So you’ve been asked to write a script for an audio or video presentation. You’re an experienced writer. You’ve been doing it for years. Yet why does it feel like this assignment could be more challenging than you’ve anticipated?
As with any assignment, trying something new can be intimidating. I know whenever I take on a challenge I’ve never attempted before, I am worried about doing it wrong. I’m prepared to teach you everything you need to know to write a killer script; you will need to work on fending off the jitters on your own.
As a copywriter, chances are you will at some point be required to write for a podcast, internet video or commercial (radio or television) in your professional career. Don’t think this is up your ally? Online video is the fastest growing form of content on the Internet. In fact, according to Compete.com, YouTube ranks fourth in the world for site traffic, and Cisco believes that by 2015, nearly 90 percent of all Internet traffic will be video. If your company has any sense, it is already investing in online advertising, and supplementing this with video is the logical progression.
When writing for audio and video projects, you will notice one big difference: brevity. Usually we’re talking about writing copy that amounts to 30 seconds as spoken word. That amounts to two to three paragraphs at most. Even longer projects, like a scripted podcast, infomercial or product demo usually have a reasonable time constraint. That may sound easier than a long blog post, but you have a lot of important information to fit into 30 to 60 seconds, and you need to do it in an interesting, entertaining and informative way. This is more challenging than you might imagine.
General Script-writing Techniques
How do you hone your skill to create compelling copy, and do it all with an extremely limited amount of space? And you have to make your script stand out from the din of distractive noise that is modern day life. It takes deep concentration, skill and a clear understanding that this kind of writing is very different from other types to which you may be accustomed.
Writing for audio and video projects is different. It takes a different mindset. While basic marketing and copywriting rules still apply, there are some distinct differences:
- Write How You Speak
- Know Your Audience
- Write in a Reader-Friendly Manner
- Active Voice
- Avoid Clichés
Let’s look at each of these basic writing essentials first, and then delve into pointers specific to audio and video.
1. Write How you Speak
Think back to your last time you bought something you really loved. You were probably so excited you couldn’t wait to tell a friend about your new toy. What did you say? Chances are it went something like this:
“Hey, Peter. Check out what I just got.”
“Aw, man. Is that the new Taylormade driver?”
“Yeah, it’s the R11. It’s the exact same one I borrowed once from this guy at a tournament, and I’ll tell ya, I’ve never hit the ball farther and straighter.”
I know this is a genuine conversation between two golf buddies because this is the exact conversation I hope to someday have when I can finally afford that driver. Now, compare that example to the following:
“Hello, Peter. Look at what I just purchased at the sporting goods store.”
“Is that the new Taylormade R11 TP Driver?”
“Why yes it is. It has a titanium head with Thick-Thin Crown design and Flight Control Technology. I should manage an average of 30 to 50 additional yards on my drive with this club.”
Now I am clearly exaggerating, but it was actually easier for me to write the first example than it was to write the second. Why? Partially because I’ve been doing this for a while, but also because it is so much easier to write things exactly how you would say them. This isn’t to say there is no room in script copy for specific details, but you have to do it the right way.
There are limitations to this idea. You have to consider your audience (more on that later), and you want to avoid too many slang terms or colloquialisms.
I believe writing how you speak is the most important rule in script writing. If you don’t think it’s that simple, pay closer attention the next time you are driving down the road listening to the radio. Instead of quickly changing the station when a commercial comes on, stop and listen. If they have done their job right, the copywriter will make you think you are listening to a real conversation or a close friend giving you a valuable recommendation on some goods or services.
The bad examples stick out like a cowlick in a school picture. The dialog seems forced, unnatural and disruptive. This is often made manifest when a copywriter tries to sound “hip.” If you have to try too hard, you shouldn’t try at all. Copy that is too technical starts going over the listener’s head or becomes so confusing, he immediately reaches for the dial. If you really listen, it’s hard to miss, and it happens more often than it should.
2. Know Your Audience
When you talk to your best friend, is it different fro, talking to your boss? When you speak to a young child, do you tend to use different language than you would with one of your college cohorts? In both cases, I would hope the answer is yes. When writing copy, it is easy to know what you want to say and how you would best receive the message, but you need to know your audience.
