The Write Stuff - Part III: Tips And Techniques

by John Dodge

Here's the third part in a series about writing for radio and because you're a professional and keenly interested in self-improvement chances are very good that you're paying close attention to the beginning of this article since you've read the others and they've been quite beneficial and so right now you're highly focused and tracking and already twenty seconds have gone by but if this had been a radio spot aimed at a general audience there's a chance that somebody somewhere might not have exactly followed the train of thought so when you write how do you make sure that everybody....

Excuse Me, Did You Say Something?

Never forget how people use the medium! Chances are they're listening to the radio with one ear while doing something else, dividing their attention between you and the shower, you and the freeway, you and the office project. So don't expect your audience to think around corners. Don't write material that requires their absolutely undivided attention for sixty seconds, or chances are good the majority isn't gonna get it. In the courtroom with unlimited time, a trial lawyer can slowly build a case stacked with sequential facts and unquestionable logic. But you don't have that luxury. In sixty seconds you barely have time to visit the restroom, much less shoehorn some brand new concept or client laundry list into somebody's head. What you do have is a chance to put a little spin on what's inside a listener's mind already. That's why emotion works better than logic.

Emotionally Yours

What do people say they respond to in advertising? Information. Honesty. A hip sense of humor. So give it to them. What do they actually buy on? Emotion. At the most basic level, people buy stuff to service some inner emotional need. Only afterward do they justify the emotional purchase with logic. He'll never admit it, but your car shopper is silently screaming, "I'll pay eight hundred more if you show me that model in red!" Later, ask the same guy why he chose the Volvo station wagon and he's gonna say something cool and analytical about crumple zones and safety and the J.D. Power Survey. But what he felt when he wrote out that fat check was, "Hot dog, got me a red one." He's emotionally satisfied.

Now, don't go cynical on me. I'm not advocating gross manipulation here -- the audience is too sophisticated for that anyway. What I'm talking about is becoming more aware of why people do what they do, then using gentle prodding and persuasion coupled with your deep "people sense" to influence buying decisions through effective ad copy. That's the essence of sales, and when you write commercials, you are the salesperson in every sense of the word. So, the more you understand human nature and behavioral psychology, the better copywriter you're going to be, the fewer facts you're going to use, and the more you'll tap into the power of emotion and...pictures!

Cranial Cinematography

You think you're in Radio? You're in the mental movie business. We toss the phrase "theater of the mind" around, but let's put it under the scrutinizer. The very best radio writing is visual because the right turn of phrase, the right sound effect, the right choice of music all combine to instantly create a unique and individual visual image in the listener's mind. Good radio literally forces involvement and active participation. In direct contrast, TV is a passive medium. That's why your brain waves slow and your tongue thrusts forward. What you see and hear is what everybody else sees and hears -- at least until interactive TV takes over. Radio is already interactive. How cool.

SFX and Copy

Sound effects are underused today. Maybe the current crop of writers are all of the Visual Age, but I think you miss an opportunity to "picturize" when you go with straight voice over music. Next script job you get, try writing with sound in mind. Here are a few suggestions: Don't "show" with SFX what you write, and don't write what you show. By that I mean don't duplicate your copy and SFX; it's redundant. "Here, honey, have some more coffee." "Thanks dear, don't mind if I do." SFX: Clink, glurggle, slurp. Welcome to the second dimension. Discover "cognitive dissonance." Righteous term, huh? Has nothing whatsoever to do with a hangover. It means "something's not right." Using a sound that doesn't exactly match a scene creates an interruption in the mind. It's done all the time in the movies. We're making movies, remember? And always underwrite. If you hold your 60s to 52-53, you leave space for your music and sound effects to have an effect.

For Openers

Recall studies determine that people remember best what they hear first and second best what they hear last. So, don't make an ad that's a white bread sandwich with the meat in the middle. Identify your two best lines and wrap them around the spot. There might be a few people who don't know AIDA: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. These are the building blocks of ad copy, and the first step is the most important. Only start radio copy with an effective attention-grabbing opener: announce a benefit, ask the listener to think about a specific fact or idea, start with a question, begin by stating a believable (not unbelievable) offer, start with a shocking or unusual sentence, or begin on a warm, personal note.

As you write, never let go of this three word mantra: What's the Benefit? Hold every sentence up to its test. Keep putting the shoe on the other foot and thinking like a self-interested customer. Ask, "What would make me buy?" If you can't convince yourself with your own words, you won't sell anybody else either. So keep writing until you believe it.

