Conversational blog post writing has been on the top of everyone’s to-do list since Google launched the Hummingbird update last year. At the time, we were warned in a plethora of articles (including many, like this one) that Google was moving away from keywords and into “searcher intent”. Rather than beating people with keywords, we had to speak to them in words we’d use naturally.
It all sounds so, so easy. After all, we have conversations every day with family members, co-workers, clients, dog-walkers, postal workers… We all know how to talk.
But if you find that your mind freezes when you’re asked to write in a conversational manner, you’re not alone. Sometimes, it just doesn’t seem natural. Thankfully, with a few extra steps tacked onto your blog writing, you can craft a blog that’s bound to sound conversational, even if it comes about as a result of very real work.
Here are 5 great steps to get you started.
1. Do Your Keyword Research
I hate to say it, but keywords aren’t going away for good. Search engines like Google still need keywords in order to spot bits of relevant content, and searchers will continue to type in keywords when they want to find something they care about. That’s why your writing should always begin with keyword research. That’s the foundation that helps you create content the bots will find.
But, use those keywords sparingly as you write. Yes, you’ll want to make sure that you have at least some keywords for the engines to find, but don’t overload your content with those specific terms and phrases.
So how many keywords should you use? Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic number available. (Check out this discussion on Moz for proof. No one seems comfortable with the idea of citing a specific keyword density.) At the end of your writing, search for your keyword and let Word highlight that phrase for you. If your document lights up with highlighting, your density is probably too high.
Think of it this way: If you’re talking with a trusted peer who used the same word, over and over again, it would grate, right? That’s the sort of irritation you’re trying to avoid as you write. Write naturally instead of focusing on a keyword density percentage.
2. Write For Just One Person
In an informal poll cited by Copyblogger, readers suggested 60 to 120 views was an average amount of traffic for a blog. While you might certainly want more readers than that, writing for even 60 readers can be exceedingly difficult. After all, they might all have different viewpoints, needs and preferences. It’s nearly impossible to keep them all happy. Trying to do so might lead to writing that is stilted, stiff, and just plain formal.
Writing for just one person is a little different. Instead of trying to address the needs of a horde, you’re thinking of only one ideal reader. When I follow this exercise, my writing becomes much more fluid and chatty. I’m not trying to head off hundreds of arguments or deal with a cacophony of competing interests. I’m just answering one question from one person. It’s a quick way to get flow.
3. Search and Destroy Jargon and Lingo
Chances are, your industry has a specific, codified language that outsiders won’t understand. You might toss off terms and phrases with ease, but someone who doesn’t work in your field might have no idea what you’re talking about.
It happens in every industry, and the number of words involved can be staggering. For example, this glossary of lingo related to advertising contains 24 pages of terms. That’s a whole lot of terminology that could creep into the writing of anyone who discusses advertising.
While these phrases can help verbal conversations move along at a fast clip, they can slow reading down to a crawl. Outsiders might need a decoder ring to understand what you’re talking about, and even insiders might struggle with a particularly gnarly phrase.
If you simply must use jargon (e.g., those words are keywords for you), be kind and define your terms. And when you’re done writing, run a search for the unneeded lingo you know you’re prone to use.
Vulnerabilities are easy enough to spot with a little homework. I call my key lingo phrases “frowners.” When I’m discussing my work with a friend or family member who doesn’t work in reputation management, and they frown with confusion at a term or phrase I use, I know it’s something I should try to either define or remove from my language altogether. I keep a list of these phrases at my desk, and I do a Word search and replace them when my blogs are done.
4. Pay Attention to the Reading Level
In 2013, about half of adults in the United States had a reading comprehension scores at the 5th grade level, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s a sad statistic, but it proves that at least some of the people who come to our websites aren’t prepared to read very dense, academic copy. Embracing them means taking our writing level down a notch or two.
In addition, writing for a lower grade level just sounds a little more conversational. Just think about it: If I taught college English and I spoke to you at a dinner party using the language I had used in my journal writing, you’d think of lectures and research. It wouldn’t seem conversational. But, if I broke my sentences apart, used smaller words and tried to speak at a level a high-schooler might understand, I’d seem conversational.
Word makes doing these literacy adjustments really easy, as a standard grammar check will provide you with a simple reading grade level.
My readability scores for this piece. I did pretty well!
That last number is the key. I strive for 8th grade readability, which seems to be a standard comprehension level for all sorts of documents, including Presidential speeches and informed consent documents.
5. Read it Aloud When You’re Done
After all of your writing is done and your amendments have been made, turn down the radio, close the office door, shut off your phone, and read the piece aloud, from start to finish. Does the article sound formal? Do you find you need to take big breaths in the middle of sentences? Does your mind wander?
All of these questions can help you spot bits of content that aren’t helping you reach your goals. Tweak away, and then read over the content again.
Practice Makes Perfect
While most of us have been working on conversational writing for about a year, there’s no shame in admitting you don’t have your techniques perfected. It takes time to learn to write in a whole new way, and often, in-depth learning comes with some periods of trial and error.
But if you make a commitment to really evaluate each blog you write before you hit that “publish” button, your articles are bound to improve in 2015.
If you have lessons you’d like to pass on to readers who are just getting started on this learning process, please share them in the comments section.