How to Explain Conversational Writing to a Clueless Client

Figuring out what a client wants their content to sound like isn’t always easy. This is especially true when clients don’t know what they want or worse, don’t know how to explain their vision and rely on buzzwords or terms that they’ve heard, but don’t fully understand.

One of the most commonly used and misunderstood directions that clients rely on is, “make it sound conversational.”

Because clients know the phrase but don’t always know what it means, it can lead to a first draft that falls short of client expectations. So, to save yourself from a failed first draft, here are a few ways to explain how you’re going to create “conversational” content. By explaining these clear elements to your client up front, you give them the opportunity to object to any tactics that don’t match their vision.

I’m going to speak directly to the reader.

A conversation is an exchange between two parties, so conversational copy should speak directly to the reader.

This type of language is called the second person, but it’s better to speak to clients in terms they know. Simply advise them that you are going to use words like “you” and “yours.

Sometimes clients will tell you that they want content that is “written in the third person” and “conversational.” Requesting content that is written in the third person is another default request that clients rely on. So make sure that you explain to the client that third person perspective is not always best for conversational tones.

I’m going to ask the reader questions.

Speaking directly to the reader includes asking questions – both rhetorical (such as “Are you tired of clients asking for revision after revision?”) and actionable leads (“Do you have any tips for writing in a conversational tone? Add them in the comments below.”).

Once you explain this to your client, you can take it a step further and ask them if they have any preference for the questions in the content. Are there specific calls-to-action that you can highlight with a question? Do they want to spark a conversation with the reader in the comments or in another forum?

My sentences may start with the words “and” and “but.”

Conversational writing is informal. That means that the rope around the rules is loose, and writers have more freedom with the way they construct sentences.

Explain to your client that conversational writing is written in the same way we speak. And since we often don’t follow all of the rules of traditional grammar when speak, we don’t do it when we write conversationally either. Starting sentences with “and” and “but” might seem like a writing faux pas, but it’s perfectly acceptable in conversational content.

My sentences may end with prepositions.

Another place where formal rules can fall to the wayside is at the end of a sentence. While many high school English teachers would frown upon ending a sentence with a preposition, it is perfectly acceptable in conversational writing.

Let your client know that this habit isn’t a sign of low-quality writing, it is a sign of conversational writing. Remind them, “You are my favorite client to work with,” and they will understand. If they still don’t get it, remind them “You were my favorite client of which I received work.” That will help them see the difference.

I’m going to use contractions.

“Quality” is another word that clients might throw around without fully understanding its meaning. They tend to base their standard of quality on writing rules that were hammered into their minds during their education – such as the use of contractions.

Many clients confuse “high-quality” with “formal” and assume contractions shouldn’t be allowed in any type of high-level content. But this is not the case for conversational writing. Let your client know up front that contractions are an element of conversational writing, and they shouldn’t see every apostrophe as a red mark against the content’s quality.

I’m going to use simple language.

Most people use simple language when they talk. There is no time to stop and search for a synonym when you are in the middle of a conversation, so conversational content is written under the same restrictions.

The words in conversational content will be the same words used when speaking. It includes few complex and obscure words, jargon and buzzwords (unless they relate directly to the target audience). It may include slang, and it will be heavy on simple, short words and sentences.

I’m going to sound like me, unless you give me clear directions on how to sound like you.

Conversational writing shows personality. So, if your client asks you to write this way without giving you any other direction, they should realize that your personality is going to be the force driving the conversation.

If they want the content to sound like them, they need to provide information to help define their voice. A few follow-up questions you can ask to define the client’s voice include:

  • What tone best fits your content? Knowing a general tone will help guide your natural voice in the direction of the client’s expectations. Give them a list of tones to choose from:
    • Formal
    • Newsy
    • Educational
    • Serious
    • Humorous
    • Friendly
    • Laid-back
    • Promotional
  • What emotion do you want the audience to feel after reading? Knowing which direction to push your audience will help shape the way you speak to them. Give them options for this one, too:
    • Joyful
    • Sad
    • Motivated
    • Amazed
    • Angry
    • Excited
    • Scared
    • Satisfied
  • What celebrity would you choose to represent your brand? This is the perfect question for clients who can’t articulate what they want their tone to sound like. By asking them to make a snap judgment about who would represent their brand, you get a good mental picture of the person controlling the voice of their brand.
  • Who am I talking to? Identifying who you are talking to is as important as identifying who is talking. So make sure the client gives you a clear image of the target audience. It is best to ask the client to come up with a single persona for their target audience.

It’s best to set expectations with clients (especially clients who don’t know what they want) early on. So be sure to have your client fill out a full content questionnaire before you start the project and then go over any areas that may be unclear. This will save time, energy and money, and untimely lead to a better client/writer relationship.

What other client directions have caused confusion in your first draft?

About the Author

Raubi Marie Perilli writes guides about blogging, copy writing, and freelancing and owns Simply Stated Media. Follow her on Twitter to hear more about what she eats, where she goes, and what she knows.

7 replies
  1. karen marchetti says:

    The best way I’ve found to explain conversational (and to review my own writing) is to actually read the words out loud.

    I say:

    If you were face-to-face with a potential customer, is this what you’d say?

    I point out that we’re selling — on the website, in an email, in a direct mailer, in person, or over the phone — and we want to use the same words. That usually helps to understand conversational.

    When we read out loud, we look for logical places to stop and breathe — which prevents long sentences. And we transition between thoughts by starting sentences with “and” or “but.” And we use simpler words — which prevents “corporate-ease.”

    When I work with marketers to improve their copywriting, I always have them read their drafts out loud. Hearing their words as they try to sell me face-to-face usually makes it clear what needs to be revised.

  2. Dawn Northrup says:

    Outstanding! I am going to keep this handy on my desktop. As a writer for executives, I am often left without words when they start editing my work with rules they don’t even understand.


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