Remember all those essays and reports you wrote in school? They were written for a teacher to silently read. They were rarely read aloud. Fast forward to the world of work where you are responsible for writing voice over scripts. Unless you’ve had special training, how could you suddenly know how to write for the ear?
Yet, that’s what you’re expected to do when storyboarding for audio or writing audio scripts. Writing to be heard is a different kind of writing. If you need help making the transition from eye to ear, here are some tips.
1. Write like you speak
In most cases, writing for the ear is more informal than writing to be read. Imagine 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. Pro Tip: a voice over script should not sound like it was scripted.
2. 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 and be concise. I like to think of it as intelligent simplicity.
3. Learn from radio commercials
Have you stopped listening to commercial radio? You may want to listen once more. You can learn from their 30-second radio commercials. Radio commercials fly by quickly. The writers focus on one relevant point. They often use this formula: say it-explain it-repeat it. The lead sentence gets your attention and evokes curiosity. The next few sentences provide the details. This is followed by repeating it. This isn’t a bad formula for instructional scripts—say it-explain it-repeat it.
4. 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 arises out of consistency. It sounds like the voice artist understands the topic, because consistency makes the speaker credible. To achieve the sound of one voice, consider defining these aspects of a voice over script from the start:
- Tone: Decide on a tone that will best connect with your audience (conversational, folksy, sophisticated, etc.)
- Role: Determine if the speaker is playing the role of a colleague or peer, an expert, a teacher or an omniscient narrator.
- Person: whether you’ll be using first, second or third person. If you forget what all of this is, Wikipedia explains.
- Contractions: Will you use them or not?
Then let one anointed editor read the scripts to smooth out all of the inconsistencies.
5. 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.
6. Avoid reading text
No one likes screens filled with text, but there are some situations that demand it, due to legal regulations or other requirements. In these cases, use audio to introduce what needs to be read and then let the participant do the reading. Adults tend to dislike being read text that is on the screen.
Also, Mayer addresses this in his Redundancy Principle. It takes more cognitive resources to match up redundant information, such as reading text while listening to audio than it does to manage one modality alone. Note: to accommodate those who are visually impaired, provide an option for having the text read aloud.
7. Pay attention to rhythm or beat
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 voice over 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. Read all voice over scripts aloud
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.
13. 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.
14. Use active voice
Active voice is one in which the subject is performing the action. In passive voice, the subject is not performing the action. Active voice is more likely to keep listeners engaged because it is a clear and direct form of communication. Attempt to write in the active voice as much as possible.
Recommendations for Writing More Effectively:
Getting the Words Right by Theodore Cheyney
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont
Behind the Scenes with Three Voice Actors
Got tips? Share them in the Comments below.
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Connie Malamed says
I would advertise for an instructional designer/editor/scriptwriter. Experienced people in this field are good at breaking things down and writing in a casual voice. One place to advertise is at the Learning Guild Job Board and another is eLearning Heroes. Good luck with this!
Thank you for this article. Do you know editors that can help out reviewing a voice over text that is still too formal/scientific?
Connie Malamed says
I will email you a few of my favs.
Eric de meij says
Thank you for the nice post.
For a client of mine I need a voice over text. Could you advise someone to do that for us.
Thank you, Eric
Connie Malamed says
That would be a great question to research and I don’t know the answer. It’s possible that more important than role, might be tone and attitude: 1) keeping things conversational, 2) ensuring it is very relevant to the audience’s experience, and 3) assuming the audience member’s intelligence. And very important: avoid a condescending attitude. It’s probably easier to do this as a colleague or peer, but it could be done as a humorous omniscient narrator or a very friendly teacher or expert. I am familiar with Mayer’s principles but kinda forgot about the personalization one. Thanks for the reminder 🙂
Andrew Barry says
Hey Connie, great post!
I’m curious if you are familiar with the Personalization principle that Richard Mayer documented?
You mention “Role” and provide a few examples: colleague, peer, expert, teacher omniscient narrator…
In your experience, have you found that any of those work better than others?
Mayer’s work would seem to suggest that the first two work best.
Thanks for the reply, Connie. I’m already familiar with scriptwriting format from taking a formal course and reading books and magazines. Many of the guidelines above would apply to my project but I wish I could track down documentary scripts or the like just to see if what I’m doing looks similar – there’s TONS of free features and shorts to review but all have dialogue.
Again, I appreciate your reply. The quest continues! 🙂
Connie Malamed says
Stephanie – Some of these guidelines may be similar but I don’t feel that I’m qualified to say much about screenplays. I do know that they are in another format. There are many books on writing screenplays. Have you searched Amazon? I’ve also seen a lot online, such as Screenwriting and here’s a screenplay example. There are a lot of examples around.
Also, check out the courses on Masterclass. Good luck!
Very helpful article. Would you suggest these same guidelines for converting a short story written in 3rd person into a screenplay? I’ve been having difficulty finding sample scripts to study written in this way. The voice-over would approach the narrative as a cautionary tale, and sound effects and music would be used to evoke the alien environment, as well as tension.
Any suggestions on sample scripts for study or further tips on this manner of conversion would be greatly appreciated – thank you *