Tips

10 Tips on Producing Great Radio Spots

#1 Formatting the Script

How should I format a radio script?
In prehistoric times radio stations received their news on teletypes, but the days of ALL CAPS and IBM Selectrics with “Orator” balls are over. Trust me, it is. But some of you who have never even used a typewriter before, still think radio copy should be typed in ALL CAPS. It shouldn’t. HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A BOOK OR AN ONLINE ARTICLE WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS? I didn’t think so. Instead, use a font that’s easy to read, like Arial, or Calibri, or Times Roman. (Exception to the rule: use all caps for emphasis) And, please, don’t use “script.” Save that for wedding announcements. Nobody wants to read copy in “longhand.”

Here’s another tip: Add line numbers to your scripts. It’s the easiest way reference a line when you’re in a session and making changes on the fly. I also highly recommend that you don’t spell out numbers or websites. Performers much prefer “189” or “1-89” to “one hundred and eighty-nine.” If it’s a large number, you may want to spell out a portion of it to indicate the way you want it read (i.e. 300 thousand, 600 hundred and 95), but as a rule of thumb we all prefer to read numbers vs. words. And since we’re on the subject of making copy easy to read, everyone’s familiar with URLs so there’s no need to write “dot-com.” Trust me, it’s a lot easier to read “.com” or “.org.” Finally, I encourage you to double space your lines. Once again, it makes it easier to read and it gives you space to write in changes made during recording.

How to time your radio script
Step one: Invest in a stopwatch and hold it in your hand. Yes, there are stopwatch apps, but it’s a lot easier to start, stop, and re-start a real stopwatch. And they’re cheap so there’s no excuse for not having one.

Step two: read the copy aloud – multiple times – starting and stopping when you make mistakes – until you have an accurate time. Reading it in “your head” doesn’t count, nor does reading it under your breath. Speak it.

A word about Word Count: It’s irrelevant. If anything, it’s better to count syllables. But it’s much better and simpler to just read it aloud. It takes less than a minute.

A line about Line Count: It used to be that 8 lines was about :30 and 16 lines was about :60. But that assuming certain margins, and what if it’s a dialogue spot? Then what? Again, just read it out loud.

What happens when you don’t accurately time your spot? You look like a fool in the recording session when you’ve written :39 seconds of copy and are scrambling to cut something and then get client approval. Really? 39 seconds? It happens more often than you think.

One final note: I recommend putting a revision # and date on the script so that everyone’s on the same page, literally.     

#2 Come Up Short

How long should your script be?
No, this is not a trick question. Yes, in reality, a 30 should be 30 and a 60 should be 60. And yes, in reality, writers write 36s and 68s. But the real answer is “less than it needs to be.”

The problem is the client wants to say more than what you can say in the course of the spot. Believe me, I feel your pain. But a spot is almost always better when the voice actor gets the opportunity to present his best performance and that almost always takes longer than what the copywriter expected. So I recommend writing 1-3 seconds under the time limit. :28 for a 30 and :58 for a 60, for example.

If getting the best performance isn’t incentive enough, consider the fact that it makes you look like you know what you’re doing when you’re not trying to cut 6 seconds. Reading at a normal pace also makes it easier for the listener to understand the message.

Again, read it to yourself with a stop watch. Aloud. Multiple times. And “come up short” on the length.  

#3 Focus on One Thing

Why focus on one thing?
Because a radio commercial is not a print or online ad that can be studied for its artistic beauty and poetic prose, make sure your script features a concept that creatively communicates a single focus. For example: “The new X-phone is water proof,” or “We’ll pay the sales tax this weekend.” You’ve got a minute or less to communicate a message and then it’s gone, so keep the focus on one thing. (Hopefully, they’ll hear it again, but you never know …) Hint: Have your client fill in the blank: Only (client’s name and product) offers or has unique selling proposition.

Then, think about how you could most memorably communicate your client’s unique selling proposition. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, start by narrowing your message to one concept.

WARNING: ancillary messages and evidence that supports your USP are okay (i.e. price guarantee, delivery promise) provided they don’t distract the listener. You priority is having the listener say, “That ad was trying to tell me that _________.” If they can’t tell you the main point of your message then it hasn’t accomplished its purpose.
You only have :30 or :60 so focus on one thing. 

#4 Ignore the Obvious

The trick to being memorable
Actually, there is no real “trick.” However, I’ve found that the best way to make a spot unique and memorable (and perhaps humorous) is to ignore the “obvious” and think of something “unexpected.” That usually means throwing out your first few ideas, and waiting to be inspired. Might even take a couple of days, but it’s worth the wait.

Let me give you an example. We had a client who wanted to promote their air-duct cleaning service. But instead of dramatizing a technician doing the work (the obvious), we had the dad stuffing his small son into the air ducts to have him do the cleaning (the unexpected). It wasn’t the traditional approach, so it was more memorable and funny, as well. (listen to Coit “Boy in Air Duct)”

A couple of more examples: Papa John’s Pizza was celebrating their 10th anniversary, so we produced “Great Moments” in pizza history – recreating the Apollo Moon landing and having Neil Armstrong pitching "2 pizzas for 10 dollars".

As an alternative, you can also start with an ordinary circumstance or situation, but give it an unexpected conclusion: Take a listen to Mercedes-Benz “Side of the Road.” A man helps a stranded woman motorist (nothing too unusual), but in the end, she wants to drive his E-Class rather than wait on hers. It’s a small twist, and a great read by Elisabeth Nunziato makes the spot.

#5 Bookending

How to get “unstuck” when you’re “stuck” for an ending.
Sometimes the clock is ticking and you just have to start writing. Been there. Done that. You’ve come up with a unique situation that you’re going to place your characters in – it’s funny and clever, and emphasizes the USP – so away you type. But you’re not sure how it’s going to end. Then what?

