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How to Write Conversational Content and Make Your Readers Deliriously Happy

Henrietta's dog Arthur is deliriously happy to see herLet’s face it.

How many people get excited when they receive your email?

How many are rushing to read your email as soon as their email pings and they see your name popping up?

Yep, your mother, your best friend, and your sister are all super happy when your email arrives to invite them for a day out.

But what about your clients and prospects? Are they also happy with your emails and blog updates?

Let’s see how you can make them more excited …

Stop writing to everyone

When I write an email to the 2,722 subscribers on my list, my email becomes boring, generic, and drab.

You can’t write to a faceless crowd of subscribers. You start lecturing. You get on your soap box. You write phrases like Thank you to those of you who commented on my last post instead of Thank you so much for your comments on my last post.

Writing to a crowd kills your voice.

You start sounding like that stuffy schoolmaster who’s telling everyone off; or you become like that irritating marketer who keeps repeating the same message over and over again.

Instead of thinking of all the people on you list, think of your favorite reader only. Imagine her opening your email. Picture her chuckling at your jokes and nodding along as she agrees with your points.

Paint her picture or find a matching photograph. Give her a name. That’s the only way she becomes real enough to write to her. And that’s when you can forget about all the others on your list.

You only write to her.

Your emails immediately become more engaging; and most people on your list will feel as if you’re emailing them personally; and if they don’t, they probably shouldn’t be on your list.

How to write conversational content

Conversational content makes your reader feel you’re talking WITH him — NOT talking AT him. You’re engaging him in your conversation. He’s hearing your voice.

You might think that writing conversational content requires you to record yourself talking and then typing out your text. But have you ever seen a full transcript of an interview?

It’s full of wishy-washy words, grammar mistakes, and sentences that haven’t been finished. Nobody speaks correct English when they talk. That’s normal.

Writing conversational content doesn’t mean you write as you talk. Instead: you edit your text so that it doesn’t sound like writing.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. ~ Elmore Leonard

Creating conversational text means writing a crappy first draft and then editing that crappy draft to make it more conversational. Let’s see how.

Unlearn the stuff you learned at school

Conversational writing is simple and easy to read.

You don’t want your blog posts and emails to sound like *yawn* business reports or academic essays:

  • Slaughter the passive voice. Rather than write You’re loved by me (passive), write: I love you (active). Rather than write Your email will be answered (passive), write: I’ll answer your email within 24 hours.

  • Kill long paragraphs and dense blocks of text. To enter a conversation you need to give your reader time to breathe – that’s what white space is for. Use it generously.

  • Hack long sentences in two; and stop worrying about starting your sentences with And, Because, or But. Because it helps keep your sentences short and easy to read.

  • Feel free to use contractions like they’ll, he’s, and we’re, because these sound more informal.

  • Send difficult words to the naughty corner and throw a party for simple words.

Following high-school rules makes your text drab and dull. Be a rebel and break the rules. Set yourself free and play.

Read your copy aloud. If it still sounds like writing, then chop a few more sentences in two, break up a few paragraphs, and bin more gobbledygook.

Once you’ve unlearned drab business writing, you only need to apply 2 essential tools to have tea and chat with your readers.

Essential tool of conversational writing #1

Good salesmen and good conversationalists have a lot in common: they talk less about themselves and more about their listeners.

To make your text engaging, check how often you’ve used the words I, we, me, and us. Now, count how often you’ve used the word you. The Wewe Calculator can do the counting for you.

Don’t blabber on about me, myself, and I. Engage your reader by addressing him with the word you.

Essential tool of conversational writing #2

We’ve all met the type of girl (or guy!) who can’t stop talking … about celebrity gossip, her love life, and the weather forecast for the coming weekend.

Well, that’s no conversation, is it?

A good conversation includes questions.

Have you noticed how I’ve included questions in this blog post?

When your reader is gliding through your text on auto-pilot, a question slows him briefly down as his brain starts thinking about the answer. Questions make your readers pay attention and give them the feeling you’re having a conversation.

Sleazy salesmen use exclamation marks. Good conversationalists use question marks.

Conversational writing is not just about HOW you write

You listen well, you ask questions, and you give your readers space to breathe.

But the conversation is missing something, isn’t it?

Each time you “chat” with your reader and drink a cup of tea together, give them a slice of your best home-made cake.

