Tone of Voice: Has Conversational Copy Had Its Day?

There are 9 million bicycles in Beijing. That’s a fact [Source: Katie Melua].

There are 171,476 words in the English language according to the Oxford English Dictionary but you don’t need to know all of them to be a copywriter. That’s a fact too.

And lots of people seem to think copywriters know very few of them. I’ve seen several chats/debates/discussions recently where copywriters have been accused of dumbing down the English language.

The conversational tone much beloved by us isn’t appreciated by everyone and critics think we should be widening people’s vocabularies instead of being so damn chatty with them.

So, what’s going on? What’s gone wrong?

I don’t know! I’m not going to try and answer those questions. I’m just going to try and unpick the topic a bit and spark some discussion. Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

Why do we write the way we speak?

I just Googled tone of voice (TOV) and got 443,000,000 results. I then Googled Lidl and got 130,000,000. Totally irrelevant but you get the point: tone of voice is a hot topic.

This chart shows search volumes for TOV going back to 2004 – you can see an increase from 2010:

tone of voice google searches

I started working in marketing about ten years ago and I’ve worked for myself as a copywriter for seven and a half of them so I came to all this quite late and went straight to writing for the web where conversational copy rules.

I’ve got a couple of theories why copy is conversational (I’ll get onto the psychological side a bit later).

Theory #1:

In the last 20 years, marketing, media and writing have changed and anyone with a computer can be an author, publishing blogs, websites, ebooks, social media posts… It’s no longer the preserve of writers, journalists or academics writing ‘proper’ books or articles.

Writing has been democratised and conversational copy is part of that democratisation.

So much of what we, as marketers, write is part of a conversation with a potential client or a peer, it’s natural to use that level of language.

And these days we’re reading and taking advice from people everywhere, not just a select few. If you want to find out about something you Google it, you don’t go to the library and seek out a book written by someone with lots of letters after their name.

It’s not that no one has authority to write about a topic now – it’s that everyone does.

Theory #2:

It’s well documented that our eyes find it harder to read words on a screen than on a page.

Writing conversationally takes away any barriers to getting our message across. So rather than using language that could make it even harder for someone to read something online, being chatty encourages readers to keep reading rather than finding it too much like hard work and drifting off or clicking away.

Tone of voice: what is conversational copy anyway?

Everyone has a different idea of what conversational copy is.

Is it saying ‘Hi Sarah’ rather than ‘Dear Sarah’ at the start of an email? Or ending the email with ‘Thanks’ instead of ‘Kind regards’?

Is it writing how you speak or being in-your-face informal or overfamiliar? Or littering the page with swear words?

There’s a big difference between what people consider formal or informal due to all sorts of factors – a 17-year-old would understand text speak my 73-year-old mum would think is some sort of code.

Often people are comparing apples and pears when they slate conversational copy. You can hate Cards Against Humanity‘s swearing but still prefer to read How we can help you rather than Actionable solutions for our client base on a website.

I think other issues get conflated too – writing in a friendly, accessible tone is not necessarily the same thing as dumbing down.

Dumbing down defined

Dictionaries define dumbing down as making something:

“simpler and easier to understand”
“intellectually undemanding”
“accessible to a wide audience”
“more popular”

It would be hard to argue how making something more accessible is a bad thing. Most of the dictionary definitions don’t mention any negative aspects of dumbing down except the Collins’ dictionary which says it’s when you: “make it easier for people to understand, especially when this spoils it”.

That’s the crux for me. Yes, a conversational tone makes writing more accessible and can simplify complex ideas but it doesn’t spoil it.

As copywriters, we’re in the game of speaking to customers, explaining things, selling, persuading, amusing, informing.

Making copy appeal to more people isn’t bad as long as we’re not spoiling it for readers or losing the people we want to engage.

Simple words or simple ideas?

There’s a difference between using a friendly tone and simple words to explain complex ideas and not making your writing impenetrable with jargon or niche vocab only an expert would know. The only way people get any value from reading something is if they understand it.

I wish these Ikea instructions were in a smaller font and a bit more complicated
– no one ever

Average reading age

Amazingly, the average reading age for an adult in the UK is 9.

I kid you not. Nine.

Which means there’s a very good reason for writing simply: if you want everyone to be able to understand your writing, make it easy enough for a child to read.

GOV.UK had a reading age of 9 years old for citizen- and business-facing text and 14 years old for the corporate content
– Sarah Richards, ex Head of Content Design for the Government Digital Service (GDS)

Of course, you may not want everyone to understand your copy, which is the most important thing whenever you write anything: who do you want to read it?

