The Art Of Writing Great Voiceover Scripts

We typically spend our schooling years writing for a teacher to silently read our essays and reports. Unless we’ve had special training, how could we suddenly know how to write for the ear?

Yet that’s what we’re expected to do when storyboarding and writing voice over scripts. Writing for audio is a different kind of writing. If you’re having trouble making the transition from eye to ear, here are some tips.

Write like you speak

In most cases, writing for the ear is more informal than writing to be read. You may find that it improves your style if you imagine that you are speaking to someone while you are writing. When you write like you speak, you will naturally use smaller words, a more conversational tone and shorter sentences (discussed below).

Get to the point quickly

When you’re writing for audio, you don’t have much time to lead up to the point. You have to get there quickly before you lose your audience. Focus on what’s most important by using straightforward wording. I like to think of it as intelligent simplicity.

Learn from commercial scripts

You can learn a lot from the scripts written for those short 30-second radio commercials. They say it, explain it and repeat it. The lead sentence gets your attention and makes you want to find out more. Then you get a few details and then it’s repeated. This isn’t a bad formula for instructional scripts—Say it, Explain it, Repeat it.

Speak with one voice

Perhaps you’re on a big project with several instructional designers furiously writing away, oblivious to the voice they are using. Or perhaps you’re the only one writing, but some days you start with one voice and other days you use another.

Speaking with one voice emerges out of consistency. It sounds like the narrator deeply knows and understands the topic, because consistency makes the speaker credible. To achieve the sound of one voice, consider defining these aspects of a script from the start:

  • Tone: Decide on a tone that will best connect with your audience (conversational, folksy, sophisticated, etc.)
  • Person: whether you’ll be using first, second or third person. If you never quite got this in school, Wikipedia explains.
  • Contractions: Will you use them or not?

Then let one anointed editor read the scripts to smooth out all of the inconsistencies.

Keep sentences short but varied

Many people recommend using short sentences when writing for audio. And it’s true that in an eLearning environment, you can’t count on your busy audience to click Replay if they miss something. The risk of relying on short sentences, however, is that the script may sound stilted or too simplistic.

A better approach might be to aim for short sentences that vary in length. This is closer to how we speak. To keep sentences on the shorter side: 1) stick to one idea per sentence; 2) delete all the extra verbiage; and 3) break sentences into two whenever possible.

Let them read it

No one likes screens of text, but some subjects demand it, such as those involving legal or compliance training. In these cases, refer to the screen text in the script, state what it is and let the learner read it. Adults don’t like to be read to. To accommodate those who are visually impaired, provide an option for having the text read aloud.

Pay attention to rhythm

Speaking is similar to music—it’s got a rhythm related to the tempo of the speech and the alternation of stressed and unstressed words. When you read your script aloud, you can improve the rhythm by considering the words as sounds and listening to their flow and timing. A pleasing rhythm has the potential to hold the listener’s attention longer and to enhance the listening experience.

Use silence effectively

Silence is to audio as white space is to visuals. Listeners need time to process the verbal content and to watch what’s on the screen. You can work brief pauses into your script by indicating where the talent should stop for a moment (often referred to as a beat) during the recording. I usually indicate this with an ellipsis (…). Frequent pauses also give you time to add elements for screen builds. Silence is your friend. Use it with purpose.

Watch your transitions

Transition words, such as yet, but, however, therefore and meanwhile, let listeners know that a change from the previous thought is coming. Use transitions as cues to help clarify your message.

Edit in phases

Some accomplished writers recommend editing in several passes while honing one aspect of your writing at a time. In Getting the Words Right, author Theodore Cheney recommends that your first revision should focus on massive changes, which he calls reducing. Then he advises less ambitious revisions, such as rearranging. Finally, there is rewording. Or create your own phases of editing that work for your style of writing.

Calculate the length of segments

You don’t want things to run on and on. A rule of thumb for calculating time is that in one minute, a narrator will read approximately 100 words. If you want your segment to last a minute, pare it down to 100 words or less.

Do a sound check

Reading your script aloud is mandatory. That’s how you can determine whether the wording is awkward or smooth and whether the sentences flow from one to the next. Reading aloud helps you know when it’s best to use contractions, if juxtaposed words are difficult to pronounce and whether the whole script is well-connected. Finally, this is how you know if a narrator can get through a sentence without having to stop for a breath in the middle.

Consider sound effects

Many public radio producers add depth and realism to their stories through sound effects. When used with sophistication, sound effects can add richness to straight narration, scenarios, interactions and games. And their cost is minimal.

Recommendations for Writing More Effectively:
The Grammar Girl‘s free podcast
Getting the Words Right by Theodore Cheyney

Related Articles:
Audio Recording: Preparing Your Script
Bouncy, bubbly or British? How to Choose Voice Over Talent

You probably have some tips too! Leave them in the Comments below.

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Comments

  1. Megan Gesing says

    Thanks for the great tips!

    A lot of people don’t realize how different a Voice Over script can be. My favorite tip (and one I’m a big advocate of) is “Do a Sound Check.” Reading the script out loud can catch a lot of mistakes you wouldn’t notice otherwise.

  2. Adam Verner says

    Wow – great article! I wish I could forward this to most of my clients :) I’m the voice talent that has to read some of these scripts, and let me tell you, too much of the time this kind of advice is not followed!

    My favorite is when they want the copy to sound “casual, guy-next-door,” but then write with no contractions and stilted language. :)

  3. Jacquie says

    Great article! The suggested practices are applicable to both oral and written presentations. And more importantly, the writer put into “practice what was preached.”

  4. Mae Golden says

    Thanks for the blog Connie. In my class we are preparing projects using Captivate and other tools. This information will be helpful for those of us planning to use voiceover.

  5. Tiffany says

    I’d also add that when writing for voice, it is helpful to remember people don’t speak in complete sentences. We speak in phrases, drop pronouns and use lots of transition words.

  6. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Tiffany,
    Yes, writing the way people speak in incomplete sentences is a great tip for writing dialogues. Thanks. For voice over narrations, it’s probably best to keep it in complete sentences in most cases. Thanks for adding to the tips!
    Connie

  7. Dass says

    Great Article Connie! It really Said, Explained, and Repeated a new strategy of Audio content development. Hopefully this will evolve as a book with more expositions, of course cost-effective :)

  8. Tamara McCulloch says

    Hi Connie,
    Thanks for the package of tools in audio preparation and capture. I am always looking for information to prepare the subject matter experts to create their course and focus on developing a great script. Any chance you or some of your reader have a template that would be useful to share with the SME’s to aid them in creating a well developed script?
    Tamara

  9. Andrea says

    Great article! in a pinch, I have used Neo voices for Captiave for voice over. With Neo voices, I can quickly turn script into voice over and the great thing about it is that it is easily editable.

  10. rfc says

    Loved this article and was so happy to see that what I’m doing already is considered to be “the done thing.” Especially helpful, the 100 words/per minute estimate. It’s pretty much what I’ve found, so this was great affirmation. Now I can share it with my SMEs with complete confidence. TX!

  11. Catherine Davis says

    What a fantastic collection of tips! I will certainly share these with my ID team to help improve our audio scripts. I really like your summaries on keeping sentences short but varied and finding the right rhythm.
    -Catherine Davis, ID Practice Lead for SweetRush

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