Voice-acting tips from
"The Art of Voice Acting Workshop"

Dealing with Excessive Copy & Grammatical Errors

“I have noticed that MANY of the scripts I am given are :45's masquerading as :30's. In other words, I'm speed reading to get through them in the allotted time because the client has insisted on including certain things in the commercial that make it physically impossible to stay under time.This leaves me very little room to "emote" or give it any kind of reading other than "fast." I'd love to hear how one deals with that! Very often, the producer ends up cutting lines and saying "oh well, we'll just have to font the address or phone number." Ugh! Another important "studio etiquette" tip might be helpful: what do you do when you find your copy grammatically incorrect? This "grammar queen" finds it hard to read while biting her tongue about an obvious faux pas! “

Melissa Reizian Frank

Problems with grammatical errors and scripts that attempt to cram too much copy into 30 or 60 seconds is very common, and is basically one of a lack of preparation and education on the part of the advertiser or copy writer. There are two basic parts to these problems: 1) the copy is poorly written due to the copywriters lack of understanding of good advertising technique and 2) the script is not properly timed. Let's take the timing issue first.

Many inexperienced copy writers will "time" their script by simply reading it silently. We "read" much faster than we actually "speak", so timing without speaking will never give an accurate time. If they do read it out loud, it's usually at a low volume, often simply mouthing the words or mumbling, and certainly not with the proper energy or pacing that is needed to give their message impact. They are just reading the words. Worse - some copy writers I've known will actually "time" their script by counting lines, estimating the number of seconds for each line. The proper way to time a script is to speak the words in a manner that will convey the emotion and power of the message by NOT reading the words, but by TELLING the story. This means creating a mood that the listener will be attracted to by NOT rushing the delivery. Rushing inevitably moves the performance from a conversational level that holds attention (talking "to" the audience) to an "announcery" level that is forced and is a turn-off for most people (talking "at" the audience). Unfortunately, far too many locally produced commercials fall into the latter category, simply because the copywriter has no concept of how to tell a story. All they know is how to deliver information - and you know what those commercials sound like.

As for telling the story - many small (and not-so-small) market advertisers feel they need to tell as much of their story in a commercial as they possibly can. This is especially true of commercials written by the business owner, a sales rep, or by an inexperienced copy writer. They attempt to name every product they have on sale - complete with prices, or they describe in detail every major feature of their product or service. They include so much information it becomes impossible to remember anything, let alone who the advertiser is or how to contact them. Too much copy - and too much information! This almost without fail will result in a commercial that must be rushed in delivery. This form of commercial is generally a disservice to the advertiser, a waste of the advertiser's money and does not do the job for which it is intended - namely to boost sales.

The best radio and TV commercials focus on only one or two key points of a product or service. But, more importantly, they deliver the necessary information in the context of a cleverly crafted story that blends the essential information with some emotional hooks designed to connect with the listener on an emotional level. The result is a commercial that is memorable, and that keeps people listening. How many commercials can you think of where you actually turned up the volume because you wanted to hear it again! You can probably think of a few, and you most likely remember the advertiser's name. On the other hand - how many commercials do you hear where you "tune out" or change the station just as quickly as you can! Ultimately the solution for the problem of excessive copy is proper training for those who write the copy. Unfortunately, this will probably not happen in our lifetime.

Dealing with excessive copy in a session is a real challenge. By then, there's a good possibility that the copy has gone through several levels of approval and very little can be changed. Unless the copywriter is directing the session, chances are you will be stuck with what you've got and will just have to do the best you can. Even if the copy writer is present, It's not your job as the voice talent to provide training in effective advertising technique. If you are fortunate, you may be able to suggest some changes that might allow you to say the same thing in fewer words. But this is a tricky thing that generally requires tact and a good working relationship with the producer or copy writer. On a really good day - and if you really know what you are doing - you might be able to get the producer to let you do an alternate version. Of course, this would only be done after you have attempted several "as written" takes that have presented some serious issues (like not being able to bring it in on time, or sounding terribly rushed). Perhaps you offer to help with a minor re-write, or perhaps you make the changes on your own (with the producer's approval). In any case, if the working relationship with your client is one where you feel you could successfully attempt this, you may be able to provide a performance that will "save the day". There is often a lot of ego wrapped up in the writing of a script (especially if it's written by the store owner), so this can easily blow up in your face. However, if you are very clear about having the client's best interests at heart, you just might get away with it. It's worked for me many times in the past.

Finally, back to the issue of grammatical errors. If a script is written to be delivered in a conversational style or in a certain attitude, the grammatical errors may be intentional - and necessary - in order to convey the intended character or attitude of the story. However, if the grammatical errors are clearly due to poor copy writing, you have two choices as a performer: do it as written and "bite your tongue" - then quickly forget about it as you leave the studio. Or, deliver a few "as written" takes to the best of your ability, and then tactfully mention that you have some thoughts that might make the script sound better. You might even be able to save time by bringing the errors up when you first discover them. The trick here is that you had better have some workable, constructive ideas to offer. Don't leave it up to the producer or copy writer to come up with the changes - if they had some ideas to improve the script, they'd have written them in. Simply complaining that the copy is "bad" or "grammatically incorrect" won't get you very far, and could easily alienate you from the producer. Instead of offering a suggestion, one good "trick" I've used is to ask for clarification on the exact meaning or pronunciation of a phrase, or ask the producer to read the line in question for you the way they want to hear it. Often, they will see (or hear) the mistake and make a correction, and sometimes their delivery will give you insight into exactly why the line was written the way it was.

Always offer any suggestions in a positive and constructive manner - and be willing to let them go and do the script "as written" if your suggestions are rejected. Ideally, voice-over is a "team effort", but some producers (and clients) either don't understand this, or have egos that can be easily bruised.

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