Writing Chatbot Dialogue Worthy of John Grisham

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We’ve come full circle — once again, our interface with computers is defined by words.  Instead of specific words and phrases, though, we can now use the full range of the English language.  The entire lexicon is our UI/UX.  Theoretically, at least.

Exact attention must be paid, therefore, to each phrase of an interaction with a bot, just as it was once paid to every pixel and icon in an app or website.  Many people are ready to admit their lack of experience when it comes to creating that website.  Yet when it comes to the dialogue of a chatbot, we’re all suddenly experts.  Haven’t we all been talking since the age of two?  We must know at least a few things about communication by now.

Sophistication and planning is required when writing chatbot dialogue

Of course we’re quite skilled at relating snappy anecdotes to friends.  But we’re not as deft when it comes to succinctly relating a long-form technical process to a stranger.  For this, quite a bit of sophistication and planning is needed.  You have to grab and retain the attention of a person who is not concerned about damaging your ego if they terminate your conversation early.

So how can you craft irresistible chatbot dialogue which will ensnare users like a finely honed app interface?  A good place to start is by asking these questions.

Who is your audience?

Think about your “perfect user” a lot.  A LOT.  Describe them as narrowly as possible.  Sure, anyone can potentially use your chatbot.  Yet few things equally appeal to Queens grandmothers and L.A. tweens.  Who do you think will comprise the majority of your audience?  This will advise you on how you should craft your chatbot dialogue.

What is the end goal?

In other words, what action do you want your audience to take?  It’s important to know what you want from the user, what you want them to do, before you start rambling on without a point.

You need to have a plan

Once you’ve addressed the above questions, you need to start thinking about a general outline for your chat experience.  This outline will become the framework for all your later conversations, so it’s absolutely essential to have it to guide you as you’re writing the specifics of your chats.  Why do you need to do it this way?  Because if you don’t have a framework, your conversation will be devoid a point, and thus the entire conversation will be both confusing and meandering.  Not only that, but your users may well feel they don’t have enough guideposts to get back home.  They might even simply give up.

One strategy that works well is to make note of all the top-level points you want to get across.  Make sure it’s a manageable number.  No more than 10, perhaps.  Be aware of their order, and make sure they flow logically one to the other.  Your conversations should flow as well.  Be sure to place your most important points at the top of the list.  It’s a mistake to assume the user will make it completely through your chat maze every time, regardless of how brilliantly you designed it.  Hook your users early, and you have the luxury of educating them later.

Employ Artificial Intelligence, not Artifice in Communication

One thing our brains excel at is communicating with other people.  It’s an incredibly important skill, shaped by many years of evolution.  Typically we take stock of a room before speaking out loud.  There is no room, however, when communicating with others through a computer.  Thus many of us use a completely separate part of our brains to do so.  If someone is at a dinner party and is going to tell an off-color joke, they’ll usually be aware of who else might be present.  Most people will consider how those at the table may take the joke.

Think of your “ideal user” when writing chatbot text

But there is no context with online conversations.  There is no “room” to take stock of.  A cursory scan of any online comment section will suggest that most people don’t extend the same courtesy as they do in their real-life conversations.

So in order to create chatbot dialogue that is engaging and inviting, we have to appeal to the more evolved part of our brains that is more attuned to the subtleties and nuances of communicating with other people.  One of the best ways to do this is to keep in mind some person that would be the ideal user for your bot.

Don’t think of classes or types of people — think of a real person that you know well.  It would be better to think of your best friend in college, Steve, rather than your bartender.  Then when you are writing, write as if you are talking to Steve.  This way you won’t have to stress about writing for the unwashed masses.  How would you chat with Steve?  Would you send a smiley or other emoji?  Then have your bot say it that way.  Would you tell a short anecdote to illustrate a point?  Do it the same way in your chatbot.  Use jokes to humanize the conversation, if you would talk to your friends the same way.

Sure, chatbots are still a new thing.  As such, we tend to be more interested in getting things to work right behind the scenes.  Too often, the actual written dialogue is more of an afterthought.  This manner of thinking, however, is a grievous mistake.  Think if you opened a restaurant:  There may be some benefit to micromanaging the kitchen, making sure there’s a perfect amount of salt in the entrees.  But you’re not going to waste time with that if your waiters are putting their smokes out on the customer’s plates.  Chatbots are rather similar to restaurants.  Yes, it’s important to serve a great-tasting meal.  But the customer will remember how they were served.  It will last much longer than the taste of the food itself, and it will greatly influence the probability they become repeat customers — or even if they will recommend the experience to their friends.

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