The Versatility of Voice
I love writing for human voices. Maybe you’ve found this blog because you struggle with it and want some tips to make it easier for yourself, or maybe you’re writing your very first script. Either way I want to walk you through my process and help you to see that writing for, casting, and directing voice talent is likely simpler than you think (and less intimidating).
When we choose to add human voices to our work, or with audio ads where it’s 90% of what we’re working with, we’re opening up a world of opportunity to create connections for our clients. Human connections. With our choice of actor, their tone and inflection, we’re creating a shortcut to emotion because people, largely, are hardwired to listen to each other.
Another thing that I love about audio advertising is that it’s an excellent driver for storytelling and (my personal favourite) comedy. For some reason that I have yet to entirely figure out, clients tend to be more open to a bit of weirdness and laughs in a :30 second spot than they are in say, a print ad.
Here’s one we did in 2019 for Conexus Credit Union to play on Spotify. It was fun to write, fun to record, and I’m sure it got some smiles from our audience.
Why You Should Consider Audio Ads
Despite online streaming’s best attempts, radio is not dead. The reach and frequency of radio is still often pretty formidable, especially in more remote or rural areas. And you also get the chance to better target your audience based on stations and listening habits.
And audio ads aren’t just for radio. Streaming services like Spotify and podcasts are also full of opportunity to connect with your audience where they already are. Depending on the format of the podcast, fully produced :30’s can be included, or ads read by the host (which are kind of another beast altogether – watch for another blog on this sometime).
So you have the reach you need with audio ads, but I think that their best selling feature is that audio is a form of rich media. Like video, audio can have layers (insert Shrek joke here). You not only get the voice or voices you’ve carefully selected and directed to perfection, but there’s music, sound effects, background noise if you want it – so many opportunities to create a wonderful little slice of the world in a tight thirty seconds.
Scripting Audio Ads
Okay so step one, after you’ve received a brief from your client and likely had a little brainstorm with your team if you’ve got one, is to write the damn thing. Probably write five or ten of the damn thing if you’ve got enough time and ideas. Don’t delete any of them, not even the terrible ones. Your client never has to see your worst version, but you’ll like yourself a lot when you come back later and find a little nugget of word choice or idea amongst your brain garbage.
There are really just a few things to keep in mind at this stage:
- A single, supported message
- Word count or timing
A Single, Supported Message
Maybe this is why audio ads are some of my favourite – like billboards they force you to get simple. What is the main message? What are one or two supporting facts? That’s it. That’s all you can comfortably fit in a single :30, the rest is decoration.
Have a listen to this Global Ag Risk Solutions spot.
The message? Global Ag Risk Solutions can help you achieve more on your farm. The support? Farming is more challenging than ever, but thousands of Global Ag Risk customers are already doing better.
Word Count or Timing
The timing of an audio ad is also very important to think about when you’re scripting it, because it’s your major restricting factor. How many words fit in a thirty second ad? Eighty … ish. There is no hard and fast rule because a lot will depend on the emotion and tone you’re going for and simply how fast you want your talent to speak.
In that spot above, it’s a slow and scant fifty-six words. We wanted that down-home molasses tone of our voice talent really drawn out and relaxed. I remember recording this spot, and it was a bit of a challenge to get it slooow enough.
With a different spot, tone, and actor, you can probably jam about a hundred words into thirty seconds if you’re wanting something at lightning speed, but always be mindful of clarity for your listeners.
As a general rule (and really, there are no real rules here) you want to write a script that fits into about twenty-five seconds if your end goal is thirty. By writing a bit short, you leave space for music, sound effects, and to just generally give the spot some breathing room.
I fully recommend doing timed reads yourself on all audio scripts that you write. Read it out loud in whatever simulacrum of the tone and pace you’re going for that you can manage with a stopwatch. Do it a few times and take the average. This tends to give you a pretty good idea on the time your script is coming in at so there are no surprises in the studio.
If you find yourself pushing hard against that :30 mark, I recommend getting two versions of the script approved by your client, especially if they won’t be present for the recording. You can keep your long version and hope your talent can cut some time, and if not, have a shorter back-up version to record so you aren’t scrambling to re-write while sitting in the studio and hoping your client will be okay with the changes.
It’s likely with your brief, you already have an idea about what kind of tone you’re after with your audio ad. Whether it will be serious, light and fun, or something else altogether. You’ll want to keep this front of mind while you’re writing.
At this stage, you can also start to noodle on what kind of voice will fit what you’re writing. It’s possible your client has an established voice actor that they already use, in which case you can have a listen to their past work with that client and write to the existing voice with a similar tone.