Take time to get to know them. What is their age range? Do they have a family? Are they blue collar or white collar? Upper, middle or lower class? Maybe they are older and less technologically savvy. There is a whole laundry list of variables that could apply to your audience, so slow down and figure out who it is. Better yet, focus on the individual; figure out who he or she is. What drives him? What speaks to her?
Sometimes, others have already conducted this research. You just need to get your hands on it. When products are created, they are developed with a specific demographic in mind. Tap into that information as a valuable resource but don’t use this resource to replace good old-fashioned investigation. You might find an angle that researchers in a lab could never discover. That’s why you are the writer and they are the developers.
3. Write in a Reader-friendly Manner
Along with writing how you speak, make certain your copy can be read easily by the voice-over talent. Whether you are writing for a newspaper, print advertisement or a voice-over script, no one likes reading long, arduous paragraphs.
- Break your content into smaller chunks by using shorter paragraphs.
- Stagger the length of each paragraph.
- Use bulleted lists and indentations. People speak in lists, so write them.
Each line in your copy should contain somewhere between 20 and 60 characters. Research has shown the human eye cannot efficiently read more or less than this.
Divide your copy into single thought units. If you’re making a really important point, don’t bog it down with unimportant or unrelated information. People tend to read three or four word groups at a time, and you don’t want your voice over talent to stumble through long, drawn-out thoughts.
Finally, write your script at a fourth- or fifth-grade reading level. This is a general rule, of course. If your video is for intellectuals or scientists, speak to them the way you should, but if your audience is the general public, follow this rule. This resonates back to the idea of “KISS”, or “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” If a fifth-grader can’t understand what you are trying to say, chances are your audience won’t understand either.
4. Use Active Voice
Passive voice is copy killer. It makes the speaker sound unsure, weak, indecisive or evasive. Until you have trained yourself to recognize passive voice, it can be hard to avoid. Both active and passive voices have the same basic elemental structure:
- The actor – the person performing the action
- The action – the verb
- The receiver – the person or thing receiving the action
When a sentence begins with the actor, you have successfully achieved active voice writing.
The news anchor reads the stories in the rundown.
When a sentence begins with the receiver, you have committed the unpardonable sin of passive voice.
The stories in the rundown are being read by the news anchor.
Don’t get confused by “to be” verbs or past tense. These are not always passive. If you have to ask the question “by whom?” or “by what?” to clarify who is performing the action, then you have passive voice.
Here are three ways to make a passive sentence active, as suggested by GoimMedia.com:
- Change the verb.
- Passive – The leaves on the trees would always turn before the rain comes.
- Active – The trees reverse their leaves right before the rain.
- Rethink the sentence.
- Passive – This research paper showed how “Malware” or malicious software can be used for causing harm to a computer system or network.
- Active – The research paper shows how “Malware” or malicious software causes harm to a computer system or network.
- Turn the clause or sentence around (this is the easiest method).
- Passive – The methods of proper type facing are covered above under rule nine.
- Active – Rule number nine covers the methods of proper type facing.
5. Avoid clichés.
Avoid them like the plague. You might be busy as a bee writing your copy, but here’s some food for thought. People who enjoy clichés are few and far between. Whether it sounds creative is a moot point. If you rely on clichés, word to the wise is you will have to pay the piper in the long run.
Clichés are worn-out phrases that at one point were very effective and creative, but have so become common people say them without thinking. Some clichés are appropriate and are effective metaphors. Just be sure when you decide to use one, you have fully considered all your options.
Did you catch all the clichés I used in the first paragraph of this section? If not, you better brush up because chances are you use them on a regular basis and can’t recognize them. You can find a wide assortment of resources to learn common clichés through a quick Web search.
Audio vs. Video
You now have a basic understanding of how to write a script for broadcast. Apply these to what you already know about copywriting and you’re well on your way to tackling this task.
Now we face the next big challenge: audio script writing vs. video script writing. While many of the fundamentals apply in both cases, there are some important differences.
