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How to Write a Voice-Over Script – 5 Methods Explained

Miles Chicoine

Miles Chicoine

17 February 2021

How to Write a Voice-Over Script – 5 Methods Explained - Voquent

Voice-over scriptwriting. How hard can it be? 

Writing a script for a voice-over may appear deceptively straightforward. Professional writers and directors know that any style or form of art can take years to develop, much less master. As with any craft or specialism, the first step is the hardest part of getting started.

If you are now writing a voice-over script for the very first time, this guide offers some tips and considerations to help you build a great first draft.

 

Is the voice-over script for video or purely for audio?

From the beginning, you need to be clear about how the production is going to be broadcast. If you storyboard for a medium that will only be heard, (eg. radio, an audio tour, or a podcast), the words and voice are wholly responsible for invoking any essential or relevant visual cues. Also, keep in mind that any selected music or effects will need meticulous consideration. These will also trigger visualisations capable of enhancing or diminishing the picture you are trying to build. There are all kinds of suitable mediums for voice-over, be it a promotional video or audio drama!

For the voice-over script specifically, provide a clear and decisive set of directional notes on the intonations and transitions between them and the precise use of grammatical flourishes. Use enthusiasm strategically or you run the risk of your listeners feeling assaulted.

 

What's the creative concept?

The creative concept is the beating heart of every production. It is nothing less than essential that the overarching ‘Big idea’ of the project is defined in its most distinct and complete sense. The inception of this vision is where other people have to be involved. You cannot shape a robust, working, creative concept without progressive collaboration, ideas, and input.  

Read more: Audio Branding Services – Giving Voice to Your Brand

 

A large and well-funded production will involve the assembly of a creative team for this purpose. This team will actually build and test multiple creative concepts to gauge which will be most effective and influential with the audience. The process can take anywhere from a few weeks to months. It all depends on the size of the team and the scope of the campaign.

If you’re working on a smaller, independent production with limited resources, you won’t have the luxury or benefit of audience testing. Consequently, this introduces greater freedom (which producers love) but also greater risk.

The premise of the creative concept is to identify and agree on:
–         A unifying theme aimed at a defined audience demographic.
–         The intended core emotional response of the audience.
–         The anticipated reaction of the audience, which may include a specific call to action.
–         The memorable conclusion(s) that the audience will retain afterward.

 

A well-funded creative team will build this out from an established communication strategy and a brief. Again, an independent project for a smaller team doesn’t have access to these resources. A communication strategy may not even exist. In which case, the scriptwriter needs to interview the relevant people and return with a single draft concept. That concept can be used in the absence of a strategy or brief.

 

Prepare the storyboard

The creative concept enables the creation of a proposed presentation or storyboard. For a promotional project, this will also include a headline and tagline. It will also include a key, central visual if it will be broadcasting via a visual medium (an online ad, a TV commercial, etc.). Of course, none of this would apply to an audiobook, and for audio-only productions, it may be that none of these are required.

In any case, the storyboard is generally broken into sections or panels and with accompanying illustrations or images for a video project. It’s a structured sequence of events. With a collective agreement to move forward with this, the scriptwriter begins the first draft.

 

Writing the script

Ideally, you were involved in every step of the creative process. From the initial idea to the formation of the storyboard. In which case, you will likely have already brainstormed and recorded a loose variety of ‘defining-moment lines.’ Essentially, scraps of text that support and embody the underlying meaning of the story. Now you need to build your first draft script. Here are some tips, in no specific order, that will help you along the way:

1. Stay concise. It is a lot easier to expand on a line or thread that really works than trying to trim and consolidate excess lines later. Furthermore, your audience has an unforgivingly short attention span, particularly in audio-only productions. In most cases, they will still be distracted by their visual environment. Also, try to avoid making multiple points or ideas in the same line. Resist the urge to add an abundance of depth. Passive and causal audiences become apathetic when forced to process complex messages. Simplicity is gold.

 

2. Speak visually and actively. A great exercise is to assume that the listers are blind. Use active verbs in your script to keep the emphasis on the people who act. Active voice is where the subject is the actor of the verb, and this pulls in the audience. Passive voice, where the subject is the target of the action, has the opposite effect. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Does this mean you should wage a holy war against every single word that ends with ‘-ing’ (“sitting”, “crying”, “winning”)? No. Just remember that an abundance of adjectives and adverbs will accumulate distance from the audience.

 

3. Establish a tempo and stick with it. Good voice-over scripts follow a cadence, and their flow should determine how short your lines need to be. In general, the sharper those sentences are, the better. The best way to maintain timing is to read them aloud. This is an ideal time to identify what music, if any, is going to be used. Music introduces a rhythm that will influence and determine where to stress particular intonations or break sentences apart. Mesmerize your audience with a perfectly paced voice-over script.

 

4. Make strategic use of pauses. If you follow a sentence with a single beat of silence, it adds power and resolve. The introduction of pauses at any stage enables your audience to process the story. For a video script, silence has a way of forming a unique emotional tone. Its deliberate use is a very effective way to build a sense of sincerity. Use these to your advantage, and be sure to notarise this clearly in the script.

 

5. Write for speaking as opposed to reading. Keep reading your text out loud. Does the spoken version of the words sound like what you actually hear in conversation, or does it sound like a dissertation? Remember: people will inherently use shorter words when they speak with each other. They will also naturally interrupt each other frequently in dialogue, often when the other has paused for breath. It is hard not to cringe when you watch two soap opera characters who are supposed to be in a heated argument. They seem to take turns to exchange heated monologues within inhumane patience. Audiences quickly disengage when it’s evident that someone is reading from a script.

