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Conversational writing kicks formal writing's ass

Conversational

If you want people to learn and remember what you write, say it conversationally. This isn't just for short informal blog entries and articles, either. We're talking books. Assuming they're meant for learning, and not reference, books written in a conversational style are more likely to be retained and recalled than a book on the same topics written in a more formal tone. Most of us know this intuitively, but there are some studies to prove it.

Your sixth grade English teacher warned you against writing the way you talk, but she was wrong. Partly wrong, anyway. Then again, we aren't talking about writing the way you talked when you were 12. Or even the way you talk when you're rambling. What most people mean when they say "write the way you talk" is something like, "the way you talk when you're explaining something to a friend, filtering out the 'um', 'you know', and 'er' parts, and editing for the way you wish you'd said it."

So why aren't more technical books or articles written this way? One computer book author (who hates my books) sent me an email saying, "With your books, you want people to have fun" (he said it like that was a bad thing, but that's a different issue). "But with my books, I have a reputation as a consultant to think about, and I want people to have the impression of, 'listen carefully, because I'm only going to say this once.'" Whatever. I've talked about the danger of writing a book from the perspective of what it will do for you vs. what it means for the user in How to write a non-fiction bestseller.

Unless the book is a reference book, where precision matters over understanding, and the writing is meant to be referred to not read and learned from, there are almost NO good reasons for a tech book to be written in a formal (i.e. non-conversational) style. Much of the time, it's an indication that the author is thinking way too much about himself, and how he will be perceived. (Or she, of course, but to be perfectly sexist here--this does seem to be more of a guy thing--the "I'm more technically serious than thou" phenomenon.)

Sometimes it's simply because so many technical books are written that way, and it's just conventional inertia ("if the other books are written like that, and they sell, this must be the way it's done"). Other times, it's the author's of way of showing respect for both the topic and the reader--a valid goal, but an ineffective (and unneeded) approach.

And now we know that it's usually wrong, and users/readers are starting to fight back against painfully dry books, no matter how technically pure the content.

A study from the Journal of Educational Psychology, issue 93 (from 2000), looked at the difference in effectiveness between formal vs. informal style in learning. In their studies, the researchers (Roxana Moreno and Richard Mayer) looked at computer-based education on botany and lightning formation and "compared versions in which the words were in formal style with versions in which the words were in conversational style."

Their conclusion was:
"In five out of five studies, students who learned with personalized text performed better on subsequent transfer tests than students who learned with formal text. Overall, participants in the personalized group produced between 20 to 46 percent more solutions to transfer problems than the formal group."
They mention other related, complimentary studies including:

"... people read a story differently and remember different elements when the author writes in the first person (from the "I/we" point of view) than when the author writes in the third person (he, she, it, or they). (Graesser, Bowers, Olde, and Pomeroy, 1999). Research summarized by Reeves and Nass (1996) shows that, under the right circumstances, people "treat computers like real people."

So one of the theories on why speaking directly to the user is more effective than a more formal lecture tone is that the user's brain thinks it's in a conversation, and therefore has to pay more attention to hold up its end! Sure, your brain intellectually knows it isn't having a face-to-face conversation, but at some level, your brain wakes up when its being talked with as opposed to talked at. And the word "you" can sometimes make all the difference.

One striking part of the Moreno/Mayer study is how similar the actual content was. Here's the before and after example from the beginning of the lesson they studied:

Formal
"This program is about what type of plants survive on different planets. For each planet, a plant will be designed. The goal is to learn what type of roots, stem, and leaves allow the plant to survive in each environment. Some hints are provided throughout the program."

Conversational
"You are about to start a journey where you will be visiting different planets. For each planet, you will need to design a plant. Your mission is to learn what type of roots, stem, and leaves will allow your plant to survive in each environment. I will be guiding you through by giving out some hints."

And from another perspective, consider what former Wired editor Constance Hale wrote in Sin and Syntax:

"The second-person pronoun (you) lets the author hook the reader as if in conversation. Call it cozy. Call it confiding. You is a favorite of the Plain English folks, who view it as an antidote to the stiff impersonality of legalese and urge bureaucrats to write as if speaking to the public... " She goes on to give a pile of great examples.

We believe one of the biggest mistakes is to dismiss the things that work in teaching younger people by saying that they somehow don't work for adults. That's wrong. At the highest level, anyway. Obviously the implementation of a kid's learning book and one for adults will be different, and different subjects often require dramatically different approaches, but at the core, virtually all brains learn the same way--through emotional response (which in turn triggers the brain to pay more attention and possibly record to long-term storage). And engaging in a conversation has the potential to turn up the emotional gain much more than a dry, lifeless text or lecture.

