Do you know how to properly use a story to communicate your ideas or are you an Underwear Gnome of storytelling?
Webinars, videos and eLearning are excellent ways to push your content out to a wider audience. Putting your content online means that you no longer have to set up face-to-face meetings; you can reach out to a huge number of prospects, customers, and employees via their inbox. But once you’re in this channel, your content is competing with dozens of other communications and can be deleted at a stroke if it doesn’t quickly capture the recipient’s interest, so it’s really important that the content we send out is engaging. Great visuals can help make your content look and feel compelling, but you need to make sure that the story you’re telling is just as persuasive. This is where writing scripts comes in.
Before we get started
Here are a couple of resources to help you get up to speed:
Once you have a great story to tell, backed by some great visuals, how do we make sure that your script makes your content even more compelling, rather than giving you a one-way ticket to DeletedItemsVille?
This blog article could also be called ‘confessions of a voice-over artist.’ For several years I’ve done voice-over work here at BrightCarbon, lending my voice to eLearning courses, promotional videos, and webinars aplenty. Over that time I’ve learned a bit about what makes a good script, and a lot about what makes a bad one. So here are my top tips for writing a good script for webinars and videos.
Writing scripts: Keep it simple, keep it snappy
Think about how you speak – specifically, how you speak when you’re explaining something to someone. It’s very unlikely that you use grandiose language and multi-clause sentences. But I’ve narrated so many scripts just like this one, teaching employees about how to conduct the research phase of a particular project:
This works well as a written piece. I mean, it’s a little long-winded, but the meaning is clear. It’s not very engaging though. Listen to how it sounds read aloud:
It’s so hard to focus – the meaning gets lost in long words and parenthetical phrases. At the end, you’re left searching for the real point of the section.
That’s not just what an audience thinks: as a narrator it’s hard to decipher as well. It’s not clear where to put the emphasis. Is the ‘best practice’ bit most important? Or the bit about doing high-level research? Or the fact that it happens after the internal scoping?
The best answer for both parties is to keep it simple. Cut out everything that doesn’t need to be there – everything that masks the real meaning and stops it being completely clear to your audience.
Let’s have a look at what we can get rid of:
It’s not the best idea to give audiences a ‘get-out clause’, giving them an excuse to avoid doing things the right way. In this example it’s adopting a method of working, but it might be buying into a solution, or realising there is a problem with the way they currently approach a certain issue as a business.
Here we give the audience two escape pods: ‘As a best practice’ – the non-committal audience member decides that isn’t no big deal if they don’t go along with best practices; ‘it is highly encouraged’ – even a best practice is only highly encouraged.
Not only is it simpler to begin by saying ‘Conduct some high-level research prior to the first meeting’, but it’s much snappier.
This goes for ‘aid in your ability’ too: just say ‘help’.
Writing scripts: Use punctuation
Ouch. Burn. But you’d be surprised how many scripts I read that have little-to-no punctuation. Now, this isn’t really directly relevant to the audience member, but it gives your narrator a huge helping hand in understanding how you want your script to be read.
This extract has three of the most common areas that get overlooked, that often lead to ambiguity:
The missing hyphenation: Ah yes, reserved for pedants the world over (and I should know… because I am one). The role of a hyphen to make two words into one is not just to reduce your word count, it’s to group words together so that an entire phrase (even if it includes nouns or prepositions) behaves like an adjective. High (adj) and level (n) become high-level (adj) to describe the research. Just like the ‘little-to-no’ that I threw in earlier.
Now, like I said before, it doesn’t really matter to the audience, but it’s important for the narrator. Do you put the emphasis on ‘high’ or ‘level’? Of course, an experienced narrator can take a wild stab in the dark at where the missing hyphen should go, but it isn’t always clear-cut. Think about this phrase:
Friends is the best known sitcom from the early 2000s.
Does the emphasis go on ‘best’ or ‘known’? Let’s have a listen:
It’s ever-so subtle, but can throw off a narrator very easily, and as a result can throw off your audiences too.
Commas: At school we’re taught that commas are little breaths in a sentence. Then, the older you get, the more vague the purpose of a comma becomes. But indicating where you’d like a pause in the narration, either with a comma or a little ‘[pause]’ indicator (usually for pauses longer than a breath), is really helpful for a narrator to know how you’d like the sentence to be read.
Take the sentence highlighted above. If we put a comma after ‘effectively’, suddenly the sentence has a nice symmetrical structure.
And how about the second instance? Words like ‘which’ can be really ambiguous. It isn’t immediately clear whether or not there needs to be a pause after ‘which’: during which… key findings are identified. Without the pause it can become a little too easy to read it like a question, giving the sentence an entirely different meaning.
