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Writing for Speaking

Andy Bowyer

137 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 8:59 AM  

I just did some audio editing on a project (can't say what, sadly) and I noticed some very AWKWARD phrases the voice talent had to spit out, and I realized that the reason they sounded awkward had a lot to do with not only the terminology (again, I can't emphasize enough the importance of pronunciation guides, even if the words themselves are common, they way they fit together within the context of certain industry jargon can be crucial to credibility) but the sentences surrounding the terminology.


Ostensibly, those taking the course were supposed to be learning from the ground up with this stuff, which means that even as an audio editor or Voice Actor, one should get some take-aways from the material as well.  Honestly, due to the run-on sentence nature of the spoken words...I had no idea WHAT was going on.


When writing material that will be narrated, do you find it hard to condense certain kinds of material?   Or do you writers/instructors count on a certain degree of knowledge from those who the training is being targeted to?



All Replies

User Rank Steve Flowers

4,125 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 10:15 AM  

Hey, Andy - 


I think the problem is often the skill and style of the writer. I wouldn't consider myself the best writer. Far from it, but it kills me to read narrative that isn't written for listening, let alone reading. Awkward structures, run-on sentences, and passive voice reigns supreme in most of the script I've had to edit or review. 


I will read parts, but only in particular cases. I don't have a lot of breadth but for "shop floor guy" type of explanations, I'll take the role. The first question I ask when I get a script to read, I'll ask if it's OK if I take liberties with the narrative. I'll take as much time as I need to rewrite the script, sometimes from scratch and often with significant reorganization. 


Writing in a style that is a joy to listen to and a snap to comprehend is a whole other level of skill. Writing well for specific contexts is a skill that many folks simply don't have:( 

Andy Bowyer

137 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 10:35 AM  

Steve, I couldn't agree more with many of your points.  And I like the "shop floor guy" description you used.  Certainly there is a time and place for "high falut'n writing", but it really depends on the audience.  Sometimes, as I narrate eLearning courses, I marvel at the scripts--and in a good way.  I'm considered by some to be a decent "descriptive writer", however, many times I find myself thinking "Man, I could *never* have written that!" 


Sometimes, during the comma-delimited run-on sentences, I find myself shaking my head in wonder as well.  



Posted Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 1:34 PM  

I generally find that writing for narration should be at about the 6-8th grade level. I tend to avoid compound sentences and big words, unless they're necessary.


One problem I have seen is that sometimes, the expectation is set that we will narrate what our subject matter experts supply and it is not always "ready for prime time". I often need to do a lot of editing of SME-supplied "content". If I can't read it aloud to myself, it will be edited.

David Steffek

80 posts

Posted Friday, July 20, 2012 at 8:06 AM  

I deal with similar issues.


I receive scripting for our front line staff to use during customer interactions, and many times the first thing I ask is the same as Steve: Is this verbatim, or can I tweak it?


Imagine giving an entry-level customer service agent a suggested script riddled with executive-speak and uncommon, polysyllabic words, like "polysyllabic."


One issue is the executive-speak, but the other is Andy's observation - writing for reading is much different than writing for speaking.


Thankfully, I've built a reputation and relationship with my stakeholders where they usually allow me to make the scripts more "speakable."


To answer your original question, Andy, I create training both for incumbents and new hires. The incumbents I obviously expect to have at least a baseline knowledge of the topic, but for the new hires I need to explain things from scatch.


And while I have enjoyed writing as a hobby since high school (and as a training/elearning professional for the past 15 years), by no means do I consider myself a professional scriptwriter. But another hobby of mine is multimedia production and voice work (I do my own narrations), so I know firsthand the differences between writing for reading versus speaking. This awareness has been helpful for me when writing my scripts.


But for someone that doesn't have the same experience, I think the best advice is similar to what Allison stated: Even if you're not going to narrate the script yourself, read it to yourself out loud, preferrably recording it and then listening to the playback. Only then will you be able to hear how your writing actually sounds.

