MP: Writing Scripts, Doing Voice-overs

The idea of recording audio voice-overs or conducting video stand-ups causes immediate angst for most print journalists. Learn some tricks of the trade to feel normal “on the air.”

 

Introduction

“Are you ready?”

“Sure. I’ll just wing it.”

There is a tendency to think that, because anyone can speak, improvisation is good enough when it comes to adding voice to a multimedia project.

It’s not.

Whether you are interviewing a subject “on tape” or providing voice-over narration for video, preparation will make the difference between producing professional-level projects or “amateur hour.”

Can you imagine “just winging it” when it comes to writing a news story or shooting an event as a photojournalist? I sure hope not.

Invest a little more time in your multimedia project with planning and preparation for your voice contribution and you’ll make the rest of the effort worthwhile. For example, taking just a moment to decide where to record an audio interview can help you avoid ending up in a noisy coffee shop with too much background noise. Following are some easy-to-follow directions on how to get “ready for prime time.”

Interviewing while recording

Recording an interview digitally provides content that can be used in many different types of multimedia:

  • As a stand-alone audio file with a news story (especially powerful if the subject matter is emotional or the subject is well-known).
  • As a podcast.
  • As a stand-alone audio file for a blog post.
  • As the audio to accompany a photo slideshow (works best when mixed with natural sound).

Location, location, location: Ideally, you will be able to record the interview face-to-face. If possible, pick a location for the interview that is quiet and has good acoustics. A person’s home or office is a good option; a coffee shop or restaurant is not. If the interview needs to occur outside, make sure it is as far away from traffic and crowds of people as possible. While it’s possible to record a phone interview, the lower sound quality makes it hard to listen to phone recordings for long periods of time. Try to keep the interview focused and edit it down to just the most salient points. (Or consider re-asking some key questions at the end. More on this to come.)

Pre-interview questions: The subject of the interview deserves to know a few things before they start answering your questions on tape. Provide them with some advance information, such as:

  • How long will the interview be?
  • How much editing will be done to the audio (if any)? If you can go back and take out the long pauses and the ums and ahs, it will help the subject relax and not feel like they’re “on the air” and have to fill every second.
  • How will the audio be used and who is the audience?
  • Will you send them a few questions you want them to answer so they can articulate their thoughts more succinctly?

It’s a good idea to have several questions pre-written. While you may have years of interviewing experience, this is a different kind of interview where you also have to think about the equipment (is the subject speaking loud enough?), the environment (is that air conditioner too loud?) and the pacing of questions and the banter so it sounds good later. That said, don’t script every question because the natural ebb and flow of conversation is an important quality that will make listening to an audio interview easier for the audience.

What you say can—and will—end up on tape: Some of the most common interviewing tricks that journalists use don’t work well when conducting an audio interview.

For instance, you have probably learned to rely on “uh-huh” and “I see” and “really?” to let the person you’re interviewing know you’re listening and understanding what they’re telling you. In an audio interview, try to use nonverbal clues like nodding instead. You may have developed a habit of audibly agreeing with what your subject is saying while they are saying it. When the tape isn’t rolling, this works to let the subject know you want them to elaborate upon this area, but when the tape is rolling, these interruptions can be disturbing to the listener and can cover up some of the subject’s key points. So remember, while the subject is talking, remain silent.

You may have also honed a knack for establishing a rapport with your subject by showing how much you know about their topic. Again, this is effective early in the relationship but try to develop your rapport before recording the interview digitally. Listeners want to hear what your subject has to say, not what you think about the topic. So remember your job is to ask questions. Some context following a subject’s response, like spelling out an acronym, is helpful. But try to keep it to a minimum.

One good option is to capture “sound bites” at the end: If the goal of recording is to produce an audio clip to accompany a news story, consider waiting until the end of the interview to do the recording. That way you can conduct the interview just as you normally would, then ask the subject to address a couple of the most salient points for the recording. This helps you during the interview and helps speed the editing and processing of the audio back in the office. Instead of going over an hour of tape to find a few minutes worthy of publishing online, there will only be a few minutes to edit. And by letting the interview play out “normally” you will know which questions you’d like your subject to address for recording (something you may not know in advance).

Mark the best spots: Another technique to speed up the editing process when recording the entire interview is to mark the points where the interviewee says the best stuff. Most journalists take note when they hear a quote or a nugget of information that will be especially useful. When that happens while recording, write down the counter number on your tape recorder or the time elapsed from a digital recorder. You’ll save loads of time whether you’re producing audio for the Web or just need to get to the best quotes to write your story.

Voice-overs

You cannot control everything that happens when interviewing someone else, but you can have complete control of a voice-over or the narration that you will record for a video story or an audio slideshow that goes with a photo gallery. Here’s how to make the best of it.

Write a script: Having a detailed script that you can practice a few times before turning on the microphone will greatly enhance the quality of the finished product. Crafting an effective script is quite different from news writing. The fewer words the better as the purpose of voice-over narration is to amplify or clarify what may be obvious on screen. Short, simple declarative sentences work best.

