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Conversational writing: the art of writing to form relationships

This article describes conversational writing and why we need to use it in our apps and websites. Examples are provided to show the principles.

We're in this together

In the article “What is microcopy” I wrote that microcopy usually needs to be written in a conversational style rather than in formal stilted language. Why? Well we are trying to build a relationship with our readers or users, and we want them to feel that there is a real person who cares about them on the other side and understands their concerns and needs. That’s why we invest in the brand personality, reflected in the voice and tone of the product, to build a relationship.

This entails writing in a way that is clear and easily understood. Conversational writing is lighter, flowing, better understood and easily accessible. I find that the best way to achieve this is by writing in the same way as I talk. I try not to write anything I wouldn’t say out loud. I don’t mean that you write in a vulgar way, you still need to respect your user, but you can use a less formal tone and even contractions.

To some extent I have even used this approach in my technical writing (though without the contractions), and one or two of my customers have come back and said that it wasn’t formal enough. I had to explain that the reason they have a user guide is to help a user exactly when they have a problem, so it needs to be readable and non-threatening. I never had to rewrite my guides :)

So let’s look as some examples. I think that the clearest way to show the need for conversational writing is when a user comes up against the system and needs help, such as whenever they get an error message. The following two examples are from real life customers.

Let’s say the user is defining a new password, and needs to provide the identical string in both fields. You could write: “The passwords are not identical” and leave it at that, or you could say: “Oh dear! The passwords are not identical. Please enter the same password in both fields. Remember that the password is case-sensitive.” Yes it is longer, but it is empathic, more informative and provides a hint on what may have gone wrong.

Another good example, again using the password scenario, is when the user clicks “Forgot your password?” Note that in the improved version, we again empathise with the user and tell them what happens next.

An error message from Claire's that I used as an example in the article “The importance of microcopy for forms”, is an excellent example of conversational writing: it shows the brand’s personality, helps alleviate concerns, while at the same time providing help.

As usual, for more about conversational writing, take a look at Kinneret Yifrah’s excellent book “Microcopy: the Complete Guide”.

I create microcopy for English-language apps and websites.

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