Go to the homepage of your company’s Website, and read the copy aloud. How does it sound? Like a pushy salesperson? Cute and clever, but unclear? Why not sound like yourself? Avoid corporate speak copywriting that almost no one understands.
Today’s guest is Nick Usborne, a conversational copywriting mastermind with 40 years of experience. Conversational copywriting is clear, concise, and converts customers.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- What is conversational copywriting? Social and conversational copy that engages with an audience; write the way you talk
- Conversational vs. Corporate Copywriting: Clear and compelling copy with a human voice matters
- Old School vs. Online Voice: Let go of marketing speak to create realistic, unique, and transparent voice and language
- Conversational Copywriting Traits: Start with a couple short, simple sentences; remove the fluff
- Corporate copywriting is defensive, while conversational copy is disarming
- Mirror and Reflect Customers’ Words: Use their language, not yours as a clever copywriter; creativity can get in the way of copy
Nathan: What if you were to open your homepage and read the copy out loud? What would it sound like? Would you sound like a pushy salesperson? Would you sound cutesie and clever but maybe not clearly communicating your product offering? Or would it sound like a human? Would you just sound like you? Would it sound like an enthusiastic friend who’s getting your audience excited about what they can achieve with your product offering?
We’ve all heard of corporate speaking copywriting. It’s that jargon that just really doesn’t make sense to anyone, maybe not even your own audience. We fall into that trap when we use tired, old, overused language that everyone else uses too. Then, there’s the opposite side of corporate speak. It’s when the copy gets so creative and clever that it just really doesn’t clearly communicate the message that it’s designed to.
When copywriting is too business or too clever, it fails to deliver results and that can literally push your audience away instead of pulling them in. It hurts trust which hurts conversion which hurts real business outcomes. You get the picture—copy matters. So then, what is the solution?
Well, a good one is conversational copywriting and today, we’re talking with the mastermind of conversational copywriting. It’s Nick Usborne. Nick brings 40 years of copywriting experience to us today on the Actionable Marketing Podcast. You’re going to learn why direct sales copywriting is no longer effective and too old school for what we need today. You’re going to learn how to make copy that really stands out with a human voice. And you’re going to learn a few frameworks to write clear and compelling copy to top it off. Let’s get AMPed with Nick.
All right, Nick, thank you so much for being on the podcast today.
Nick: Well, thank you for inviting me. I’m really pleased to be here.
Nathan: Well, we are pleased to have you and just to kick this thing off, I want to know a little bit more about you. I’m sure listeners are curious about your background. Could you share a little bit with us?
Nick: Sure. Actually, you’ve caught me on my 40th anniversary. This is my 40th year as a professional copywriter. I started out as a trainee in an ad agency in London, England. That was my starting point way, way back. I started out working for agencies and then I was a partner in a couple of agencies but for the last 30 years, I pretty much just been freelancing. I’d assume to do better, not necessarily on my own, I’m constantly partnering with others but I’m not terribly good in a company setting. I’m a born and bread freelancer, I think.
Nathan: No. It takes all kinds to run the world, right?
Nick: Yeah, for sure. That’s what I’ve been doing forever. I guess there’s ups and downs. It shows a lack of imagination in some sense. I’ve done the same thing for 40 years but on the other hand, I got some depth in there, I got some depth of experience. I like to share that.
Nathan: Definitely. I think that we can benefit from 40 years of this copywriting experience because I bet you have some mistakes along the way. If you can help us prevent those from happening, we’d appreciate that.
Nick: Okay. Let’s see what we can do.
Nathan: Nick, I know that you are an expert, so to say, in this topic of conversational copywriting. I think that might be even a term that you have coined. To just fill us in, how would you define conversational copywriting?
Nick: This is a big, big question. We could just do this one question. Conversational copywriting, I guess, is the opposite of traditional, old school, hard charging, in-your-face, hype-filled copywriting. I’ve said the first half of my career, I was in the offline world, before the Web. I was in direct response. I used to write direct mails and junk mail.
In those days, it was all pretty much hard-charging selling at an audience. The audience was on the scene. Direct mail, it’s a one-way medium. TV was. All old school media are one-way. We used to just push and we’d push. You push at a high volume to make stuff happen.
Then along comes the Web and I loved that. I built my first website back in 1995. I suddenly realized, “Oh my goodness. This is different because this isn’t a one-way medium, this isn’t a broadcast medium, this is a medium where our audience also get to participate.” Even back then, in the mid 90s, anyone could join a discussion list, a group. It wasn’t like TV. It wasn’t one-way. It wasn’t owned and controlled by media companies. Everyone could jump in.
