Voice Over Script Pitfalls

Instructional designers sometimes run into pitfalls when writing voice over scripts. Jill Goldman of Goldivox is a voice over professional who graciously agreed to share with me the issues she sometimes sees in scripts. I’ll share her perspective in block quotes below, along with my own tips.

This is part 3 of my series on writing voice over scripts. Read the rest of series:

Watch for these common pitfalls in your scripts:

  • Numbers
  • Lists
  • Abbreviations
  • Emphasis
  • Grammar Errors

I find it helpful to do one separate review of my scripts where I specifically focus on these pitfalls, usually after I’ve done any final editing for conversational style and flow. In the final post of the series, I’ll provide a QA checklist of all the tips to help you with your reviews.

Wooden model with microphone
Photo Credit: julianrod via Compfight cc

Numbers

One of the most common pitfalls in voice over scripts is writing numbers. Jill says:

Please write out how you’d like it read. Also, beware of the correct way of reading numbers out loud. That is definitely a pet peeve of mine (many voice-over professionals don’t read numbers correctly either). For example: 2010 can be read as “two thousand ten” or maybe “twenty ten,” or even “two zero one zero” in some cases.

Include an explanation of how you want the number read in your pronunciation guide. (If you’re not sure how to include and format pronunciation help, see my previous post on formatting voice over scripts.) Alternatively, you can just write it out in the text of the script the way you want it read.

  • Example with pronunciation help: For each $1 [voice over: dollar] spent on this method, organizations save $4.30 [voice over: four dollars and thirty cents].
  • Example written out directly in script: For each dollar spent on this method, organizations save four dollars and thirty cents.

Decimals and fractions have basic standards in voice over, but there are options depending on the needs of your organization and audience.

2010 is NOT “two thousand AND ten.” The word “and” in a number indicates a fraction (or more of the number that will be coming after a decimal point). For example, “359.42” would be “three hundred fifty nine, and forty two hundredths” or if it is money, “three hundred fifty nine and forty two cents.” Or perhaps you want it read as individual digits, as “three five nine point four two.”

Dates can also be read several ways. Would you like 11/26/14 read as “eleven twenty-six fourteen” or “November twenty-sixth, twenty fourteen”? I think the second sounds much more natural in narration, even though it looks clunky in writing.

Be careful with phone numbers in your scripts.

With telephone numbers, if you are giving me “1-800-555-4900,” usually we know the “one eight hundred” part (but if you rather it is “one, eight zero zero,” let me know). The “555” is easy enough, but please tell me if you want it to be “four, nine, zero, zero” or “forty nine hundred.” These kinds of seemingly little things can create a lot of stress and waste a lot of time.

Lists

In addition to numbers, lists are the other most common place for running into trouble in voice over scripts. It’s so easy to create a bullet point list in writing, but those lists really don’t sound good in voice over. (Let’s leave aside the topic of how effective those bullet point lists are in e-learning in general. That’s a whole other topic.)

If you have to do a list, Jill says it helps her to include a colon or other punctuation to indicate the beginning of a list.

For example, here are some things that Jill says make her life easier:

  • Clearly written scripts in a conversational tone
  • Screen names clearly marked
  • Pronunciation notes for numbers and abbreviations

However, rather than using a list like the above, try to rewrite it so it sounds more like someone speaking. You probably don’t talk in bullet points in normal conversation. Why shouldn’t your voice over sound more like a real person? Even if you display a bullet point list on the screen, your voice over shouldn’t read that list word for word. Change the bullet points to complete sentences and create a paragraph like the example below.

Example rewritten bullet point list: Jill says several techniques in scripts can make her life easier. She appreciates clearly written scripts, especially those that use a conversational tone. Screen names that are clearly marked make editing recordings easier. Including pronunciation notes for numbers and abbreviations reduces ambiguity in your scripts.

Abbreviations

Jill notes common problems with abbreviations:

Slash marks, abbreviations, and things like “e.g.” or “i.e.” – type it out as you want us to read it. Do you want me to say “slash”, or do you want me to say “or”, or “and”, or maybe even just read the two words with nothing between, such as “input/output.” Do you want me to say “e.g.” or “for example”? “i.e.” or “in other words”?

At my first ID job, the team of editors changed every instance of e.g., i.e., and etc. to equivalent words (for example, that is, and so on, respectively). We were forbidden from using those abbreviations in voice over scripts. I’ve always kept to that standard myself. I think it sounds much more natural to say “for example” than “Eee Gee.”

For other abbreviations and acronyms, include pronunciation notes. Maybe everyone in your organization knows that “NIAAA” is “N-I-Triple A,” but a voice over professional may not.

