Field notes on words

Writing about words

Text to voice

The problem with language is that everyone uses it.

It can be difficult as a writer, working on commercial projects, to justify why my words are worth paying for. After all, most people have a perfectly adequate grasp of language.

I see this most often when people write their own scripts for videos or animations and don’t believe it can be improved upon by a copywriter. There are a couple of ‘tells’ that someone has never written a script before:

  • They believe that 500 words is going to fit into a 60 second video. You just have to speak really fast, right?

  • They insist on writing the completely unintuitive name of their product/brand (think @lpha or #beta) in the fashion they’re used to seeing — which unfortunately no voice artist will be able to read.

  • On a similar note, whenever numbers are mentioned they’ll fail to clarify how they want it pronounced": ‘twenty three hundred’ or ‘two-thousand three hundred’. Or whether % should mean ‘per cent’ or ‘percentage point’ (there is a difference)? Or if it’s okay to say ‘bucks’ when someone uses a $? (Unlikely, sure, but the $ symbol is originally the sign of the Spanish peso, and is still the sign of the Mexican peso. Why should ‘dollar’ be the default?)

  • They don’t appreciate how empty, or sometimes dramatic, a phrase can sound when you take it off the page and give it voice. ‘Moving the needle’, ‘synergies’ and “‘forward planning’ (ever planned backwards?) are a couple of examples.

  • They won’t understand how to best structure information between on-screen and off-screen. For instance vocalising the first few items on a long list and phoning it in with an ‘etcetera’, instead of letting animations show what they mean. Let the voice support the visuals sometimes.

The ambiguities and clunkiness of written language come alive in the spoken word. Writing for speech is a different language, more exposed and forthright. (It’s also why pretty much every verbal branding document I’ve written has insisted on reading writing aloud.)

It’s easy to be blind to the difference between writing and speech for precisely the same reason people would rather write their own scripts than pay a copywriter: the problem with language is that everyone uses it.

Celina Siriyos