Adding a comma makes the content far clearer. Even better, re-write that whole sentence, but more about that in the next section…
Lists: If you’re anything like me, you love a good cup of tea. Making tea is so second-nature to you that you don’t really think about the steps involved in crafting the perfect brew. But if you had to tell someone how to make a cup of tea would you begin your instructions like this? Step one [pause] fill the kettle with water. Step two [pause] choose a mug and place a teabag inside it.
The way we narrate a step-by-step process is not the way we write it down. Instead of stoically narrating your step numbers, let the visuals do the heavy lifting while you conversationally refer to ‘the first step’, ‘the next step’, and ‘the last step’. This is one of the most impactful ways to make a script sound like a person is talking to you.
Writing scripts: Be direct
Multi-clause sentences: When you’re creating a written document you have a lot more linguistic flexibility than you do in a script. You can pull sentences apart and add clauses to add suspense and delight, just like our dear Jane Austen did in Pride and Prejudice:
Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances.
If you did the same in a piece of eLearning you’d have throngs of people yelling ‘Get to the point!’ at their computers before you’d reached your heady conclusion.
There is a curious phrase in our example above: ‘after determining the scope of the project with our internal partners’. But when you look at the whole chronology of events, it transpires that this is actually the first thing that has happened. The narrator assumes that the learner has just secured scoping information, which then gives them the green light to go and do their initial research, so chronologically, this sentence is back-to-front.
In our first section we decided to get rid of the first clause and part of the second – too Austenian for a piece of eLearning – but we can also flip the remainder of the sentence around so that it happens chronologically.
The first sentence then becomes:
Once the scope is clear, you need to conduct some high-level research.
We’ve trimmed all the fat that doesn’t need to be there. If you need more detail, you might write:
Once you’ve clarified the scope with our internal partners, you need to conduct some high-level research.
The use of the passive voice: The second way to make sure you’re being direct is to avoid using the passive voice. What do I mean? The passive voice places the object of a sentence at the beginning and the subject at the end:
Active sentence: The manager discussed the performance reports
Passive sentence: The performance reports were discussed by the manager
In our example, the three key research steps all use the passive voice, and what’s more, they don’t refer to the subject (you, the learner) at all; it’s like the second example above just saying ‘the performance reports were discussed’. It may seem like a simple preference of expression, but the effect on the learner is surprising. They’re left thinking, “Is this about me? Where do I fit in to all of this? Does this just happen automatically? Am I supposed to do that?”
It’s the equivalent of going through an entire face-to-face presentation without making eye contact with anyone. We talk a lot about using ‘you’ language in our presentations, and that’s because we want to make it relevant for our audiences – to involve them, and help them feel like they’re a part of what’s going on. Don’t get caught in the author’s trap of writing things as though they’re going to be published in a book. Think about your script as words you might hear as a conversation.
Speaking of conversations…
Writing scripts: Be conversational
Many businesses have to walk a fine line when it comes to maintaining a standard of formality and professionalism, but too often these efforts can backfire and make things more difficult to understand.
Here’s a really good example of something that takes a challenging brief – flight safety announcements – and makes it more engaging:
Much of the informality comes from conversations between the characters, which sets the context for the more formal pieces. Notice how the conversational parts help you to pay more attention during the instructional parts. It’s not just delivering information, it’s using a story to frame the instructions. But at the same time it doesn’t compromise the professionalism of British Airways itself.
The big takeaway here is that we respond better when it feels like we’re being spoken to – whether that’s on a formal or informal footing. As we saw earlier, the passive voice is one of the key contributors to making things sound indirect, which, in turn, puts a greater distance between the presenter and the audience member and so increases that perception of formality. Using more ‘you’-centric language helps the audience to know you’re talking to them directly, and makes them feel more involved and invested in what you’re telling them.
Contractions are also a really easy way to make things more conversational: changing your ‘it is’ to ‘it’s’. Over the years I’ve observed that American English tends to use contractions less, but in British English this will be a clear way to make things feel more conversational.
Also, don’t be afraid of using layman’s terms. Like we pointed out before phrases like ‘aid in your ability’ can be easily replaced by ‘help you’. If there are particular phrases you need to use, consider spelling them out using phrases like ‘in other words’ or ‘this means’ just to make sure what you’re saying is explicit.
If you’ve read my BrightCarbon profile page, you’ll know I have a degree in Italian language. When I was learning Italian, I was constantly on the lookout for phrases that would make my conversation seem more natural and less like it was out of a textbook. I found my go-to word: ‘tipo’ – it just means ‘like’, but in a more informal way.
