Storytelling in 30 Seconds (or Less)
From Shakespeare to Sorkin to Commercial Scripts
Word economy. I was taught early on to say what I mean, mean what I say, and to be terse in my writing.
Well, I certainly adhere to clarity and intent. Brevity? Not so much. There’s a time and a place for it, such as when giving specific instructions. Or orders to my kids. Especially in those cases, it’s best to keep the message simple and straightforward.
But when communicating an idea that you want others to truly understand, brevity can only take you so far. Take a little longer to get your message across, particularly if the intent is to spark a conversation. Paint a picture in words, describe a scene in some detail. If you’re writing an essay or giving a speech, you have to continually engage the reader or listener from start to finish. Stories work wonders!
But what about in a commercial message? Typically, that’s only about 30 seconds of air or radio time. That’s a special skill, all unto itself. You have to grab attention, draw people in to what you’re saying and selling, and convince them to act on what you’re promoting.
People like being entertained. We like stories. We like to make our own decisions, based on information or shared experiences. Most of us don’t like being told what to do or how to think. My favorite commercials use humor to make their point. Funny bits can become so popular, they move into the cultural lexicon. Remember Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” commercials from the 80s? There are a whole bunch of great commercials that capitalized on humor through the decades. I mentioned a few in a previous blog, if you want to check them out.
Commercials are quite artfully crafted. You have to say a lot in a little bit of time. And do it well. The general breakdown of storytelling within a commercial is:
Identify a problem
Describe or give an example of that problem
Show the brand’s solution and the benefits of that solution
Give a call to action – what you want your audience to do afterwards.
That’s a lot of messaging in a little bit of time. Every word counts. Every word and phrase are carefully chosen. Imagery is conjured very specifically with a scarcity of words. And it’s all constructed to grab the viewer or listener’s attention, keep it through storytelling or a bit of humor, and compel them to act afterwards.
Creative terseness is an art form unto itself. Remember learning about Haiku in school? Haiku is a type of Japanese short form poetry made up of three lines. The first line has five syllables, the second has seven, and the third line has five. It’s a terrific way to teach organization of thought and specificity in imagery and word choice. Like writing a 30 second commercial, the author has to know exactly what he’s about to describe and the type of emotional or thought response he wants from his reader. Even harder, the poem has to match the musicality of the Haiku structure.
There is definitely creative terseness in the best commercial scripts. I have to admire fine writing in a commercial script whenever I come across it. Because each word and turn of phrase are carefully chosen, I know that there is pure intent behind each one of them. My job is to make them come alive for the viewer or listener, whether or not they’re paired with pictures (TV or internet-based video) or not (radio or podcast). How to do that comes from a wide variety of acting and voiceover-specific training.
Recently, I took two very different acting classes that have really helped me appreciate the creative use of the written word in very different ways.
Shakespeare and Sorkin. Bet you never thought you’d see those two together in one phrase.
We’re all pretty much familiar with the Bard, having studied one or more of his plays in school and perhaps seeing them produced on stage, film, or television. And many of us are familiar with the critically-acclaimed and popular works of Aaron Sorkin, which include such shows and movies as The West Wing, The American President, Newsroom, and A Few Good Men.
They certainly seem quite apart in style, not even counting the four centuries between the two men, widely disparate source material, and their styles of writing. Shakespeare was highly descriptive in his prose, drawing heavily upon mythology and ancient history. Sorkin is known for his hard-hitting, razor-sharp stories about contemporary American culture politics, all with precise, rapid-fire dialogue.
There are similarities, though. Both are playwrights – yup, Sorkin began his career before moving into writing for television and film. Both focus on dynamic and complex relationships between their characters. Their stories reflect the power dynamics and struggles of their day, though Shakespeare had to make his commentary more discreet, considering that his royal critics had the power to make heads roll if they were displeased. And both Shakespeare and Sorkin wrote for their popular audiences, because after all … an artist has to eat.
The poetry and nuance within Shakespeare. The rapid-fire, hard-hitting prose of Sorkin.
From each, I learned to better appreciate the power of the English language and the use of words to stir emotions, drive thought, and create reactions in their audiences. There is reason and intent behind them. Just as in a Haiku poem, they use their own structures – iambic pentameter with Shakespeare and overlapping dialogue to dictate the rhythm and energy in a Sorkin scene - to craft their stories willfully, building relationships, tensions, and turns of events.
The well-written commercial message does that, too, embedding a marketing structure to persuade their audiences: problem, solution, call to action. As with Shakespeare or Sorkin, there is a story that needs to be told and told well.
Some commercials tell their stories solely through smart word choice. These scripts stand on their own, made more powerful when spoken aloud in a voice over. Think about poetry or descriptive narrative. Or rap and slam poetry.
Others tell their stories primarily through images, with only a brilliantly-conceived tagline to sum up their brand and company message. And sometimes only the name of the company is presented at the end of the commercial to drive the point home, because everything shown up to that point is utterly descriptive of the brand that it needs no explanation.
Many more commercials, though, use a combination of words and images to tell their stories and compel audiences to take note and to take action.
As a voice actor, it’s my job to bring those stories to life, and to have as many tools at my disposal to do so as possible.
Basic voiceover training, such as “imagine you’re just talking to one person” is a start. Improv training inspires different ways of looking and presenting the material. Acting classes teach scene study and analysis, character development, the ups and downs of that character as you move through the script. There’s almost always an “arc” to what the character experience, no matter the script’s length! Reading, especially just speaking well-written words aloud, brings knowledge and appreciation of the power of words and imagery to move the human heart and spirit.
It’s a multi-faceted approach. I’ve found that my best insights on how to bring a script alive originate with something I’ve read, studied, or watch from a source that’s completely different from a commercial message. That Shakespeare scene with Queen Margaret from “Henry V” gave me a new idea on how to convey a mother’s worry in that script for car insurance. The pointed word choice used by MacKenzie from “Newsroom” reminded me that punching certain phrases in the retail sales copy can create a stronger impact. And Haiku in general taught me that every word is there for a reason. Commercial copy goes through multiple revisions by many sets of eyeballs before it’s sent out to auditioning actors. Mostly. Or at least should have been. And it can be cut down and changed during a directed session to trim for time or deliver a greater impact.
Time-honored Japanese poetry. Shakespeare’s epic comedies and tragedies. Sorkin’s modern, marvelously-written dramas.
All skillfully use language to examine and define human inter-relationships, what I think of as “word ecology.” Well-written voice over scripts are successful because they do the same: they tell stories and in doing so, move us to take action.
For my part, these disparate studies have helped me better understand a writer’s intent, so that I can tell the story that much more effectively. I should add that my business degree and prior experience in sales and marketing have been quite valuable, too. They help me a great deal to understand the purpose of what my clients are doing, the results they want to achieve, and how they’re going about doing just that.
So where do you draw your inspiration from? It’s a good reason to develop yourself as a well-rounded person. You just never know when one facet of your life will support another in a wholly unexpected way. And help you pack a lot of punch into one rather concise message.
Word economy. Word ecology. Sometimes no words at all. As long as you have a well-crafted story that speaks volumes.
I'm Laura Doman, a former tech industry sales executive, hands-on mom, voice & TV/film actress, and improv performer. I create memorable characters that tell my client's stories, from the friendly CEO touting new upgrades to your sassy best gal pal dispensing some necessary, real-world advice...Let's Talk!