Now, of course, everyone has their own Facebook page, you can have your own blog, these comment streams, social media, and people participate. This has got to mean significant change. The old in-your-face broadcast copywriting can’t be a good fit. This has to be more conversational in it’s approach because this is basically, by its very nature, the Web and certainly social media is almost by definition, social and conversational.
That’s what has driven me for years now, to say, “Hey, guys. Enough with the old broadcast writing and selling at an audience. It’s now time to engage with an audience.” That’s a whole different mindset and a whole different way of writing.
Nathan: You mentioned that old school, traditional, almost like that sales, that direct copywriting. You had mentioned “selling at” but could you explain a little bit more about what you feel is wrong with that old playbook?
Nick: I think it’s because instinctively when we’re online, it feels a little off, the voice feels a little off. Can I give you an example?
Nathan: Absolutely. I’d like that.
Nick: All right. I was working with a copywriter. I was doing some coaching with a copywriter and he was writing an email for a client. His client was in the loan care business. His loan care company wanted to send out an email which my copywriting friend was writing saying, “Hey, it’s the end of the season. Winter Is coming. It’s time to put your yard to bed for the winter.”
The copywriter had written like he wanted some urgency, scarcity, and all that good stuff to make people take action. He had written a piece towards the end of the email saying, “This is a limited time offer to our most valued customers so please call now.” I called him on that. I said, “You know what, that didn’t sound like an email from a loan care guy. The way you phrased it, it makes it sound like an email from some slick marketing guy. The voice is wrong.”
He acknowledged that and we played around with it. I said, “Look, instead of doing this ‘last chance,’ the ‘limited time,’ and all that kind of stuff, why don’t you just make it real? Why don’t you say something like, ‘Hey, this time of year, we’ve started getting some really heavy rains or an early frost and after that it’ll be too late for us to come out and put your yard to bed. So yeah, please call now.’” I’m still doing the agency thing, but I’m making it real and I’m making the email sound like it’s from a loan care guy and not a steak knife salesman on TV.
A lot of what I’m trying to encourage people to do is be more transparent, to be more real, to imagine they’re actually in conversation because if that loan care guy was in conversation with the client, he’d never say, “This is a limited time offer for our most valuable clients.” People don’t talk like that. But you might say, “Hey, look. Have you seen the forecast because some heavy rain is coming,” and, “Hey, we always do this time of year. We should get out first. We should get out before that happens.” It’s about making it real. It’s about letting go some of that marketing speak, that marketing language.
Nathan: I was just going to say, in that example, it sounds like any company could have written urgency, scarcity line. It’s nothing personal at all.
Nick: And every company does. Still now, I’d get so many websites and it’s the same experience. You know, “Get this free, blah, blah, blah, when you sign up for this blah, blah, blah.” It’s like everyone’s working from the same script, the same sheet and it’s frustrating because I think every company should have a voice and a character. They should be able to speak to their prospects.
I describe it as sitting across from your kitchen table with a cup of coffee, being really enthusiastic about what you got to share. If you believe in your product or service and if you respect and like your audience, your marketing should feel like a conversation between two people over either the kitchen table, in a coffee shop, or in a bar.
Hey, we will know how to be enthusiastic. As kids, we were fantastic in using language and conversation to persuade. We just got it educated out of us. We went to school. We went to university. We took marketing courses. And all of a sudden, we sound like weird business people or weird marketing people. We’ve lost our own voice. We used to have it. We know how to do it.
I try to encourage copywriters, marketers, and business owners to think of that circumstance of, “Hey. If I’m actually getting really excited about this, talking to someone and looking them in the eye, how would I talk? What words, what phrases would I use?”
Nathan: Definitely. I would agree with you. Universities, you’re treated like equals. It’s like a factory for students. You’re taught the exact same thing so if you do the exact same thing as anyone else, what’s your strategic differentiator?
Nick: Right. Even then in high school, you’re taught how to write in a way that helps you pass exams. If you take a PhD, you’re taught to write in a way that is incomprehensible to anyone outside of your specialty. I’m a freelancer so I don’t go as many corporate business meetings as I used to but sometimes I do and I listen to people. What is this language? What is this secret language that he’s using because it is so weird and it is so non-specific? I don’t think anyone else in the room is getting any more out of this than I am because it’s one cliche or phrase or I don’t know. It drives me nuts. I wish people could just talk like they are.
