Five Principles to Improve Your Conversational Writing

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How do you improve your writing?  How do you make your writing more conversational?  How do you cultivate a personal style in your writing and your speeches?  In Perfect Phrases for Executive Presentations: Hundreds of Ready-to-Use Phrases to Use to Communicate Your Strategy and Vision When the Stakes Are High (Perfect Phrases), Alan M. Perlman, Ph.D. writes about five principles you can use to improve your writing and speeches to make them more conversational and personal.

Five Principles for Improving Conversational Communication
Based on results and experience, I agree with Perlman’s principles for more effective writing and speech.  His five principles for improving conversational communication are:

  • Principle 1 – Replace abstraction with action.
  • Principle 2 – Replace passive with active expressions.
  • Principle 3 – Break up long compound structures.
  • Principle 4 – Expand nominalized sentences into full sentences.
  • Principle 5 – Use contractions.

Principle 1 –  Replace Abstraction with Action
You should mention people over using abstractions.  Perlman provides examples:

Don’t

  • The modernization of our facilities is proceeding on schedule.
  • Current projects show a very constrained outlook.
  • Management recommended radical cost reductions.
  • Any increase in the gasoline tax of sufficient size to significantly impact the budget deficit.

Do

  • We’re modernizing our facilities and proceeding on schedule.
  • We are/Our staff is currently projecting a very constrained outlook.
  • Management recommended that we cut our costs radically.
  • If we/the government increase(s) the gasoline tax enough to significantly impact the budget deficit …

Principle 2 – Replace Passive with Active Expressions
Say who’s performing the action so it sounds more personal.  Don’t avoid the passive completely but emphasize who or what is performing the action where you can.  Perlman provides examples:

Don’t

  • Three thousand additional employees were hired.
  • Our cost-reduction efforts were intensified.
  • These conclusions which were drawn from the study, …
  • When combined with renewed emphasis on product quality, these efforts can …
  • It is assumed that new products will claim a significant market share.

Do

  • We/The firm hired three thousand additional employees.
  • We intensified our cost-reduction efforts.
  • These conclusions, which I/we/our consultants drew from the study …
  • When we combine them with renewed emphasis on product quality, these efforts can …
  • We/I assume that the new products will claim a significant market share.

Principle 3 – Break Up Long Compound Structures
Spell out what you mean.  Don’t use clever and concise compound phrases that only specialists understand.  Write out the phrases using simple words.  Perlman provides examples:

Don’t

  • sales tax
  • user call placement procedure
  • committee meeting agenda

Do

  • increase in the tax on sales
  • procedure that people use to place calls
  • agenda for the meeting of the committee

According to Perlman, for specialists communicating to each other, these long compounds become a kind of in-group shorthand.  You don’t have to spell out the relationships between the elements, like in the examples above, because the audience already knows what they mean.  When you cultivate a personal style, on the other hand, you’re replicating spontaneous speech.  Use only the compounds that are clearly understandable.

Principle 4 – Expand Nominalized Sentences into Full Sentences
When we use nouns instead of verbs or adjectives — a process called nominalization — to compress part of a statement, we make communication more complex.  Perlman provides an example:

Don’t

  • The expectation of management is that the economy is at the beginning of recovery

Do

  • Management expects  the economy to begin to recover.

Perlman writes:

“The problem with nominalization is that it requires the listener to reconstruct the sentence that’s been compressed.  There’s also a cultural problem with nominalization.  Frequent nominalization is well established in the language of bureaucracies, scientists, and others whose professions require an impersonal style of communication.  Since actions expressed as nouns rather than verbs allow the agent (the doer) to be omitted, nominalization may leave doubts as to who’s doing what.  (In fact, bureaucrats may love nominalization just because it avoids mentioning who did what.)

To make your communication more conversational and more intelligible to non-native speakers, convert each nominalization to a full sentence.”

Principle 5 – Use Contractions
Contractions are a very strong signal of a personal conversational style.  Perlman provides a set of common acceptable contractions for everyday speeches:

Acceptable for all but the most formal of speeches …

  • Contractions with not: won’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t, can’t, couldn’t.
  • Contractions with pronoun or that with am/are/is: I’m, you’re, he’s, she’s, it’s, we’re, they’re, that’s
  • Contractions with will: I’ll, you’ll, he’ll, she’ll, we’ll, they’ll
  • Contractions with have/has: I’ve, you’ve, he’s, she’s, it’s, they’ve
  • Contractions of I would: I’d

Acceptable only in spoken language or very informal written communications

  • Contraction with is (e.g. executive’s — as in executive’s leaving)
  • Contraction of it will: it’ll
  • Contraction of pronoun and would: you’d, he’d, she’d, we’d, they’d
  • Contractions of pronoun and had: I’d, you’d, he’d, she’d, they’d.

How To Choose Between a Personal or Impersonal Style
Perlman writes:
While most of your speeches will be in a personal style, you’ll want to be sensitive to those situations in which a little more formality is required — for example, a eulogy or a serious business or scientific/technical presentation.  Ask yourself how your subject is typically discussed and what your audience expects.  Then adjust your language accordingly.

The Quality of Your Life and Communication
Writing and speaking are powerful tools if you use them effectively.  In fact, I think you can argue that the quality of your life is the quality of your communication to yourself and others.

Conversational Over Formal
While some audiences and communities require impersonal speeches and writing, a lot of the most impactful communication is conversational and personal. 

In school, I learned to write formally and put the focus on the topic.  On the job, I’ve learned to be more adaptable and put the focus where it makes sense, whether it’s the topic or the reader. 

I’ve also learned to use a more conversational style and to choose simpler words and phrases.  This helps me reach a wider audience and makes the information easier to follow.  After all, what good is the information, if I can’t help you understand it or use it?

Key Take Aways
Here’s my key take aways:

  • Where appropriate, choose conversational over formal.  Kathy Sierra says it best in her post, Conversational writing kicks formal writing’s ass.
  • Don’t make the reader work too hard.  Don’t write to impress, write  to be understood.  If your audience has to reparse every sentence in their head just to follow along, then you’re making them work too hard.  You can use the approaches above to help fix this issue.
  • Speak the same language as your audience.  Not literally, but figuratively.  If you want to reach a wider audience, then avoid jargon where you can and say things as simple as possible, but no simpler.  When you’re among specialists in your field, then feel free to use your special words and phrases.  For example, among a bunch of pattern authors, we can speak using patterns and condense our conversations.  Outside that audience, it doesn’t help to use terms that have to constantly be explained.
  • Keep your audience front and center.  Picture your audience immediately across the table from you.  This helps you make the right trade-offs for words you use and the style you choose.  It’s hard to go wrong, when it’s right for your audience.
  • Don’t try to please everybody.  You can’t.   There isn’t a universal style that makes everybody happy.  However, you can eliminate some problem patterns in your writing or speaking that turn your audience off.
  • Eliminate worst things first.  If you want to make big improvements, pull your big levers first.  Get some feedback from folks you trust to identify the top three things they’d like you to improve.
  • Know the secret of great writing.  Luckily, the secret to great writing isn’t about your writing at all.  It’s the feelings, insights and actions you inspire in your readers. 
  • Know what you want to accomplish.  Knowing is half the battle.  Do you want to inspire, educate, improve … etc.?    Knowing that helps you figure out what to tune in your writing and speaking.
  • Measure by effectiveness.    If you know what you want to accomplish, know you can gauge your effectiveness.