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Do You Write the Way People Talk?

October 9th, 2007 by Bob Bly

Often-quoted advice to writers is to write the way people talk.

To me, that means using the language your readers would use when talking about the same subject you are writing to them about.

A case in point is a fundraising letter I got today from a public radio station featuring soft and eclectic rock and pop.

The letter begins:

“Dear Neighbor: I have a feeling you’re a smart media consumer.”

Let me ask you. When you turn on your radio to listen to music, do you think of yourself as a “media consumer”?

Or as someone who likes to listen to music on the radio?

The fundraising copywriter has taken a simple concept and buried it in jargon alien to the reader.

If I were asked to edit this letter, my opening might read:

“Dear Music Lover: Do you ever wish, when you turn on the radio, that they’d play OUR music? You know the kind of music I mean … etc.”

Do you prefer my version or their version — and why?

Or, rewrite it with your own lead.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 9th, 2007 at 1:18 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

57 responses about “Do You Write the Way People Talk?”

  1. Michael A. Stelzner said:

    I agree yours is better

    Rather than OUR I would say YOUR type of music.


  2. Paul said:

    You can see you have done this before… Your one wins hands down!

  3. Bob Bly said:

    Michael: I think “our” is better than “your.” “Our” says, “Hey, we are just like you, and we share your taste in music.” I would put “our” in all caps to emphasize that the reader and writer are in the same group.

  4. Dianna Huff said:

    Bob, Why was the radio station asking for money? I can get music on any old radio station — what’s different about the music on the public radio station?

    People who listen to public radio (as if all radio isn’t “public”) do generally tend to be more “media savvy.” They are making a real choice to listen to a station that supposedly carries “better” news and more “intellectual” information.

    Based on the one sentence you gave us, I don’t know if it’s a good opening or not. I would need to see the rest of the letter. Personally, I skip most letter openings and move straight to the appeal — how much do they want and why?

    The MSPCA gets me every time — they tell stories about animals that bring tears to my eyes. I always end up writing a check. 🙂

  5. David Tandet said:

    “Have you ever been stuck in traffic, iPodded out, no new discs? You wish you could just flip on your RADIO for a musical surprise, don’t you? Of YOUR kind of tunes? Like Elton John singing ‘Rocket Man’, or maybe some Cowboy Junkies soother. Well for the cost of one latte a month . . .”

    Bob, I think that’s in concert with your idea of making it easy for readers to relate, and provides an emotional “mmph” that lets them do a click to conversion language personalization in their own minds. As far as specific artists’ names and song titles – you’re not going to please everyone. But then, you’re not trying to.

  6. Dianna Huff said:

    But David, I can get those very same tunes from a privately-owned radio station. Why do I need to SEND MONEY to a non-profit station that plays the same music?

    That’s what I’m trying to get at — why was the radio station was asking for dollars in the first place?

    It might be their opening *was* effective — maybe they have a mission we don’t know about.

  7. David Tandet said:

    Dianna, I can see your point, and it’s valid. The way one of the public stations in L.A. handles it is to refer to its selection as “handcrafted.” This conveys there’s a hometown human making playlist decisions.

    Another tact is to build some buzz around the DJ (or “host” since it’s public radio). We’re talking about a public station: odds are there’s a live person keeping things on track. What if paragraph one in #4 ends “Well for the cost of one latte a month, help make sure KBLY’s Sherwood Nottingham personally chooses the music he knows you want to hear. Your all-time favorites, plus he’ll introduce you to some sounds sure to become your new favorites.” Sherwood may not be Bob Dylan, but you can still create interest in his musical qualifications (“once filled in to play drums for the Rolling Stones” and so forth). A public station probably DOES have more going for it than just the music. As you say, we don’t know that here.

  8. Bob Bly said:

    DH: Not sure I see your point. As a nonprofit public radio station, they are asking for money because they NEED it — since they accept no advertising. As a listener in their broadcast area, I would give money for 3 reasons:

    1. To be able to listen to a station that caters to my taste.
    2. To be able to listen to a station that plays my kind of music without commercials.
    3. To get the free CD of their top artists offered for a donation of $50 or more.

    I disagree that the language “media consumers” might be appropriate for any audience other than college professors who teach media.

    By your logic, the MSPCA should begin their letter to you “Dear Mammal Protection Advocate.”

  9. Dianna Huff said:


    See your point and raise you .25 cents.

    I would not have started that letter with “Dear Neighbor.”

    I would have personalized it.

    Then I would have said, “How much would you pay to listen to music without commercials?”

    That would have caught my attention.

    The MSCPA begins letters to me with “Dear Dianna.” 🙂

  10. Susanna K. Hutcheson said:


    Your version is by far superior. Public radio can’t afford to pay for a decent copywriter. When I was very young, I applied for a job at public radio and they paid squat. So I went elsewhere.

    But you’re right. You should write the letter (in most cases) in a conversational, intimate voice. You should talk as if you’re having coffee with the reader and use her language.

    If you notice the Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign (this is not an endorsement) you’ll notice she’s playing the personal one-to-one card in her advertising. I get email from her (I sent her camp one email and it was negative so I know they didn’t read it) that talks to me as if we were girl friends. I’m sure that works with most people. I don’t happen to be one of them.

    Many copywriters, and just about all people who write their own copy, don’t understand the concept of writing in the language of the reader. It’s truly an art.


  11. Bob Bly said:

    DH: I like the idea of personalization, but with a caveat. Personalization almost always lifts response, but it does NOT always lift response enough to pay back the extra cost of personalization. You have to test. As for your lead, how about: “How much would you pay to listen to the music you love — YOUR music — without commercials?”

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