A virtual slice of cake is a tip your readers can implement today or tomorrow. Make sure your cake … eh … tip is so good, that next time your readers see your email popping up, their mouths start watering – they crave reading your next post.

Special thanks to Kerstin Castle who gave me the idea for this post.

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Comments

  1. Can’t agree more! This is really good advice. And I love your illustration, Henneke!
    Lucy Chen recently posted…Why You Should Read “Leonardo’s Swan” NowMy Profile

  2. Lynne Wilson says:

    Thanks Henneke, another keeper of a blog post. makes a lot of sense. Time for me to head off to the local cafe and write up the first draft of my next newsletter I think… Oh, and really like your illustrations, VERY cute doggie!

    • Yes, that’s a good idea. I’m sure writing in a local cafe can make your content livelier, too!

      Thank you for stopping by, Lynne :)

  3. Pau Ferret says:

    You did it. I’m really waiting for the next slice of your home-made cake. :)

    • Thank you, Paul :)

      Don’t tell anyone, but the truth is that in real life I’m not so good at baking cakes – I prefer cooking a delicious meal!

  4. Truth is… I’m thinking about unsunbscribing from a blog for feeling that they care not for their readers.

    The writing is good, so are the ideas — but their emails are nothing but links to the day’s post (ok, not much harm in that), while I see no answers on their blog comments, nor any real interaction on their FB page.

    It’s only talk, talk, talk, or rather write-and-post-it, and I even think that even their blog commenters have tailed away lately.
    Helene Poulakou recently posted…Social Media for Freelancers: Job Hunting on FacebookMy Profile

    • Yes, you make an excellent point. Readers can sense it immediately when writers don’t care and when they’re insincere.

  5. Henrietta looks very happy today! :))) Just a question: when you talk about “your favourite reader” why is it a “she”? Is it like boats, planes… and always feminine? Bit confused.
    Veronique Mermaz recently posted…Cross-cultural marketing: “We try and make the content as country specific as possible.”My Profile

    • I’m not sure who’s happier – Henrietta herself or her dog Arthur? ;-)

      Your reader can be a “she” or a “he”. It depends on who you like working with most.

  6. ‘Sleazy salesmen use exclamation marks. Good conversationalists use question marks.’
    >> That is a world famous quote by Henneke D, did you know that?
    Kitty Kilian recently posted…Wat maakt een blog goed?My Profile

  7. Stephen Q Shannon says:

    H. Passive sentences are some of my challenges. How do you feel about checking your writing via
    http://www.read-able.com ? Keeps me on my finger tips. sQs Your advocate in Delray Beach FL

    • I haven’t used this particular tool, but I have used the readability stats that Microsoft Word shows (if you tick the right box and do a spelling check). I’ve been a bit sloppier with this recently, but a year ago I would religiously check:

      (a) the average number of words per sentence – I would go back to chop up long sentences and tighten my text when my average was over 14 words per sentence

      (b) passive sentences – even if I had only 1% of passive sentences, I would try rephrasing the passive sentence. Occasionally I’d be happy to leave a passive sentence.

    • Looks for the word “are” – it is not active. It is sitting on the couch. So are all verbs of “being.” If you catch one, try to change it. Example: “Passive sentences are some of my challenges” is more powerful as, “Passive sentences challenge me.” Whenever you can find the verb form of a noun, use it and remove “is” or “are.” Happy writing!

  8. A great post. Thank you so much. Loved the *3* essential tools you gave me. I could even ‘hear’ some dialect in your post, eh? Congratulations Henneke!

    • You might be hearing my Dutch accent ;-)

      I used to be dead-nervous about using “Dutchisms” (phrases inspired by Dutch – my native language) in my blog posts, but I’ve now decided that’s part of my charm.

      Thank you, John.

  9. I love the idea of adding questions in a blog post to engage the reader even more. Do you think this would apply to product descriptions as well?

  10. Hi, Henneke,
    You write the best emails with great headlines that always make me want to read your posts.

    Why don’t you teach a headline class?? Blog post writing class??

    I would take it and I’m sure some of your other readers would also!
    Sue
    Sue Anne Dunlevie recently posted…What Is This Thing Called Mindfulness?My Profile

    • Hi Sue, thank you so much. Stay tuned – I’m developing a blog writing e-course.

      I’m hoping to have an early bird list live before the end of February. :)

      PS Isn’t it wonderful how two question marks (“??”) indicate a pleasant amount of impatience?

