• 28
  • March

Tips and Tricks for Audio and Video Scripts

Every script should tell a story: humans are prewired to recognize and remember narratives. So whether you’re telling the actual story of your company’s history, or welcoming people to a conference, or showing them how to use your turbo-encabulator, tell a story.

A few weeks ago I was working on a project to produce a new content library—consisting primarily of a services brochure and a collection of vertical-focused infosheets.

Quite aside from that part of the project, the client asked if I could take a look at some voiceover scripts they’d written for a series of promotional videos.

Sure! I’ve done more than my share of video scripting, and learned some lessons along the way.

So I took a look and—sure enough—the scripts suffered from a few extremely common problems:

  • They lacked focus
  • They were too long
  • They were cumbersome
  • They didn’t initiate any action

I cleaned them up and sent them back, but I also wrote out a short tips-and-tricks guide to help the client out with future scripting projects.

And now—inspired by last night’s Technical Communication P2P—I’m sharing those tips and tricks here.

Start with Audience and Intention

Most commercial or organizational communication is intended to induce some sort of behaviour or response out of an audience.

For your scripts, start by identifying your target audience: prospects? product users? investors? economic buyers? potential partners?

Of course, there’ll be situations in which your audience extends across multiple groups, but the more precisely you can define your audience the better.

Next, ask yourself what result you want to achieve—whether in terms of a behavioural nudge, an explicit action you want your audience to take, knowledge you want them to retain, etc.

Start by identifying your target audience. Next, ask yourself what result you want to achieve—whether in terms of a behavioural nudge, an explicit action you want your audience to take, knowledge you want them to retain…

If you get these two parts right—audience and intention—then you’re already in a much stronger position than everyone who just sits down and says, “We need a video!”

Know Your Limits

How long is will your video be? For a commercial spot (including sponsorship videos for conferences, and things like that), you’ll have hard constraints like 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, etc. These limits are tight, but useful.

For a home-grown use case demo, limits are softer…which is potentially much more dangerous. Drunk on the intoxicating miasma of your product’s awesomeness, you’ll have to fight the temptation to bloat things. There’s no ‘right’ length, but you should pick a target. Aim for a tight video that’s to-the-point, and look for break-points that help you split your content into multiple shorter videos rather than one long one.

To review, by this point we haven’t yet written a word of script, but we’ve established:

  • Audience
  • Intention
  • Timing Limits

Draw Your ‘Story’

Every script should tell a story: humans are prewired to recognize and remember narratives. So whether you’re telling the actual story of your company’s history, or welcoming people to a conference, or showing them how to use your Turbo Encabulator, tell a story.

Recognize and accept that you probably can’t tell the complete story in one short script—and that’s OK. It’s better to make a few key points than to fail at making many

Next, make sure you now the story as much as you can, then recognize and accept that you probably can’t tell the complete story in one short script—and that’s OK. It’s better to make a few key points than to fail at making many.

Personally, I think of most topics in a tree structure.

Let’s say your primary audience is prospects who are considering buying your stuff, and your desired outcome is for them to feel confident in you as a solution vendor—here’s what your tree might look like:

  • Primary point: “we solve problem X very well and you depend on us”
    • Secondary/supporting point: “we’ve got a great solution for problem X”
      • Tertiary/supporting point: “problem X is characterized by A, B, and C”
        • Quaternary/supporting point: more about A
        • Quaternary/supporting point: more about B
        • Quaternary/supporting point: more about C
      • Tertiary/supporting point: “we solve A, B, and C, with features 1, 2, and 3”
        • Quaternary/supporting point: more about feature 1
        • Quaternary/supporting point: more about feature 2
        • Quaternary/supporting point: more about feature 3
      • Tertiary/supporting point: “and we have this amazing piece of proprietary technology: shazam”
        • Quaternary/supporting point: “shazam is a …”
    • Secondary/supporting point: “our solution is proven in the real world”
      • Tertiary/supporting point: “here’s an example”
      • Tertiary/supporting point: “here’s another example”
      • Tertiary/supporting point: “here’s yet another example”
    • Secondary/supporting point: “we’re a stable, trustworthy vendor”
      • Tertiary/supporting point: “our staff are recognized leaders in our field”
      • Tertiary/supporting point: “we have all the requisite technical qualifications”
        • Quaternary/supporting point: more about the qualifications
      • Tertiary/supporting point: “we’ve been around for a long time”
        • Quaternary/supporting point: key stats and milestones
      • Tertiary/supporting point: “we contribute to standard X, and industry group Y”