Nathan: You had mentioned the word “voice” earlier. Trying to get back to that, let’s say I’m in the shoes of your friend and I’m starting to write this email and the voice just feels wrong or something like that. Do you have any frameworks that you could share that can help people get back to the conversational roots of communication versus this factory mindset?
Nick: A lot of that is the mindset. I say to people, if they’re having trouble, let’s say with a particular email, just print it out, actually go and sit at a table. Grab a friend, your spouse, a work colleague, whatever. Sit them opposite to you and read what you’ve written out loud. A few things are going to happen here. Either it’s going to sound and feel great or when you read it, it’s going to feel awkward and clumsy, you’re going to feel uncomfortable and the person across the table is going to start looking at you like, “Really?”
Do you know what I mean? If you start reading a long, compound sentences which is three lines long, it’s just doesn’t sound or feel right at all. Or if you start reading to this person and you’re looking them in the eye and you’re being overly pitchy or salesy, then they’ll look at you like, “Seriously? You really want to talk to me like that?” We’re getting back to this human level, this conversation between two humans.
You go back and you rewrite it so that it feels comfortable for you to say it and it rolls beautifully off the tongue. David Ogilvy used to talk about conversational writing. He used to talk about using the language of your audience, of using the same words, the same language that your audience used. Great copywriting has always been like this.
Back in the 1980s, I was an avid student of print advertising because I studied that as a print copywriter for print ads and magazines. There was some amazing copywriters back then. There still are today but back then I had some favorites and I would read their work out loud. I would sit at home like this weird copywriting student who’s in his early 20s and I would read these ads out loud just to feel. I wanted a sense of what it felt like to speak it out loud.
The best copywriters, when you read that copy, it always just flows beautifully. It just comes out beautifully. Bad copy comes out as choppy. It doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel natural. One of the things I always say to students of conversational copywriting is read it out loud and you’ll find out the passages are just so aren’t wrong, or off, or too long, or clumsy.
Nathan: Nick will be back here in a minute to share more about conversational copywriting but now, I’d like to share an example of how we’ve used Nick’s advice here at CoSchedule. We recently launched a brand new marketing suite and we’re really excited about it. It was a brand new launch which meant brand new positioning and subsequently, brand new copy.
We literally listened to how our customers described CoSchedule and we listened to how our prospective customers described the problems they were struggling to solve. Their language really helped us write clear copy for brand new homepage and beyond. CoSchedule is the only way to organize your marketing in one place.
Check it out for an example at coschedule.com or for more information on the brand launch and how we’ve used Nick’s advice for positioning, check out coschedule.com/transform-modern-marketing. You’ll learn that Nick’s advice seriously works. So, let’s go back to the show with Nick.
Do you have any best practices to share around like standards or anything like that? Are there qualities or traits that you look for that represent conversational copywriting?
Nick: You and I, we had a couple of minutes warm-up before we started recording, right?This is like a little warm-up. In any conversation, you meet someone for the first time, it could be work, it could be after work, doesn’t matter, and you do this little dance, this little back and forth. In my mind, I often write a few lines before I begin as if I were warming up with my reader. Then I get into the copy that I will finally publish.
A little trick I do is almost like designing with words is I always start, whether it’s an email, an ad, content, whatever, my first paragraph is always one sentence. My first sentence is always less than the column width. In other words, it’s always one line and it’s super simple, super fast. My second paragraph is also usually one sentence, maybe looping over into two lines but hardly ever more than 10–12 words in a sentence.
What I’m doing here is I’m making it really easy to read and to get into what I’m saying but the other thing is a visual thing. I’m flagging visually, “Hey, this is easy. This isn’t like school. This isn’t like a business report. Look how easy it is to get started reading this.” I’m flagging that. I’m using words to design. I’m using sentence and paragraph lengths as a design element to show, visually, how easy it is to start reading.
I am super simple. I never went to university. I finished at high school. I don’t even know how to use a colon or a semicolon. I don’t even know the rules are. I’ve never used them in my life and I would never use them in copywriting because to me, good copywriting can be spoken. We don’t use semicolons in spoken conversation. This is construct for fancy pants writing and I never do it. I never do that. I write incredibly simple.
