that tell us about conversational copy?
First of all, it tells us that adopting a conversational tone creates an immediate connection with your audience.
It also tells us that a conversational tone makes the message more memorable. (More about that in this blog post that I wrote a while ago…)
But most importantly, it tells us that conversational copy forces us to cut all the jargon, lingo, buzzwords and marketing BS and just say what we mean.
And the end result is all the better for it.
But writing conversational copy isn’t easy.
You’d think it would be.
Just grab a tape recorder (what is this? 1999? Open the recorder app on your phone.) and say what you need to say.
Play it back, type it out and publish.
If you’ve never experienced the awkwardness of listening to a conversation back, I’ll spare you the trouble: there are lots of umms, ahhhs and erms, there are lots of unfinished sentences that trail off (and, if you’re like me, lots of off-topic rambling) and, as much as it hurts to admit this, there are lots of jokes that just aren’t as funny as you thought they were when they left your lips.
Transcribing these ramblings won’t do you any good.
But it is a good exercise.
The way you talk about it can inform the way you write about it.
Maybe even write it down verbatim first. But then tighten, hone and tweak until it’s perfect.
And remember the one key rule, courtesy of Elmore Leonard (a proponent of sticking two fingers up to grammar for the sake of effectiveness):
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
He also said:
I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.
That’s the key.
You don’t want your writing to sound exactly like speech. You just don’t want it to sound like writing.
Here’s how to do that.
How to write conversational copy – a few tips:
The biggy: imagine you’re at the pub, talking to a friend
If you’re already getting bored of this article (and I wouldn’t blame you), then just read this tip and then feel free to close the tab.
This is the big one – the one that will make an immediate difference to your copy. (And, I’d be willing to bet, your conversion rate.)
Next time you’re trying to write conversational copy, picture yourself in this situation:
It’s a Friday evening in mid-July. It’s been a hot day, but it’s cooling off. Your phone buzzes. It’s an old colleague who has been in town for a meeting and wonders if you want to grab a drink and a bite to eat after work. (Of course you do.) You meet up, find a nice pub garden and order some food and a few drinks. After half-an-hour of reminiscing about old times, they ask: ‘So, what are you working on right now?’
How would you tell them what you’re working on?
Odds are you wouldn’t say ‘BMcB Corp have been blue sky thinking for the last two quarters and now we’re in the initial stages of developing a results-focused…’ (I couldn’t even bring myself to finish that sentence.)
(Side note: if it turns out that you are a person that talks like that in real life, please don’t ever invite me for a beer.)
You’d probably say ‘Oh, me and a few colleagues got fed up with [problem] so have been working on a way to fix it’ or something like that. (Even this isn’t ideal, but it’s a start.)
I guarantee they’d probably be interested. (Because, for a start, this approach has a narrative. And narratives are a crucial for grabbing people’s attention and keeping it.)
They’d probably ask more questions.
And they’d like the fact that they can imagine a person – in this case, you and your colleagues – behind the product, rather than a faceless corporation.
And, finally, they’d be able to feel your enthusiasm, belief and personal involvement in the product.
So why, when it comes to writing marketing material, copy and communications – the B2B scene is particularly bad for this – do people resort to the three-letter-acronym, buzzword and jargon-heavy way of writing?
In part, habit. Everybody writes like this, so it’s the industry norm. Writing differently makes you stand out, and who wants that, right?
It’s also much easier to feel like you’re being impressive and selling if you throw a thousand industry words into the mix.
And finally – crucially – it’s easier to write like this.
In order to write conversational copy, you need to really understand what you’re selling. There’s no hiding behind jargon.
But, more than that, you need to understand what your audience are looking for too. And you need to address this in a way that doesn’t bore the ever-loving shit out of them.
But it is not that is not easy.
Which, when you think about it, is odd.
I’m willing to bet you’ve had more conversations than you have written pages of copy. (Unless you’re a hermit, Benedictine monk or professional copywriter that works from home.)
So, why is so easy to talk to people but so hard to write?
If you ask me (which you did, sort of), it’s purely psychological.
We go through school being force-fed ‘i before e except after c’ and ‘never start a sentence with a conjunction and a thousand rules about how to write ‘properly’.
But, when it comes to copywriting, that’s bullshit. (See, I started that sentence with a conjunction there. And I started this sentence with one, too. And I swore.)
To write conversational copy, you need to throw out the rulebook. You need to be a little bit of a maverick.
The quick and dirty guide to writing conversational copy
Here are a few tips I use to make sure the copy I write for my clients isn’t dull-as-ditchwater, even if the topic is less-than-scintillating.
Before you type a word, get to know your audience:
If you know your audience, you’ll know how they talk and communicate. You’ll know what they like, what they don’t like and the kinds of words they use.
(If you don’t have the money or time to spend on decent market research, I’m an advocate for using Reddit to get a good understanding of your demographic.)
Once you know them, you’ll find it as easy to write to them as you find chatting to your friends or family.
Another pro tip: create a customer avatar and write to that avatar. Compare: ‘thank you to all of our customers we met at XPO’ to ‘It was great to meet you at XPO’. Which one felt like it was written to just you? (That’s how you make a connection immediately.)
Don’t be afraid to break the rules of grammar
The way we speak doesn’t always follow the proper rules of grammar, so your conversational copy shouldn’t too.
