Engage your users with conversational writing

Date
5 January 2023

Human contact is extremely important, that shouldn’t need explaining in these times. Even in the digital world, it’s important that users get the feeling that they’re dealing with a human being. Conversational writing creates personal interactions on your digital platforms and offers a better user experience.

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There’s written language, spoken language... and then there’s the internet

We learn from an early age that spoken language and written language are two entirely different things. Spoken language is casual and informal whereas written language, is more rigid and restrained, but then the internet came and threw a spanner in the works. Chat, email... The dominant form of written language became more and more "written spoken language", and conversational writing was born.

“The Internet breaks down the age-old boundary between written and spoken language and gives rise to a third option: conversational writing.”

Carmel Wiseman & Ilan Gonen, "Internet Hebrew" (2005)

Great! We can write as we speak. Naturally, you should take that with a pinch of salt. Impeccable grammar, clear sentence structure, and consistent and respectful use of words is still essential. But today the rule is: don't write anything you wouldn't say out loud — even if you’re a bank or insurance company. It’s worth noting that it's still a good idea to develop a strong tone of voice — and then a brand voice that works for your organisation.

Why digital products need to ‘speak’

We are used to people using ‘our language’ so when something communicates with us using language, our brains treat it as if it were a human interaction. It follows that computers should also react in a ‘human’ way, and the only way to do that is through language.

You can think of a digital product as the ideal representative of your brand. Of course, you would prefer a representative that offers personal service, that’s friendly, helpful, clear, and sincere.

Now, think about the words on your website or app as the conversation your representative is having with the user. To create a great user experience they must appear authentic, warm, and human.

Improved user experience leads to more conversions

Clifford Nass and Corina Yen conducted several experiments on the relationship between humans and their computers, ("The man who lied to his laptop," 2010). It turned out that we respond to computers and digital interfaces in the same way we do to people. We are polite and expect politeness in return, and when we do something right, we expect to be complimented. If, on the other hand, the reaction comes across as rude or disrespectful, we interpret it that way and our trust levels decrease.

Just think about how you deal with apps and websites yourself. Suppose you fill in a contact form and press "Send". Of course, you expect to receive confirmation that everything has been received in good order, and you expect to receive that quickly. Or think of an error message on your computer. Does it explain clearly what went wrong, or are you left to your own devices with a dry, vague, "Error, something went wrong" (that’s inevitably followed by "I noticed that, but what can I do about it?!" on your part)?

In practice, if the digital product gives users positive feedback and uses the same emotions that we would expect from humans, then:

  • we are more productive;

  • we respond more quickly to requests;

  • we are more likely to believe what the digital product tells us.

A word of caution to those that may be considering using dark patterns like confirm shaming: that is a technique that is best avoided. You can read why in this article about confirm shaming.

To make a long story short, the more ‘human’ an interface is, and the more it aligns with our social norms, the more the user feels a connection to it, and is convinced by what is being said. The result is that users perform the action you want faster and have a good feeling about your product in the long term.

How to: do's-and-don'ts of conversational writing

Written language is very much intertwined with our way of thinking. That’s why it’s sometimes difficult to use conversational writing because you have to consciously think about how you’ll make your points clear and easy to understand.

A few useful tips:

Do's

Write actively. We often use the active form in conversation, while in written language we revert quickly to the passive form. However, this is much less personal.

  • "Your question will be answered as soon as possible." vs. "We'll answer your question as soon as possible."

Ask questions to trigger user interaction. Another psychological fact: people find it difficult to leave questions unanswered. Users are more inclined to interact when you ask questions, but not too many, find the balance and make sure that your app or website is not bulging with questions.

  • "Enter your email address and we will you send the white paper." vs. "Which email address can we send the whitepaper to?".

Don'ts

In apps or on websites, we often omit connecting words, something we would never do in a live conversation. These small adjustments immediately make an articulation much more human and/or personal:

  • "Order Details" vs. "Your order details"

  • "Close card" vs. "Close the card"

In digital environments you often see robotic writing; literally writing as if you were a robot. It’s easy to do that automatically, but in conversational writing it is really a no-go.

  • "See your login details below:" vs. "Your username and password:"

  • "Products you wish to purchase." vs. "Your Shopping List"

And what about the language that cannot be written?

Conversational writing is very close to spoken language but there’s also a big difference: the lack of nonverbal communication signs like body language, intonation, and eye contact. That's why emoticons are so popular. They represent the emotions behind the written words and (partly) take on the role of non-verbal communication, so don't just assume that you can just write everything you say, think about how you can authentically interweave conversational language in a digital context.

Nicki Sanne
About the author
Nicki Sannen
Senior Copywriter - iO

Growing up with a love for languages, Nicki is right at home in the exciting field of copywriting. As a writer herself, as well as head of a team of copywriters and content marketeers - offering inspiration and guidance on the daily. Never at a loss for words, always on the winning team.

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