Well, you can wait to be inspired, so if you can end it with an element/joke that’s relevant to the way you began the spot. I call it “bookending,” or ending the spot the way you started it.

For example: We produced a “Branding” spot for S&G Carpet. We began the spot by introducing a character that was “untruthful” because we wanted to show that S&G was just the opposite – that they measured and estimated jobs accurately. After covering all of the required copy points we ended the spot by revealing another of the man’s lies: he wears lifts to make himself taller. Well, in one leg, anyway. Listen to it – it’s a funny spot and makes the point of ending the way you began. 

#6 Ignore the Punctuation

How to make your script sound conversational
As writer, I think deep down I want to please my 7th grade English teacher, Mr. Poncia, by making sure all of my punctuation is grammatically correct. The problem is, we don’t speak with grammatically correct English. We speak in partial sentences, repeat words, stutter and stumble, use the wrong words, etc.

So, how do you make grammatically correct English sound conversational? You ignore it. Tell your actors, “Don’t stop and pause when you come to a period. Just roll right through it.” And, “stick a comma in where one’s not written.” The point is, if you want to sound natural, chances are you can’t read the words exactly as their written.

Same is true for “ad libs.” I always give my actors the freedom to “bring something to the table” because they may very well have an idea that I haven’t thought of and it makes the spot better. And that’s especially true when they're reading the script.

And this is another reason to write “short.” Inevitably, an actor will give you a great read, but now your spot is :62 and you have to cut. Much better to write a :57 spot so that you have a little time to add something unexpectedly great.

#7 Write Round Characters

Writing Tip: Write Round Characters
Novelist EM Forester used to teach about “flat” and “round” characters and the benefits of each. I don’t think he had radio commercials in mind, but sometimes the situation isn’t what’s funny, but the characters themselves that drive the humor. They might be liars, pregnant mothers, mind readers, a kid wearing a “wire” and going undercover, or a man with one leg shorter than the other. Regardless, they surprise us.

Television sitcoms give us a lot of good examples. There’s Kramer from Seinfeld, Frasier from Cheers, or more recently Monk, Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory or Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation. They’re great because they’re not flat, one dimensional characters, but interesting, quirky, people with funny idiosyncrasies. So many times it’s the characters that grab our attention rather the just the circumstance they find themselves in.

So when you’re brainstorming for ideas, don’t forget to focus on the characters themselves and make them surprising and memorable. And if you can combine a funny character with a funny situation, all the better.

#8 Focus on a Story Moment

It’s hard to convey a story in 60 seconds, and even harder in 30, which is one reason I prefer 60s. But either way, great spots (and movies and photographs, for that matter) tell a story. Granted, it may be a very short story and the story arc may be small, never the less, a story is told. And the more emotional the story, the more relatable, or funnier it is, the more engaging the commercial.

Now, one benefit of a television commercial is that it’s easier to tell a story; you can condense time and cover a lot of ground cutting from scene to scene to scene. In radio, however, it’s more difficult to cover a long period of time unless you use effects to communicate time passing, break up dialogue with an announcer, or stick to a straight narrative. Which is why, if you’re dramatizing an event, I recommend focusing on a moment in a story.

For example, the moment your first kissed. The moment you realized your lost your car keys. The moment your air conditioner went out.

Within every story there are moments that capture a turning point, a conflict, or a point of sudden realization. That’s the point on which you can build a radio spot. And when that “point” is relevant to the objective of the spot, you have an effective commercial.   

#9 This is Radio, So Write Visually

Your imagination is sharper and more realistic, more emotional, and more personal than anything you can see with your eyes. It’s even sharper than your new 4K curved TV from Costco, and more visual than that new pair of VR goggles you just picked up, although they are pretty cool.

Radio, on the other hand, has always been the most visual of mediums because it resides in your imagination.

So why is radio copy so often dull and vision-less? Probably because that’s the easiest thing to write. It’s hard to think and write visually. But that’s exactly where you should start. Especially with jokes. A good visual joke in a radio ad trumps straight copy any day of the week. And if you can combine a great visual joke with great dialogue? Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

For your next radio ad, think of a great visual idea that helps communicates your message. Or at least one that serves as a launching point. For example, take a listen to S&G Carpet’s “Two Square Feet Sale.” A guy walks into the doctor’s office complaining that his feet are square. Literally, they’re square. Can you see him standing there in his bare feet because he can’t buy shoes that fit? It’s a perfect lead-in to talk about S&G’s “Buy 2 Square Feet, Get 1 Free Sale.”

I know it’s radio, but write for the eyes, not just your ears.   

#10 Write from Personal Memories and Experiences

Some of my best spots originated with something my wife did. Or my kids did. Or something I did. But usually it was something my wife did. I once produced a spot for a mattress store that featured a couple racing to be the first out of bed because – as she always says - “the last one up makes the bed.” I filed that one away for just the right time, and it eventually came.

Have you ever taken a drink straight out of the milk carton? I have, and I’ve seen my brother-in-law do it, too, so I know it’s a universal practice. That slice-of-life made it into Ford International Airport’s “Pickle Jar.”

Have you ever been to a reunion and met someone who lost some or all their hair? Or maybe, like me, you’re the one who’s lost their hair. That was the inspiration for Mercedes-Benz “Reunion” and it was worth losing every strand. Well, not really. I’d rather have my hair back.

So, as you go through life keep a little catalog of the funny things that happen to you or amusing things you observe. Sooner or later they’ll become the basis of a spot that just about everyone will relate to. And the more listeners can relate to the spot, the more effective it will be.