End a sentence with a proposition if you want to. Or start one with a conjunction.
Not only does this help with the friendly, informal tone – it also helps you to write in an active voice. And writing in an active voice is a sure-fire way to get people engaged.
Oh, feel free to use as many contractions as you want too.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you should use contractions where possible. They keep your copy light and breezy.
Here’s a hot take for you: if you’re trying to write conversational copy, it should read like a conversation.
That means that you can include little asides (like this), throwaway comments – a bit like this throwaway comment here – and, best of all, jokes and sarcasm. How exciting, right?
Likewise, if you’re writing something that needs saying but is a bit dry, there’s no reason not to point it out (just like you would in conversation).
It’s easy to do, too:
Bear with me, because this bit is a little dry, but it’ll be important later on…
Just like that, the reader is grateful you’ve given them a heads up and feels a bond with you because you both find the same thing dull. (It also shows that you care about them, too, which never hurts.)
Finally, you know in conversation you can say ‘not this one, this one’? You’ll probably raise the pitch of your voice and stretch this out in two syllables so they know the difference between the two.
You can do that in text too. How?
Don’t write it this way, write it this way.
(See, told you.)
Add dashes of personality
And I’m not just talking jokes and asides. Let your reader know that there’s a person behind the keyboard; a person that cares about something other than their job and has experiences outside of their office walls.
I’m not saying you get really personal and weird – but little anecdotes or personal stories, when they are relatable or universal, are incredibly effective.
Just think of blog posts that start with ‘The other day, I was doing ‘x’ and then I realised ‘y’. They’re engaging, right?
They open with a personal anecdote, a relatable situation and remind you that it’s a person – not a faceless corporation – behind the post.
Swear and use slang
Full disclosure: this one doesn’t work for everyone. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone – certainly not some B2B communications or if you run a funeral home – but it does work when done right.
If you’re writing for a younger audience – we won’t use the horrid ‘m-word’ – then it’s not going to shock them if you swear. In actual fact, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests swearing – when done right – makes your copy more persuasive, relatable or effective.
For starters, a study has shown that the use of swear words can increase our memory of words. Why? Because the amygdala – which is closely connected to the memory parts of your brain – goes off like November 5th when you hear or read a swear word.
Another study has shown that swear words used to emphasise a point can make it more persuasive without hurting the credibility of the author or speaker.
Pretty fucking compelling, right?
Likewise, for slang: if you’re using words that your target audience use, you’re far more likely to get their attention.
But be careful, you don’t want to go too far and end up sounding disingenuous or – even worse – like you’re faking it just to target them as customers.
The key to this is authenticity. If swearing or slang fits with your brand and target audience, knock yourself out. If it doesn’t, leave it out. You’re more likely to alienate your audience attempting it.
(For a good chuckle, check out this Hall of Shame of brands that have attempted to appear cool, down-with-the-kids or (as us kids like to say) ‘lit’ to sell their stuff.)
Use hypothetical questions.
When you talk to your friends, you use hypothetical questions a lot, right? Because they bring people into the conversation and get them thinking, right?
So why don’t you use them in your copy too?
Not only does it help keep your reader engaged, but it makes them consider what you’re saying.
And that can’t be a bad thing, can it?
(Pro tip: If you’re going to use hypotheticals, make sure you follow it up with the answer you want the audience to have. For instance, in the above section, I followed every hypothetical with ‘right?’. I gave you the illusion of being involved, but took away the option of disagreeing with me and detracting from my point. Feel manipulated now? You should. You’re like putty in my hands.)
Don’t just talk about yourself
This is a pretty obvious one, but I’ve met more than a few people who don’t even know how to do this in person, let alone in their copy, so I thought I’d say it anyway.
Even if you’re writing about how awesome your business is, you don’t want to position it like that.
You want it to be about great your business is for the customer. Not how it can change lives, how it can change their life.
And be relatable.
Rather than saying:
The DMZ-700 uses super-suction technology to clean away microscopic dirt, hard-to-reach areas and tough stains.
You know that red wine stain that you’ve been hiding beneath the rug for months? The one you don’t want your landlord to see? Stop worrying, the DMZ-700 has got your back.
See the difference?
And finally, don’t go OTT
When you’re writing conversational copy, it’s easy to get a bit giddy on this new power. Like a kid that’s allowed out on their own for the first time, you want to do all the things you’ve never done before.
I can swear!
I can use slang!
I can use improper grammar!
But if you do too much, you’ll seem silly, unprofessional or phoney.
It’s all about balance. (And, importantly, context. If you work in a sensitive field – charities or hospitals for example – you’ll probably want to ignore most of this advice.)
You want to sound like you’re talking to the reader.
You want to sound like you’re their friend (or at least an acquaintance).
But you also want to sound natural. Only use words that fit with your brand tone of voice. Don’t try and shoehorn in slang or bad jokes. Unless bad jokes are part of your tone of voice. (In which case, get in touch, I’ve got tonnes you can have.)
The key to conversational copy is authenticity.
If it feels authentic (whether that’s authentic to your brand, authentic on a person-to-person level or just authentic to you as the writer) then it’s going to chime with your audience much more than any TLA-filled buzzword soup ever will.