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Your user's brain wants a conversation!

Which would you prefer to listen to--a dry formal lecture or a stimulating dinner party conversation?
Which would you prefer to read--a formal academic text book or an engaging novel?

When I pose this question to authors or instructors, I usually hear, "You think the obvious answer is the dinner party and the novel, but it isn't that simple."

Followed by, "It all depends on the context. I'd much rather hear a dry formal lecture on something I'm deeply interested in than listen to inane dinner party conversation about Ashlee's lip-syncing blunder."

But here's what's weird--your brain wants to pay more attention to the party conversation than the formal lecture regardless of your personal interest in the topic.

Because it's a conversation.

And when your brain thinks it's part of a conversation, it thinks it has to pay attention... to hold up its end. You've felt this, of course. How many times have you sat in a lecture you really needed and wanted to pay attention to, but still found it hard to stay focused? Or how about the book you can't seem to stay awake for... finding yourself reading the same paragraph over and over because you keep tuning out--despite your best effort to stay with it?

But here's the coolest (and for me, the most fascinating) part of all this:

When you lecture or write using conversational language, your user's brain thinks it's in a REAL conversation!

In other words, if you use conversational language, the listener/reader's brain still thinks it has to hold up its end, so it pays more attention. It really is that simple, and that powerful (at least if you really want to help users pay attention and remember your message).

At least that the conclusion some researchers have come to, and you can read more about this in this book and this book. (Warning, that last book is by the guys responsible for Microsoft Bob, so... acquiring research and applying that research in a useful way can be very different).

For a long time, there was a rule (although nobody remembers who came up with it) that said computer books (unless they're "for dummies") must be written in a formal style. Possibly THE worst example of this for me was the editorial group at what was then Sun Educational Services--where the reasons for using formal language included:

1) It's professional. Formal language == professional. Conversational tone == unprofessional.

2) It's easier to localize.

3) It's more appropriate (whatever "appropriate" meant... we never knew for sure.)

I railed against #1 (one of the things that did, eventually, cost me my job there).

I also railed against #2, especially since it meant that in order to better localize, we'd need to suck out all remaining life that hadn't already been destroyed by reason #1.

It got so ridiculous that for a while that we were told not to use contractions, because "they don't localize well." While I'm sure they had valid reasons for making that claim, wow. My naive thinking is that anyone doing translations that can't deal with the contractions is going to have much bigger issues... and if they're using a machine-translation, YIKES! Even worse.

And here's the problem I have with not using contractions... what do science fiction writers do when they want to make sure you recognize (without being told) that a character is either:

a) a robot/android
b) an alien

Think about it. They don't use contractions. Dead giveaway every time. One of the only computer/AI characters who DID use contractions was Hal, and, well, he was psychotic. So I should qualify the rule as "non-psycho robots, androids, and aliens do not use contractions."

So here we were--in the interest of localization--stripping all remaining humanity out of the material.

But that's the extreme example, of course. It's quite easy to write in a formal, non-conversational tone and still use contractions. And it's that formal, non-conversational language that causes a reduction in comprehension and retention and recall. (There's good data on this in the "science of instruction" book I linked to earlier in this post).

If an author isn't forced by the editorial police to formalize the language, why, then, do so many still use it in their learning books? I've asked this question of a lot of authors, and it usually comes down to a violation of the"users shouldn't think about YOU" rule. In other words, the author is considering how he or she--the author--will be perceived. One author put it this way to me, "I want people to see me as the serious kind of person who says, 'listen up because I'm only going to say this once!', where YOU, on the other hand, want people to feel, "hey, let's have some fun!". When I said, "this is a problem... why?" He made the valid point that unlike us, he was using his books as a means to further his consulting career, so what people thought of HIM as the author really did matter.

It was kind of like, "I don't want people to see me as someone they'd like to have over for dinner. I want them to see me as someone they'd like to hire." The number of arguments I could make about that statement could go on for days, but that's a different topic.

Other arguments are that by making the language conversational, we're not showing the topic--and the readers--the proper respect. I'll let you consider that one.

Another argument is that using conversational language makes it sound like a "dummies" book. That's potentially valid, but only because the "dummies" series was the first to really make a format dedicated to NOT using formal language. As long as the perception is that "dummies/very beginning books use casual language but advanced books do not", then that's a problem. We're trying to change this in our part of the world by claiming that the opposite could be true--that the more advanced the topic, the more you NEED to pull out all the stops in trying to make it more understandable. And in fact, that's how it is with our books--because of our format, we're able to cover far more ground and dig into more advanced topics than a similar book using formal language.

