Before I took my business full-time, I was working as a communications consultant for a global company. I had ghostwritten an article for an executive that would appear in a major trade publication.
Back then, my process was the same as it is today. Record the interview so I can listen, capture every word and ask follow-up questions instead of scrambling to take notes. After reviewing the audio and doing some research, I wrote the article.
“The tone is far too casual for a senior executive,” I was told. “It needs to sound more professional and intellectual to appeal to other executives.”
This was the kind of place where you basically did what you were told, so I did. Begrudgingly.
I thought to myself, “But this is how he talks. When he goes to a conference, this is what other executives hear. Will an intellectual person really be swayed by an article with a more rigid tone and industry jargon? Shouldn’t we give readers more credit?”
Last year, I had written an article about a new scientific lab (I’m purposely being vague). I interviewed the CEO, a scientist and the manager of the facility and wrote the article.
“We feel like it needs more of the scientific terminology involved in the process,” I was told. “We want to prove to people that we’re experts and we know what we’re talking about.”
I totally get the desire to position yourself as an expert. That’s one of the most important things good marketing content should do.
But you don’t prove you know what you’re talking about by using scientific terminology. You might know what you’re talking about, but if your audience doesn’t know what you’re talking about, you risk losing them.
“Write the Way You Talk. Naturally.”
That’s my favorite David Ogilvy quote. He was so far ahead of his time. When the vast majority of marketers were blasting out sales messages and empty clichés, he was just talking to people. Respectfully and matter-of-factly.
“The customer is not a moron,” Ogilvy said. “She’s your wife.”
A lot of professionals are great at explaining things verbally. But for some reason, they turn into robots when they try to explain things in writing.
The written version of the explanation doesn’t sound natural. Information is presented in a way that’s confusing. For some odd reason, words that no person at the company has ever or would ever utter make their way into marketing content.
Maybe some people see writing as an opportunity to use big words that they would never use in an actual conversation, just to prove how smart they are? I don’t know.
“Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally,” Ogilvy once said. “They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”
Good writing isn’t about sounding intelligent or knowledgeable. It’s about being able to communicate that intelligence and knowledge in a way that connects with people, earns their trust, and motivates them to act. The best way to do that is by using everyday, relatable language and a casual tone.
Like people talk.
Which approach do you think will have more impact? Writing that’s clear and easy to understand, or writing that’s stiff and uses big words?
What Happens When You Don’t Write Like People Talk
Read your marketing content out loud. What does it sound like?
A sales pitch? A textbook? A user manual? A thesaurus? A press release? A robot? A person trying to sound smarter than he or she is?
When your marketing content doesn’t sound natural, like a human conversation, it doesn’t sound as believable or authentic. If people don’t believe you or believe in you, they won’t trust you or buy from you.
If you use big words and jargon just for the sake of using big words and jargon, you risk confusing your readers. And nobody likes to be made to feel stupid.
Stiff, unnatural writing tends to come off as a lecture instead of a conversation. And nobody likes to be lectured.
It almost sounds insincere or even dishonest. And nobody likes a phony or a liar.
Obviously, reputable business owners and marketers don’t intend to lecture, confuse, or sound insincere or dishonest. But those can be the signals you send when you don’t write like people talk.
How to Write Like People Talk
Use short paragraphs, short sentences and mostly short words.
If a sentence without a list has a lot of commas, it can probably be broken down into two or three sentences. This gives the reader a second to absorb what you just said before moving on to the next thought.
Don’t get hung up on perfect grammar. There’s a difference between taking liberties to sound relatable and making obvious mistakes because you don’t know the basic rules of grammar.
For example, it’s okay to start sentences with “but” or “and”. It’s okay to use sentence fragments to break up thoughts and emphasize certain points. This is marketing, not English class.
Use contractions (“won’t” instead of “will not”). I was taught in English class to spell everything out instead of using contractions. But that’s not how I talk. That’s not how my audience talks.
Focus on nouns and verbs and minimize adjectives and adverbs, especially if they’re not specific. If you use the right nouns and verbs – the kind you use in everyday conversation – most won’t need adjectives and adverbs.
See if you can replace certain words with simpler words. Big words are fine if they’re easy to understand and used in everyday conversation. It’s less about length and more about simplicity.
Instead of “assist” or “assistance”, use “help”. Instead of “modify” or “modification”, use “change”.
One of my least favorite words is “alternatively”. Just use “on the other hand”. Or “or”.
I had to take a break from writing this post for an appointment and heard a talk radio host refer to Odell Beckham Jr. as petulant. Just call him childish!
Some people resist because they equate this approach with dumbing it down. If it’s so dumb, why do people talk like that in everyday conversation in a business setting? Are we living in a world full of idiots?
Don’t answer that. You get my point.
Of course, the best way to make sure you’re writing like people talk is to listen to how your customers talk. Pay attention to the language they use during live conversations and in social media comments.
Ultimately, those are the people who matter most. Those are the people you have to connect with. Because those are the people who pay the bills.
“Good writing is not a natural gift,” Ogilvy said. “You have to learn to write well.”
The key to writing good marketing content is writing like people talk. Not to impress your English teacher, not to avoid being detained by the grammar police, and not to blow people away with your massive vocabulary.
Write for real people. If you don’t have the time, the desire or the ability to do this yourself, let’s talk.