Improving Writing

Improve Your Writing with a Conversation Tone

Our brains have an amazing ability to learn and retain material. The trouble is we don’t have 100% control over this ability — we can tell our brain something is important, but our brain may not listen.

Have you ever told yourself that a particular book is important but you find yourself rereading the pages just to understand the material? It’s difficult to pay attention to material written in a formal tone (like most textbooks) even though you may want to understand it. The problem is you’re fighting against your brain – the most sophisticated computer ever created.

Neuroscience has discovered that our brains remember things that it thinks are important. And our brains think conversations are important and should be remembered. Especially funny or emotional conversations.

Conversational writing causes your brain to wake-up and pay attention. Your brain thinks it’s in a real conversation, even though you’re reading text on a page. If you’re developing learning content, teaching or helping your child study for a test – use a conversation. Your reader’s brain will thank you for it.

For a majority of the writing you may do, a conversational tone will go a long way in getting your point across while holding your reader’s attention. Here’s a few tips to help:

  1. Write using a conversational tone. Your brain thinks it’s in a real conversation when reading material written in a conversational tone. What happens during a conversation? Your brain pays attention and your remember more of the material. Researchers aren’t sure exactly why it works, but you can read more about it in e-learning and the Science of Instruction. Their research shows your brain pays attention to conversations and improves your ability to remember the topic. I guess, if you’re involved in a conversation your brain thinks it may have to respond to that conversation and should pay attention.
  2. Your tone tells a lot about you. Here’s something to think about. If you’re using formal language in a lecture, article or book, are you more concerned about you and how you sound to the audience? Or are you truly concerned about your audience and what they’re going to get out of your presentation. If you’re truly concerned about your readers, then use a conversational tone and help them learn your material. It’s all about your readers and not about you, the author.
  3. Write the way you talk. Yes, ignore what you may have learned about writing and write the way you talk to help your readers understand your material. What this really means is to write in a direct and friendly manner – it’s more appealing (especially to your brain) than formal writing.
  4. Use the Readability Index Calculator to improve the understandability of your writing. This calculator implements the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease criteria for determining how easy a passage is to read. Magazines such as the Reader’s Digest are more easily read and score higher on the test (65), while other magazines have dramatically lower scores and are difficult to read. Most paragraphs in this post scored about around a 45 – not bad, but maybe I need to loosen up a bit. I’m not gong to discuss the specifics of the Reading Ease criteria, but suggest using it as a quick verification of the level of your writing.
  5. It’s ok to use contractions. Contrary to what you may have learned, it’s ok to use contractions – you’ll grab your reader’s attention and engage their brain without them even knowing it.
  6. “And” and “But” can be used at the beginning of a sentence. But that’s not what you’ve been taught, is it? When we talk we occasionally start sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but’. If you want your writing to sound authentic, the you should do the same.
  7. Pass the “read out loud” test. If you’re unsure about your writing, then read it out loud to yourself. If it doesn’t sound right, then change it. Reading your writing out loud gives it new meaning and will prevent your brain from filling in any gaps between words.
  8. Don’t use jargon, buzzwords or obscure words. If you’re really concerned about your readers, don’t use words that show off your intelligence. Your writing is all about the reader and not about you.
  9. Remain organized and don’t ramble. Conversational writing does not give you permission to write like you’re sending a text message or to ramble using long sentences. In fact, I probably reached a limit in my previous sentence, but I wanted to make a point. Your writing will still need to be well organized and have thoughts that flow together.

There is a time and place for formal writing – maybe you’re creating a reference work or you may be involved with a team of writers and need a consistent tone or style. Certainly contracts and legal documents should not be written in a conversational tone.

You also don’t want to overdo it with the conversational tone. You’ll loose your readers with to much jargon or conversation speak. Take this for example:

“Hi there, are you ready for your first lesson in calculus? Well, ok, lets put on our math hats, get a calculator, some graph paper and lets get started!”

There’s a lot of clutter in my example and many words that don’t add value to the sentence. A better approach would be:

“Some graph paper and a calculator is all that’s needed for your first lesson in calculus”

Clean, precise, but conversational. You can almost hear my voice as I talk to you through my writing.

If you’re looking to improve your writing, grab your reader’s attention and appeal to their brains, then use a conversational tone – your reader’s will love you for it.

  • http://www.varsityblah.com/about Eugene (Editor, Varsity Blah)

    Hey, Victor. Great article. I’ve always wondered about number 6 so thanks for clearing that up.