I know this is horribly overgeneralized, but as a high-level rule, we believe:

If you're using formal language in a lecture, learning book (or marketing message, for that matter), you're worrying about how people perceive YOU. If you're thinking only about the USERS, on the other hand, you're probably using more conversational language.

Now, there are limits--and context DOES matter. How far you go in "conversational language" is a matter of culture and your audience. We use words that some believe are inappropriate in a technical book, including "sucks", and we wrote "wtf?" in the margin of one page. So far, we haven't used any four-letter words (although we'd occasionally like to), but our books have found their way into high school courses, and we haven't felt that the content needed or would benefit from those words.

But the research supports that you don't have to take it that far to get the benefits of "the brain tunes into conversational language because it thinks it's IN a conversation." Just rearranging a few words to be more casual and applying a readability index can help.

The tip we give our authors is this: when you're writing, paste up a couple pictures of real people, and imagine you're talking to them as opposed to writing for some abstract notion of "reader". Most importantly, ignore the advice your high school writing teacher gave you--that you must never "write the way you talk." Because from the brain's point of view, it is far better to write the way you talk. In fact, while it doesn't make for great writing to, say, print a transcript of a real conversation, that would still give you better learning material than something you wrote using passive, third-person voice in a formal tone.

And never underestimate the power of using "you" in your writing!

Posted by Kathy on January 5, 2005 | Permalink


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Kathy Sierra: When you lecture or write using conversational language, your user's brain thinks it's in a REAL conversation! [Read More]

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» Talking straight from Johnnie Moore's Weblog
Thanks to Hugh for highlighting this insight from Kathy at Headrush: Your user's brain wants a conversation:When you lecture or write using conversational language, your user's brain thinks it's in a REAL conversation! In other words, if you use conver... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 7, 2005 3:55:10 AM

» Keep readers' attention with a conversational style from Authentic Voice
Thanks to Johnnie Moore for pointing out this post from Kathy Sierra of Headrush: When you lecture or write using conversational language, your user's brain thinks it's in a REAL conversation! In other words, if you use conversational language, the [Read More]

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» Speaking in Conversational Voice Helps Listeners Understand You from Maultasch's Musings
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Everytime I read your blog, it reminds me of how flawed college is when it comes to teaching. Probably the most entertaining and educational classes were taught by enthusiastic people who "lectured" by discussing with the class on a free format basis. And this wasn't any of the classes in my major! Plenty of times we went off on a tangent that wasn't on the syllabus, but I believe I received a far greater learning experience. I agree that ego can cause teachers or writers to resort to dry formality to keep from looking uneducated, or even stupid. And it's a shame that those of us who really want to learn suffer for it. Oh, and hopefully the Head First series prospers and expands to other topics. I'd love a C/C++ or SQL book. God knows most of those texts are dry.

Posted by: Sean Mayfield | Jan 5, 2005 3:23:47 PM

OK, enough lurking by me. Really good stuff you're blogging. I too apply a lot of the recent findings from neuroscience in the design of business strategy & tactics. In particular, finding re: the nucleus accumbens, which mediates psychological addiction and is fired by the perception of beauty and increased prospects for romance, money, and laughs.

Which partly explains why an imminent guerrilla marketing blog of mine features the tag line:

Getting You Laid and Paid at the Intersection of Startup Comedy, Ad-bitrage and The New U

wtf? :-)

Just a conversational, nuccacc-stimulating way of sharing part of a BIG money, Microsoft-/VC-approved business plan for a provider of customized education & career services...


Beyond this, you're 100% on the nose/'right track' re: the subjects of your blog entries...

So, again, good stuff...

Posted by: Frank Ruscica | Jan 5, 2005 4:37:48 PM

OK Frank, you got our attention : )

You damn well better tell us when that blog goes up!

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 5, 2005 5:28:31 PM

This is a great post. I spend a lot of time with these issues, so here's my two cents.

Real reasons for formal writing:
1) Your work is used as a reference by people who want quick answers and are not reading from cover to cover. In this case the brain really doesn't want to be engaged, it just wants a quick bit of data to slip into what it's already engaged in.
2) There's more than one writer and we don't want shifting personal styles that distract the reader from the message. This can be dealt with, but it requires a very high level of skill in the writers, or at least an editor who can normalize the writing style. Formal writing is actually easier on this level.
3) Many readers, although they are fluent enough to read the work in English, are not fluent enough to understand how to deal with subtle ambiguities that are introduced in informal writing. This is also a concern if there are potential product liability lawsuits originating from a misinterpretation of what you write.
4) It isn't just "write as you speak." If you don't believe me, walk to a public space and tape a 1-minute snippet of conversation, and then transcribe it. You'll be amazed at how impossible it is to read for information. Imparting information casually in an interesting manner is very difficult.