Posted Friday, July 20, 2012 at 9:31 AM  

Just last week I held a one-hour session for our SMEs/writers to give them some tips on writing for podcasts. They write our textbooks (for tax preparers), so you can imagine that they are not used to writing conversationally. I basically had to tell them to break the rules: use contractions, shorter words instead of long ones even if means more of them, use "you" and "I" and write like you're talking to a friend.

nitin talele

1 posts

Posted Saturday, July 21, 2012 at 1:33 PM  

Hi Guys this is a very rare discussion n u cant find it anywhere else happening! great topic Andy.

I have been dealing with the e-learning courses on mechanical/electronic equipment to software applications n marketing stuffs.

feel there is lots of inconsistency in writing the script for narration while creating the storyboard. Are there any standards available for writing the same? (some thing like MSTP for writing contents)

If not can you guys put somethings together? 

Posted Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 5:28 AM  

Although this thread is entitled Script or No Script, there are some good comments here on script writing for narration.

User Rank Daniel Brigham

1,281 posts

Posted Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 11:33 AM  

Hi, Andy: An important topic. Many times the ID is responsible for the script--well, the SME helps out too, but many times the ID is responsible for the final product. And most IDs aren't writers. As an ID and writer, I have a few tips for writing vo scripts:


As a general rule:

1. Use shorter sentences than regular prose

2. Read it aloud for awkward repeating sounds, such as -s ("businesses assists schools") or awkward glottal stops ("an anonymous archictecture firm")

3. Be conversational (use contractions; use second person (you, you all, etc)

4. Let your ID and voiceover artist make small tweaks for readability. 


I don't write for a certain grade level. I write for the audience taking the training. What will they relate to? What insider language do they use? Too many people think their learners are stupid. --Daniel 

User Rank Daniel Brigham

1,281 posts

Posted Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 12:05 PM  

Hi, Steve: Glad I could oblige. Here's an even better example of an awkward glottal stop with a repeating -n sound to boot.

"If you’ve been in elearning for some time..."

 This I will surely revise in my vo script. Why? Because I have "eyes to see, and ears to hear." --Daniel

User Rank Steve Flowers

4,125 posts

Posted Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 12:10 PM  

This is an awesome concept to illuminate. I'd bet some folks would love to participate in a coursepath on writing great scripts, identifying and correcting issues that "just sound bad". Could be a great opportunity for an enterprising writer to pick up some extra cash If the price was right, I'd sign up myself.


Something like or are built for stuff like that.


Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 1:35 AM  

Interesting thread. Thanks for sharing important info. I've been producing instructional materials on video and I can fully relate to rewriting content to make it sound easier for the listener

Belen Casado

275 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 4:15 AM  


I think that when it comes to writing for speaking, there's a concept I'll never forget caused it sounded weird to me (not as much as "Awkward Glottal Stops" ), and it's "aplying the filter of presence". 


In the first elearning company I worked in, I was told: "good script, but you haven't applied the filter of presence". What? "Yes, there is someone watching this course, then, that person wants to feel like there's someone else telling him/her something, not just a machine. Without this "filter", people abandon courses".


And since then, apart from contractions, easy words or avoiding awkward repeating sounds, I always take care about the student who'll be sitting in front of a screen watching and interacting with a course.


Hope this helps,






User Rank David Anderson

3,267 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 4:50 AM  

We hear a lot about the negative effects of linear, narrated courses yet formats like radio news programs are the epitome of linear—listeners can’t skip over a portion of the show.


I once read that news shows like the morning shows on NPR, are a "combination of editorial and production" decisions. 


For example, a host may be given three minutes for his/her report even if it’s the day's top story.  It’s their job to make the story fit in that block of time. There’s always the long form version (online, print) where they can add more details.  If we had greater time constraints, would we find a way to use shorter, more actionable words and phrases in our courses?


Maybe that’s another presentation model for course design. Or, maybe the radio show we're listening to is more relevant than 90% of the corporate elearning we're taking. 

Belen Casado

275 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 6:25 AM  


That's a good point...

I was thinking about another thread I read today in Linked-In, where the discusion is about the future of video and/or interactivity in e-learning.

The thing is you can't branch a video but still you keep watching it... if it's interesting.

Yes, I also agree with @David about the duration of sentences. At the same time I was told to filter by the presence of the student, I was told to write sentences similar to what can be written in a sms or a tweet.


Anyway... motivation comes also from your previous interest in a subject. The moment a student is obliged to read a course, motivation goes sharply down -and this happens usually in corporate training, IMHO.