The way the audience is exposed to your message is the most important thing to understand when writing for audio. The audience is only able to use one of their five senses to grasp all the meaning, emotion and information you are trying to convey; they can only listen.
With this constraint in mind, you need to realize the attention span of the listeners. They have four other senses trying to pull them away from your message, almost all of which are much more compelling than sound. You have to catch the listeners right away. As with news writing, the “lead”, or first, sentence is the most important part of your copy. It pulls the audience in and keeps it interested in what you are saying. This is essential in radio writing because it is really easy to reach over and switch to “Rockin’ Oldies” or turn on their MP3 player.
It’s worth taking note of the length of a radio news story. On commercial news radio stations, stories range between 35 and 40 seconds, while stories on television news run about 90 seconds. Radio news organizations know they can’t keep people listening for very long without images. The same goes for your marketing copy. If your ad runs too long or isn’t captivating, once again, classic rock is just one push away.
With all this in mind:
Tip 1 – Know Your Time Constraints
A typical radio advertisement runs in lengths of 15, 30 or 60 seconds. With this in mind, here is a simple guide to follow:
15 seconds = four typed lines
30 seconds = seven to eight typed lines
60 seconds = 12 to 14 typed lines
Follow these guidelines to begin the process of getting your ideas down in the allotted amount of time. However, it is important to read the draft of your script out loud to make sure you’re staying under time. You don’t need to hit the mark exactly. Any additional time can be filled with music or brief pauses.
Tip 2 – Repetition
Because you can only appeal to the sense of sound, be certain to repeat important information: business names, contact information, special deal highlights, etc. You need the audience to memorize what you want them to remember and repetition is an effective memorization tool.
The general rule of thumb for repetition is to insert a business name twice for 15-second commercials, three times for 30-second commercials and at least four times for 60-second spots. Contact information should be repeated three times. Phone numbers most common, but if you have a catchy Web address, use this instead.
Tip 3 – Audience Interaction
Where do most people listen to the radio? What are they doing while they listen? The top answer to both questions is in the car and driving, but not as much as it used to be. With Internet radio and headphones, many people listen to the radio at work, while exercising or on their smartphones.
Think about where you see your target audience when they hear your copy. Try to craft your writing to stand out to them in some way. An effective tool (but pet peeve of mine) used to catch the attention of drivers is screeching tires or police sirens. Both will jolt them to attention but may have negative repercussions. Think outside the box, but always try to get into the mind of the listener.
It should take no time to answer the following question: What is the biggest advantage video script writing has over audio? Visuals! What does this mean to you as a scriptwriter? Use them. A video is primarily the visual imagery on the screen. You want to write images succinctly. A director should be able to glance at the script and immediately see the image you want to convey.
Tip 1 – Pictures DO tell a thousand words
If you’re a sports nut like me, when the star athlete makes an incredible catch or hits a walk-off homerun, smart broadcasters, who are paid to talk, will do one thing—shut up. They let the images and emotions speak for themselves. You should do likewise. If you can tell a story with pictures and no words, do it.
Sometimes your topic doesn’t allow for much visual stimulation. For example, consider the writer putting together copy for one of those medical malpractice commercials. Short of showing sick or injured people, they’re left to explain the details of their offer with words. How do they best use visuals? Repeating what they are saying with words on the screen.
Tip 2 – When in doubt, throw it out
It is really easy to get carried away when writing a script. As a skilled writer, you’ve no doubt done a lot of research and have a lot to say about your topic or product. Unfortunately, as with audio, video spots typically range between 30 and 60 seconds. Even product demos or other Internet-based video projects have time constraints. Go on too long and all the audience remembers is the boredom.
So, when in doubt, throw it out. If there is something you are considering saying, but it isn’t vital to a focused presentation, just get rid of it. Don’t adapt, rewrite or try to incorporate it elsewhere. Just get rid of it. Less really is more.
Tip 3 – Be seen
No one likes being compelled to action by a faceless, unknown higher authority. It’s the idea of “bowing to the man” or just “doing what you’re told.” However, most people are likely to take advice from a friend or do them a favor. Write your script to allow for a “friend” or spokesperson to appear on screen to share your message.