I go to enormous lengths. I’m 40 years here and I’m still working really hard on my writing, to make it better, to write better, to be a better writer. What always improves my writing is when I simplify, I cut. I turn a 12-word sentence into an 8-word sentence. I cut out the fluff. A lot of this is about you actually have to clarify your thinking first. You have to be really clear about what you’re going to say and then you say as simply as you possibly can.
That’s certainly a process I get through. First of all, the pre-conversation I will actually physically write the warm-up between me and my reader. Then, I start writing to the reader but I always make it super simple, as simple as I possibly can.
Nathan: I really like that. Something that I’ve noticed recently and I’m sure that you’ve noticed this, if you watch a movie, how the scripts from the actors are always extremely simple short sentences and I like to think about copy like that. I don’t know if you have anything to share around that but it seems like that’s conversational, too.
Nick: Absolutely and that is really interesting, you bringing that up because sometimes people say to me, “Yeah, but conversations are so messy.” And you’re right, a conversation is. You get around in circles, you repeat yourself. I said, “Well, okay. Think of a conversation as a script for a movie or a TV show.” You’re right, when you look at the script, it’s usually super clean. Nobody uses long fancy sentences. There’s no semicolons in movie scripts.
It’s not actually a real conversation but we feel it that way. We experience it. It could be reading a novel, it could be on a page, or it could be on a movie or a TV show. It sure feels like a conversation between two people but it’s actually a construct. It’s a script writer’s construct or a novelist’s construct. It does it, it simplifies that conversational flow.
Then people say to me, “Yeah, Nick but you’re not really in conversation when you’re writing a copy.” If I’m writing an email, a sales page, or a content, no, I’m not writing a conversation. I’m not actually having a real life conversation but I can still write in conversation language as if I were talking to someone and that, I think, is very disarming.
Going back to what you were saying about old school copywriting, that broadcast pushy approach, that makes us feel defensive, right? It’s like the late night TV show. It’s like the used car sales person is a classy example. When salespeople push too hard like this, we actually almost physically want to take a step back, right? You can feel these defenses coming up. You’re trying to defend yourself now against the pitch. That is, to me, a huge downside.
Whereas conversational copywriting is the opposite. It’s disarming. If I write to you as if I were respectfully having a conversation with you, but I’m enthusiastic because I want to share my excitement about my product or service, if I’m conversational, your defenses don’t go up. Conversation is disarming. It builds trust.
Nathan: One of the things that you mentioned, that I want to circle back on here is you look for fluff and you make sure that you’re editing that out. It’s really easy for a writer of any kind to leave fluff in there and to write with fluff. I’m wondering, how would you define that? How do you write stuff then spot what you should be removing out? What do you look for there?
Nick: I think the best copywriters, and this one I was saying, I’m still trying to get better, what I’m trying to do more and more as a copywriter is to leave my ego at the door. Usually, when I see fluff in the work of a copywriter whether it’s my own or someone else’s, it’s the copywriter trying to be clever. It’s the copywriter raising their hand just to say, “Hey, look how cool this bit is.” I try to remove myself more and more from the copy.
Anyone who’s ever done any kind of study of psychology is probably familiar with the term mirroring. It’s when you mirror someone else’s words or thoughts. Therapists do this all the time. The patient says something, the therapist says, “What I hear you saying is,” and then they repeat a key phrase that the other person said. I do this all the time.
If I want to write a piece of conversational copy, the first thing I do is listen. I will go to social media. I will go to Amazon reviews, on Yelp! reviews. I will listen to my audience. I’ll listen to the phrases and language they use when talking about my product, service, or one like it. I will try to identify the emotional highs and lows—what delights them, what makes them angry, what frustrates them, what excites them.
I do all this research into my audience before I start writing and I’m specifically listening to the language they use. When I write a headline or that opening short paragraph or two, I use their language, not mine, not Mr. Fancy Pants copywriter. I’ve emptied the clever headlines to where I used to 40 years ago.
Instead, I take the language of my users out of my research online. I plug that into the beginning, the opening, so that when readers see that—it’s the same reason therapists use it, the same way when police negotiate, FBI negotiators do the same thing—they reflect back. They mirror back the language and emotional high points and low points of the audience or whoever the negotiation is with. That is massively disarming. It’s like, “Oh my goodness, they totally get me.” It’s deeply engaging. It’s deeply disarming.