It’s the same in English when you’re looking to make things sound more conversational – words like ‘like’ ‘well’, ‘so’ and ‘okay’ can be dropped in very easily. If you want to take this to the next level, consider using phrases such as ‘kind of’ or ‘sort of’, but do use with caution. Yes, they will make your script sound much more conversational, but they could undermine the professionalism and authority of what you’re trying to say. They work best when you’re trying to explain something complex and the narrator breaks their speaking pattern, as if turning to talk to the audience member directly: ‘this really complex thing, well, it’s kind of like this analogy’.
Writing scripts: Avoid repetition
Lastly, avoid repeating words. In written language repetition can often be used intentionally to create a sense of familiarity between sentences, or deliberate associations in concepts or things. Most readers won’t notice unintentional repetition because they’re likely skimming through the content without actively reading each individual word.
In spoken language, it’s very different. Repeated words stick out much more. Often the word will sound very similar – thanks to pitch and intonation – and so they act like little progress markers in the narration, letting the audience focus on the pattern of repeated words rather than the content itself.
This can be really distracting for audiences, but it’s also not helpful for narrators. I once did a two-minute narration in which the word ‘need(s)’ was used 12 times. Reader, I confess I had to redo it so many times because first of all I couldn’t believe that I had to say ‘need(s)’ so much; then I started to notice it and a whole manner of sniggers and guffaws ensued by ‘need’ number 10.
In our example, ‘high’ shows up in three places. As is typical of other instances of repetition, the text can often be rewritten without too much difficulty.
But this doesn’t just apply to random words, I’ve seen it plenty of times with product names:
Product A is the one-stop shop for all your data management needs. Product A streamlines the way your company uses data. In Product A all your data is help in a secure online vault, which means you never have to worry about security breaches thanks to Product A.
I think part of this comes from a nervousness that if you don’t mention your product enough, people will genuinely forget what it is. Maybe, but you don’t need to mention it once or twice in every sentence.
Writing Scripts: Process
A lot of these points only need subtle changes, but they make a big difference to the overall output. Writing a perfect script first time, however, is a skill that not many are blessed with. This is the process I would recommend for writing good scripts:
- Write your content: work out what you want to say – don’t think about the best practices just yet.
- Read it out: read it aloud – how long does it take? If you’re restricted by time then you know roughly how much you need to cut out or add in.
- Refine your content: now start using the best practices to refine your content.
- Do a rough take: sometimes it’s not enough to just read something out. You will notice some things, but as you’re concentrating on reading, you probably won’t be as critical of the bits that need to change. Record it and listen back. Gross. Cringe. Everyone hates listening to their own voice! But you don’t have to share it, so don’t worry, just listen and pay attention to the parts that don’t sound natural.
- Repeat these last two steps until you have something that works: get a second opinion, and then get your voiceover artist to do their magic.
Writing Scripts: The result
So after applying our process and our five best practices, what are we left with?
Listen to this script segment here:
There are a couple of things to note about this re-write:
The written version is longer than the original draft. The first part is shorter, but we’ve made the list section much more explicit and ‘you’-focused, which means we’ve used more words. But – dramatic pause – this narrated version is shorter than the original! The way the first draft was structured – with the long, multi-clause sentences – meant there were more heavy pauses. The jargon also meant that it was necessary to pause for longer so the audience could take a second to process what has been said. The second draft has more words, yes, but shorter words and shorter sentences, which makes it easier to narrate, and easier to understand.
I’ve taken some liberties. I read between the lines a little to work out what was hiding behind the jargon. If you’re writing your own content, you probably won’t need to guess some details, but if you’re working on behalf of someone else, just flag up the areas that you’ve altered or interpreted to make sure you’ve got the right end of the stick.
What about presentations?
We wouldn’t advocate writing scripts for presentations. Speaker notes, absolutely. Scripts, not so much. The thing about using a script in a live presentation is that it forces you into thinking there’s only one way of telling your story. You panic if you forget a bit. You don’t deliver your content very naturally. You stifle all interaction with the audience. And if you decide to write a script and… wait for it… read it out, then what you end up with is basically a bedtime story that will send your audience sweetly to sleep however ground-breaking your presentation content might be.
The solution to presenting naturally and fluently is practice. Write your speaker notes as exactly that – notes – and practice again and again. Read more about that here.Leave a comment
Principal consultantView Hannah Harper's profile
I love learning things – I’m always on the look-out for a new skill to learn, or something I can already do, but want to do better. But it doesn’t work out every time, and when it doesn’t, there’s almost as much to learn as when it does. Let's take a look...
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