  11. Love this article Henneke! Your drawing is amazing as well. I look forward to seeing more of them :-) Thank you so much for sharing your tools and knowledge. I especially found the Wewe calculator and the use of question marks very helpful. Conversational copy is something that *seems* like it should be so easy…but it can be hard to retrain ourselves and unlearn what we’ve learned in school. But, we must adapt, right? :-)
    Kristy recently posted…How to Fix Facebook Thumbnail Default Images When Posting Link from WordPressMy Profile

    • Yes, I think that’s the mistake many people make – conversational copy *seems* easy because it’s so easy to read. But the truth is that it’s damn hard work to eradicate gobbledygook and to make each sentence flow naturally.

      Thank you for stopping by, Kristy. I appreciate it! :)

  12. Henneke, I see that asking questions is so important, and I enjoy “talking” to you, answering the questions in your text.
    I will do it in our next post, thanks for pointing out.

  13. Really helpful. Thank you! Learned a lot this week. And I’m particularly motivated as I did a survey of respondents last week and when asked what I could improve, a few of them said my grammar! I couldn’t agree more.

    Interesting to read your comment about your native Dutch coming out – my New Zealand comes out too. I try and catch it, because people don’t understand me when I use words like “niggle” (irritate), “puke” (throw up) or “pash (kiss),” but they still occasionally slip through.

    This language business is awfully fun. And I love reading your emails each week. Thanks again, Lisa (PS: Have you read “On Writing” by Stephen King? Am reading at the moment, again. Very inspiring.)
    Lisa recently posted…On How to Feel Awesome and Ultimate All the TimeMy Profile

    • Yes, language is fun. I sometimes use British words without realizing they’re specific to British-English and others might not get them.

      I like the word “niggle” – it’s also used over here. I’m surprised people don’t know the word “puke” – I see it used quite a lot in blog posts. “Pash” sounds nice, but is new to me :)

      Yes, “On Writing” is one of my faves, too. Have you read “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott? That’s inspirational, too.

      Good to see you again!

      • Ooh, thanks, I haven’t read that one. Will check it out.

        And, yeah I was surprised about those words too. (“Pash” is what a NZ young person might call kissing, more than just a peck. A fun word to use!) Have a great week:)

  14. Best line I’ve read in a long time:
    Sleazy salesmen use exclamation marks. Good conversationalists use question marks.

  15. Mary Layne says:

    Hi Henneke,
    Excellent article. You do write very conversationally, so you are walking the walk.

    I cringe everytime I see an exclamation mark because I feel as if I’m being “screamed at.” And besides, it takes away from prudent use of it!!!! So many !!!! in our lives, it feels like so much noise!

    I love the picture of Henrietta & Arthur!!!! (Those are sincere)
    Mary

    • I once wrote that using more than one exclamation mark – in an email or blog post – is a crime against enchantment. I still believe this is true.

      And yes, I do my best to walk the walk. Thank you so much, Mary :)

  16. Another great post. I’m definitely guilty of not asking enough questions and not focusing enough on the reader.

    Thanks for the wewe calculator link.

    - Steve

    P.S.
    The cartoon was cute as well

    • It’s easy to forget the reader – you can’t see him yawning, glancing at his cellphone, or fidgeting in his seat as a sign that you’re rambling on too much. A face-to-face conversation is much easier.

      Thank you for stopping by! :)

  17. As part of my New Year’s plan to get a handle on my e-mail in-box I have unsubscribed from most of the e-mail lists I have been on. But, I love receiving your e-mails because I feel exactly the way you describe in your post when I see yours come in. Thanks for your clear, helpful, engaging, and very personalized writing!

    • I feel honored that you’re still allowing my emails in your inbox. Thank you. I’ll do my best to keep rewarding you with a slice of cake each week :)

  18. Henneke, I love your illustration . Congratulations! I’m proud of you

  19. Hi! I just stumbled upon your work and I’m totally hooked!

    I’m a marketer in the Philippines. Like you, English is not my native language, but it’s the language I use to reach customers. (Here English is unofficially the language of business.)

    You make me want to go back and improve everything I’ve done in the past. Now I know how to do it. Thank you!

