How to Sound Conversational

Learn to write blog posts and deliver speeches and podcasts that make you sound like you are having a conversation with your audience.

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #65

What do ESL learners, speakers, bloggers, and podcasters have in common?

Give up? It’s the need to speak conversationally.

How to Sound Conversational

English language learners often focus on writing and have very little conversational practice. Speakers, especially technical speakers, memorize and deliver sentences they’ve written out ahead of time, which generally results in a less-than-conversational sounding presentation. And podcasters, like me, may be required to read a script, even though they certainly don’t want to sound like they’re reading.

I’m sure you know from your own experience that it’s boring, difficult--even annoying--to listen to dry, stuffy language. Conversational language, on the other hand, is powerful and engaging. In fact, research suggests that when your brain thinks it’s part of a conversation, it has to pay attention—in essence to hold up it’s end of the conversation.

For so many reasons, it’s critical to how to speak conversationally to engage your audience. In today’s episode I’ll explain how to sound conversational.

We Speak Differently From How We Write

It turns out, we write very differently from how we speak. Just this week, I was talking to Suzanne Ryan. She’s an editor who prepares transcripts of golf lessons and tournament coverage for The Golf Channel. She said, “The hardest thing for me is that I can’t edit the words, no matter how they’re said. It’s very hard to leave the grammar errors alone. It’s also difficult to correctly punctuate. Conversational language often has incorrect grammar, short phrases, and lots of slang.”

So, is the secret to sounding conversational to make mistakes? To make mistakes on purpose? Well, sort of. Certainly, you’ll need to ignore the advice you got from your high school writing teaching: that you should never “write the way you talk.”

For blogs, podcasts, and speeches it’s critical to write the way you talk. I talk aloud while I’m writing this podcast (I feel like a weirdo sometimes, but it helps). I like to imagine a back-and-forth exchange--as if I were in a real conversation. In fact, I keep a picture of my friend, Linda, taped near my computer. I like to talk to her, instead of some abstract notion of a “listener.”

Use Short Sentences and Words

When we talk, we use short sentences. But when we write, we typically use longer sentences. Much longer sentences. Compound sentences. Complex sentences.

Listen to this written sentence:

Mignon Fogerty, who is the host of the Grammar Girl podcast, recently published a new grammar book called The Grammar Devotional.

Now listen to the same content but in conversational form.

Mignon Fogerty is the host of Grammar Girl.   She put out a new book, The Grammar Devotional.

The second one sounds better because of the short sentences and the shorter words. (I used “put out” instead of “recently published.”) In conversation, we tend to use shorter words. Because, well, we’re more familiar with one and two syllable words. Finally, consider using incomplete sentences. Like I just did. It creates a conversational feel. 

If you think about it, what do science fiction writers do when they want to hint that a character is an alien or robot? They don’t use contractions.

Use Contractions And Common Words

You’ll also want to use contractions. If you think about it, what do science fiction writers do when they want to hint that a character is an alien or robot? They don’t use contractions, right? It’s funny. Sometimes I forget to use a contraction when I’m writing, but I always catch the mistake when I’m recording—again because that’s how we naturally speak. With contractions.

Another important consideration is word choice. Pick words that are common. Use “for example” instead of “thus;” “but” instead of “notwithstanding;” or “list” instead of “enumerate.” You get the idea. Oh, and if you’re not sure how to pronounce a word, just pick another one.

Use Rhetorical Questions

Another way to sound conversation is to use rhetorical questions. These are questions asked for effect and not for an answer. Rhetorical questions help create the sense that a conversation is taking place. You can also use confirmation questions to check in on your listener: things like, “Right?” or “You see?”

Got it?

Use Active Voice

Next, write in the active voice. (I’m know I’m getting into Grammar Girl territory here, so bear with me). Active voice is when the subject is doing the action. For example, “the devil wears Prada.” Active voice is vivid and clear. In the passive voice the target of the action becomes the subject. So in this example, the sentence in passive voice would become, “Prada was worn by the devil.” Not so memorable anymore. By the way, if you want to learn more about this, Grammar Girl dedicated an entire episode to it.

Use Repetition, Duplication, and Hesitations

Next, be sure to include repetitions, duplications, and hesitations—you can even occasionally giggle. These are all a normal part of spoken English, but are eliminated from written English. So go ahead and repeat, say something again; just be sure to change it slightly so the audience doesn’t think you are stuttering. Hesitations, <pause> well hesitations (and giggling) are natural. So incorporate them too.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t emphasize that for speeches and podcasts, I think it’s best NOT to create a written script. (Again, in my case it’s a contractual requirement.) Instead I think it’s better to prepare a very brief outline of the main points and then talk extemporaneously from the outline. That ensures you stay on target, but more importantly ensures a conversational delivery.

Again, if you need to create a script, it’s better to start with spoken words. If necessary, record yourself talking to someone about the topic and then transcribe your recording to create your script. In fact, I recommend this as a speech technique for non-native speakers. It takes longer, but it ensures a conversational delivery.

So there you have it, some tips and tricks to help you sound more conversational. Try to write like you speak. Use short sentences, short words. Short phrases. Use contractions and common words. Use rhetorical and confirming questions. Use the active voice. Use repetition, duplication, and hesitations. And if you don’t absolutely need to create text, then don’t. Speak from an outline.

This is Lisa B. Marshall; passionate about communication your success is my business. 

My new audiobook is now available. It’s called, The Public Speaker’s Guide To Ace Your Interview: 6 Steps To Get The Job You Want. I’m so happy because it’s already received some rave reviews. You can check the recommendations at www.interviewextras.com or buy the book. It’s more than worth the money—I promise.

Finally, I invite you to visit my Facebook Page. I’d also like to invite you to join my networks on LinkedIn and Twitter.

If you have a question, send email to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.

Presentation image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.