#SciFund Challenge Class

Video storytelling made easy for scientists

Part 6: the Basics of Writing and Reading a Script

You hear differently than you read

You may find it surprising, but the audio in your video is more important than the actual video itself. And the key part of that audio is almost certainly the voice or voices that you hear speaking through your video. Most likely, the person speaking through your video will be you, the scientist.

Here’s why the person speaking is so critical. We all have had the horrible experience of sitting through a talk where the speaker read directly from prepared remarks. Those talks are almost always very difficult to follow, very boring, and generally excruciating. Have you ever gotten anything about a talk given in this way? We haven’t. To make matters worse, most of these talks have been ones where we were trapped in the room, with no opportunity to immediately flee. The audience for your video has a huge advantage over an audience that is stuck in a room, suffering in silence. If your video audience finds your script difficult to follow or boring, they will immediately run away – far, far away.

Creating a story arc with dramatic tension for your video will go a long way to holding your audience’s attention. But crafting the right kind of script is an essential part of the equation as well.

Why is hearing a written speech generally so terrible? It’s because written language is very different than spoken language. With spoken language, the vocabulary is much simpler as is sentence structure. Very frequently, people don’t even speak in complete sentences. Because you are writing your script for the ear, and not the eye, you want to emulate how people speak. Simple, simple language! Note though, you can still tell a complex, rich story with simple language. We all do it everyday when we talk to each other.

Here’s an exercise that you can do in your head wherever people are having a conversation. As people speak, diagram their sentences in your head. You will find that people generally speak in a way that would look ridiculous if written down. Again, it’s not that the ideas are ridiculous, just the sentence structure and kinds of words used.

Here is a good example from a science story on NPR. We wrote a transcript of the audio which we overlaid on top of the audio:

Notice in this NPR example how simple the language is, particularly when people are speaking in interviews. Notice also how people use fantastic imagery and analogies in their descriptions to explain very complicated concepts.

Avoid jargon

In your script, you 100% want to avoid the use of jargon. After all, you undoubtedly are already aware that speaking in jargon gets in the way of communicating with people outside of your field. Even still, it is still very difficult to avoid using it. Here’s a short reading that can help you: a fast-reading article from Physics Today: Communicating the science of climate change. Focus on the section “Better communication”.

Why is it so hard to stay away from jargon? Here’s the number one reason: it is very difficult to unlearn what you have already learned. Anyone who has taught an introductory level course knows that it is very tough to get into the heads of those who have no prior knowledge of the subject. On the flip side, we all have had the experience of floundering through classes where the instructor completely overestimated the knowledge level of the students.

There is another tricky issue: what is jargon to one audience is a perfectly understandable term or idea to another audience. It can be really hard to know ahead of time which is which for your audience.

There is a final trap: double-meaning words. At least with unknown terms, your audience knows that they don’t know what is going on. A more insidious problem is language that has one meaning for your audience and a completely different one for you. With double-meaning language, your audience could easily misinterpret your remarks. For example, for evolutionary biologists, “fitness” refers to reproductive success; in the wider world, that’s not the first thing that would come to mind. And there are plenty more terms to trip over: aerosol, radical, organic – the list goes on and on. The Physics Today article suggested earlier delves into this topic at length. And inspired by that article, the fantastic science communicators at the blog Southern Fried Science organized a crowd-sourced list of even more double-meaning words, which you can find here.

So, in the end how do you solve the jargon problem? The most effective way is to get feedback from someone else, preferably someone who is not in your field. You get bonus points if you can find a member of your target audience on whom to test your script.

You don’t have to say everything

Remember, you aren’t putting together a radio show. You have a whole visual channel to help convey your story. An image or video clip can often deliver parts of your story more efficiently and effectively than you can say those parts. As you are planning your script, try to think imaginatively how you might use images and video for visual storytelling. At this stage, don’t worry about the possibility that you don’t have (and can’t create) the visuals that you want. Further along in this guide, we’ll be getting into how to legally obtain more images, video clips, and sound effects than you could ever potentially use.

Your script needs to be short

How many words should you be aiming for in your script? A lot less than you might think. Next time you listen to or watch a news broadcast on the radio or television, pay attention to just how slow the newscasters are actually speaking – it is actually much slower than normal human speech. They speak slower for a reason: it makes their arguments easier to follow.