Emphasis

Emphasis is a harder pitfall to catch. Even if you read your script aloud, you already know what it should sound like in your head, so you might not realize someone else wouldn’t read it the same way.

Jill explains:

What drives me crazy? Sentences that can be read in different ways, depending on what part of the sentence needs emphasis. Usually I can figure it out, but if it is an unfamiliar subject, it is harder to figure out. If you know which word in a sentence you want to be emphasized, please mark it in some way to let me know. Italicize it, or capitalize it, or underline it, something to guide me.

It may seem like it takes extra time to think about and add in markings for emphasis. Think about the process though: the voice talent records the sentence without understanding where you want the emphasis to be. When you review the audio and realize it doesn’t sound the way you want, you have to take time to document the issue and ask for the talent to re-record that line for you.

With experience, it gets easier to notice the places where your writing could be emphasized different ways. If you have a good tip for identifying those potential problem spots in a script, please share it in the comments below.

Grammar Errors

One major pitfall in voice over scripts is poor grammar or sentences that don’t make sense. These can slow down recording and editing. As I mentioned in my first post of the series, reading your script aloud is the most important step you can take to improve your scripts. That will help you catch the worst errors, as will having someone else read your scripts.

However, sometimes errors still slip through. I asked Jill how she prefers to handle these sorts of errors when she finds them in a script:

I’ve learned from experience that it is usually faster for me to record the script as written, and then also provide an alternate take or two, giving the line as I think it was meant to be written. Then, if I’m the one doing the editing of the audio, I can go back and ask the client which they preferred when I’m done, and just edit out the takes that were not the right ones, and leave in the correct version (whether it was the originally written way or not).

If I’m not the one who is going to be editing the audio, I will usually leave in the extra takes, with an audible “side note” saying something like “alternate take” or “alternately” or just “OR.” I try to alert the audio editor about places where I’ve done that, but if it is someone I’ve worked with frequently, I don’t always do so. They know to listen for those spots.

Sometimes I can’t even begin to figure out what the writer really meant to write. I’ll usually still try to come up with alternates, based on what I think the writer will tell me, but sometimes the writer will rework the sentence entirely at that point, and I’ll need to go back and record the corrected line again. This does slow down my end of the work, though. So, needless to say, please check and double check your writing. Even read it aloud, so you can catch spots that don’t work. Have someone else look at it, too, and read it aloud. The more carefully you have the script proofread before it comes into my hands, the more smoothly it will go on my end. This will save you money…

Obviously, it’s faster to fix these errors before you send the script. You may find it helpful to discuss with your voice over talent a process for addressing errors. I’ve received alternate versions as Jill describes for both errors and emphasis, and this process has worked well for me.

10 thoughts on “Voice Over Script Pitfalls

  1. Thanks so much for these practical, well-crafted tips. Thanks, too, for timing the publication perfectly for my ID class. My students are writing their first scripts. This series of articles will be extremely helpful in preparing their revisions.

    1. I’m so glad you found them helpful, and I hope your students will too. I was fortunate to work with a strong team of editors at my first ID job, and they coached the team on many of these tips. I’m happy to pass that knowledge along now.

  2. Some great tips Christy and Jill. All of those mentioned by Jill resonate with me as a British voice over who also narrates a lot of E-Learning materials. Especially about having read the script out loud in advance and amendments made in order for it to sound and flow well, before sending the final script to the VO. When reading out loud, often things like ‘You will find’ or ‘you would be able to’ flow much better conversationally as ‘you’ll find’, or ‘you’d be able to’. The exceptions are sometimes where the subject matter is about teaching English as a foreign language.

    1. I’m much better at catching those contractions now than when I started writing scripts. It’s very easy to add a contraction when speaking without even thinking of it. I hear non-professionals do that with scripts regularly. I often have to go back to fix the transcript or closed captions to match in those cases. Adding those contractions in the script in the first place saves time and effort.

  3. I noted the request that numbers larger than one hundred should not include the word ‘and’. So 245 should be read as ‘two hundred forty five’. However, in Australia (and I suspect in many other English speaking countries) it is considered correct to say ‘two hundred and forty five’.

    1. Thanks, David. I’ve never heard that before, but the Macmillan English Dictionaries site highlights this as a difference between US and UK English. It sounds like Australia uses the UK pronunciation.
      http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/July2004/21-Language-Awareness-Numbers-UK.htm

      I’ll update the post to clarify that this rule applies only for American English. Watching for the correct dialect of English is definitely one of the pitfalls of script writing. Thank you for teaching me something new!

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