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Understanding Commercial VoiceOver Scripts

11 December

Over a series of blogs, I want to give you some tips on how to work with the many and varied types of voiceover scripts and styles.

Voiceover scripts are very different from each other.  The message is different, the intention is different and the audience is different.

But there are similarities also. 

Many scripts are written to a kind of template. In ‘commercial’ advertising especially, there are techniques that work so well, they are repeated time after time.

Listen, for instance, to how many times you hear the ‘problem/solution structure’ in an ad.  It begins with the problem and presents the solution.  It’s a perfect way to engage the right audience.  That is, the one with the problem…and…solve it.

In this blog we’ll look at a script for a television/online commercial and together we’ll do some analyses to help you understand better how to approach this kind of script.

The first thing you do when you’re handed a script is look at it with these questions in mind:

  • What is the central message?
  • What and where are the key words and phrases?
  • Who am I speaking to, and
  • What does the advertiser or client want us to achieve on their behalf?

Once you have these considerations sorted, you need to get clear on the most important of all; the language.

Talented copywriters know how to shrink language, so that the message is clear.  They know how to use seductive and often manipulative language, that causes us to want what they are selling, or to believe that we need, whatever it may be.

Often these voiceover scripts – for on screen advertisements that also have visual and sound elements – are written in a very stylized way.  The language often feels unnatural or doesn’t have an easy flow.  This is very common in commercials where so much can be said by just showing a visual.

So, let’s work through the script and talk about the techniques I use to sort out what the messages and considerations are.

Applied well, these techniques will help you sound as though you completely understand what you’re talking about.  You might think that’s easy, but when you are dealing with stylized language, it takes some working out.

Here’s the script.

“Imagine a world where your dreams gave you beautiful skin.

Introducing Johnsons dreamy skin bath.

A warm bath with a unique blend of aromas that can help you sleep better, enriched with vitamins & moisturisers to help nourish your skin.

Beauty sleep from Johnsons.”

It appears easy enough. 

A bunch of words that are familiar, a simple to understand message, and away you go.

Not so fast!

First up, this is a 15 second commercial.  To get it to time, you need to read pretty fast. Time it and see.

Yeah, wow!  It’s fast alright.  But this is pretty common in voiceover land.

Later, I’ll give you a tip for how to get through a ‘tight’ or ‘overwritten script’.

For now, let’s break the script apart and look at what’s being said.

First line;

“Imagine a world where your dreams gave you beautiful skin.”

I call this a sentence with a piece of ‘bait’ in it.  It’s designed to catch the attention of the right audience.

That audience is probably, but not exclusively, women.

You need to now look at the words in isolation.

What is the ‘bait’ word or phrase that tells what this ad is about.  It’s usually aspirational, something we want.

Yep, it’s ‘beautiful skin’.  If that’s something you want, you (as the audience) may listen (or watch) further.

The word ‘dreams’ is mentioned in that first line, but ‘dreams’ is not about the product, so you wouldn’t emphasis that word.  Just say it.

It’s often very tempting when you’re handed stylised voiceover scripts to want to make something of everything.

Don’t do that.

Stay with the technique of just emphasising words that are about what it’s about and you’ll always sound better.

Then the next line leads us further into the meaning by giving us more information.

“Introducing Johnson’s dreamy skin bath.”

Contained in the line is the ‘brand’ Johnson’s, and what the product is, a ‘dreamy skin bath’.

I do need to let you know here that it’s not a bath as we know it, but an intensive night cream.  However, the notion of a bath and night-time does say restfulness.  This is really part of the ‘concept’ in the ad.

And also Johnson’s is important, but don’t forget, it’s a screen ad. At the time that you say Johnson’s, a graphic or logo will appear on the screen.

It’s much more important that you make the experience of a dreamy skin bath work by placing some emphasis on that phrase. 

To give emphasis, you don’t try to hard.  In fact what you do is take your time through the phrase and deliver it in a way that convinces the person listening/watching to ‘want that experience’.

Just to re-cap.  In the first two lines, the only phrases that you’re giving attention to are ‘beautiful skin’ and ‘dreamy skin bath’. 

I call this the story thread.  The thread is; only the words that tell the story of what this is about.

Next, we have a sentence that’s broken by one comma, but how many different thoughts or ideas are in this rather long sentence?

Here’s the sentence.

“A warm bath with a unique blend of aromas that can help you sleep better, enriched with vitamins & moisturisers to help nourish your skin”.

In very stylised voiceover scripts, this is often where inexperienced voiceover artists unravel. In trying to make sense of this language, by honouring the one comma alone, they just can’t work out where to pause, when to breath, what to emphasis.  It can very easily do them in.

However, ‘written word’ is not like ‘spoken word’.

Punctuation is always included in written word, but we don’t speak using punctuation.  We speak telling story, sharing each piece of new information as we move through our story.

So, yes, it’s a little clunky…and, to complicate things, there are five different pieces of information in the line.

What, you might say…what does she mean, five different pieces of information???

Well, there’s ‘a warm bath’, ‘a unique blend of aromas’ and, the reason for the product to exist in the first place, to help you sleep better’.

Then we have a comma and the two other pieces of information, enriched with vitamins and moisturisers’, and the fifth piece of information, to help nourish your skin’.

You need to know how to look at that language as a series of thoughts and ideas that all have a different job to do.  And as I said before, don’t necessarily rely on the punctuation to guide your read.  Look to the words and their meaning for guidance on where to pause.

Here’s a tip

When I first get voiceover scripts I mark, with a pencil, a slash between each different thought or idea.  I do it with a pencil, because I may decide it works better another way and want to make a change.

Okay, back to the script.  Each of these different thoughts and ideas need to stand-alone.

What you’re endeavouring to do is to apply voice acting, to give each phrase its meaning and therefore a ‘value’ in the story. 

It will sound odd but try now to isolate each phrase and make it sound as though each one is a short sentence with a full stop.

Here’s another tip

When you have a long sentence like that and several different thoughts and ideas, try to avoid emphasising any particular word.

Just make the individual phrase work in the telling of the story.

Then of course, we have the last line, where you pull the message together, say the product name and repeat the brand name. 

“Beauty sleep from Johnsons.”

Here, you’re offering the solution.  The listening audience may not even need the product, but your job is to make the read work so well in concert with both the images and the sound bed, that they won’t be able to resist buying it 🙂

Well, that’s the plan anyway 🙂

So, yes, it may be a short ad, 15 seconds, but there’s always a lot to consider.  The better you become at looking at the language in the script, not as one long monologue, but as a series of different messages, the better you’ll be.

And speaking of 15 seconds.  Here’s my tip on how you get through an overwritten script like this?

You lower your volume!  Yup, that’s all.  You can get through a lot more words and make them understood at a fast pace, if you are using very little volume.

Be careful though when you do lower your volume, that you don’t lower your energy level.

Getting through any stylised voiceover scripts takes practice. Listen to others doing fast reads convincingly and you’ll start to get a sense of what that could be for you.

Voiceover is never just about reading.  And as I said at the start, every script is different.

Happy Voiceovering!

Abbe Holmes About Abbe Holmes
Find Your Voice As a Voice Over Actor And Artist With The Voice Over Coach. For over 30 years I've had a successful voiceover career. I work in mainstream voice over for radio and television, narration for the corporate sector, website content and documentaries, as well as characters for animation, IVR, ADR, on-hold and foreign film dubbing.

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