You can also start with the tone and voice if that works better for you. I tend to write the scripts, then develop the direction for talent search, but it works just as well the other way around. You just want to think about consistency and whether what you’re writing is going to match well with that voice, and whether that voice will resonate with your audience.
When you’re thinking about tone, you will also be thinking about word choice and grammar. Remember that you’re writing for someone to speak, so natural flow and word choice is important. Make sure that it seems human when spoken aloud, unless you’re going for something in-human, in which case just go hard in whatever direction you’ve selected. You may also want to add in direction for your actor like sighs, pauses, emphasis, or emotion cues.
Casting Voice Talent
So, you’ve got yourself an approved script and are ready to cast some talent! At Phoenix Group, we work with production studios for our audio, so we provide direction to the studio, then they send us talent options to choose from. Often these are sample reels from the talent, but sometimes if auditions are being solicited, the talent will be given your script to record a few versions of.
When providing your direction, it can be helpful to think of your voice as a character. I find if you’ve dabbled in fiction writing, this is an especially helpful approach. So, who are they? Male, female, androgenous, approximate age. Do they sound friendly, like an authority, authentic and unpolished or like a stage actor or radio announcer? Do they have an accent or is there a particular ethnicity you’re trying to represent?
If can also be helpful to include what you don’t want to hear, or limits in your direction, especially if you have lines in the script that could be taken wrong if the intonation or emotion isn’t correct. So for example: She is trustworthy, straightforward and friendly with a good sense of humour. Never condescending or snarky.
Once you receive auditions, it’s time to get judge-y. Casting is extremely subjective, and there’s no way around that. Sometimes you’ll find the perfect voice in the very first batch, and sometimes you’re on round five before you finally hear them. You wrote your script, so you know what you want that person to sound like. Many professional voice actors will be very versatile, and will have a pretty wide range too, while fresher talent can sometimes have an unpolished authenticity.
It will really be up to you to decide who to cast and it isn’t very helpful to say you’ll know them when you hear them – but, you’ll know them when you hear them.
Directing Voice Talent
It isn’t always the case, but often you will attend recordings in your role as writer and get to put on your director hat. This can feel pretty intimidating, but it’s important to remember that the work we do is always a collaboration. Between you, your talent, your audio producer and possibly your client and creative director – everyone there wants to make something great.
You’ll want to have your script with you and a pen and be ready to really take the lead to make your words come to life. Magic happens in that sound booth when everyone works together!
This is your chance to provide direction in person to your talent before you start recording. So, any special notes, pronunciations, emphasis, energy or emotion – give your talent a brief run-down and make sure you’re on the same page. You may also want to give them some background if this ad is part of a larger campaign or let them hear music if it’s already selected.
Then you can usually dive right in! You’ll want to take decent notes on what you liked and didn’t like, including what take you’re on because audio producers can work wonders pulling parts of different takes if needed.
Providing constructive and productive feedback to your talent is really vital here. Communicate well and be honest, but like with any co-worker, make your feedback something work-able and not just a put-down. So “I didn’t like that second line, try it again.” isn’t productive, but “I need some more energy in that second line, with more of a pause after the comma and up-tone at the end.” is productive. If you’re struggling with feedback that specific, it can also be productive to say “You know, that second line isn’t hitting quite right for me, but I can’t put my finger on why. Do you think you could give us a few different run-throughs?”
Be sure to also tell your talent what you’re really liking from them! Everyone loves positive feedback and telling them what you’re loving can help them to nail down the parts that maybe aren’t quite working yet too.
A really skilled voice actor who is familiar with the client and has done work for them before can sometimes nail a spot in just a few takes, but it’s more likely to take anywhere from 5-10 takes to reach perfection. Don’t be afraid to keep going, even if it’s just a niggling little bit of perfectionism – you generally only get one chance to record.
Words on the Page Versus Final Spots
In looking at recording your audio ads as a collaboration, it can be important to look at your script more as a guideline than written in stone. It’s possible though, especially with working for clients, that what’s on the page needs to be spoken exactly as it is with no room for change. This is something to consider from the outset, and you can always manage client expectations before recording even happens.
Personally, I’m always open to the ideas of voice talent and producers, or whoever is in the room. I don’t have a monopoly on good ideas, and actors and producers bring so much experience to the table. Be sure you’re letting everyone know what the expectations are, and whether minor changes for flow are welcome, or full-on ad-libbing, or if the script is approved as-is and needs to be kept as-is.
Good communication is really the key to meeting everyone’s expectations and coming out of the studio with a final spot that will be effective.
For more about what makes great radio advertising, check out Episode 8 of Lessons Learned in Marketing.