Voice Over Scripts: Writing Style Tips

Photo Credit: Cameraman Phil via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Cameraman Phil via Compfight cc

Instructional designers often need to write voice over scripts, but many of us have never received any formal training on how writing for voice over is different from other writing. I recently completed a project with Jill Goldman of Goldivox. She did a terrific job and brought energy and life to my script (as a great voice over professional can). She graciously agreed to share her perspective as someone who has worked with many scripts. When we write scripts that are easy for voice over professionals to work with, we end up with a better product and spend less time on revisions and re-records.

Jill says:

The more clear your script is to me, the voice-over talent, the faster you’ll have your recording done, the fewer chances for needing to go back and fix it later, and the less it will cost you. Paying for script revisions or changes can be expensive. Better to put in the time and effort ahead of time to make the script as clear and readable as it can be, rather than play “fix it” later.

This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll share Jill’s insights along with my own tips and examples. Each block quote below is from Jill. Later posts in the series will address formatting scripts and pitfalls to avoid.

In this post, I’m focusing on writing style.

  • The most important tip for improving your scripts
  • Conversational style and flow
  • Shorter sentences
  • Contractions
  • Punctuation

The Single Most Important Tip

Most important in a readable script is the flow. If you only take one step to improve your scripts, do this:

Read your script aloud.

That will help you catch many of the issues I’ll detail in this series. Just reading it aloud will help you identify where something doesn’t flow quite right, sentences are too long, or a better transition is needed. Having someone else read your script also helps immensely.

Conversational Style and Flow

One issue Jill runs into with some scripts is language written to be read rather than heard. Try to make your writing conversational.

Not everything has to be conversational, but it should at least feel like it would come out of someone’s mouth. It’s different than writing for a reader.

Jill appreciates scripts that “flow well, with words that come easily to the brain and the mouth, and make sense.” One of the best ways to make your writing more conversational and improve the flow is to follow the first tip above: read your script aloud.

Using informal language and using first (I, we) and second person (you) in scripts makes them feel more conversational and personal. This is part of the “personalization principle” from Clark and Mayer’s research on multimedia learning. Conversational scripts aren’t just easier for voice over professionals to work with; they actually improve learning outcomes.

If you can rewrite the script as a dialog between two people, that’s even better. That naturally makes it more conversational. You can see an example of a course written as dialog in my story-based coaching and mentoring course.

Shorter Sentences

Jill appreciates scripts with “shorter sentences, or at least carefully crafted sentences that aren’t too complicated.”

We need to breathe! And believe it or not, breaths can cost you money. Unless you want the recording to be full of breaths (usually clients want them edited out, or at least reduced in volume), whoever is editing the recording (whether it is me or someone on your team), will need to deal with those breaths. Think of how many breaths are happening in a long script for eLearning. Yes, we can try to take one big breath and get through a long sentence, but you will likely end up with a sentence that doesn’t carry as much meaning. Pauses and breaths help add to the meaning of a sentence. And some breaths and pauses are necessary. Long sentences can be OK, but please make sure they flow well, and that they are necessary. Otherwise, keep it concise.

A variety of lengths of sentences, including more shorter sentences, generally flow better and feel more conversational.

Contractions

Using contractions if the style allows also makes the script more conversational.

And after all, you are having voice talent record the script for a person listening. The voice talent IS having a conversation, with your listener/learner.

I often find that I need more contractions than “looks right” to me on the page for it to really sound conversational, especially for dialog. I usually write my draft and then go back through to add contractions during revisions. I know I have to make a conscious effort to add contractions.

Contractions are also related to the personalization principle cited above; informal language (including contractions) can increase the impact your courses have on learners. Learners tend to engage more with e-learning that sounds like a real person, and real people use contractions when they speak. If your corporate style guide forbids contractions, try to get the rules changed.

Punctuation

It might seem like a minor detail, but punctuation can make your scripts clearer.

Well punctuated sentences guide the voice over talent about where to pause in the sentence. Otherwise, we will choose what we think is right, and it might be right, or might not be. In particular, if there is going to be a list in the sentence, please use commas, including before the last item on the list.

I’m generally in favor of using the serial comma consistently anyway, whether it’s read or heard. It doesn’t increase confusion to add the comma, and it often reduces it. Unless you’re writing for a newspaper where the width of every character counts (and a newspaper isn’t a voice over script), add the comma.

Read Your Scripts Aloud

Yes, I already said this once, but this is the big takeaway from this post. When you read your scripts aloud, most of the issues above will take care of themselves.

11 thoughts on “Voice Over Scripts: Writing Style Tips

  1. Pingback: Niekoľko tipov ako písať správne skripty pre elearning | mLearning.sk = elearning a multimédiá v modernom vzdelávaní, personalistike a prezentovaní

  2. This is a fantastic post and filled with great information. I am a grad student at Roosevelt University and I’m currently completing my first eLearning module with voice-over. We have been studying the personalization principle, but the ideas listed here really bring it to life.

    As simple as it sounds, I would not have thought to read the script aloud. Do you think it would make a difference to record what I read aloud and play it back? Perhaps, especially as someone new to this, I might really “hear” it better?

    I am excited to read the other posts in this series. You have already saved me a ton of time and work with this information.

    • I’m so glad you found it helpful! Sometimes the easiest solutions are also the easiest to overlook.

      If you have time to record it yourself and listen to it, you might find that helpful. I used that technique a lot in teaching music, although I admit I’ve never done it specifically that way for a script before. My guess it that recording it yourself will make more of a difference now at the beginning of your career than after you’ve written dozens of scripts. If you record a “trial run” yourself, you’ll also see how hard it is to keep the energy level in your voice high for a long course. That’s a valuable learning experience in and of itself.

      I recommend Audacity for recording and editing “trial runs” of your script. It’s free, and it does pretty much anything you’ll need to do at this stage of your career.

      When I worked at Cisco, we did an “Alpha” version of the audio with rough audio. Basically, I did all the recording myself in a conference room. That allowed me and the internal client to hear the script and make revisions prior to recording the final audio for the Beta. Most of my projects don’t have time for two full versions of audio though. I get by with Text-to-speech in Captivate for Alpha. The inflection on the automated voices is a little weird, so I’m not sure if it would give you the same insight as really recording it.

      • Thank you for the response, Christy. I especially like your point about using a rough cut with clients for review. Perhaps it is the “new” part of me, but I always think of having the client review the written script, then the audio is completely afterwards. I can see a tremendous value in having the client hear the audio as they would in the real project. Another great gem!

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  4. I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing globally. I work for a global company and a lot of our eLearning courses get localized into 9 languages. So sometimes contractions – “let’s” for example doesn’t localize well. Other very American phrases are frowned upon too as they don’t localize or make sense to a global learner. Thanks!

    • That’s a great question. Localization is a huge topic. IconLogic has been publishing a terrific set of posts on localizing for specific countries. I recommend reviewing their tips, especially if you need to develop for a culture you’re not familiar with.
      http://iconlogic.blogs.com/weblog/localization/

      You clearly already know many of the pitfalls like contractions or American-centric idioms. I think you can still write in a less formal tone, even if you can’t use contractions. Use second person voice and focus on natural language and sentence structure. You probably don’t want to use $5 words for an audience that may not speak English as their first language anyway.

      Creating characters for a dialog-based course may be a little more challenging with a global environment. It depends on if your audience has similar roles and faces similar challenges regardless of their location. If that’s the case, you could still use a back-and-forth conversation. It would sound stilted without any contractions though, so I would try to determine which contractions are OK rather than avoiding them altogether.

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