If your brain had a bumper sticker, it would say:

I heart conversation.

Posted by Kathy on September 6, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

So true.

I don't have a reference but there was a study at least 25 years ago that took some college level textbooks in various courses and rewrote them to target young kids (grade school / junior high, IIRC). The books were used and the kids were tested on their knowledge of the material and it compared to the results of the college students.

I recall a conversation I had with a teaching guru at the time and one of the hurdles that came up with this was that the publishers didn't think that they could continue charging the outrageous amounts that they do for such "easy" textbooks (both in terms of their greed and because people wouldn't be as willing to part with as much money as for the convoluted, formal versions) and that authors resisted that suggestion because if it wasn't formal enough then they wouldn't e.g., get the same recognition from their bosses/peers (in the academic publish-or-perish world).

Posted by: John D. Mitchell | Sep 6, 2005 5:00:16 PM

I couldn't agree more with your post. Thanks for making this necessary point! Could the reason we prefer a more conversational style is because it's more authentic than using nothing but $.50 words, in addition to all your other excellent points? That's my take anyway.

Posted by: Phil Gerbyshak | Sep 6, 2005 9:12:30 PM

Maybe that's why so many people don't feel somehow quite *trained* in a thing unless they've gone on some horribly expensive 3 day plus course, and had a teacher there engaging them in conversation about the subject? Even if they've read and worked through the tutorial books, bought the reference manuals, and even done some genuine work with the technology, until they've had a full-on session of a number of days conversing with (hopefully) an expert in the subject while doing the thing at the same time, it's not quite sunk in.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Sep 6, 2005 11:13:15 PM

Well we do and engage in conversations through out the day. I've attended courses where formal talk made it suck so bad that I forgot it all. Infact I wanted to leave right away.

But I'm seeing (Lemme remember aahh yeah read a book last week about Google AdSense) and this guy was doing so much of conversation that I began to wonder if he had anything *special* to tell. Well as I reached the last page I realized that he didn't. That sucked too. It's hard to train people / write books when you're a "stuck up formal" story teller BUT beware of "I don't know my stuff so I'll just kid".

What I personally do(when I teach/train) and expect from new-age writers is simple:

o Make sure we're ALL having fun
o Don't forget to put people to work
o Keep it in "WorkShop" mode ( I gave a little English lesson to a local school a few months back, it was a sort of a marathon and was 10:30 in the night, the kids were so excited, so was I! I hear parents still talk about it)
o Keep it fun but also exciting help watch everyone(when I mean everyone it also includes you) grow/learn new things

o In IT related courses DON'T just show examples, but exersizes and be able to demostrate stuff.

Bottom line is you have to address to all parts of Human Brain. Not too boring and not too much fun. I personally prefer to keep my style a little unpredictable this way I can play on the general mood that the class has (I had to learn it the hard way when I taught/trained staff on board ships regarding safety/fire drills/boat drills, and the staff knew exactly what to expect).
That way I can slowly work on making them get interested.

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Sep 7, 2005 2:02:25 AM

Nice article...articulated exactly the way I feel about some of the best science books ever written. If you haven't already, spend some time with the Feynman Lectures on Physics. Richard Feynman, in addition to having been an academic genius, was one of the finest communicators science has seen. And almost all of it has been transcribed and edited from speech, or looks a lot like it.

Posted by: Derwin McGeary | Sep 7, 2005 5:46:28 AM

You are brilliant.

Posted by: Tom Best | Sep 7, 2005 6:20:10 AM

Have you seen this guys work?

http://poignantguide.net/ruby/

I think he takes this concept to the extreme. At times you think he may have done a little too much LSD, but it really does keep you interested. His wacky antics make you want to keep reading to see what he'll say next.

Posted by: Rich | Sep 7, 2005 7:48:05 AM

To be honest, I was totally against your argument when I read the first two sentences. I changed my mind when I realized there was a difference between good conversational writing and the rambling, unfocused blogs and forum posts I often encounter.

I totally agreed with you by the time you got to the planets example.

From my own life, I am currently reading Sophie's World and I find the conversational style makes an introduction to philosophy much more palatable.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 7, 2005 8:26:08 AM

Matt: "Maybe that's why so many people don't feel somehow quite *trained* in a thing unless they've gone on some horribly expensive 3 day plus course, and had a teacher there engaging them in conversation about the subject?"

IME, there's a couple of key facets to that. A big one is that people learn by experience. The in-person training tends to give more chances for real experience to take place.

Another facet is that having an "expert" available to talk with changes how people perceive the information. This is part of the "you get out what you put in" sentiment. I.e., for some people, putting out the time/effort and money to go to an expensive class ups (at least slightly :-) their level of commitment/intensity and that changes what they are able to get out of the experience.

