If we as instructional designers write scripts that are easy for voice over talent to understand, the voice over professionals we work with can record and edit those scripts faster. We’ll end up with a better end product. A few formatting guidelines can make our scripts clearer and easier to use.
This is part 2 in my series of posts on tips for creating voice over scripts.
- Part 1: Voice Over Scripts: Writing Style Tips
- Part 2: Formatting Tips for Voice Over Scripts (current post)
- Part 3: Voice Over Script Pitfalls
- Part 4: Voice Over Script Review Checklist
Jill Goldman of Goldivox shared several tips with me about what she looks for in scripts from her perspective as a voice over professional.
- Readable Font, Size, and Spacing
- Pronunciation Guides
- Screen Names
- Table Format
- Dialog Format
Readable Font, Size, and Spacing
As is a good idea for any written communication, use a clear, readable font in decent size. Jill says 12- or 14-point fonts are usually good.
I’ve worked in organizations that had specific requirements for fonts and spacing. For example, I’ve been asked to double space scripts. If your organization has standard practices, follow those guidelines; they probably work fine and are what people are accustomed to working with.
What elements need pronunciation guides in a script?
- Jargon or unfamiliar words, including complicated, technical, and medical terminology
- Abbreviations and acronyms
- Numbers (2010: two thousand ten or twenty ten?)
Jill explains that the best pronunciation guides:
- Type it out phonetically, with capitals on emphasized syllable
- If possible, provide an audio link to the pronunciation of word.
Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com include pronunciations for many words in their dictionaries. You may find other sources for pronunciations as well. Jill notes, “sometimes these are not the best pronunciations, so be sure to listen first and know it’s as you want it. If the script is in English, do you want a British English pronunciation? North American? Australian? Please try to provide a link to someone reading it in the accent you’d like to have it.”
Example Pronunciation Guides
- Vivitrol [voice over: VIH-vih-trohl. Listen here]
- NIAAA [voice over note: Say N-I-Triple A]
Think about the regional accent of your audience as well. Jill pointed out:
If your intended audience is North American, but the script is about Australia, you may want to consider using North American pronunciations for words like “Cairn” and other Australian places. Also, if you are using slang in the script, be sure it makes sense to the intended audience. If the audience might be world-wide, you may want to leave out any slang that may not be understood by varied listeners.
Jill shares that it makes her life easier when the screen names are clearly marked in the script. Voice over professionals often edit their recordings into separate files for each screen. Making the divisions between screens clear and noting the screen name or number helps them keep everything straight. If you have preferences for file naming conventions, be sure to explain your system and make it match the script.
I don’t use a table format for my scripts, but Jill explains that it can be helpful (although she doesn’t consider it necessary). This format uses one column for screen names, one for voice over copy, and one for pronunciation help.
|Module 4 Frame 67||The oral version is known as Revia; the sustained-release version is Vivitrol.||Revia: reh-VEE-uh.
Vivitrol: VIH-vih-trohl. Listen here
If you’re writing dialog for multiple characters, check what format is preferred. I tend to use the character name in bold at the beginning of each line, but I worked with one individual who preferred a TV script format with the character name centered in all caps above each block of dialog. I include notes about other sounds, actions, or tone of voice inside brackets and italicized, but as long as they are clearly set apart you don’t have to follow this format exactly.
The examples below are from the video script for my Story-Based Coaching and Mentoring course. The tips for writing voice over scripts generally apply to video scripts as well, although there are some differences, such as describing actions.
Example Dialog Format 1 (Bold Character Names)
Michael: What’s the problem?
April: Well, when he pushes and wants the delivery date moved sooner again…
Michael: [cutting April off, looking at phone] Hang on…I just got a text message. Let me just reply to this real fast. [texting] OK, where were we?
Example Dialog Format 2 (Centered Character Names)
What’s the problem?
Well, when he pushes and wants the delivery date moved sooner again…
[cutting April off, looking at phone]
Hang on…I just got a text message. Let me just reply to this real fast. [texting] OK, where were we?
The main goal for formatting your scripts is making it clear. Think about how to make your scripts more readable and understandable.
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.
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.
- Part 2: Formatting tips for Voice Over Scripts
- Part 3: Voice Over Script Pitfalls
- Part 4: Voice Over Script Review Checklist
In this post, I’m focusing on writing style.
