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“In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, Charles K. Ramond described experiments designed to measure advertising effectiveness,” writes Bob Bly in The Copywriter’s Handbook. “The experiments showed, not surprisingly, that advertising is most effective when it is easy to understand.” {1}

Counter and barstools of vintage roadside dinerAnd one of the best ways to make an advertisement or any other marketing content easy to understand is to write like you speak. Use clear, simple prose. Like you’re having a conversation with your reader.

In Confessions of an Advertising Man, David Ogilvy says, “Unless you have some reason to be solemn and pretentious, write your copy in the colloquial language which your customers use in everyday conversation.”{2}

This holds true for all forms of business writing. The tone will change – some conversations are more formal than others – but you always want to “speak” to your reader simply and directly.

The benefits of a “conversational tone”

In the direct mail industry, copywriters strive for a conversational tone because of its numerous persuasive benefits:

  • Gets your message across clearly and quickly
  • Builds rapport with the reader
  • Builds trust
  • Reduces the reader’s buying resistance

Writing with a conversational tone builds affinity with your reader, because he doesn’t feel “talked down to.” You’re talking to him as an equal – a friend – letting him know you have his interests at heart. You don’t sound like you’re giving him a sales pitch.

“All good copy – whether corporate or promotional – should be simple, direct and easy to read,” says Bly. “My advice is to just write it in a clear, natural, conversational tone.” {1}

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Writing, after all, is one-way communication. To keep the “dialogue” going, you have to keep the reader engaged with the ideas you’re trying to get across. Even the best direct mail copywriters often spend hours editing and re-writing a piece, trying to maintain a conversational tone and cadence throughout.

Have a beer with your prospect

Now, I could give you a checklist of rules or tips for conversational writing. But instead, I thought I’d share with you one, simple technique that can help you achieve the same goal more easily. It’s called, “The Barstool Test.”

Two People Making A Toast With Beer MugsThe Barstool Test is a technique used by many copywriters, but the name was coined by direct response copywriter Paul Hollingshead, co-founder of American Writers and Artists, Inc., because of the way he applies it.

Once he’s finished writing his copy, Hollingshead imagines he’s in a bar having a drink with his prospect.

Then he reads each sentence he’s written, out loud. As he does so, he asks himself, “Would I really say that, in that way, if I were sitting on a barstool having a beer with this person?” If the answer is no, he decides what it is he wouldn’t say, re-writes it, and repeats the process. He does this with every sentence and every paragraph of his promotion until he’s satisfied it all sounds like a barstool conversation.

And that’s it. That’s the Barstool Test.

It may sound like a lot of work, but it’s a lot easier that trying to apply a checklist to what you or someone else has written. And it’s worth it if you want your prospects to read your promotion…and buy your product or service.

Picture your ideal reader

Oh, and if you’re the one doing the writing, here’s one more tip that will streamline the Barstool Test process. Before you start to write, get a clear mental picture of the person you’re writing to. Use whatever information you have on your target audience, and create a portrait in your mind of one person who represents that audience. Then keep that image in front of you as you write.

“Start writing to people,” says Chuck Custer in his pamphlet, Tips to Put Power in Your Business Writing. “It’s okay that you don’t know your reader! Picture someone you do know who’s like your reader. Then write to him.”

Ogilvy even suggests using the Barstool Test as you write your initial draft. “When you sit down to write your body copy, pretend that you are talking to the woman on your right at a dinner party. She has asked you, ‘I am thinking of buying a new car. Which would you recommend?’ Write your copy as if you were answering that question.” {2}

Conversational writing is clear, simple and easy to understand. And when you write clear copy, you sell more merchandise. I highly recommend you use the Barstool Test on every promotion you write, edit or approve.

Take-Away Points

1. Research has shown that advertising is most effective when it’s easily understood.

2. The best way to make an advertisement or any other marketing content easy to understand is to write like you speak – as though you’re having a conversation with your reader.

3. To make sure your writing sounds conversational, use the Barstool Test.

Next Steps

Or better yet, hire me to write your marketing content. I’ll do the Barstool Test for you. Just drop me an email at Or call (+39) 011 569 4951 to discuss your project and get a free, no-obligation quote.


{1} Bly, Robert, The Copywriter’s Handbook, 3rd Edition, Henry Holt and Co., 2005.

{2} Ogilvy, David, Confessions of an Advertising Man, Southbank Publishing, 2004.

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