10
Sep
10

Hi. Let’s Be Conversational…Okay?

[September 10, 2010]

Take a job as a Copywriter and you’ll barely get the chair warm before a brief slides across your desk. Buried somewhere on page 37, you’re likely to find some mention of “conversational tone.” It’s a reasonable, long-standing request, but one more often defined by what it’s not than what it is. 

We all claim to recognize the stiff, formulaic writing of “the old days.” But since conversational styles change over time, vary by region and feel the impact of age, gender and belief system, a universal definition of “conversational tone” is hard to nail down. In many respects, we’ve simply replaced old, stiff generic formulas with new, stiff generic formulas. 

Set the conversation-a-tron to “earnest.”
Over time, a species of bland patter has evolved. It has that familiar rhythm of alternating short and long phrases or the adorable use of ellipsis at just the right moment to…you know…create the illusion the writer is…um…making the text up in real time. Next in line for induction into the Faux Authentic Hall of Fame is the evocation of classic comic book diction. Ouch. 

My question is, does this ritualized representation of conversation actually connect to consumers any better than a formal essay? While it might not turn people away as fast as The Queen’s English, I’m not convinced it helps them retain your message, much less act on it. 

By itself, writing style can’t guarantee results. Striking a genial tone or peppering the text with anecdotes accomplishes nothing. At most, it can associate a brand with “what’s hip,” or rather, with the simulacrum of hip currently condoned by the agency business and/or mainstream Hollywood dialogue. 

Why even go there, Dude?
To write effective conversational copy, it’s important for the writer and everyone else with “input” to grasp the difference between conversation and:

•Entertainment
•Atmosphere
•Fictional Narrative
•Syrupy Rhetoric

It’s not, in other words, a question of style or format. What matters is whether the writer has a real desire to get something specific across to someone in particular. Despite the soothing allure of statistical reduction, the people you’re trying to reach have many more shades of emotion, personality, interest and intellect, than the pale paradigms of market research will ever allow. 

Keepers of the one true style.
Yet, even in rare cases when a writer has an intimate understanding of the core audience, obstacles to effective conversational writing crop up everywhere. Chief among them is the persistence of archaic ideas about grammar. 

There’s no better way to stiffen up a writer’s diction than to insist on “the rules.” Ironically, the most fanatical grammarians are those who know least about the topic:

Send the copydeck to myself when it’s ready.

…says the person most likely to get all wet in the waistband about the use of “like” as a conjunction

Another obstacle to establishing a true conversational tone is lack of awareness about idiomatic expressions and regional variation. Long after mainstream acceptance of an idiom has been documented in TV, film, literature, drama and theater, there are still plenty of people with a bee in their bonnet about “correctitude.”

Trying to hop when your “hip” is broken.
At the same time, even the most benign creative environment is only as good as the creative who steps into it. For their part, writers need to develop an unerring sense for when a familiar idiomatic expression is past its prime. If you catch someone writing, “bee in their bonnet,” take them aside. They’re in danger of sounding like a character in a British comedy from the early 1960s. 

Why does this matter? For one and only one reason: Whatever device of tone, intent or metaphor advertising takes, it exists solely to sell. Whether it’s a miracle towel or an urgent plea to support medical research, the impact must be immediate, driving, motivating and memorable. Derail your customer’s train of thought with a “Huh?” and their attention starts to wander. 

Yet even the most finely-tuned sense of idiomatic time and place is of no use, unless the writing conjures up a believable, well-rounded persona. The hollow, unctuous tone adopted by the average press release is no more appropriate for our purposes than the sterile, pseudo-objectivity manufactured by mass media news organizations. 

Especially now, when your customers’ idea of “what sounds natural” has been influenced by the snippy snippets they trade with each other in social space, just being perky is no longer enough. Want to start a revolution in copywriting? You could do a lot worse than to address your audience simply and honestly—as people you might meet someday in a post-global warming lifeboat.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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