Denise Appleby

46 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 9:30 AM  

I find that writing of scripts improve when the writer does the narration- even as a test.

I wrote a script for myself which seemed like it would sound good. However, as I had to make some changes while I did the narration. Reading it in one's mind 'sounds' different from when one reads it our loud.

Going forward, I will endeavor to run test narration before sending the script to the narrator.


As far as jargon and acronyms, and such, it is practical to let the narrator hows how it should be said/how it sound sound. This is highly important in my field. Leaving a voicemail with an example helps.

Andy Bowyer

137 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 9:42 AM  

If there is a "Golden Rule" about narration in my experience, it's this:




Many's the time I've received scripts with bad grammar, poorly constructed run-on sentences, and self-contradicting verbiage that left me scratching my head.  Sometimes I'll offer "alternate cuts" if something is utterly obvious and utterly ridiculous.  In the cases where I don't offer the alt-take, I'll send an email to seek clarification.  Once upon a time, I was taken to task for it, being told "Read it as it was written.  Don't ask questions, don't pretend to be an expert."  And that was the thanks I got for offering a second cut "just in case."


The punchline?  The alternate cut was the one that was used.


Sometimes good customer service wins.




Andy Bowyer

137 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 9:51 AM  

OH...and Denise, as for *everything* you said, I couldn't agree more.


It's one of the "underlying" components of the "tutorial" I produced yesterday:


Writing To Narrate


Writing your own stuff can lend, I think, to MUCH better narrations.


Denise Appleby

46 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 9:54 AM  

-  Sometimes that is true " THE SCRIPT MUST BE READ AS WRITTEN.". especially with highly technical material. I recall we hired someone to design courses when I worked with a large financial institution. I wrote the manuals and scripts. She made changes that resulted changed meanings.  For example, every reference to Compensation was changed to 'Paycheck'. Two complete different things when discussing the rules that govern retirement accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs.


Mostly though, changes made by narrators  for purposes of 'flow' and 'delivery' are usually good changes, because they 'hear' how it sounds.


Denise Appleby

46 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 9:58 AM  


Andy Bowyer said:

OH...and Denise, as for *everything* you said, I couldn't agree more.


It's one of the "underlying" components of the "tutorial" I produced yesterday:


Writing To Narrate


Writing your own stuff can lend, I think, to MUCH better narrations.


'liking' this post a lot


Andy Bowyer

137 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 10:01 AM  

As a narrator, I have to say that I feel like the "bottom of the food chain" for most projects.  And even though I have a brain, sometimes there are instances when "nonsensical" seeming verbiage to me makes complete sense to the people within the industry I'm narrating for.  


But that's why I don't mind "alternate takes" so much.  Because in my mind, it's "covered" either way.  



Mary Vivit

6 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 10:23 AM  

If you get a chance, take some time to listen to some radio plays from the 1940s. With a mix of interesting plots, tightly written scripts, and creative sounds these programs had people riveted to their radios. While many of our topics may not transfer directly to this format, I can envision using audio assets for:

  • Phone conversations for presenting customer service coaching
  • Compliance training-based situations, for example, handling social fishing attempts
  • Meeting transcripts: effective meetings

Audio can be less expensive than video and can definitely supplement some video usage.

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 10:50 AM  

... if only we could teach people to write the script with the listener in mind.  When I've taught people to narrate, I suggest they post a picture of someone within the target demographic so that it sounds like the narrator is talking to someone.  Maybe the same suggestion should hold true for writers. 


In all fairness though, for all of the times when the voice may be the bottom of the food chain, the writer is next in line.  They are given too many things to 'say' in the time allotted.  It's what I like to think of as the various layers of "I don't know what to cut or edit, so I'll make it your problem".


User Rank David Anderson

3,267 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 11:14 AM  


Andy Bowyer said:

OH...and Denise, as for *everything* you said, I couldn't agree more.

Writing To Narrate

Nice tutorial, Andy. Really appreciate the great tips you're sharing!


Andy Bowyer

137 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 11:19 AM  



Old Time Radio is one of my hobbies.  There is no greater example of the POWER of that medium than the Mercury Radio Theatre's presentation of "The War of the Worlds."  There just isn't.  




