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Turn print copy into a commercial script for your VO demo. Parts 1 and 2 of 4

Edge Studio

In our May 7, 2017, session (that’s our free call-in discussion on various topics each Sunday evening), the question arose as to where to find demo scripts. Various tips were offered, the most fundamental being that your demo coach should be able to guide you. (You do have a demo coach, right?)

But another good source is to convert print copy — such as magazine advertisements, brochures, encyclopedias, corporate training manuals, and so on — into an audio track for a radio commercial, explainer, narration or whatever you need. Just how does the average non-scriptwriter go about that?

The simplest answer is, “Write how you talk.” That’s what NPR advises its on-air journalists. In this article summarizing NPR guidelines, they demonstrate how a print news story is often not at all written the way you would tell it personally in conversation.

See the NPR article for details. To summarize, here’s their list of how people talk:

  • Keep sentences short and simple. They’re easier for the listener to follow and digest, a bit at a time.
  • Minimize the use of modifying clauses. It’s often better to make that clause a separate sentence.
  • Use common words. Your listener can’t look them up, and if they’re wondering what you meant, they’re not listening to your next sentence.
  • Be straightforward, not poetic. Unless you’re being flowery on purpose (for example, for humorous effect), clear communication is more important than creativity.

But a news story isn’t necessarily representative of the copy in many VO genres. And many print ads are already written in a “conversational” style, yet they’re still not necessarily right for audio. So let’s take a look at a further set of principles.

In Part 1 of this article, we’ll focus on the commercial genre (radio, TV, online video, etc.). Next week, we’ll look at other genres.

Deconstructing the print ad

Consider this hypothetical print ad, which was inspired by an actual one, but we’ve changed the product category and made up a product name. (Any similarity to an actual product or brand is a coincidence.):

VISUAL: An ice cream cone with five scoops of ice cream on it, next to a cone with one scoop. With the five-scoop cone, there is a product feature stated next to each scoop:

  • Made with 100% real cream, no gummy fillers
  • All-natural fruit and fruit flavors. The same is true of our chocolate, vanilla, etc.
  • Second best-selling ice cream brand in America. (The other? See at right.)
  • 99% Satisfaction among people who say they love ice cream
  • Our recipe is unchanged since 1895

HEADLINE: On balance, Froball is better.

COPY: If one scoop is good, wouldn’t five scoops be even better? Especially when it’s ice cream as wondrous as Froball? Okay, maybe that’s a few too many at once, but it demonstrates our point: There are so many reasons to choose Froball ice cream whenever you want a genuine treat. We’re “only” the second best-selling ice cream in America, but “number one” can’t say so many good things that make all the difference. No wonder our recipe has been so popular since we introduced it in 1895, over a century ago. That’s even before the ice cream cone was invented! So, if you really want five scoops, we suggest you use a dish, or a cup. You’ll find Froball is well-balanced any way you serve it.

TAG LINE: Still as good as in 1895.

CALL TO ACTION: In the dairy section at your supermarket.

One thing is clear – that’s not all going to fit into a 30- or 60-second commercial, let alone the short snippet that you’ll choose for your demo.

So, how do we pare this down? For context, and to demonstrate the editing process, we’ll start with 30-seconds, then we’ll make it shorter. Also note how the script evolves with each new version; sometimes the editing process stimulates new ideas. (Once you get the hang of creating a script that sounds realistic, you can aim straight for 10 seconds or so when writing for your demo.)

WARNING: See the articles linked at the end of this one, for a discussion of whether or not you should use actual products and brand names (discussed below). If you do make your script about an actual product, you might or might not want to change the marketing message, but take care not to change the facts about the product. For example, the text above says that Froball is the “second best-selling” brand. If your demo says it’s the “best-selling” brand, that could be very awkward.

What’s the big idea? Hint: if it’s a good ad, it’s probably stated in the visual and/or the headline (or the way they play off each other), without needing to read the body copy. In our example, the big idea is that Froball has more reasons why it’s good … and it’s fun.

