Updated: Oct 8, 2020
There is a question has been approached by many psychologist and linguists for years: Why do spoken words matter? Maybe the words we choose represent our psyche (Freud) or maybe we use words as a means of social performance (Goffman).
For audio marketing, whether that’s a voiceover in a video or an audio-only ad, the answer is quite simple.
Spoken words matter because they are informing an audience member of their company, their ideals, and the way they characterize themselves in more than just text.
In spoken communication, there are several facets working together to carry a message to an audience. These facets or pillars can be broken down into representation, perception, and physicalization. Once looking at these three pillars, we can begin to see how the words we choose are vital when writing our voiceovers.
This is the most commonly recognized pillar of spoken communication. We choose words that represent or symbolize a certain idea or object.
For example, if I said, “The dog ran across the street,” the interpretive meaning is objectively simple:
I, the speaker, wish to inform you, the audience, that the dog ran across the street.
If we were to focus only on representation, however, grammar is not technically necessary.
I could have easily said, “Dog ran across street,” and you could have interpreted the same information, but the way you perceive me as the speaker is different than with the grammatically correct sentence. This leads us onto the next pillar of spoken communication.
The words we choose to represent or symbolize a certain idea or object not only affect the interpretation of the message, but also function as a representation of the speakers characteristics like age, education, social status, cultural background, attitude – the list is nearly endless.
In schools, we teach a socially acceptable ways of choosing words to represent an idea. While this is merely a social construct, this construct is a lens which all speakers and audiences listen through.
Remember that “Dog ran across street” conveyed the same representative message as “The dog ran across the street.” It is not a less superior means of communicating the message but merely a different means. There are times that “Dog ran across street,” may be the better choice of words. For example, speaking to an audience who has as small vocabulary where articles may confuse the message.
Similarly, using a complex vocabulary may actually hinder the communication of a message. “The canine hastened across the vehicular motorway,” is no clearer than “The dog ran across the street,” and despite the use of advanced vocabulary, there are many contexts where the speaker may come off as snobbish or even inadvertently unintelligent.
So in all of this, how does perception play into choosing our words? As speaker, it is our job to assess the context of speech as well as the audience. In essence, who is listening and where? Once we know these pieces of information, the words we select will aid us in communicating not only an idea, but also where we as the speakers are coming from.
The previous two pillars can also apply to the written word, but the final pillar specifically applies to act of delivering the message. In day to day spoken interactions, most of us aren’t thinking about the sounds that make up the words, but we use those sounds whether we realize it or not.
An angry mother discipling a child may lean into plosive consonants (p, t, k, b, d, g) to emphasize severity.
Do not do that again.
Do not do that again.
Try sounding out the sentence with no extra emphasis. Then read it aloud a second time emphasizing the plosives.
We do this sort of emphasizing day to day, and when applied to speech it is usually referred to as tone. But tone doesn’t entirely belong to the realm of emphasis, but also in the actual word choice.
In the case of our angry mother, she felt a certain way which lead her to choose words (subconsciously) that lend themselves to emotive communication. When she spoke the words, the emphasis could easily take place because the words chosen were in the same line of emoting.
What does this all mean when writing voiceovers?
Spoken words matter more than just getting a point across – it’s about delivering a feeling.
As you write, be aware of all 3 pillars. You can use who, what, when, where, why, and how as a jumping point.
Who is your audience? When and where is the ad? (perception)
Why is this add important to them? (representation)
How is this coming off? (physicalization)
Physicalization can be a difficult pillar to approach, but start by trying to give your voiceover artists words that emotionally engage with not just the listeners but the speaker themselves. As you write, try saying the words aloud and see how it makes you feel. When in doubt, ask the VO artist themselves how the script made them feel.