This article was originally published in July 2018. Refreshed: August, 2019.
Let’s begin with a copywriting truth: making your writing sound conversational is hard. Making it appear effortless is harder.
For some reason, people have a tendency to stuff their writing with jargon-filled business talk. This makes the copy difficult to follow and the piece talks at the reader rather than to them.
Yet when people speak aloud they use less mumbo-jumbo. The subject of the discussion is often easier to understand and therefore more engaging. It feels like you’re having a chat and being spoken to, rather than at.
So, how do we translate that conversational exchange into written copy?
For me, a good piece of copy includes the same elements we expect to find in a face-to-face conversation. It should flow easily from one idea to another so it’s logical and simple to understand.
Good copy also listens just as much as it talks. This is achieved by addressing the wants, needs and concerns of the reader in your copy.
Checking your writing has these conversational elements is as simple as running it through the barstool test.
How the barstool test works
Originally coined by direct marketing copywriter, Paul Hollingshead from the American Writers & Artists Inc (AWAI), the backbone of the barstool test is this:
“Your copy should sound like you’re sitting on a barstool, chatting with a friend, rather than lecturing him.”
Putting this into practice is simple.
Imagine you’re going to the pub. There you meet the ideal person this copy is for. You get into a conversation, which just so happens to sound exactly like the copy you’ve written.
As you say each sentence out loud ask yourself these questions:
- Is what I’m saying clear?
- Have I chosen the best words to communicate what I mean?
- Is it easy to understand?
If you found yourself tripping over words or switching off mid-sentence or paragraph, the answer is “no”. It needs rewriting. There’s a more natural way to say it.
Fix it by saying your point out loud. Just let yourself freeroll. Don’t overthink it. This works for me and you can always tweak the copy afterwards.
If it takes several attempts to get this right, no problem. Your new drinking buddy isn’t in a hurry. In fact, they’re thankful you’ve taken the time to create conversational copy that’s simple to follow and doesn’t sound bossy.
And that’s pretty much it. That’s how the barstool test can lead to copywriting that sounds conversational.
The benefits of using the barstool test
Running your copy through the barstool test means it’s more likely to:
- Be free of confusing, industry jargon
- Be more interesting and engaging
- Put the reader at ease so they trust you.
What if you need the tone to be more formal?
Some businesses freak out when the phrase “conversational copy” is mentioned because they (wrongly) think ‘conversational’ means ‘informal’ and they need to sound beige professional. Whatever that means.
My advice is you should still use the barstool test.
Not every conversation has the same tone. for example, if your prospect is a young, go-getting business owner, the tone of that conversation is different compared to a conversation with a mature finance manager for a big corporate company.
But you’re still talking to both of them. You’re still aiming for a natural-sounding, easy flowing, simple to understand conversation.
See what I mean? Different audiences may require a slightly different conversational style. You can switch it up to suit your audience by making small changes to the language you use.
No time for a trip to the bar?
Finding the time or energy to run through the barstool test isn’t for everyone. As I said at the start, getting a free-flowing, natural-sounding conversational tone can be difficult.
Luckily, I love a good chat, am an experienced writer, and even used to work in a pub.
Basically, I’ve got everything going for me to help you get this right!
The form below is a direct line to me, so we can start having a natter – no pressure or obligation to commission me. Simply tell me what you’re struggling with and I’ll get those effortless conversations up and running.