One of the things I look for if I’m editing my copy or someone else’s copy is I look for where the copywriting is trying to insert too much of him or herself into it. I say, “No, get your ego out of this. Your job is not to be clever. Your job is to understand your reader, your listener, or your viewer, to use their language, to use their emotions, and to just reflect that back so that they could say, ‘Oh my goodness, this is for me. Why didn’t I find this place before? This is amazing. They totally get me.’” As a copywriter, you really do have to step back. You have to leave your ego at the door.
Nathan: To put it very simply, it seems like you value that clarity over creativeness in many ways.
Nick: Oh, yes. Yes, we should be creative, but sometimes, creativity, the desire to be creative gets in the way of what you’re actually trying to say because your ego comes into play too much. You’re just trying to showcase your talent. This is not just about copywriting. Designers have the same challenge.
Sometimes designers want to be creative and create something new. What they’re actually creating is an experience. The person looking at that page or whatever just feel unfamiliar and would say, “Well, hang on.” It’s like the design actually gets in the way. It becomes a usability issue. Whether you’re a writer or a designer, put the ego out of the way. Creativity, yes but not creativity to display your own cleverness. Creativity in a way to engage with your audience.
Nathan: I love that advice and I think that’s perfect advice, especially in regards to copywriting. This is stuff that we’ve been working on here at CoSchedule, too, so I can definitely take this advice and get it into play. Nick, maybe one last question for you is you’ve obviously written the old way and understand the value of the new way of conversational copywriting versus the old school sales approach. What sort of results have you seen? You obviously made this transition because you saw the need for it. I’m wondering, how that has reflected in numbers for you.
Nick: It’s tricky for me to do before and after because there were so many variables, but I have a course on this. About 1000 people have been through the course. Obviously, a huge pledger for me is when those alumni come back and say, “Oh my goodness, let me tell you what happened.”
There was a freelance copywriter, she started using the conversation copywriting approach not only with her clients but to actually get clients. She became more conversational in the emails she was sending to prospective clients. She attributed the conversational approach to an increase, actually $72,000 within the first year, to add it to her income. Silly because by being conversational when would you add to her prospects, more prospects would say, “Yes, we want to work with you.” She was giving way, way better results and they were giving her more and more work.
Then there was another guy. He was working full-time. He was moonlighting as a freelancer. He needed five times his freelance work because he wanted to be full-time freelance. It had taken him 18 months. He started practicing conversational copywriting and within 18 months he had five timed his income and he’s quit his old job.
At the other end of the spectrum, there was a guy, he was a trainer for an investment bank, the sales team within an investment bank in Manhattan, like crazy. He’s not the kind of target audience I’m going for, but he heard about the course. He took the course. He shared it with his team and he said it made an amazing difference because these guys were hard sellers on the phone pitching investment opportunities to their clients. He coached them based on what he had learned about conversational copywriting. He didn’t give me the exact figures, but he said it had a profound impact on the team. Those numbers are probably huge because this is a very, very big well-known investment firm.
I’m constantly getting feedback that is not only something that people feel more comfortable taking the approach but are actually seeing significantly better results when they let go of the old broadcast method and follow more closely to the conversational method.
Nathan: I love that, Nick. I wrote down one little term here while you were talking about all of that. It seems like this is life-changing stuff, literally being able to quit a day job and be able to take up freelance copywriting work because you’re good at it. It’s really fun for you to have shared with us today. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
Nick: Oh, you’re very welcome. As you can probably tell, I love talking about this stuff.
Nathan: Yeah and I think you have something special to share with our readers if they’re interested in learning more about conversational copywriting.
Nick: Sure. I have a website all about it at conversationalcopywriting.com. I have a blog there so people could read my blog posts. I put together a page for your listeners at conversationalcopywriting.com/actionable and there, I’m going to do that thing. I’m going to say, “Hey, give me your email address and I’m going to give you these downloads and a series of videos.”
Yes, I obviously want to acquire prospects but you can see how I do it. I’m using the same approach as old school in terms of, yes, I want to collect names into my email address. Yes, I want to give them valuable information, but I hope in the feedback I get supports this, that my tone, the way that I write, the way that I talk is not that old pushy approach. Yes, I’m getting you into my email list but once you’re on there, I’m going to treat you with a lot more respect than most marketers do. Hopefully, I’ll deliver a lot of value to you over time and maybe, maybe one day you’ll take my course.
Nathan: Exactly. If you want to get examples of this stuff in action, you just go ahead and visit Nick’s site. That sounds like a great place to go. Nick, again, thanks for being on the show.
Nick: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.