As a voiceover artist I narrate words that other people have written everyday. Some of the narration scripts I’m hired to read are excellent and translate very well to being spoken out loud. Others? Not not much. Sometimes the grammar is too precise or formal for speech. Sometimes the phrasing isn’t presented in a way that works well with the vernacular. Sometimes it seems no consideration at all is given to the fact that the script was written for someone to say instead of to be read silently.
In fact, pick any article from a “serious” magazine, choose a middle paragraph and read it out loud. Did you stumble or run out of breath in awkward places? Did you get lost? Did it sound like something you’d naturally say? This isn’t because it’s poorly written, but it was written with no thought to the difference between written and spoken communication. (Best practices for elearning script writing here). There’s a big difference between writing for eyeballs and writing for ears.
Write to Be Heard
This difference exists in part because when reading text, your eyes give you clues that your ears can’t. Without trying it is natural to scan ahead and pick up context clues faster, which speeds up understanding. When writing to be heard, you’re left without any of those extra helpers.
One of my first jobs as I dove into my voiceover adventure was in radio. I was amazed that when walking into the newsroom or the DJ lounge, everyone would be banging away at their typewriters (yeah, ‘that’s how long ago that was) and talking outloud to themselves. The room was awash with the clacking of keys and muttering of on-air people. When I asked about it, I was given a kind of “duh” look and told “well the words are going to be read out loud, so naturally they say them out loud as they type them.”
Jay Acunzo, founder of MarketingShowrunners and author of Break The Wheel, writes for his podcast and other shows about creativity and gives these pointers:
- Write and speak in short sentences. Always.
- Constantly guide and tease the listener. Audio lacks any visual indicators and helpers, like headline breaks or even just the words typed out for you to revisit (like you may have done right here). But audio still creates visuals that the listener creates as they listen. But that creativity can be broken up fast without guidance and then the listener is lost thinking “Wait, what? Where are we? What just happened?”
- Introduce subjects and details. In the written word, introductions can be easily understood in-flow because the reader can literally see the name and the details about that person in the words in front of them (again, they get more context, quicker). Not so in the audio world. The listener needs the details spoonfed to them so they can digest and understand them.
All great pieces of advice for writing any kind of narration script whether it’s a newcast or DJ patter, a corporate narration script, an elearning module, a commercial or a book that may be destined to be read out loud (aka an audiobook).
Pay Attention To The Language You Use
When we’re first taught to write, we’re taught grammar. Often the “way we speak” is drummed out of our writing early on because regular conversational speech often is not grammatically perfect. But we must unlearn these school-house lessons when writing for speech. Pay attention to the language you use – is it how someone would actually say it? Feel free to break some of the rules. For example, “proper” writing might dictate that the use of “we’re” twice so close together in the first sentence of this paragraph should be avoided. But read it out loud. It’s pretty conversational.
Also, I could have used the word “vernacular” in sentence two. But since you’re likely going to read this paragraph out loud to prove my points, I opted for other words that might be said in regular conversation. Now, sometimes technical scripts will use complex terminology and language, but again, where possible, opt for how you might speak the concepts to a colleague and search for ways to help a listener understand them.
Read Your Book (Or Article, Or Narration Script) Out Loud While Writing It
Creative writing tutor and radio professional Jules Horne advocates for this gem of reading your book aloud while writing it. Really perform it, and not just in your inner voice. She points out that writing this way will “reveal anything that’s long, unwieldy and has you gasping for breath. It’ll also show up overwriting – those times when you’ve over-egged a perfectly good adjective with an unnecessary adverb, for example.”
This will make you not only a better writer, but a better editor, she insists. You’ll be able to fine tune your “ear” for when your sentences meander off or when they “land” well. And you’ll easily notice when they (and you as you’re reading) run out of steam or wind.
Work For Attunement
Attunement, or tuning in, doesn’t involve just listening, but rather engaging a listener – pulling them into the topic and getting them to focus on what’s being said. This can take a moment – and it’s vitally important. Listeners need to get acquainted with the voice delivering the information – to get used to their style of speech or accent or tone. If you jump immediately into the deep end of your script, you may lose them before they’ve really begun to listen.
Once they’re with you, work to keep them with you. Listeners’ attention tends to drift and they may need to be pulled back in. And when you’re offering up a new topic, or piece of information, you’ll want to signal that new opening or fresh attack. Transitional phrases can help with these challenges to attunement. They need to smoothly move the listener from one topic to the next without clumsily bumping into abrupt or awkward transitions that can sound odd or unintentionally comedic. Accomplish that and your listener will stick with you to the end.