    • Welcome, Rhea. It’s so nice to have people from across the world joining the conversation here. I hope you took a big slice of the cake ;-)

  20. H. firstly, what a great drawing! You should definitely keep going.
    Thank you also for giving me permission to use but, because, and at the start of sentences. Whilst I’ve let go of other writing formalities, these have been particularly hard to let go. And sometimes it just feels right to start a sentence this way. Really enjoying reading your posts.
    Caroline recently posted…Scrambling to find something to write about for your Blog? Here’s a refreshingly simple method to remove the stress of Blog postingMy Profile

  21. Thanks for the “We-We” Calculator. What a dynamite tool!
    Susan recently posted…Unlock the Power of YOUMy Profile

  22. Great post, Henneke! Love how you flipped the idea of writing like you talk and rather to edit your text so it doesn’t sound like writing. Great way to think of it.

    • Thank you, Jonas. This is really how it works for me. I have to edit out the gobbledygook and undulating sentences to make a text more conversational.

      Good to see you here! :)

  23. Hi Henneke,

    Thanks for the tips. I use “You” a bit more than I should in my posts, as in “You are loved” opposed to “I love you.” Will work on it:)

    Clara
    clara54 recently posted…Your Significant LifeMy Profile

  24. Wow, I feel truly honoured to have inspired this post. It’s fantastic and really great advice as always.
    I just read all the comments you got for this post – looks like I’m not the only one struggling with this particular point. Happy new year, Henneke, and thank you so much for your great blog. xx

    • Thank you so much for all your great comments last year, Kerstin. You inspire me to keep writing. :)

      Happy new year to you, too!

  25. Hi again, love your drawings. Please note my website is not operating at the moment. I had to remove the files. So at the moment I am reworking everything. Give me a couple of days and I will get back to normal. You see this is the case with novices, mistakes, mistakes and more mistakes. I hope when I have restored the site it will be better in many ways. Also I hope eventually to start a blog that is why I read as much as I can. Your site I enjoy very much. That drawing has again just ‘pinged’ in my mind, so clean cut very striking. I shall have some of my own art, rather conventional, on my site when it is re-published, you might take some time to view. Thanks again for more interesting material, Tom

  26. Once again, awesome post, and so completely relevant!

    I really like the idea of writing to one reader. As soon as I’m writing to a crowd, I can’t write at all. But I have this ongoing fear that if I write to one reader…my favorite reader…my ideal reader…I’ll connect with such an infinitesimal group of people.

    I want to write about writing and marketing. Marketing with soul, you know. Because I feel like anything done with love, with real authenticity, with the soul, is infinitely better. But I’m finding it difficult to take the leap to even do that myself.

    Any tips?

    Thanks so much,
    Melissa

    • Yes, I so agree with you about writing with the soul. You’ll find that if you write for one reader it becomes much easier to write with soul and personality.

      In a way having an ideal reader is just a “trick” to make your writing more engaging. Don’t worry about connecting just with one reader or a few. When you write for one person, it doesn’t mean that only one person will feel you’re talking with them. Many people will feel you’ve written the post especially for them, because many people are struggling with the same problems and challenges as your ideal reader.

      Does that help?

  27. Hi, Henneke
    It is a damn good thing I can laugh at my own shortcomings because you zeroed in on me with the following:

    “Sleazy salesmen use exclamation marks. Good conversationalists use question marks.”

    I admit I have the exclamation point disease!
    Very helpful post . . . like always.
    Keeping giving us the good stuff!!!!!!

    Mike

  28. Hi Henneke,

    Wonderful post. I used the wewe calculator and came out with “Excellent” rating for one of my posts. Feel great!

    I have a question – What do you mean by “talking WITH him — NOT talking TO him”?

    Thanks,
    Avadhut
    Avadhut recently posted…The Beginner’s Guide to Finance Internships in New York, Chicago, and GoogleMy Profile

  29. Dear Henneke,

    It is this time I am grateful. Thank you for your generous contributions over time. You have truly enriched my life with a well-toned understanding of writing a Blog.