I should think that the writing of a course is one of the single most important aspects of the whole thing.  Of course, I'm not only thinking in terms of "narration" but the entire storyboard.  It all begins with "pencil and paper" (as it were.)  


Of course, given what you said, the implication is that that writers are given a "timeframe" within which to say their words.  If this is truly the case, I think it's a disservice to the course as a whole.  Some things cannot be condensed into an allotted amount of time or space.  Truly, if you're looking to teach something, you should be willing to explore the material to its fullest extent, rather than to your budgetary limitations. a world where "budget is king", we need to also explore our own creativity to employ the idea of teaching, eh?  Narration, video, animation, and graphics can all be combined to create an incredible experience for a student.


Consider this:


Photo Finish


A "silent movie".  A story told entirely through video, with the mood being set by music.  Perhaps you cringed, perhaps you laughed, but you had a response.  And you'll probably remember this one.  And while this was produced as "just a bit of fun" it also serves to prove a point.  An ironic one, given my vocation:  Narration ISN'T everything.  You can creatively employ demonstrative elements into your courses, or (dare I say) create entire courses that are effective, without a single spoken word.


It all depends, eh?



User Rank Daniel Brigham

1,281 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 12:00 PM  

As IDs, the power to write invigorating scripts is in our hands. I think at least 70% of clients would go along with something different and exciting if we held that script up to a "normal script."


We need to educate our clients about good writing. I know, I know, yet another thing we have to do: construct storyboards, questions, scenarios, record and edit narration, write invigorating scripts. Sometimes, I think IDs are tasked with too much.


Good script writing reminds me of a quote from one of Robin Williams' design books. She says that a company needs the occasionally risky, daring design to prove it belongs in the 21st century. Applies to scripts writing, too. As a writer and ID, I'm through with standard, boring scripts, not that I haven't written some snoozers. I have.


It's on me to educate my clients. If they don't buy it, well, I've done my job. And as a freelancer, I can choose the clients I work with. Well, sort of.  

T. Travis

22 posts

Posted Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 3:39 PM  

Every once-in-a-while, I get to talk to scriptwriters. The ones that write the best scripts always tell me that they write out-loud. - In other words, they say the sentence to themselves before inputing it into the computer. Many scripts I get have sentences that are half-a-page long.  I can tell the writers of these scripts didn't write out-loud, because they would notice that they ran out of breath long before the sentence ended.


Many scripts I get to narrate these days need to "go through legal" as the last step before they get to me.  These are the absolute worst scripts.  A great deal of the time the script doesn't make any sense after the legal team gets through with it.


Even on a highly technical script, if the writer understands that audio communication is first emotional, then logical, and knows how to integrate emotion and logic in the text, we end up with a much better script.  While "conversational language" is good, so is proper grammar.  

Belen Casado

275 posts

Posted Wednesday, August 01, 2012 at 1:13 AM  


This is very interesting for me. I've read all your posts and would like to share how things are done in Spain -quite differently.


Script writers (same as ID here; in fact, I've been asked many times "What the hell an ID is") they write what the client wants.


Professional people put voices to those scripts without knowing how the course is. They receive an email with a text file, then put voices, then send audios back. In the scripts they can find some indications like: "read this quickly, with a motivating voice" or "this should sound warm, close". Together with that, they receive instructions on how to read acronyms and similar -which, as said, is key in financial courses.


Then, clients see it all put together by graphic designers, who sync voices with characters, animations, etc.


In Spain, we're really used to hear professional voices as most movies have Spanish voices over them. So voices must be highly professional, as Andy's or Bruce Graham's. For example, I cannot put my voice in my courses. My voice is not loud enough.


I hope that this quirky way of doing things give you some clue.



Andy Bowyer

137 posts

Posted Wednesday, August 01, 2012 at 8:49 AM  



I don't think the way you describe things is "quirky" at all.  In my experience, having the voice work laid down first is always a strong choice in the flow of things.  This way you don't have to worry about retro-fitting things to a specific length of time, rather you can build it to fit in the first place.  This is especially important when it comes to animation.  Of course, I realize it's not always possible to do it that way, but it's helpful to everyone when it works out.


Great insights.  Thanks!


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