What copy points are essential? In this case, the visual includes text beside it. Those five points are dramatized by the visual (that is, they’re not actually promoting 5-scoop cones). So focus on delivering those. If there are no such “callouts” or bullet points, go to the body copy and lift only the points that are essential to pay off the Big Idea. (A 30-second commercial typically should convey the one idea. A 60-second commercial might have a secondary point to make, or might include a longer list of “reasons why,” or might allow more time to play with the drama, sound effects, etc. )

How do you convey the visual? If you’re writing a supposed script for TV or video, it would probably show the visual. But the person listening to your demo can’t see it. So, even if you’re writing to video, it might help their understanding if your script brings them along. Early in your script, describe or refer to the key visual. After all, audio is arguably the most “visual” medium of all, because it allows whatever the listener can imagine. (Here’s an example from Stan Freberg, created for the Radio Advertising Bureau – listen to Cut #4.)

What’s the tone? In this case, “fun” is also part of the big idea – who wouldn’t find a 5-scoop cone more than a bit silly, yet an intriguing “challenge.” Can you build a similar sense in your script? It might not be quite the same joke, but it should have the same tone, the same “product personality.”

Constructing the commercial

So, what do we get if we put this all together? There are a wide range of possible assemblages. Here’s one, for example.

Can you balance 5 scoops of Froball ice cream on an ice cream cone? Imagine, 5 scoops! Why? Let’s say that each scoop is there for a reason. Because there are so many reasons why Froball is better.

One: It’s made with a hundred percent real cream, no gummy fillers.
Two: All-natural fruit and fruit flavors. Ditto for our chocolate, vanilla, and so on.
Three: 99% of ice cream lovers love Froball.
Four: We used the same recipe since 1895.
Five: Froball is the second best-selling ice cream brand in America. (And for these reasons, it’s much better than Number One.)

On balance, you can see why Froball ice cream is better. Even if you balance only one or two scoops at a time.

Another approach would be to make it a dialog between two characters. For example:

PAT: What’re you doing?
SEAN: Making a 5-scoop ice cream cone. Look, it’s Froball ice cream.
PAT: Hmmm, can you balance it?”
SEAN: Yep. Froball is very well balanced. Look, this scoop represents it being all real cream, no fillers. This scoop represents the all-natural ingredients. The third scoop stands for 99% ice cream lover satisfaction. This fourth scoop is for the same recipe since 1895. And, watch out, scoop number five – the second best-selling ice cream in America.
PAT: Yeah, watch out!
SEAN: Whoa!!
ANNCR: Froball. All this, in the same recipe since 1895.
SEAN: Glad you caught it. Mind if I lick?

But you don’t want a potentially competing voice on your demo, and you do want to be sure the casting professional isn’t confused as to which voice is yours — so write it in a way that lets you excerpt your part, and give yourself the juiciest lines. If the other voice will be heard, they should sound nothing like you (preferably use the opposite s*x). Also, be sure you’re better than the other voice actor.

Considering all those caveats, maybe a dialog is to be avoided unless you’ve come up with a really great showcase for yourself, or want to show your ability to act in a dialog situation.

Great copy rarely emerges at its best in the first draft anyway, so let’s rework the above dialog so that it’s “all you,” and just the 10-seconds that we need. We’ll keep the announcer, so that you can use a character voice and a contrasting announcer voice in the one cut:

SEAN: There, see? Five scoops of the second best-selling ice cream in America. … Whoa, watch out!
ANNCR: Froball ice cream. Every scoop a great one, since 1895.
SEAN: Glad you caught it. Mind if I lick?