So what does this mean for you? One hundred and fifty words per minute is roughly the right speaking rate for video, which means we’re looking at a word count of about 450 for a 3 minute video (not very much). This means you really need to cut a lot of non- essential stuff out of your script. Pairing down like this will also help clarify your message and make it more engaging.

Okay, you now understand the pitfalls to avoid with script-writing. You have put together a great script that captures your story arc and is written in a conversational tone. Mission accomplished, right? Not quite.

Delivering your script the right way

It isn’t enough to have a great script – the words have to be spoken in an engaging way. How do you this? Really all you are aiming for is to speak in a natural and conversational way. Sounds easy, right? Well, not quite. There is a huge disadvantage that you have when recording your message, either to camera or just with a microphone: it is a profoundly strange act to speak to an inanimate object. After all, talking to objects is usually not a sign of positive mental health.

Since your brain finds it so weird to talk to an object rather than another human being, your words are likely to come out all weird as well in a recording. Thankfully, there are lot of ways to combat this tendency – you are capable of talking like a regular human being on camera!

Suggestion one: don’t memorize

Don’t memorize your script or directly read your script when recording. You want to speak in a conversational way, which is very difficult to do if you are directly reading off a script (there’s a reason why being a good actor takes a lot of training). If you are reciting memorized lines, the effect will likely be much the same as reading off a piece of paper. Remember how someone directly reading prepared remarks during a talk is so terrible? Don’t be that person!

So, what are you supposed to do? Instead, just talk without prepared notes. By virtue of having written the script, it will be more or less in your head, even without memorization. Sure, what you say won’t exactly match your script, but who cares? So, long as your key points are in there, you are good. To make things easier on yourself, you can record yourself speaking a section of the video at a time (more on this later).

Suggestion two: talk through the camera, not to the camera

Talking to an object is an odd thing to do – so don’t do it. Think of it this way: when you are talking to someone on the phone, you aren’t talking to the phone. You’re talking through the phone to a real live human. Using that idea, when recording yourself, imagine that there is a person right behind the camera. You are having a conversation with that person. If you can visualize that person as a member of your target audience, so much the better.

Suggestion three: talk at a reasonable pace

As suggested above, you should aim for roughly 150 words a minute, which is likely somewhat slower than you normally speak.

Suggestion four: keep your voice level

When having a conversation, people speak English generally in a even and level tone. When speaking to a camera though, it is very easy to speak in a sing-song or with an uneven tone. Because this is not how people generally speak, it can be very difficult to listen to. So, when saying your script, focus on keeping your voice relatively level. That doesn’t mean you should speak in a monotone! You are just having a conversation. If there is a particular point you want to nail, you can do so with an emphasis on those words that doesn’t involve a pitch change (see second video below for details).

Suggestion five: record in a quiet place

Your brain is incredibly good at filtering out background sound. That’s why you can have a conversation with someone at a noisy party. Microphones though don’t have this ability to filter things out. Any sounds near the recording will be picked up. Sometimes this is a good thing. If you want to demonstrate something in your video, recording the sounds caused by the demonstration can be very engaging. If you are recording in a outdoor space, you may well want some of the sounds of the outdoors in your video. However, background sound can also easily make your audio too painful to listen to. Many noises can hugely detract from your audio: ventilation systems, air conditioning units, refrigerators, running lab equipment, etc. The list of horrible noises is almost endless. Here’s the bottom line: record in a quiet space unless you make an intentional decision to do otherwise.

Suggestion six: do several takes of your recording

It is Murphy’s Law: the second you start recording is the second you will want to start coughing or sneezing. Consequently, it is going to be pretty rare that you are going to get it right the first time. Secondly, with several takes, you have more choices during the editing process. You may find that you prefer how you said a particular thing in one take versus another particular thing that is better in a different take. To make it easier on yourself, don’t run through the script of the entire video in a single go. Instead, record several takes, a section at a time (the hook, the call to action, etc.).

Just to remind you about how to position your microphone, here is that video tutorial on lavalier microphone placement again:

And here is an illustration of some of the recording tips given in this section.