Choose words that are easy to say and have a good flow when put together. Build in natural breaks for taking a breath. Add some verbal “white space” so the narration doesn’t overpower the visual elements of the story.

Script for Hurricane Family Feature
(courtesy KPLU radio):

(Kitchen nats—opening drawer) :03

Patricia Quinn searches through the kitchen cupboards of her new home in Seattle.

(Kitchen nats—raw sound) :02

Behind freshly-painted cabinet doors, are small reminders of her family’s old life in New Orleans.

(Kitchen nats—bag rustling)

She pulls out a prized possession—authentic Louisiana style beans.

(Kitchen nats—beans and season salt mixed) :19

NOTE: See Appendix, page 125, for the full version of this script.

Warm up: While it may feel weird, stretching the muscles in your face and mouth and humming or singing will help prepare you to be recorded. Open your mouth as wide as possible and move your jaw back and forth. Then hum some deep notes and some high notes and sing a few bars of a familiar song, like “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Your facial muscles and vocal chords need to be ready to perform, just as if you were about to go running or play basketball.

Operative words: Marilyn Pittman (http://marilynpittman.com), who serves as a guest lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, teaches print journalists about audio and video performance. She recommends finding the “operative” words in your script—the words that are essential to telling the story—before you begin recording.

Which are the operative words? The words that would give the listener or viewer the gist of the story rather than the complete sentences in the script, Pittman says. Usually they are the classic who-what-where-when-why-how words—nouns, adjectives, adverbs, titles, names.

Now read through the script and add emphasis to the operative words. According to Pittman, you can do that in four ways:

  • Volume—Increase or decrease the volume of your voice when saying an operative word. Emphasizing a word by making your voice louder is also called “punching” it.
  • Pitch—Change the pitch of your voice when you say an operative word, going up or down the scale, high and low, falsetto to baritone.
  • Rhythm—Change the rhythm of your voice—the space between the words—when saying an operative word. Pause before the word, after the word, or both to emphasize it. A pause is especially effective before a word that’s complex or highly technical in nature. A pause is also effective when you’re introducing a new idea in a script.
  • Tempo—Change the tempo or speed of your delivery to emphasize an operative word. You might pick up the tempo where the copy is less important, and then slow down when you hit a section with more operative words to emphasize them. Or you might stretch out a vowel in an operative word.

Be conversational: While focusing on operative words will help, don’t allow yourself to be too distracted by them. It’s more important to be natural and conversational as you speak. If it sounds like you’re reading a script and intentionally emphasizing some words but not others, the entire project will suffer. So aim for a flowing, conversational reading of your script first, and then add the more complicated techniques of operative words.

On-camera standup

The on-camera standup, an evening news staple, is not something many print journalists look forward to. Occasionally, however, it may be necessary, especially when covering breaking news or a major sporting event. For best results, do some planning and remember the following tips.

Content: Keep it short, of course, but try to provide something extra for the audience. Instead of saying there was an accident on I-10 and the trucker was hauling chickens, you might add that they were running all over the highway and that the officers at the scene were bent over laughing. Print reporters often want to keep the good details for their written story, but shouldn’t. Write a script and warm-up: Even if you are reporting on location from a breaking news event, there are always a few minutes to run through a rehearsal before the tape rolls. If there isn’t time to write a script, at least jot down an outline with the major points that you need to cover.

Be stable, breathe easy: Posture is important, so be sure you’re standing up or sitting as straight as possible and that your chin is parallel to the floor. Relax your shoulders but try not to move them too much while talking. Breathe from your stomach and diaphragm, not your chest.

Talk with your hands: The most successful on-camera personalities exude personality and appear conversational. Using hand gestures is an easy way to add some informality and will help you feel a little more “normal” during the recording.

Find the right location: Ideally, you will find a spot that is not too busy, or loud or poorly lit. If you are going out in public, look for a setting that contributes to the story by adding an “environmental” element. But remember to ask for permission to tape if that spot is on private property.

Whether you are “on location” or in your office building, think sound and lighting first. If the on-camera subject will be wearing a wireless mike, you can get away with some environmental noise (but not a lot). If you have some heavy duty lighting equipment, you can shoot anywhere indoors and even compensate for indirect sunlight outdoors. If you don’t have good external lights, make sure you pick a location that fully lights the subject. You don’t want any backlighting or shadows on the subject’s face.

Assignment:

1.    Practice interviewing someone you know with a recorder (tape or digital). Write some pre-interview questions first, then review the interview and listen to how well you manage the flow of the conversation and listen for things you wish you would or wouldn’t have done.
2.    Find a video news report online. Watch it while paying close attention to when the narrator speaks and what the narrator says. How could you make it better? Write out a new script and practice reading it into a recorder. Then play it back with the video playing without sound and see how well you did.

 

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