Short, Sharp, Shocked

In football, it's good to go long. In print too, because people want information if it's news they can use. But, in radio, stay minimal. Use quick, punchy sentences in the present tense with verbs doing the work because verbs are where the visual action is -- action verbs in the present tense. Everything in the future happens right now in Action Radio! Every time you use some variation of the verb "to be," you're letting a wimp into the script. Note the temperature difference between "Joe's Furniture is having a sale" and something like "Joe's Furniture breaks the price barrier...." One's active; the other's passive.

Oooh, Dig My Vocabulary

Your audience is not impressed by words they don't understand. Capiche? That's Italian, by the way. Bet you're impressed. Use spoken language, common language, American English. In your entire life, have you ever used the word "sublime" in a conversation? Didn't think so. Then don't write it. What reads well in your mind, in a novel or a newspaper, won't necessarily speak well out loud. So, write with your mouth open. And keep it simple. Hemmingway was/is a popular writer for lots of reasons; chief among them was he wrote actively and just one step above "See Spot run" on the simplicity scale.

Incredible, Really

Avoid superlatives and "empty" adjectives. The word "nice" is worthless. Also on the stink-list, terms and phrases like unbelievable, best kept secret, absolute lowest prices...words whose impact and sincerity is thin enough to see through. You heard right, ladies and gentlemen! Comb through your scripts and rip the cliches out by the throat. Better not speak than to say something that has absolutely no meaning or power.

Does This Look Funny?

Some people think a few jokes sewn together with a few copy points makes a good humor spot. That's really funny. Fact is, even the best radio writers have fallen down this rabbit hole before. I'm sure you can remember some great TV or radio ads, maybe even recite a few zingy lines from those commercials, but for the life of you, you can't remember the product. That's because character, situation, and product weren't locked together from the very start. Case in point: everybody knows the Molson Beer couple. You instantly recognize her giggle, his dry sense of humor, the light touch of sexy tension. But the ads succeed creatively because listeners remember the subject! I'm in the store, and I've got two minutes and twenty choices to make. So I buy the beer with the good movie attached to it. It's not that complicated. Another thing to keep in mind with funny spots: change them out more often than you would straight ones because once the joke is repeated frequently enough, it starts to irritate.

Different Is Good

The end game is to differentiate the product in the listener's mind. Back to cars for an example. If all cars are basically identical four-wheeled fossil fuel burning transportation devices, then yours has to occupy a unique position to stand out in the crowd. Which way to go? It isn't always the most obvious route that spells success.

Take Saturn, for example. The trades say it's a better car in its price range than most of the competition and a better product than Americans have manufactured in a long time. You think that's the advertising position? Better? American? No. Toyota still kicks Saturn's butt even with a higher sticker price because Toyota owns the reliability/high-resale position in buyers' minds. With "better" closed off as a position, the Saturn guys took a completely different road and changed the way their cars are bought and sold. Now that's radical. No more cigar chewing, arm twisting, "I'm on your side buddy but my Sales Manager is one tough SOB; the sticker price is 20% over the real price, now let's scratch each other's eyes out over the difference" car business as usual. Saturn did a ton of market research and found, not surprisingly, that people love cars, but they hate to buy them because of the last run-on sentence. So they priced their cars "fairly," then found a lot of nice, no-pressure guys with fuzzy sweaters -- the kind of guys you wish your sister would date -- and taught them to "un-sell." Finally, they priced the car like a retail store would. You don't haggle at the Gap; the price is the price. Hey babe, sticker on these jeans says $35.00, but there's a little thread loose on one of these cuffs -- I'll give ya $29.00, whaddya say? Bingo! Brand new position for Saturn, and they're selling so well that other dealers are starting to copycat the "no-haggle price" strategy. But Saturn got there first.

That's All He Wrote

Practicality is the thing I appreciate most about Radio And Production Magazine. It's the most damn useful trade publication I've ever come across. And I've written these articles about writing in that same spirit. Sure, there's a great measure of satisfaction that comes from sheer creativity for creativity's sake -- I play my guitar in the kitchen for hours on end and don't get a nickel -- but I wrote this series so that you could make money. I've said this before, but it bears repeating: if you can get your ideas across in writing with brevity, clarity, and impact, you can take that talent directly to the bank, no matter which industry you're in. It's the single most valuable skill you have.

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