- The most important tip for improving your scripts
- Conversational style and flow
- Shorter sentences
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.
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.
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.
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.
I got a call from a prospective client looking to hire an instructional designer.
“Tell me about what you’re looking for,” I said.
“Well, I have a classroom training program I’d like to convert to online. It’s a course on pregnancy discrimination. Our company has added a ton of specifics about this to our employee handbook, so it’s important everyone’s aware of the new policy. We’ve already got the slides built, so it just needs to be converted to an online format. Everything’s all in the text on the slides.”
I suspect this needs a lot more than just converting existing slides, and I’m not convinced that making people aware of the policy is really going to meet his goals. “Hmm…how is that classroom training working for you so far?”
“It’s OK, I guess. We only have two trainers who can deliver it though, and they just can’t train everyone in the company. We’re spending a lot of money on travel for people to come to our main office too. If we can do it online, we can cut those travel costs, and our trainers don’t have to spend so much time on this one course.”
“That sounds like a great motivation for moving this course online. Tell me about the course itself. Is it mostly lecture, or do you have some activities or role plays or anything?”
“It’s pretty much all lecture. We always avoid doing role plays for issues of discrimination to avoid insulting someone. We don’t want people practicing bad behavior, you know? It’s too uncomfortable to pretend you’re discriminating in front of a room full of people.”
“OK, I understand where you’re coming from. How are you measuring the effectiveness of this training?”
“Just a smile sheet.”
“And how have the results been from that evaluation?”
“Fine, but not great. There’s been some grumbling that it’s kind of a boring course, but it’s compliance training–what are you going to do?”
“Actually, there’s several things we could do. Have you ever considered using a scenario-based approach to your e-learning?”
“What do you mean?”
“Instead of having just slides with bullet points and audio explaining the policy, what if we created a story about a woman who is pregnant? We can put learners in situations where they have to make decisions about how to treat her. Rather than pushing the policy information to them all at once, learners can look up the specific information they need depending on where they are in the scenario. That gives them the motivation to find the information, instead of it being forced on them.”
“That sounds interesting. How exactly would that work?”
“Let’s see…have your problems in this area been more with managers or coworkers discriminating?”
“We’ve had a couple of accusations of managers discriminating. Some of it was related to hiring, and some of it was related to making accommodations for employees who either have more physical demands in their job or work with toxic chemicals.”
“What if we had a scenario with a manager with a pregnant employee on the team? We can set it up with points in the story where learners have to help the manager decide what action to take. We’d give them a few choices based on your past incidents or common misunderstandings about the policy. Maybe there’s an issue where managers cut back on someone’s hours trying to be helpful and make it easier for a woman during her pregnancy, but the woman can actually handle the hours fine if she just has a stool to sit on instead of needing to stand all day.”
“That sounds more interesting than what we’re doing in the training now. What happens if they make the wrong choice?”
“Ideally, I prefer to show people the consequences of their actions rather than simply telling them. Which do you think is more memorable–multiple choice feedback saying, ‘Sorry, that’s incorrect. You have violated section 5.3 of the employee handbook,” or ‘Peg from HR knocks on your office door. She wants to discuss why you declined to make an accommodation for Rhonda during her pregnancy’?”
“The second one, definitely. I get that feeling of being called to the principal’s office in school just imagining it.”
“And that emotional reaction is part of what makes this approach work. It draws people into the story so they’re more engaged during the course, plus it sticks with them longer afterwards.”
“OK, I’m starting to understand.”
“Great. Let’s go back to the topic of evaluation. You mentioned earlier that you need your employees to be aware of the policy. Is that really the goal here, or do you really want to reduce the number of complaints and incidents?”
“Well, obviously we want to reduce the complaints. That’s the ultimate goal.”
“Do you have any statistics on how many complaints you’ve had in the past? It would be great to have a concrete business measurement to work towards.”
“I don’t have those numbers, but I’m sure I could get them from HR.”
“That would be terrific. If you get those numbers, we can set a goal for reducing those complaints and really show what difference this training makes.”
“OK, I can do that. What’s our next step?”
“Let’s talk about some more details…”
This is fictionalized, but it gives an idea of how a conversation with a client could go to convince them to use storytelling in their course. Have you been successful in selling storytelling or scenario-based learning? How have you made this an appealing approach?