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