7 ways to make dialog sound natural

“Upon examining the data,” your scenario character says, “I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the proposal, specifically its requirement that we induce wombats to fly.”

Who talks like that? No one in the real world. However, you might find your scenario characters talking like that in your first drafts. Here’s how to fix it.

Droid turns into a human

1. Make sure you’ve actually written dialog. Show, don’t tell.

Not this: Barbara says she is concerned about the delay in processing TPS reports.

Instead: “It takes too long to process TPS reports,” Barbara says.

Let the readers draw conclusions like they do in the real world.

Not: Peter doesn’t want to talk about what happened at his previous job.

Instead:

“Peter, what happened at your last job?” Louise asks.

“Who wants coffee?” Peter says. “I’m going for a refill.”

2. Start late. You might be tempted to write the small talk that starts a conversation, so it sounds realistic. Instead, fast-forward to the meat for more impact. Imagine how a movie would show it.

Not:

Jason goes to Emma’s office.

“Good morning, Jason,” Emma says. “Thank you for coming in. I know it’s a long trip for you.”

“I’m happy to help,” Jason says. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, the auditors called me yesterday, and…”

Instead:

Jason goes to Emma’s office.

“I need to cancel our account,” Emma says. “The auditors found problems.”

3. Use contractions: “She is our best chainsaw juggler” becomes “She’s our best…” Not allowed to use contractions? Fight back with the tips in this post.

4. Don’t stuff the dialog with story. If they wouldn’t say it in real life, don’t make them say it in your scenario.

Not: “Diane, I’d like to hear your opinion about how to handle cultural differences on the new Zeko project, since you have been with the firm for eight years and have worked on numerous projects with companies in Zekostan.”

Instead: Bob calls Diane, who has eight years’ experience on Zeko projects. “How should we handle cultural differences on the new project?” he asks.

5. Choose informal words. “Wish” becomes “want,” “assist” becomes “help.” Find simple alternatives in The A to Z of Alternative Words (PDF) from the Plain English Campaign.

6. Break sentences into fragments of different types. It varies the rhythm, makes people sound more human, and gives them character.

Not: “If you want to play the banjo, you will need to go outside.”

Instead: “You want to play the banjo? Go outside.”

7. Use “said” and “asked.” Avoid having people “growl,” “smile,” “snarl,” or “laugh” their lines, which gets distracting and over-dramatic.

Often, you don’t even need “said.”

Example:

“How much are you willing to invest?” Jorge asks.

“Ninety bajillion dollars.” Andrea opens her briefcase. “I have it right here.”

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Want to improve your scenario design skills? There are some seats available in the scenario design workshop that starts on November 8. You’ll apply what you’re learning to a real-life project from your job. We’ll meet in the afternoon in Europe and mornings in the Americas.

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Comments

  1. Another helpful, actionable post.
    Language is so important. Even figuring out how someone would say something “in real life” adds needed context.
    I always ask my SME’s – Now I get the process, but if I needed help with this, how would I actually ask that? If I can understand it in conversational and plain language, it will be easier for me to remember as well.

    Thank you Cathy!

  2. Jeff Kortenbosch says:

    I’m with Anna! Great post with easy and applicable tips! Thanks so much.

  3. Cathy – these are GREAT tips, especially for those writing scripts that will be handed off to Voiceover’s like me, working in the areas of eLearning and corporate narration. The directions from the client are “Please sound natural and conversational” yet, the script is anything but! Tip Number 4 is particularly relevant ~ thank you!

  4. Steve Baker says:

    Cathy, great tips! I am new to instructional design, but have been a sales trainer for years. We are often given sales presentations or scripts that we are supposed to get our salespeople to learn and use on the phone and in individual and group presentations. The first thing I usually say is, “we don’t talk like that”. I’m sure we have all had the situation where we got a phone call and it was obvious that the person on the other end of the line was reading from a script. It doesn’t sound natural because its not. Love the tips, and will be following your blog for more – thank you!

  5. Thanks for the tips! I love your blog.
    We always do a read-through also, where we take turns reading lines from the script out loud (to catch any tongue-trippers, missed contractions, or just general flow problems.)

  6. Thanks, Cathy, for insightful article on dialogue writing

  7. Cathy,
    Thanks for a wonderful article on the need to make language and voice-overs sound better in elearning. In my organization we are constantly looking for new ways to make our narration sound more natural. It gets challenging if you work in a heavily regulated environment, have a course that has more rigid, complex information. The tips you provided were spot on and have given me some inspiration.
    Thanks!

    • George Napier says:

      This is a great article. I also create online learning tools for my job. I too will be using some of the tips. I like the informality of the language, it helps sell the believability of the lesson scenario.

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