    Lately, I’ve been reading over my journal entries from ninth grade and understand why writing in a conversational tone helps. It’s the same approach I applied to my first book and to my blog. Maybe that’s why they’ve been so well received!

  • http://www.reddeerblog.com Truthteller

    Thanks for your article, which I enjoyed and found value in. But (kidding, just wanted to try starting the sentence that way) my most valuable writing tip is to use humor as much as possible. This is not an easy thing to do since what I find funny, you might not. But, if I take your advice and imagine I am talking and not writing to my audience it flows much better. However (another form of but) even if it doesn’t work so well, it amuses me.

    Eduardo

  • http://hunternuttall.com Hunter Nuttall

    The Readability Index Calculator is great! My posts were mainly at the 9th grade level with a score around 60. I had written one particular post that I knew was more formal, and the results for that one were 10th grade and 49. This is a good tool to use every now and then to make sure we don’t sound like a textbook to our readers.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John

    Yes, that is really interesting.

    Just for fun I put Victor’s post into the calculator and it came out as a 9th grade level as well.

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  • http://www.chargedaudio.com subliminal

    Do check it out and maybe we can exchange opinions!

  • Thom

    “Jargon” and “buzzwords” are usually not used to “show off your intelligence” but in order to express your meaning as clearly as possible. Always use the most precise word as possible to express your meaning regardless of its complexity or length.

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  • http://www.TheLessonsinLove.com John Harrigan

    Important article Victor!

    I’ve noticed that the top blogs are very readable and conversational: It’s like you are having a friendly chat.

    You have put the information and technique of it all into a very readable article. I will keep your article for permanent reference!

    Thanks,

    John H.

  • http://www.pickthebrain.com John

    That’s a good point, Thom. Precision in writing is extremely important. I think it really depends on your audience. If they are well informed on the topic, using more complex language might be best.

  • http://hunternuttall.com/blog/2008/01/the-10-most-readable-blogs-that-i-like/ Hunter Nuttall

    John Harrigan, it occurred to me as well that the top blogs are very readable. I put the blogs in my reader through an unscientific test to see if this was true, using the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of the most recent post of each blog to measure readability.

    Sure enough, my favorite blogs were at the top of the rankings, and my least favorite blogs were at the bottom. #2 was zenhabits, and #1 was a blog you might not have heard of. (It seems my trackback didn’t work, but you can visit my link for the results.)

  • Vic

    Thanks to everyone for the great feedback.

    I agree that you would not use conversational writing for certain types of documents – legal briefs or contracts for example. But how many of us have sat through corporate training that only numbed our minds?

    There are plenty of areas where we can apply this technique.

  • http://lawrencecheok.com Lawrence Cheok | A Long Long Road

    hi Victor, thanks for these tips. It took me some time in blogging to learn these points. You should have wrote this article earlier. :)

  • http://www.gethappynow.org karl Staib l Your Happiness Matters

    GetHappyNow.org’s last article scored a 55. Not to shabby.

    This is a well organized article just like it tells us writers to be able to do.

    My favorite reminder is to not ramble. I’ve noticed that I’ll take a few paragraphs out of a blog I’m working on and start a whole new blog because the thoughts don’t go together.

    Victor, what do you think your greatest writing strength is?

  • Vic

    Karl,

    Hmm…I would have to say that editing is king when writing. There are many times I delete entire paragraphs when I don’t like the way they sound. I usually read my work out loud which helps the editing process.

    When I start an article I first get my thoughts down on the page. Then I move them around and continuously refine the piece until I’m satisfied. Sometimes I’ll create a mind map of ideas before I start writing.

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  • http://professionalvoicetalent.com/ Chuck

    I could not agree more regarding #7. As a professional voice talent, I deal with scripts every day that SHOULD have been read out loud, but were not. Thus, they are riddled with mistakes, typos, repetitive phrases and the like. I ALWAYS read what I write aloud, whether it’s an email or a blog post or anything else. It has saved me countless screwups…even the kind that might lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

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  • http://www.kamalthakur.in Kamal Thakur

    You are right! We should actually write for the 8th grader :) Writing for the internet is a lot different from traditional essay-writing.

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  • Harikrishnan G

    Great article… Great read..
    thanks for the readability index thing… i didnt know there is a calculator for readability..!!

    and my article scored around 60-63, overall

    http://blog.orangecarton.com/how-to-write-friendship-day-greeting-card-for-a-career-oriented-friend/

  • Harikrishnan G

    Great article… Great read..
    thanks for the readability index thing… i didn’t know there was a calculator for readability..!!