Regarding the localization argument:
There is the old cliche that what gets lost in translation is the poetry. Unfortunately, that is very true, so the main concern with localization is eliminating ambiguity, which doesn't map 1:1 to different languages, and forces the translator to make judgment calls, which she doesn't want to do (because this is where errors are introduced unless the translator understands the subject as well as you do, which is never the case).

Posted by: Mark S | Jan 5, 2005 10:31:37 PM

Copying;-) from the HF approach I've tried
to apply this conversational style and more
than average amount of pictures in our project
documentation. It works. The content of these
technical documents is the same but the form
makes sure the reader absorbs it faster and
even starts wondering what all the fuss is
about, since the technical subject becomes,
well... easier.

Although appreciated, I got the remark in the
yearly evaluation that these documents are too
nice, which is translated in too much work
involved with all these pictures. I have this
year to prove this is wrong :-), once the proper
tools are set up it all goes quite naturally.

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 5, 2005 11:02:04 PM

okay, this might sound silly, but I have the excuse of being non-native. What are 'contractions'??? I only know them in the context of giving birth, and I guess that's not what's meant here...

In this context, I partly disagree on the comment which says that informal writing is sometimes more difficult to read for non-native speakers. I personally have more problems understanding long, formal sentences with lots of hard words (often words not used in conversational language, and not known by non-natives) than I have with more conversational sentences. When I don't know a certain word, it's easier for me to simply understand the meaning of the word (out of the context) in a converstational sentence, than it is in a formal style sentence.

Grtz, Jef
Grtz, Jef

Posted by: Jef Cumps | Jan 6, 2005 2:04:12 AM

For years I made a living as a voice over guy on TV and radio commercials. My singular talent was to be found in my ability to unsuck the marketing drivel, to make it sound conversational. This was esay to do. You just screwed up the delivery. Which was easy to do, as I say: as a writer I recognized the drek, where it came from, and why. Somewhere along the line this coversational style went out of favor. But rather than retreat into oldschool 'this is an announcement' reads, the dweebs in the marketing school of overfunctionality thought they could capture the voice of the audience in these reads - the voice was always described as 'ironic'. Of course there was absolutely nothing ironic about any of it. So, what would Marketing do with your suggestion? They'd mess it up. Not understanding that there's a unity between tone and text, context and delivery. Plus throw in the reductive tendencies caused by blind messaging -and, well, let's just say, sa I say, it was a mess. Somehow marketers would turn the conversation into a overly self-conscious 'let's-try-to-look-like-it's-about-the-user's-in-our-conversational-tone' So there are pitfalls and drawbacks in all this 'conversation' talk, as noted in one of the comments above. And not all formal writing need be dry and boring, and unengaging. And, further, good writing is good writing. Conversational or not. Poetry can have an illuminating effect that the conversational cannot come close to achieving. By all accounts the very formal Vladmir Nabokov could hold an audience during a lecture on literature. A well-turned phrase is often more memorable than the stumbling and bumbling of the offhand and friendly. In fact, I've talked myself right out of this idea that the conversational tone is a good idea. I think it bites. The idea that conversational language says more to the listener or reader - the user - is an evil meme that needs to be immediately eradicated from this stream of thought on human communication. End of conversation.

Posted by: bmo | Jan 6, 2005 4:56:00 AM

With all due respect, I don't agree with the post of bmo.

You've got the content and the form, if the latter is just incoherent and leads to meaningless drivel, then IMHO there is nothing conversational to it. It's just (radio) noise or waist of ink. If it helps conveying the message for the underlying content/concepts then you've got something going on, that might not be
appealing to some as a poem does, but it does bring accross the point.

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 6, 2005 9:58:28 AM

Kathy, great blog entry, as always!

Hi Jef! A contraction is basically just the combination of two words into one using an apostrophe. Like it's or they've or you've, etc. To tie it into the definition you say you're familiar with, how about:

He's going to pay for this!

Posted by: Dave Wood | Jan 6, 2005 11:04:26 AM

On the money, Kathy. I can't argue, and won't. On my blog I related a couple of stories about the difference in how two flight attendants talked about the same arrival procedure, and the different results produced. The conversation produced results. The formal (you could even call it marketingspeak) produced frustration for everyone.