An accessible tone of voice doesn’t override everything else

As copywriters, we know that we should always write for our audiences.

Are you speaking to professionals with 20 years’ experience? Showing non-techie customers your app is easy to use? Wanting 20-year-olds to relate to you?

You write for your audience’s knowledge level in the language they use.

Let’s say you’re a solicitor and you want to write a blog to attract potential clients going through a divorce, you’d use different language than you would if you were writing an article about divorce law for an industry magazine.

why is legalese hard to understand

Using a conversational tone of voice doesn’t overrule every other good piece of copywriting advice. It just means making your writing accessible to your audience and adopting the language they use to speak to them – whether that’s using colloquial language, words that acknowledge a certain level of understanding, being ultra clear or super cool.

One of my favourite ever tips is to look at testimonials and feedback so you can use the exact language your target market uses. Assuming they like what you’re selling and aren’t slagging it off!

What do you want your copy to achieve?

As well as targetting what you write for your audience, it’s worth thinking about why you’re writing it. Do you want to stretch people intellectually, empathise with their plight or make them laugh? One great example of writing for their audience is the hotel chain citizenM.

Their whole offering is based on blue ocean thinking and creating their own market rather than competing with other hotel groups on their terms, and their TOV reflects that.

Copywriters aren’t English teachers. We’re not (usually) trying to teach people new vocabulary and have them reaching for their dictionaries.

Both the audience and the aim of whatever you’re writing contribute to the TOV you should use.

As a quick example: I’m a woman in my forties, I might read Hello sweetie in an email very differently from an 18-year-old or an 80-year-old. Is it friendly, sexist, patronising? That’s up to the reader to decide so the reader is your starting point.

Ask someone what the word ‘banger’ means and you can pretty much tell which decade they were born in. Is it an old car, a sausage, a woman’s breast or a cracking tune? Choosing the right words for your audience is important.

Which brings me (sort of) to…

B2B? B2C? H2H? Or something else?

People talk about H2H these days. Is that what we’re aiming for or what we’re doing with accessible language and part of the democratisation process? I’ve never quite understood.

It’s always been humans talking to humans, that’s nothing new, and just because we do it online now doesn’t make that different. But there is a difference in how you speak to people depending on what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to.

Perhaps it’s not as clear cut as B2B versus B2C but I don’t mind my innocent juice carton telling me not to look at its bottom but I don’t want to read anything bottom-related when I’m looking for a new dentist.

Has it all gone too far?

When I read fiction I know I’m reading something that was created in the author’s head but I don’t need them to keep popping up throughout the book to remind me I’m reading a story, I want to immerse myself in it so it becomes real.

What about copywriting? Should we simply convey information or make everyone notice us? Was conversational copy first used to increase fluency but has it become cutesy/sweary/over-familiar as people try to differentiative themselves from the sea of similar voices?

make your tone of voice stand out

There’s a very good reason for including unexpected words instead of vanilla ones (like dazzling, enchanting, tantalising, ravishing, delicious), they make people sit up and take notice in a way run-of-the-mill words can only dream of – so they increase open rates and make your writing stand out. You don’t want people to fall asleep while they’re reading after all. But you don’t want to get on their nerves either.

Humour too is a brilliant device used sparingly.

Reading something full of jokes is like spending time with that guy at school who thought practical jokes were funny – it wears thin really quickly. But a bit of light relief and the odd laugh can be effective.

Cognitive ease

I promised you psychology and here it is!

Cognitive ease is basically how much effort is required to process or understand something. If something is easy to process we are more likely to believe it, trust and like the writer.

And that’s a very good reason for making copy easy to read.

Danny Oppenheimer (from Princeton University) studied the effect of using big words and wrote up his findings in Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.

Rather than thinking big words make writers sound clever, Oppenheimer found that using longer words than necessary is seen as a sign of low intelligence and gives the writer less rather than more credibility.

Intuitively we know that someone using long words isn’t authentic and is either trying to sound smart or outfox us. We don’t think wow, they’re a genius I trust them, we wonder what they’re got to hide.

There’s more about why short words are more effective than long ones in this post.

What do you think?

I said I wouldn’t try and answer my own questions – and I certainly haven’t done! Those are some of my thoughts.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think conversational copy is going anywhere fast. There are good reasons for using it but the first thing to think about with any piece of writing is who’s going to read it.

What about you. Do you like chatty writing or are you sick of it? And if conversational copy is over, what’s next? 


What are your thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment.

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