Writing for Speaking

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?

38 Replies
Steve Flowers

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

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.  

Allison Moreland

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

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.

Laura Winkelspecht

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

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? 

Daniel Brigham

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 

Steve Flowers

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 http://www.pathwright.com or http://www.ruzuku.com are built for stuff like that.

Belen Casado

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,


David Anderson

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

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

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

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.

Denise Appleby

-  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.

Andy Bowyer

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

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.

Judith Campbell

... 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".

Andy Bowyer


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.  However...in 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?