When I took consumer trades for American Century waaayyy back, we were advised to speak formally and, in concluding any call, say, "Thank you for calling American Century Investments." That sounded stupid and the customer nearly always hung up without a word. So I started to say, "Thanks for your call, we really appreciate it. Talk to you soon." As you would say to a friend. More often than not, you'd get a better reaction: "Thank YOU. Yep, I'm investing more next month, I'll call you then." Better for the customer, better for the company, better for my sanity.

Do hotel operators really think, "It's my pleasure to connect you to that extension."? No. Come off it.

Thanks, and keep up the good work.

Posted by: Mason | Jan 6, 2005 11:46:50 AM

Hey Kathy,

Re: my imminent guerrilla marketing blog, I'll keep you posted.

Good stuff again today, BTW. Systems thinking for kids would be especially fun...

Posted by: Frank Ruscica | Jan 6, 2005 2:37:08 PM

If you take "write the way you talk" to extremes, yes, writing becomes practically incoherent. But that's not the style of writing we're talking about here.

Conversational writing is direct, friendly writing like the style used in this blog, not the transcribed jabberings of everyday conversation.

Nabokov undoubtedly had a dedicated, motivated audience. Readers of user manuals or online courses aren't nearly so dedicated. Less formal, more conversational writing is not only easier to understand, it's more appealing, so readers are more likely to stick with it.

I've been told "never use contractions because non-native speakers don't understand them." Where on earth did this idea come from? I've tutored English as a second language for 20 years. Students who are advanced enough to read basic business materials have never been stymied by contractions. What do they have trouble with? Convoluted, formal sentences that separate the subject and verb or, thanks to the agentless passive, have no subject at all. My students have been native speakers of Portuguese, Spanish, Persian, and Chinese.

Posted by: Cathy Moore | Jan 7, 2005 7:54:10 AM

The only sensible idea behind "contractions don't localize well" is that English words are already on average shorter than words in many other languages (for example, it was calculated that a Russian translation will be 1,2 times longer than an English original) and contractions only make the problem worse. But this is only a problem when translating labels that should fit into some fixed size object, like labels on buttons etc. Perhaps this is the origin of the expression "contractions don't localize well", from where it was transferred to educational materials, where it makes zero sense. :-)

Posted by: Map | Jan 8, 2005 8:41:07 PM

Hi, your readability link above is broken. Nice blog.

Posted by: Scot | May 18, 2005 8:11:57 AM

Socrates, anyone?

Posted by: Chris | Feb 3, 2007 5:38:18 AM

Kathy -- As always, loved your post on conversing with brains, but couldn't get the readability index link to work. Thanks for a wonderful blog. As someone whose college president once said, "Learning is suffering" your work is a joy to read and holds out the hope that learning cannot only be for a lifetime, but also Big Fun.

Posted by: Sharon Schmitt | Feb 3, 2007 9:31:27 AM

English is a VERY long language in written text.

I don't know numbers, but my native Hebrew should be about 0.7 the length of English, and that is MODERN hebrew, which is far longer than Hebrew 40 or 2000 years ago, with all the beautiful contractions that made Hebrew such a great language to think in almost void in common speech (In hebrew, 'my car', 'ha-mehonit sheli', can become 'mehoniti', as an example of a very useful contraction. Written Hebrew also has far less phonetic information than spoken Hebrew - in fact, 'ha-mehonit sheli' is only ten characters out of a 22 character alphabet, compared to it's English transliteration which is fourteen out of a 26 character alphabet).

Posted by: Aur Saraf | Feb 4, 2007 5:05:52 AM

Good points. I agree that conversational writing is better writing. I hate the formal style used in scientific writing, so full of passive voice. Fortunately my writing mentors when I was in college were Donald Knuth (Art of Computer Programming) and Douglas Hofstadter (Gödel, Escher, Bach), who are both studiously conversational in their writing, so I didn't have to fight to make my dissertation writing conversational in tone.

My friend Paul Trachtman, former science editor of Smithsonian Magazine, taught a course to high school students on science writing by having them write fake scientific articles, full of jargon and impressive phrases but meaning nothing. That experience quickly immunized his students to being overly impressed by scientific-ese.

I'm fascinated by your Head First series (I just picked up Design Patterns from a blog mention)...this goes much further in using not just conversational language but also conversational graphics...not gratuitously, but as an integral part of the presentation. It doesn't fit flippant, it feels like the authors went to the trouble of presenting ideas in the most digestible possible form, just like a good user interface. Like they cared about readers understanding the material. Courageous! Good going!

Posted by: Scott Kim | Feb 10, 2007 7:10:57 PM

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