“George, you can type this shit, but you can‘t say it!
This is a famous quote by Harrison Ford. He was giving George Lucas a hard time about the dialogue in Star Wars. Worth noting the quote continues with, “…and that’s the year he gets nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Right? What do I know?”
Regardless of how things worked out, I actually quote this often in the studio. Things can look good on paper, but writing for reading and writing for speaking are two very different things. It’s actually strange that it took me this long to write this blog, as it’s a pretty common problem. I was partly inspired by a great excerpt in Voice Marketing by Minsky, Westwater, Westwater, and Fahey. A very good read if you’re interested in voice technology or even just sound marketing in general.
1) Beware of Tension
Don’t demand too much of the listener’s attention. Long sentences can be very fatiguing. The longer the sentence, the more the listener is waiting for that resolve. The longer they wait, the less they’re likely to retain. If you have a lot to say, break that thought up into shorter, more digestible sentences.
2) Careful with Quotes
Audio is a linear medium. People can’t listen retroactively. Consider the following.
“I love cycling. It’s transportation, sightseeing, exercise, and adventure, all at the same time. And maybe best of all, it doesn’t pollute,” said John Sanfilippo, owner and sound strategist of SoundWise.
This works fine in a news article where the reader can not only see the quotation marks, but also scan the information at their leisure. When read in real-time, it’s a bit jarring. Instead of focusing solely on what is being said, the listener is also waiting for context; who’s talking and why? Instead try something like this.
John Sanfilippo is the owner of SoundWise. He told us, “I love cycling…”
3) Write the Way People Speak
On a similar note, people rarely speak in long, complete sentences. If you’re going for an idealized, romantic vibe, go nuts, but most audio media doesn’t need to feel like Shakespeare or Nabokov. You want people to be absorbed in the setting and the story. In the audio world, we like to use the word immersion. Natural dialogue is often the key to immersing people in your content.
4) Be Mindful of Your Word Choices
I appreciate a big, fancy word as much as the next person, but some longer, more complicated words can be very awkward to say and hear, again, taking away from that sense of immersion.
5) Be Mindful of Imagery
When you’re writing a novel, you’re working with words only, so it makes sense to spend time describing sights and sounds. But most audio media is multi-dimensional. We not only have words, but music and sound effects too. They can do a lot of heavy-lifting when establishing setting and mood. Descriptions might help to flesh things out, but if they’re not done right, they can result in a lot of unnatural dialogue and lost momentum. For more on this, you can check out the imagery blog.
6) Read it Out Loud
Really, the blog could probably start and end with this one. And when I bring this up, I don’t mean just mumble or whisper it to yourself. Be loud and proud. It might even help to record yourself and listen back. If it feels awkward to say, it’s probably awkward to hear.