On the more skeptical side, I find that people carry a lot of conscious and unconscious expectations about what "training" has to look and act like. I.e., if it doesn't look "formal" enough, it can't be serious, educational, etc. So, people look for those psuedo-signals to distinguish and select e.g. training even though we know those signals aren't trustworthy and those training styles aren't nearly as effective in terms of the students' actually learning.

Posted by: John D. Mitchell | Sep 7, 2005 9:25:33 AM

"Much of the time, it's an indication that the author is thinking way too much about himself, and how he will be perceived."

Grady Booch, in a nutshell. Ugh. His name has become a byword among my programmer friends for pompous, unreadable deskweights. It reads like your most full-of-himself professor only _dreamed_ of sounding like. And after you spend the time to decode a few paragraphs, you cry "Is THAT all you meant to say!?" So many words, so little content. You can tell that he's thinking about his image every time he sits down to write.

Posted by: Tom Biggs | Sep 7, 2005 9:27:46 AM

This ties in nicely with your previous post....Often it's the editors that impose the formal style. My first book for Wiley (The Notes and Domino Programming Bible) was done in the personal style (eg. "you should always remember that you have to ack before you oof....."). For my second book (The XML Programming Bible), the editor decided that the personal style was too informal and wrong, a battle I fought but did not win. So was forced to rewrite the text to formal ("developers should always remember that they have to ack before they oof.....") was my compromise. Later, after I submitted my final draft, it was apparently decided that the personal style was OK, and the text was rewritten to the personal style. Unfortunately, the twits who did the rewriting didn't proofread their obvious 2-minute global search and replace. The result: unreadable sentences like "you should always remember that they have to ack before they oof....."). For anyone who had to suffer thouygh these sentences you have my sympathy, but it wasn't my fault.....

Posted by: Brian Benz | Sep 7, 2005 10:20:02 AM

I think I'm in agreement with the psychology, but not the rejection of formal forms. Normally things are formalized so that a process is complete. You need to prove mathematical statements. You need to argue your politics with rigour, avoiding staw men, and so forth. But I'd agree with making the process human, being direct, introducing anecdotes, and a pinch of humour, to make the process more memorable.

I actually found the "botany learning scenario" clearer in the formal format. The second one focussed too much on the game, and when it introduced a mission, in terms of the gameplay it was a pointless mission. If the mission had been to educate future colonists, then learning would be implicit and would have made more sense. But it was not really a mission within the game at all.

I've read that people follow documentation better if it is task oriented, The task was clear in the formal version.

I think one can introduce directness, mnemonics etc without losing rigour. But then, I don't think you are advocating rejection of rigor: the structure of the entry has a clear {beginning, middle, end} and there's lots of citations in it. And well-structured writing is also based on how the brain works: it is to get around the fact that brains are pretty sloppy at this sort of thing most of the time.

Posted by: hgs | Sep 7, 2005 11:06:18 AM

Another great article. I have applied a lot of the info found on these pages in helping me write my tutorials and blog posts. Thank you so much!

Posted by: Jennifer Apple | Sep 7, 2005 11:10:47 AM

A colleague pointed this article out because he knows I detest the use of 'you' in technical documentation. I am still not persuaded. The use of 'you' is always redundant in technical documents. A guide or manual is always directing someone to do an action. In conversation, one never says, "You do this. Now, you do that." They might say, "You should do this." Then I would argue that the use of 'should' is not appropriate either. Either 'do' or 'don't do' or 'consider before doing'.

I'll agree that a less formal style may be more effective at engaging a reader's interest, but I do not believe the notion that 'friendly' documentation is a trend to follow. I don't go to Morton's to get hamburger, and I won't write technical documentation aimed at a 6th grader (unless it's for the Marketing side of the house, and then all bets are off).

Posted by: Brian Marquez | Sep 7, 2005 12:22:42 PM

Excellent article! A great book on this very topic is "If You Can Talk, You Can Write" by Joel Saltzman, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

-

Posted by: Gerard Morentzy | Sep 7, 2005 4:51:43 PM

I couldn't agree more. I have a long way to go though.

Posted by: Ben Askins | Sep 8, 2005 7:17:18 AM

The next step: comics! After that? Children's picture book. Well, why not, they are so easy to understand. I'm so lucky I was never born!

Posted by: Peter | Sep 8, 2005 11:29:55 AM


Thanks for this. I noted the articles on the side bar for later reference. Having just changed from a more formal style on one web site, I am looking forward to seeing the results.