 

 

6. Avoid Word Repetition. Use the same word or group of words for effect or emphasise a point only when essential. Otherwise, steer clear of repeating yourself at all costs, especially in the same sentence or in adjacent lines. It sounds as bad as it reads. This might seem obvious, but it remains surprisingly and painfully familiar in non-edited (or poorly edited material). There are many applications available for detecting and replacing repeated words, so there’s no justification for this.

 

7. Intentional alliteration. You’re writing a script, not a tongue twister. Except for nursery rhymes, you should avoid a run of alliterative words and particularly those beginning with S, P, B, C, K and T (“Sells Seashells”, “Proper Cup of Coffee,” etc.). This doesn’t just apply to two or more words. It can apply to a single word with multiple syllables (like “Ferarri”). Sparing use of alliteration can be very powerful. Here is an infamous example: Martin Luthor King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He repeats the hard “c” sound, which strengthens the emphasis on his focus on his children.

 

Format the script

Prepare your voice-over script in an editable, templated format. This enables the voice-actor to add their own personal notes where required.

Here at Voquent, we produce voice-over for thousands of scripts, and as you would expect, the vast majority are saved in Word, Excel, or a plain text file. There is a range of common industry-standard formats and style standards:

 

1. TV / Film scripts

Firstly: Courier size 12 font. No exceptions. Producers and studio executives won’t even begin to read a screenplay that doesn’t use this font type and size. In particular, film and TV scripts are like a set of instructions from the storyteller to the cast and crew. Everyone from the Director to the Actors needs to have a concept of the scene’s location, what time of day it is, and (of course) what’s being said. Where it’s relevant, the script will also include subtle but essential details, such as how certain characters are feeling. Something like this: 

 

 

2. Non-sync/ Wild scripts

A plain text file is more than sufficient for a recording that won’t require video synchronisation, such as a radio promo, e-learning or presentation script. These are commonly referred to as “Non-sync” or “wild” recordings. The file will include the specified tone and pace expected from the voice-over. The word count of the script will determine the expected duration of the recording for that language. In some cases, the script may also highlight some post-production notes e.g. add to a video, mix with music, edit as separate files, etc. Here’s a basic example:

 

 

3. Time-coded/ Time-stamped scripts

A timecoded transcript is necessary for a voice-over that will be synchronised to an existing video in post-production. It’s also an essential prerequisite for closed captions, subtitling, and translation into other languages. The industry standard is a left margin of the document, which contains the specific time codes measured to the second. This format is particularly relevant for commercials or infographics as the voice-actor needs to know where to adjust the pace of their reads to match the visual scenes and transitions. 

 

 

4. Live Broadcast scripts

Scripts for live broadcast events are best prepared in a plain text file and read from an Autocue/ Teleprompter application, and there are hundreds of software products on the market for this, including some great free ones such PromptSmart for mobile or the browser-based Telepromptermirror.

 

It can also help add stage direction at the start and end of an autocue script, such as reminding yourself to look at the camera with a closed mouth for five seconds before you begin and again after you’ve finished speaking. If the script is prepared for a slideshow presentation such as PowerPoint, add NEXT (in caps) after each line to remind yourself to advance to the next slide. If the slides have animation, add CLICK (in caps) after each line to remind yourself to display them. For writing a broadcast interview script, it's standard practice to add the name of each speaker in caps. Surround the name with brackets (JOHN) on a separate line above their text to designate who should be speaking.

 

Audio exclusive On-Air Scripts for Radio Shows and Podcasts operate more as an instructional guide for the host of what is essentially a casual and improvised exchange between personalities. On-Air scripts do not follow an industry-standard format or templates, so there’s no right or wrong way to write what is essentially a schedule of reference notes.

It would be best if you still scripted the introduction(s) along with any specific questions or statements to be read verbatim. Everything else will mostly refer to the title(s), intros, cues, sound effects, music, and the length of gaps between segments. It’s also good practice to add pronunciation notes for brand names, people’s names, or words from other languages. In principle, On-Air scripts don’t contain a lot of text that to be read word-for-word. Its a guide  to ensure that participants are prepared and to keep everything running on track.

 

5. Radio/ Podcast Narration

Radio dramas or other audio narration projects require a more detailed script format. It must also include notes about the timecodes involved, sound effects and music, and the gaps between sounds or segments. A generic radio script would look something like this:  

 

On-Air scripts

On-Air Scripts for mediums such as Radio Shows and Podcasts operate more as an instructional guide for the host of what is essentially a casual and improvised exchange between personalities. On-Air scripts do not follow an industry-standard format or templates, so there’s no right or wrong way to write what is essentially a schedule of reference notes.

It would be best if you still scripted the introduction(s) along with any specific questions or statements to be read verbatim. Everything else will mostly refer to the title(s), intros, cues, sound effects, music, and the length of gaps between segments. It’s also good practice to add pronunciation notes for brand names, people’s names, or words from other languages. In principle, On-Air scripts don’t contain a lot of text that to be read word-for-word. Its a guide  to ensure that participants are prepared and to keep everything running on track.

 

Now, you are ready

All of this will be common knowledge to a seasoned scriptwriter. While there are technical and educational themes that may appear mundane or prescriptive, writing copy of any kind is always a creative process, typically with wide and variable boundaries. As the old saying goes: the only limit is your imagination.

Thought, skill, and discipline are what ultimately separate the professionals from the amateurs. If you're writing a script for yourself or someone else, these tips will help you get started.

 

The Script or the Voice – What Matters Most?

 

Miles Chicoine

By Miles Chicoine

Managing Director and co-founder of Voquent.

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