Guest post, Robert Middleton’s Action Plan Blog, 28 March 2012.
Or something close to that. At the time, the enrollment at my beloved Terrapin U was 30,000-plus students. The only way to educate the masses who needed to learn calculus and chem and physics was to lecture 500 of us at once on three days each week and send us to discussion and labs on the other days.
But I found lecture so boring that what I learned was to skip it. By attending the other classes, I could eke out decent grades (assuming I had a lab partner bound for med school and a favorable curve).
But maybe I was just ahead of my time. A study reported in the Journal of Educational Psychology in 2000 showed that we may learn better if words are written in an informal style rather than a formal one. And that could be true of hearing a conversation rather than listening to a lecture too.
But what does it mean to write in an informal or conversational style? What makes it more effective? Which rules can you break—and which should you follow? And how do you know when you’ve got it right?
Articles on conversational writing usually define it as writing the way you speak when you’re talking with a friend. If you’re like me, however, you say um, like and y’know, repeat yourself, get off track and interrupt to ask the waiter for another Pale Ale. My typical conversation would need careful editing and polishing.
So conversational writing is you, scripted to sound the way you wish you spoke instead of the way you actually do. You break the right writing rules, your style loosens up and everyone’s more comfortable.
But problems arise if you break the wrong writing rules. That happens when writers assume their thinking can be as relaxed as their writing. It can’t—your readers still need you to create order out of chaotic thoughts or you’ll kill any chance of a connection with them.
How does conversational writing keep you connected with your audience? One theory is that your reader’s brain thinks it’s in a conversation when you speak with—instead of at—its owner. The brain may even believe it’s going to need to respond, and that keeps the lights flashing in its gray matter.
Anthropologically that makes sense. Back in the Stone Age, when the tribe gathered ‘round the fire, I bet there weren’t many lectures on tactics for mastodon hunting. But there were plenty of opportunities to drink beer, tell lies and discuss the best way to ambush the prey and bring home dinner.
Likewise if your writing today sounds like you’re in a discussion, your audience will take greater notice of what you’re saying. And if you show some personality, they’ll even know if they’d like to get acquainted with the real you.
So conversational writing isn’t just about relaxing your style. It’s truly about writing to forge a connection with other humans and add value to your relationship.
Here’s the part most writers enjoy: breaking the rules of formal writing with impunity. For the greatest impact on your readers, I suggest you focus on breaking the rules below. But stay tuned—because in the next section, I’m going to tell you which rules you can’t break.
• Write in complete sentences. No longer necessary. You don’t always speak in complete sentences; you don’t need to write in complete sentences to make yourself understood. In fact, breaking up the rhythm can put greater emphasis on key points. So go ahead: Write a sentence without a subject. Or a verb.
• Don’t use contractions. Contract to your heart’s content. Many people cannot spell cannot anyway, so they may as well say can’t. And don’t. And won’t.
• Never begin sentences with And or But. But sometimes they’re the perfect way to smoothly transition from one topic to another. And you can do that efficiently by using a single word.
• Never use the first or second person. Now you, I and we have joined he, she, one and they as acceptable subjects for a sentence. According to the study cited above, the brain gets particularly stoked over the word you, even in writing. So use it often.
• Don’t ask questions. Why not? You’d ask questions to engage your listeners in a conversation. Ask them in writing too, as an accent or transition.
If you break the rules above, your high school English teacher would likely consider the writing dumbed down. That’s fine. But the dumbing down has to end there—because your thinking still has to be smart.
Conversational writing is no excuse for a jumble of ideas. Remember: You’re not actually in a conversation. And even if you were, your friend would probably ask you to explain, elaborate or find the waiter to get the bill. So you still need to follow some rules:
• Write to inform or entertain or both. You didn’t get to the age you are without becoming an expert on something. So answer a question or solve a problem that plagues your clients. Or if you can’t do that, at least make them laugh.
• Decide on your topic and stick to it. In other words, don’t ramble. If you don’t have enough to say without switching the topic, then wait until you do. Or find a clever way to link the two—that’s what makes improv comedy troupes a success.
• Keep your structure orderly. What order works? If you introduce what you plan to talk about, talk about it and then reach a conclusion, your readers will follow along easily. And that’s true for every chunk of your writing, whether it’s a paragraph in a section, a section in a chapter or a chapter in a book.
• Use standard rules for punctuation. The exception here is the exclamation point, which you can now use—but not liberally. Inserting too many exclamation points provokes skepticism, not excitement.
You’re ready to write with a loose style and a tight structure. But when it’s all over, how do you know if your writing will speak to your readers and express your authentic self? Test it:
• Speak it aloud. You can do this before you ever start writing. Many people who speak effortlessly freeze up when they see a keyboard. So get out your favorite dictating device (try the amazing talk-to-text capabilities for the Droid or iPhone) and tell it what you want to say. A little editing and presto! Instant conversational writing.
• Write to someone. Who’s your favorite client? Sit down and write to that individual only. Just as most of us prefer one-on-one conversations to public speaking, you’ll find it’s much easier to write to one person than a mass of humanity.
• Read it aloud. You’ll probably find your writing looks much better than it sounds, which makes this a great technique for finding mistakes. But you’ll also find awkward wording. When a phrase or sentence makes you cringe, you know what to fix.
• Check the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Index. Microsoft Word gives you a free tool as part of its Spelling & Grammar check to calculate how understandable your writing is. Look for a grade level around 8, a reading ease from 60-70, less than 10 percent passive sentences and fewer than 3 sentences per paragraph, 15 words per sentence and 5 characters per word.
• Give it to someone who knows you. Your spouse or good friend can review your writing and tell you when you’re not being you. Ask them to flag words and phrases that don’t sound friendly or authentic. Even conversational writing requires a sharp red pencil.
Conversational writing lets you connect with prospects and clients in the most natural and effective way possible. Use it to deepen connections, build relationships and keep the conversation going.
PS—Did I make it through college? Yes: The class size got smaller as the years went on. And when I went back to graduate school, I promised myself I would never skip a class. And I didn’t.
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