Posted by: wildmist | Sep 8, 2005 4:08:14 PM

Another datum; I read as far as you "whatever" in that article, and moved on. Looks like I'm not your target audience.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe | Sep 9, 2005 1:49:56 AM

You have hit the nail on the head -- this is a fantastic post and I will be blogging it. For years I have coached our consultants and concept developers to develop a conversational in their XPLANATiONs. I was not aware that there was research to support it but I am not surprised.

This is a wonderful blog.

I have not been blogging for long but as I become familiar with this world, lately it seems that all roads lead to O'Reilly.

Keep it up!

Posted by: Dave Gray | Sep 9, 2005 8:01:34 PM

The Moreno and Mayer study had psychology students as the subject population, and most certainly cannot be generalised beyond that population. Furthermore, many universities enforce psych studencts to be part of 'subject pools' for the first year or two, so the population may well be very junior students. Ccombine this with the fact that the expansion of student numbers over recent years has been so great that many of these students may not have even got into university a few years ago.

The relevance of this? It's quite possible that the population studied could have been people who had never even read whole books before (Frank Furedi's good on this). It could be that the reason a conversational style was more effective for them was just that they were not particularly accustomed to or skilled at self-directed reading for study purposes (also, if you look at the original study, the effects were only slightly significant for reading as opposed to listening).

My (untested) hypothesis: skilled, active readers use critical self-talk all the time when reading and don't need to be patronised by the writer.

It's all about the specific audience you're writing for.

Posted by: noisyjazzman | Sep 10, 2005 7:25:38 AM

I do think it's *very* dependent on the audience, true. And I did make the point (perhaps not clearly enough, given your comment) that the *implementation* of a book for an adult is going to look and feel different from a book geared toward someone younger (and vary with the topic as well). But wow -- "conversational" does not necessarily mean "patronizing"!
And while I doubt this was your intention (and you do bring up a valid point about the study), your comment comes close to insulting the nearly quarter-million programmers who are choosing our books. Our readers *are* software engineers, or at the least -- computer programmers with an interest in applying reusable patterns to solve complex problems. Our readers are indeed "skilled, active readers" and quite capable of learning from a more traditional academic text--they simply choose *not* to, when given a choice.
Our readers kick ass : )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Sep 10, 2005 7:31:58 PM

I certainly didn't mean to insult your readers or books. A conversational tone is often entirely appropriate (even for intelligent adults!), and a formal one often unnecessarily stuffy.

But academics, for example, are constantly being leaned on these days by bureaucrats to make their content 'relevant' for the sake of 'inclusion', where what they actually mean is that they want the content dumbed-down in order to ensure students/customers are not challenged. It is simply true to the nature of many types of content that they *should* try to challenge readers, and one means for this sometimes is to use complex language, as distanced as possible from the corporate/populist culture de jour.

All I really am saying is that studies such as this don't imply that much marvellous writing (often 'formal' compared to corporate writing) ought to be changed in any way. If they *are* so taken (and you just have to see the explosion in crappy Powerpoint to see that it is likely to happen!) then it may amount to condescension. Horses for courses, and all that.

Posted by: noisyjazzman | Sep 10, 2005 11:12:49 PM

To Kathy's point (in comments two above this one) - I think people that have the Head First Patterns book probably have the hard bound original GoF title as well. They probably had the GoF book first.

Now, for those of you who don't know the GoF Patters book (GoF = gang of four - the cute name everyone has come up with to refer to the four authors) is a hard bound, very academic and somewhat inaccessible tome. It's brilliant and people struggle through it because it's brilliant. But it's kind of like reading Chaucer or Beowolf - it's a lot of work just to get to the message, then you have to digest the message.

The Head First treatment presents the patterns as the Gof book but it makes it fun and easier. In a comment to another post a reader said that they wanted a Head First Biology book for their daughter. I think this is a good example - image Head First Differential Equations, Linera Algebra, Quantum Physics, Statistical Analysis.

This would change everything.

It's not that readers of Head First can't learn the other way - we're just bright enough and open minded enough to realize that other ways might be more efficient.

If you read Head Fisrt (really read, not flip through) and feel patronized then you might have some bigger issues.

-Matt

Posted by: Matt Galloway | Sep 12, 2005 8:08:39 AM

I probably will never read the books as I no longer work in IT nor do much programming these days. But I'm quite happy to take your word for it that they're find and appropriate. There are many beautifully-written books of effortless simplicity.

But I would say that anyone who finds the GoF books hard to read has a problem! 'Education' isn't about efficiently stuffing knowledge into a brain for instrumental purposes. It's about availing oneself of the best of our civilisation. Anyone of normal who has made the attempt to do so would be able to read the GoF books without problems.

Posted by: noisyjazzman | Sep 12, 2005 2:56:34 PM

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