Then Cut Stuff Out

Holy crap, that’s a lot. It’s way too much for a short script, so you have to prune relentlessly:

  • If you’re restricted to 10 seconds, then you’re basically just saying the primary point
  • If you’ve only got 30 seconds, then you’re not going to get past the secondary points
  • If you’ve got 2-3 minutes, then you might be able to work in some or all of the tertiary points

In contrast, there’s a temptation to try the ‘overwhelm’ tactic of just throwing a bunch of points at the audience:

  • Point #1
  • Point #2
  • Point #3
  • Point #4
  • Point #5
  • Point #6
  • BUY OUR STUFF!

That doesn’t work: there’s no story, it’s overwhelming, and it becomes noise.

Remember, it’s better to make a few key points than to fail at making many, and humans remember narratives better than we remember lists.

Understand Your Timing Reality

When we write and mentally read, we drastically underestimate the ‘out-loud’ reading time, so most script drafts come in about 25-50% too long

You don’t have as long as you think, for two reasons:

  1. You want to leave some buffer on each end: for instance, for a one-minute video, you want a maximum of about 55 seconds. So your video starts, and shows some visuals, then there’s a 2-3 second pause before a voice comes in. Mirror image on the back-end: audio stops 2-3 seconds before the video stops. It’s just really annoying when sound jumps in immediately and continues right until the end.
  2. When we write and mentally read, we drastically underestimate the ‘out-loud’ reading time, so most script drafts come in about 25-50% too long (it can really be surprising); our inner monologues just run so much faster…which brings me to…

Read Your Scripts Out Loud. Painfully Slowly.

When you do get around to writing your script, stop every now and then to read it out loud—at what seems like a reeaaaallly slooooow pace.

Doing so helps in two major ways:

  • It’ll help you with timing
  • It’ll help identify language and structures that work in writing, but are awkward audibly

For instance:

  • If you have to take a breath, then the sentence is too long
  • Listen for awkward transitions and sound combinations (lots of “s”es, for example, or unintentional weird alliteration, or tongue-twisters, and so on)

Punctuate!

To make the reader’s/speaker’s job easier, and to really control the flow, be liberal with punctuation: it helps to show where you want pauses.

So, become besties with commas, ellipses, em-dashes, semi-colons, brackets…use everything in your arsenal.

Tightening Things Up

If you’re dealing with tight constraints, then literally every syllable counts. Don’t try to make up time by speeding up the speech; instead, be relentless and ruthless in your linguistic optimizations.

If you’re dealing with tight constraints, then literally every syllable counts. Heed George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a long word where a short one will do” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

This part is very cyclic…I’ve had scripts that I’ve reviewed five times, only to come back a few hours later to spot additional optimizations.

Here are some tips:

  • Heed George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a long word where a short one will do” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
  • Check for redundant, unnecessary, or overly complicated phrasing: e.g., “in order to”, “in the field of”, “for the purpose of”, and so on—these are unnecessarily formal and they don’t add any information or meaning
  • Check for redundant qualifiers: “in their respective fields”…well, of course, what other fields would they be?
  • See if you can flip things around to save a syllable: look for “of” as an indication of a potential optimization (“the X of Y” turns into “Y’s X” very smoothly, saving you syllables and tightening things nicely
  • If you’re comfortable with the style (some industries are insanely formal), then use contractions: e.g., “we are” becomes “we’re”
  • Really, really try to avoid the passive voice: it sounds quasi-but-awkwardly formal, it introduces unnecessary syllables, and it’s not as ‘strong’
  • Don’t unnecessarily or accidentally repeat points (different from deliberate repetition)

Don’t Cheat!

It takes discipline, skill, patience, and practice to write tight, effective scripts—and yes, it can be extremely frustrating.

But stick with it. Trust the process, as they say.

Don’t cheat by extending your time boundaries. Don’t cheat by eliminating your buffers. Don’t cheat by speaking quickly. Don’t cheat by cutting out important points.

Instead, take a break, then come back with fresh eyes and ears. Keep reading things aloud. Keep looking for optimizations (it’s not uncommon for the syllabic tightening alone to take 8 or 10 passes).

It takes discipline, skill, patience, and practice to write tight, effective scripts—and yes, it can be extremely frustrating. But stick with it. Trust the process, as they say.

Header/Featured image credit: Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

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