  30. Ok, Henneke. You are going to have to take on the title of “artist” along with writer. Are you up for that? ;)

    Now you’ve got me wondering how many questions I have in my posts. I’m gonna go count ‘em now. Thanks for germinating and sprouting all these new ideas in my head!
    Penelope Silvers recently posted…A Secret Site Chock-Full of Hungry Readers Begging to be Fed!My Profile

    • An artist?!? Not sure I’m quite ready for that yet. I’ve barely got used to the idea of calling myself a writer. ;-)

  31. You are a writer–and a darn good one. And I can picture a Kindle children’s book with those super cute pictures. Now you just need a story and title to go with it! ;)
    Penelope Silvers recently posted…A Secret Site Chock-Full of Hungry Readers Begging to be Fed!My Profile

  32. Hello Henneke,

    I am a first-time reader, and found your guest post from one of my Facebook groups. I really enjoy your writing style, and I can see where some of my blog posts have fallen flat. Thank you for sharing the “how” of storytelling in such an enchanting manner.

    • Hi Holly,
      Welcome & thank you for taking the time to comment on your first visit. I appreciate it :)
      Glad to hear you find my blog posts useful!

  33. In preparation for launching my own blog I’ve start reading posts like these, and I can’t tell you how much it’s helping. Before doing any research into it all I would be writing in a style that might sit somewhere in between this and sleazy sales person, unintentionally of course.

    Maybe I should re-consider the copy on my website as well? (see what I did there? :D)

    So, thank you again :)

  34. This was a nice post, Henneke. I love this quote.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. ~ Elmore Leonard

    I think that in all aspects of our digital communications, we need to be more conversational. If there is no personal feel or touch, then what is the point? On that note, I included your post in my roundup of the month’s best SEO, social media, and content marketing. http://www.northcutt.com/blog/2014/02/january-resource-round-up-the-best-of-seo-social-media-and-content-marketing/

    • Yep, conversational writing works in all digital communication. Thank you for stopping by, Ben, and for including my article in your roundup. Much appreciated :)

  35. Hennecke,
    Just now got here, for some unknown reason, and as I read your post, I realized who I would write to, immediately.
    When I first began blogging, I followed a lovely young woman who inspired me, totally, with her great posts. I wondered how she did everything she did, and why she bothered to visit my site. Then she was attacked on fb, and decided to take a break. My heart was broken, because I saw her as a sort of bloggy mom. although I was old enough to be HER mom.
    After reading this post, I realize she is who I should write my posts for, sort of in her memory, although she is very much alive and has another new baby to show for her time off. I can constantly visualize her, as I always have, but never did write for/to her.
    Also, I have noticed on my other site, that when I write advice letters to people whose names I have changed, but whose situations are real, my posts REALLY resonate with people.
    That’s just what you are talking about, I think…
    Katharine recently posted…Woo Hoo! Follow My Big Guest Post!My Profile

    • Yep, when you write for one person rather than for a crowd of readers, your writing becomes more “real”. Readers will notice it in your writing voice. And they all feel like you’re writing for them personally.

  36. Hi Henneke,
    I totally agree with you on this. But I’ve got a question: I’m working for a Dutch university. One of my tasks is to write texts for the university website. My target audience are prospective students. I would love to change the way we, as a university, talk to our readers. Because, frankly, I think all our copy is totally boring, generic and abstract (“Are you innovative and interested in current issues? Then you should enroll in programme X.”). I can’t seem to persuade my bosses of the need to switch to personalized writing though, because – as they put it – it’s important that as many secondary education pupils as possible should recognize themselves in our texts. And ofcourse its true that people have many different reasons to choose a particular education.
    So, my question is: is it even possible for organizations with so many different target audiences with such divergent interests to find a personal tone of voice in their writing? And if so, how would you tackle this problem?
    Thanks in advance for your advice, I really appriciate it!
    Evelyne recently posted…Boekreview: BirkMy Profile

    • Henneke says:

      Hi Evelyne – that’s an excellent question and can be a tricky problem when people are stuck in old-fashioned writing.

      I’d say the first thing to make sure is that your bosses understand the differences between how people read on the web vs how they read an academic paper or a book. This will help them understand the importance of using white space, short sentences, short paragraphs, and simple words.

      When you need to appeal to a wider audience, you want to keep your word choice fairly neutral – you can’t add personality by using slang as not everyone will understand it (unless you do for instance specific case studies to appeal to specific groups of students).

      Dropbox and Evernote are good examples of companies who appeal to a wide audience, but sound human in their writing. They do this by simplifying their writing, keeping content concise, and focusing strongly on benefits rather than features.

      Does this help?

  37. Yes, thank you for your answer and for the examples!
    Evelyne recently posted…Boekreview: BirkMy Profile

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