Scriptwriting for the Ear

Scriptwriting for the Ear

Pictures AND Words

Video is a visual medium. Often, words aren’t necessary at all to convey a message—product videos are a perfect example of this. But sometimes a picture is not worth a thousand words. Sometimes you can’t make sense of what you’re seeing. This is when you need words; in video, these words typically take the form of voice-over narration, on-screen host, or dialogue.

John Morley, author of the excellent book Scriptwriting for High-Impact Videos (2008) points out “Basically, your message should be on the screen. Spoken words should be used primarily to comment on the visual, explaining why your audience is seeing these images and why they should care” (p. 214). In other words, communicate as much as possible visually while reserving audio for content you can’t film. 

Or, as Morley succinctly puts it: “abstracts on the track, specifics on the screen” (p. 214). 

Writing for the Ear

I recently worked on a video project where the client wanted to appear on camera to deliver her message. When she explained to me what she wanted to say, she was clear, concise, and engaging; she is, after all, an accomplished academic with years of public-speaking experience. However, as soon as we started filming, she pulled out her “script” and started reading from it: she lost expression, her rhythm became unnatural, and frankly she sounded boring.

Writing for words to be heard is very different from writing words that are meant to be read. Lucas (2009) notes that manuscript speakers often ‘‘come across as reading to their listeners, rather than talking with them’’ (p. 245). The ideal is to sound conversational. For this, we can learn a lot from radio (Link, 2015) :

The layout of sentences, their order and construction has to be thought through in order to be totally clear and unambiguous at their first hearing. The listener does not automatically have the possibility of re-hearing something. It must make sense first time.

And for it to make sense, the listener must come first. 

Are you talking to me?

“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?… Well, I’m the only one here!”

—Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Taxi Driver

Knowing who you are talking to makes the scriptwriting process more effective and impactful. Educators are aware that not all learners are alike so before designing instruction it is critical to analyze who the target audience is and what they know. The same goes for writing a script. Is the audience informed, inexperienced or in a hurry? What are their values and needs? Are they even motivated to listen to you? 

Boyd (2012) advises that “the secret of communicating with an audience, however large, is to write and speak as though you were talking to only one person, and it helps if that person is someone you know.” Knowing who your audience is also helps with structural and stylistic decisions such as register (e.g., formal or informal), culture and terminology. When you know who you are writing for the language will be different but it will be appropriate (Link, 2015).

So, consider your audience before you craft your message. 

Conversational Speech

Regardless of who your audience is you are writing for your words to be heard not read. Too often speakers sound like they are reading to their listeners instead of talking to them. As Bruss (2012) points out “If a speaker is tied to an artificial sounding manuscript, the potential for connecting with listeners is jeopardized” (p. 76).

No matter how informed your audience is they will have a hard time understanding your message if it is full of confusing clauses, inverted sentences, and written in the passive voice. Trying to “sound like an expert” only increases listening effort which results in greater cognitive load for your audience. Appealing to the intelligence of your audience is a matter of content, not form. 

In fact, according to educational psychologist Richard Mayer’s personalization principle (Mayer, 2014), people learn more deeply when the words in a presentation are in conversational style rather than formal style. Oral language is shorter, simpler, more repetitious, and more rhythmic than written language. Bruss recommends the following to make language clear and memorable:

  • short words 
  • familiar words
  • active verbs
  • colloquial language
  • figures of speech
  • repetition
  • parallelism
  • contractions

A good source of conversational-sounding speeches is the TED website. In particular, Bruss recommends Malcolm Gladwell’s Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce talk for his “use of signposts, frequent use of the second person (‘’you’’), short, repetitious, punchy statements, and reported dialogue” (p. 78). 

Turning Facts into Story

“If you want an audience, start a fight”

—Gaelic Proverb

Be creative and turn your facts and concepts into evocative anecdotes and metaphor. Real life or made up, stories and pictures are memorable. Incorporating advice from message design and multimedia research, Spannaus (2012) recognizes the power of storytelling to engage learners:

People learn from and remember stories better than isolated facts and concepts. Particularly if you're dealing with content that can be personal, such as diversity training or even how to do a performance review, creating a story to involve the learner will enhance learning.

It is important to have a strong opening to get the listener’s attention right from the start. Or as Morley puts it: “Open strong – go for the jugular – and let your audience know why they should care” (p. 218). To achieve this, use a metaphor, anecdote, or example; in other words, paint a picture of the issue or problem. Jeff Link (2015) advises: “Grab my attention in the first sentence, tell me something in the second.” However, as with your conclusion, write your introduction after you’ve written the body of the script—it is easier to write an appealing opener when you know the shape of the whole.  

Audio map

Signposting is the very useful technique in oral communication. Signposts are short statements which tell the audience where where you are and where you are going next. In other words, signpost language guides the listener through the presentation. A good presenter will usually use a lot of signpost language. Here are a a few examples from the Gladwell talk:

“It is, in fact, enormously important. I’ll explain to you why.”

“Now that same idea fuelled the commercial food industry as well.” 

“And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant.”

But, as Koumi (2006) warns “Too much signposting can spoil the flow of the story. Signpost when it is really necessary, not just as a matter of course” (p. 144).

And in the end

Finally, to end your script, you would typically: repeat a main point, finish with a story that illustrates your theme, or look forward to the future. Give the listener something to hold on to—make it memorable (Link, 2015). 


Boyd, Andrew. Broadcast Journalism. 2012. Web.

Bruss, Kristine. “Writing for the Ear: Strengthening Oral Style in Manuscript Speeches.” Communication Teacher, vol. 26, no. 2, 2012, pp. 76–81.

Jeff Link, and Robert McLeish. Radio Production, 6th Edition. Routledge, 2015. Web.

Gladwell, M. (2004, February). Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce [Video]. TED Conferences. 

Koumi, Jack, and Ebrary, Inc. Designing Video and Multimedia for Open and Flexible Learning. Routledge, 2006.

Mayer, et al. The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. 2014.

Morley, John. Scriptwriting for High-Impact Videos. Iuniverse. 2008. 

Spannaus, Timothy W. Creating Video for Teachers and Trainers Producing Professional Video with Amateur Equipment. Hoboken, N.J.: Pfeiffer, 2012. Web.

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