When a face is seen, trust is established—especially when that face is happy, smiling and telling them why they can save hundreds of dollars or how to use this new product. Providing a face the audience can trust will take your good copy and make it great.
Most of what I have discussed covers the ins and outs of writing scripts for a commercial, demonstration or online video. Presentation videos usually cover a much longer period of time, so these are a little different. They require a significantly greater amount of copy. The purpose of these videos is to fully inform. You don’t need to be nearly as economical but still use good copywriting skills to keep your content concise and clear.
The Orabrush Guy
A small, start-up company from Provo, Utah, provides the perfect example of effective video writing. With one video, its marketing team took an idea on the brink of collapse and turned it into a YouTube phenomenon. Austin Craig is the official spokesman for Orabrush, also known as “The Orabrush Guy.”
“The success of Orabrush would not be possible without YouTube, which helped a small company like ours level the playing field with the big dogs. In 2009, a 75-year-old inventor named Dr. Bon Wagstaff was just about to give up on a product he created. It was a tongue scraper like no other on the market: the Orabrush. He has spent tens of thousands on traditional ad campaigns and infomercials, but he only sold about 100 brushes. So as a last ditch effort, he turned to some young marketing students at Brigham Young University for help. They did some market research and despite the overwhelming odds saying Internet marketing would not work for the Orabrush, one student, Jeffrey Harmon, decided he’d take on the challenge. If 92 percent of people who viewed an Orabrush ad online wouldn’t buy, that means 8 percent would. And that’s a lot of people.
“Dr. Bob offered Jeffrey his old motorcycle (at 75 years old, Dr. Bob didn’t ride his motorcycle much anymore) in return for helping market Orabrush. Jeffrey was thrilled and started working on Orabrush in the mornings and at nights before and after his full-time job.
“Jeffrey noticed a guy on a team he managed at his full-time job: me. I had just graduated in broadcast journalism and was working as an intern. Jeffrey noticed that the other team members would provoke me into little rants about politics or other issues that I was passionate about. Another coworker leaned over and nudged Jeffrey and said, “I would pay money to watch Austin rant like this. It is the best part of my day.” That is when it clicked. Jeff offered me $100 to be in a video to rant about bad breath.
“Jeffrey took his idea to his good friend, Joel Ackerman (a talented local script writer) and asked him if Joel could do some magic on this YouTube idea. As a favor for a friend, Joel quickly whipped out a clever script.
“Jeffrey, Dr. Bob, Jeffrey’s old roommate Devin Graham (a film major) and I shot the first Orabrush movie in a pool club. Dr. Bob held the microphone while Austin acted, and Jeffrey did his best to direct his first video ever. That video was a huge success, garnering millions of views, and bringing Orabrush to the attention of major distributors and retailers. From its invention in Dr. Bob’s basement workshop to retailers around the world, the success of the Orabrush was only possible when a few people believed in it, and YouTube opened the way.”
As with any skill, there is always more to learn, so I encourage to you use the references supplied at the end of the chapter, as well as other resources available at libraries and the Internet. Just as with any form of writing, it takes real skill to craft a dynamite script, and with audio and video projects you literally get to bring your words to life. Embrace the new challenge and take full advantage of it.
Hose, C. (n.d.). How to write a video script. Retrieved from http://www.ehow.com/how_4883280_write-video-script.html.
Good copy vs. great copy. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.goimmedia.com/ArticlesWhitepapers/GoodCopyversusGreatCopy.aspx
Ferrell, R. (2008, November 18). Writing effective radio ad copy. Retrieved from http://suite101.com/article/writing-effective-radio-ad-copy-a79391
Barratt, C. (2010, September 2010). Write a radio ad. Retrieved from http://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Radio-Ad
Anon. (n.d.). How to write a radio ad. Retrieved from http://www.ehow.com/how_2002075_write-radio-ad.html
Vanguard, R. (1997). Video scriptwriting. Retrieved from http://www.city-net.com/~roxman/script.html
Elements of the video script. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mindspring.com/~mmm/element.html
Kant, G. (2005). How to write television news. (1 ed.). McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.