Or write a first-person monolog – that is, it’s one person, but the pitch is delivered by a character rather than by a spokesman. (You could start with a dialog just to get your thoughts together and stimulate a situation, then turn it into the thoughts of one of the characters.) Tell a story. Have a situation. Retain the drama. For example:

I have a problem it comes to ice cream. I can’t make an ice cream cone with less than 5 scoops. Because every time I start scooping Froball ice cream, I start thinking of all the reasons I love it. How do I lick this problem?

(For context, you can imagine that the character then lists all the reasons, and so on. Or maybe it’s just a short commercial.)

Distilling it to 10 seconds

But, still, that was is a bit longer than 10 seconds. How do you cut copy down to 5-10 seconds? The answer:

  • Pare it down to essential thoughts
  • Don’t repeat unnecessarily
  • Delete unneeded words
  • Replace “wordy” phrases with single words

The results:

I have an ice cream problem. I can’t make a cone with less than 5 scoops. Because when I scoop Froball ice cream, I think of all the reasons I love it. How do I lick this problem?

You could even replace “when I scoop” with “with”.

These scripts are meant just as thought-starters, to demonstrate how the same basic message can be delivered in various ways. Alternatively, you could use just about any good benefit or “reason why” as the hook for your script. For example:

  • Suppose you were an ice cream fan in 1895, and you’ve just discovered this wonderful ice cream but nobody has yet invented the cone. Can you think of silly or interesting alternatives to using a dish and a spoon?
  • Or how about an imaginary timeline of all the “improvements” that people suggested over the years … that were rejected.
  • Or maybe you’re a character who has proposed all those bad ideas, all rejected, and you’re getting really frustrated. So to feel better, you have a bowl of ice cream!

To be aware of all the various ways a commercial can be written, we suggest you make note of the various types of scripts you that you encounter in your daily listening and viewing. For example, among commercials there are also testimonials, hard-sell sale spots, emotional appeals, tags, and many more approaches. Use one that shows off your strengths. For example, to show emotional range, you could try something like this …

… So, here goes, FIVE scoops on one ice cream cone! (SFX: PLOP!)
Oh! It fell !!??? I’m so … wait, it fell back into the container! So okay – five scoops. But this time … in a dish.

Too long again!! Which leads to another tip …

As with a baking recipe, shortening often makes it better!

So, cut mercilessly, distilling it down to your absolute best moments. Don’t give the listener an excuse to click away. Often when you focus this closely on what you’ve written, you will also think of a funnier or more “realistic” line:

Arrgh! I dropped my FIVE scoop ice cream cone! I’m so … wait, it fell back into the container! What? You never ate out of the container?

Note that we cut the length a lot, but it still lets you show two emotions. And the ending is funnier.

There are unlimited scenarios, and you only need a 5 to 10 seconds that work. (That’s a luxury not granted to copywriters writing for actual clients. Another luxury is that if your script is a few seconds too long or too short, only you will know. The important thing is that the bits used on your Commercials demo are about 10 seconds long at most.)

There are also a lot of other “rules” for audio writing, such as “avoid tongue-twisters and awkward phrases.” But as trained VO talent, you’ve probably encountered and surmounted many of them. Just keep it real – if you make it artificial, not like people actually talk, your script will sound like one of the Stepford Wives.

In your pretend script, you might or might not want to include a real or imagined brand name. There are differing schools of thought as to that.

On one hand, if you’ve done a good job of writing, a real product name sounds more genuine. On the other hand, some casting pros know who’s voiced the biggest spots – and if they do, they’ll know that you’ve faked it.

See our other articles (links below) for other important considerations.

By the way, don’t use any of these scripts for your demo, because then your demo would not be unique. You can use some of our Practice Scripts as models for writing your own, but again, do NOT use them on your demo, either. Too many people will have heard them before.


Can you use copyrighted material in your demo? (Part 1 of 2)…

Can you use copyrighted material in your demo? (Part 2 of 2)…

Should you write your own demo copy?…

Do you have a comment or suggestion? Please send to [email protected].

Next week: Turn print copy into VO demo scripts for various genres