Writing a Script for Voiceover

There are lots of good tips on how to select the best voiceover talent to read your script, and others on how to get the best out of that talent once you’re in session, but today, we’re going to be focusing on the step that comes first: writing your script with voiceover in mind.

Let’s remember that the key elements of writing a script for video still apply in full: communicate your message, thoroughly and consistently, and focus on the word choice and tone that most appeal to your target audience.  Thinking of the voiceover actor’s experience reading your script aloud is equally crucial, so let’s see what the experts recommend when it comes to writing a truly voiceover-friendly script.

Connie Malamed starts us off with a tip that might sound obvious, but requires more attention than you might expect: Write like you speak.  This still means writing in a business-appropriate tone, and doesn’t mean to include colloquialisms or any inappropriately informal language.  It does mean that you should write as if you’re talking to someone, as “when you write like you speak, you will naturally use smaller words, a more conversational tone and shorter sentences.”

Malamed adds that “…a voice over script should not sound like it was scripted.”  This last bit of advice may or may not be as directly helpful as the broader notion of writing as you speak; audiences understand that the script they’re listening to was prepared, so “sound[ing] like it was scripted” is not really something you can or should avoid entirely.

David Ciccarelli’s advice on the same concept gets to some more specific considerations while working on script for voiceover.  He suggests that you read your script out loud, and indirectly revises Malamed’s “smaller words” suggestion: “With the exception of medical or scientific narrations the words should fall easily off the tongue.  Try to avoid using corporate drone or formal words you wouldn’t ordinarily hear someone say in everyday life.”

This is a better way to articulate writing for spoken delivery: acknowledge that you won’t be able to use punchy, easy, conversational language at every turn, but certainly leverage that sort of language whenever possible.  Some aspects of your script may necessarily be technical and require decidedly non-normative terminology or descriptions, but try to compose any script segments that do not require this level of complexity with a conversational feel.  And avoid jargon and ‘corporate drone’ as much as possible.  Few scripts truly call for this type of language.

Another seemingly natural but truly vital element of a good voiceover script that Ciccarelli points out is using proper punctuation.  Ciccarelli’s example of the same sentence with and without proper punctuation (“Most of the time travelers mark their luggage” vs. “Most of the time, travelers mark their luggage”) shows how ambiguity in punctation can create very different meanings, and reads, in a voiceover session.  In his example, it’s the difference between implying travelers are voyaging through the fourth dimension, or if ‘normal’ travelers often mark their luggage.

These kinds of issues can usually be quickly caught and reread in a voiceover session, but reevaluating your script and addressing them in advance will save time and confusion.  This reevaluation will also make your script appear more professional—always preferable to appearing unprepared, or as if you’re ‘winging it’ with your voiceover.  Show the talent that you worked hard to make your script clear, and recording it will be that much more pleasant and expeditious.

Amazing Voice adds a couple of additional grammatical considerations that will make your voiceover talent sound better in your recording.  These relate to voice and verb tenses.  When you write with partners, or simply go through several rounds of drafting, shifts in verb tense and between active and passive voice can slip in.

Rereading for consistency of verb tense should be absolutely required.  Amazing Voice suggests you write only in present or future tense, with past tense entering the equation only in company origin stories or similar historical moments.  Noticeable mistakes in this area damage the message by revealing a lack of attention paid to the language used—and that damage can be severe.

Active voice livens up almost all writing, infusing it with forward momentum and confidence.  And writing in active voice is straightforward: your subject acts, instead of being acted upon.  Don’t explain that your “company was saved by its employee loyalty” when you can just as easily write that “employee loyalty saved our company.”  Sentences hit harder with active voice, so rewrite any sentences that lack this punch through use of passive.

Writing for voiceover isn’t a secret art or a completely different endeavor than other scriptwriting, or business writing generally.  The difference appears mainly in clarity and tone, which can be simply addressed by reading your script aloud, and making sure the writing reflects your own understanding of the subject matter rather than approximating it through jargon or errors.

You might know how to read a phrase correctly, but does your writing convey that to your voiceover talent?  Your tone might be fairly conversational, but does your use of punctuation and word choice match that tone?  Are you filling your script with transitions you would never say in one-on-one conversation—and if so, should you remove them, or replace them with simpler transitions?

There’s one other trick that can help a lot: have someone who isn’t involved in the project read your script aloud before sending it to voiceover talent.  Reading it yourself is undeniably useful, but having fresh eyes read it before you send it to your talent can reveal tricky spots you never even considered.  When your associate stumbles, or hits a sentence strangely, note that spot for revision.

Conversational tone without informality, clarity of language without avoidance of key terminology, and conscious adherence to good punctuation, verb tenses, and active voice will result in a voiceover-ready script.  The best medicine against a script that will sound awkward when read aloud is to simply read it aloud, or have someone read it aloud back to you.  Come prepared to your voiceover session with the best script you can bring with these straightforward tips.

Have you been surprised by awkwardness in a voiceover session?  Have you been able to pinpoint one of these issues as the root cause of voiceover difficulties?  How much do you think about the eventual reader of your script when you compose that script?  Do you have other tips that might further improve voiceover scripts?