Although I’m an instructional designer now, I once was a professional film and TV script writer; a proud member of the Writer’s Guild of America, with multiple popular TV shows to my credit. I’ve written hundreds of scripts, for productions big and small. As a result, I’ve gained more than a few insights on how to improve even the most average video script into a better one. Here are six of the most valuable ones.
1. Keep your eye on the bottom line.
Even though the costs of video production are less than they used to be, they still aren’t cheap. The cost-per-finished minute of the most basic production of professional live video starts at roughly $5,000 - $10,000 and rises rapidly from there. A tight, well-written script helps make sure the money you budget results in visible production value instead of correcting costly mistakes.
2. Count the minutes.
All other things being equal, the longer the finished video, the more it will cost. One of the most basic things you can do to control costs and maximize value is therefore to control the length of your script; or in other words, fit it into the amount of time you have budgeted.
If in doubt, count the number of words in your dialog or voiceover narration, then divide by two. This will give you the approximate number of seconds it would take for someone speaking at slightly less than the average speed. Divide seconds by 60 to get the number of minutes.
Don’t count any visuals that happen on screen during dialog or voiceover but do count visuals that happen without accompanying audio or voiceover. You don’t have to get your timing down to the exact second, but again, considering you’re paying thousands of dollars per minute, being even one minute over has serious cost implications.
3. Stick to the plot
Every training script you write should have one clear and specific learning objective. Anything that distracts or detracts from that purpose should be ruthlessly cut from the script. For example, if you’re trying to explain the correct way to perform a phlebotomy (taking a blood sample), then no matter how much you may want to mention the various blood types, if it has little to do with phlebotomy it belongs in a separate video. Keeping your script tightly focused on the main point will not only save you money, it will reduce the odds that your viewers become bored, confused, or distracted.
4. Keep things moving.
What do people call videos and films? Movies. What’s the first thing a director yells before a scene? Action! That’s why high-quality videos not only have movement within a scene, they move quickly from one scene to the next. Pay close attention next time you watch TV or a movie and you’ll see that each scene or clip lasts no more than a few seconds. Your visuals in your videos should change just as quickly. Even if you’re writing a script for a “talking head,” you can still spice it up with cuts between different camera angles or by adding type and graphic effects.
5. Show, don’t tell.
One of the most significant advantages video offers over other media is that it lets you show something happening instead of just explaining it. So, instead of describing what types of behaviors are inappropriate in the workplace, why not demonstrate them? Instead of telling viewers how inflammable a particular chemical is, why not show it bursting into flames? The less you say and the more you show, the better. A few seconds of compelling demonstration can be worth more than minutes of boring explanation.
6. Remember you’re writing words to be spoken, not read.
There’s a big difference between writing words for someone to speak out loud versus words for someone to read. The spoken word has to be simpler and more direct. That’s because a listener, unlike a reader, has limited opportunity to review your words and sentences if they don’t understand them. Many sentences are also much easier to read than to pronounce. A simple and effective way to check your voiceover and dialog for “speakability” is to read them out loud at normal speed. If you find yourself stumbling over certain words or phrases, or you find your phrasing sounds too stiff and stilted, edit it until the sound and flow are easier on the ear. Also keep in mind that it’s much easier for actors and narrators to read or memorize short sentences and paragraphs than long ones.
Here’s your homework:
Find a training video you really like; one you think was particularly well written and produced and that you’d like to emulate. YouTube has literally thousands to choose from. As you watch it, take careful notes on what you like about it and how consistent it is with the tips above. Ask yourself questions such as:
- Was the concept easy to understand the first time through?
- Did the narrative move briskly and continuously, with no dead spots?
- Did the audio support the visuals and vice-versa?
- Was there a clear and continuous message or point from start-to-finish?
- Based on the number of clips, locations, props, and on-camera personnel, would you guess the budget was in the low, medium, or high range?
Your answers to these questions should inform your goals for your next script. The tips above will help you reach them.
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