Ever sat in a lecture and felt yourself drifting off? Stuck at the back of the room while the lecturer drones on and on down at the front. You know that you’re just one face in a crowd, and surely no one will notice if you close your eyes for a second…..zzzzzzz. It’s easy to do.
Now try and remember the last time you nodded off while you were chatting with a friend. Conversations with people we like are rarely soporific. We don’t fall asleep because we’re involved in the conversation – listening intently, asking questions, and sharing jokes keeps us alert.
You want your writing to feel like the conversation with a friend, not a lecture from a distant expert. So how do you do that? How can you write so that readers stick with you?
7 tricks that make writing feel like talking
1. Short sentences are sticky
Sentence length is the easiest to tackle. It’s also the one that will make the biggest difference to the way your writing feels.
Read this paragraph. Count the words in each sentence. Most of them have few words. They’re short. Very short. Does it feel unnatural? Cutting sentence length helps keep readers with you. It mimics natural conversational speech. Full stops are little pauses where we catch the eye of the person we’re talking to. Really.
2. Break the journey up to motivate your reader to keep going
As soon as my son was old enough I wanted him to go on long walks with me. Sadly, three year olds aren’t always co operative. ‘Long walk’ wasn’t top of his fun things to do list. Rebranding long walk as ‘adventure’ worked sometimes, but even ‘adventure’ lost its appeal as the sight of another long hill or endless field emerged into view. He’d get tired legs. We’d grind to a halt.
All that changed one day when I found a stray golf ball on the path. I threw the golf ball and he raced ahead to find it. Then I threw it again, and he chased it again. And again. And again. Suddenly he wasn’t focused on the long hill ahead, just the short distance to the golf ball. We’d get to the top of the hill without him even noticing the climb.
Your readers get tired legs too. Do you recognise that feeling? A long dense paragraph looming ahead can feel like an enormous hill to climb. Too much effort. We want to give up.
But break the writing up into small achievable chunks (short paragraphs) and it’s easier to keep going.
When you’re structuring your writing, remember the golf ball!
3. Tell stories to pull people closer
Weaving a few personal stories into your blog posts is a way of making your writing feel more direct. I could have just written ‘write short paragraphs’, in the point above, but I hope the story of the three year old and the golf ball helped bring the point alive, and make it more memorable. Stories and analogies recreate the conversational experience, so they’re an excellent way of keeping readers with you.
4. Surprising images wake readers up
Like moonlight on broken glass. As miserable as a wet Wednesday. As rare as a DFS sale. Images paint pictures in your readers’ mind, drawing them more deeply into the conversation. Weaving imagery into your copy helps keep your reader awake. Surprising images do best of all. If the reader is expecting you to say one thing and you throw in another it can make them smile and think, as surely as if you were together in the same room.
5. Sensory words increase alertness
Okay, so it’s a long conversation, and your friend is tired. So what do you do? When you’re side by side chatting it’s easy to offer coffee to keep a companion awake. Not so straightforward when you’ve only got a keyboard and a page at your disposal. But when you’re writing you can use sensory words instead of caffeine. Sensory words – ones that evoke taste, texture, smell, sound can work like a double espresso in a piece of writing. Smooth, crumpled, jarring, jagged, perfumed, explosive, muffled – judiciously sprinkled words that evoke feeling help keep people reading.
6. Ignore your teachers – it’s okay to break formal writing rules
If you’re writing a blog or web copy, and not an academic essay then you can put aside a lot of the writing advice you got at school. You get no extra marks for complex sentences and complicated language on the web. No big red ticks in the margin for using semi-colons. Writing a blog isn’t a place to try and impress with your knowledge, it’s a place where you want to engage your reader – help them solve a problem and share your knowledge in a useful way. And it’s fine to start sentences with ‘and’.
If marks were given out for web writing they’d go to the people who keep it simple.
7. Ask questions to engage your reader
Adding questions to your copy is a basic conversational trick. Have you noticed how many times I’ve used it in this blog? It’s what we do when we’re talking to gauge a reaction from our listener, or to check that we’ve made ourselves clear. The eye contact, or the pause on the conversation as the question is answered is part of the ebb and flow of easy-going chat. Adding questions to your copy replicates the feeling of being closely involved in the conversation, and makes readers stick with you like glue.
It might feel very different to the kind of writing you’re used to. You might worry writing this way makes you sound unprofessional. However it’s worth remembering that we read differently online, and bending the writing rules to keep the attention of your reader is perfectly fine. It’s a helpful way to write. You’re doing your reader a favour if you make your copy as easy to consume as possible.
Start writing conversational content today
With these tricks up your sleeve writing conversational content will come more easily. You don’t need to use all of them in everything you write, but start with the ones that feel most natural, and then experiment.
What are you waiting for?