Writing For The Non-Pro

by Mark Margulies

The hardest thing in the world to do as a radio professional is to have to listen to nonprofessionals performing in commercials. It works like fingernails on a blackboard, creating sounds that make you cringe. Not that we're snobs, mind you--it's just that, as professionals, we understand how a husband/wife slice-of-life spot should sound. We've heard business owners who do credible reads on the air. What we object to are the spots that are so bad, they bring tears to our eyes. They are the subject of this discourse.

Yet, all of us, at one time or another, are forced to deal with the reality of radio. Maybe it's that client who wants to cut his or her own ad. Maybe you're in a market or at a station where female talent is difficult to find, or where male or female on-air personalities are never allowed to become characters. At any rate, sometime in your career as writer/producer, you've had to draft nonprofessionals to do a professional's job. And that can hurt your ears, your ego, and your production piece. So here's some help on how to make the whole process a little simpler.

DRINK HEAVILY AND OFTEN--Preferably Jack Dani...No, hold it. Wait a second...Wrong notes...Damn computer...where did I put the other stuff...? Ah, okay, let's try this again....

Start with the copy. You have the ultimate control over that. And that means creating copy that's simple for a nonprofessional to execute. Remember, from kids to adults with little experience, a nonprofessional is going to have trouble acting a part. They'll either under act it by reading the lines or overact it by attempting to compensate with enthusiasm. Either way, it's going to make the copy sound jerky and stilted. So always begin by limiting their involvement. How do you do that? Simple. Make sure the non-pro's lines are short, sweet and simple. A rule of thumb we always use at BENMARadio is never, EVER give a non-pro the bulk of the sell lines. Give them simple feeder or foil lines, lines that require questions or reactions. Limit their responsibility and you regain some control of your creative.

Here's an example. Let's assume the client INSISTS on a male/female spot for a car wash. Let's also assume the female is the non-pro and the client wants her to do most of the selling. Now first, let's see how many of these spots are normally written:

V1: PRO
V2: NON-PRO

V1 My car is so dirty, I can't tell what its real color is anymore...
V2 So go to Fred's Car Wash...
V1 Fred's Car Wash...?
V2 Fred's Car Wash can get your car showroom clean. That's because Fred's uses the exclusive ultra clean system, a brushless system that never touches the finish of your car. And right now, if you come into Fred's, you can save $3 off the price of their regular wash...That's an incredible deal considering you get a state-of-the-art car wash that doesn't damage your finish.
V1 That's a great deal...
V2 It sure is...So make sure the next time you need to wash away the dirt, grime, salt and sand that winter driving slings on your car, take it to Fred's Car Wash, 16/25 South Main Street in Anytown. And don't forget, you save $3 right now on any regular wash, so hurry in. Offer good through March 31, 1996 only.

What you need to do is break those blocks of copy up. In the first place they're boring and a deterrent to even a normal two-voice spot using professionals. But by breaking the blocks and changing the spot around just a little, see how much easier it flows:

V1: PRO
V2: NON-PRO

V1 My car is incredibly filthy...
V2 So go to Fred's Car Wash...
V1 Fred's Car Wash...?
V2 Fred's Car Wash will get your car showroom clean.
V1 Wait a second...I've heard about Fred's...Aren't they the ones that use that brushless ultra-clean system...?
V2 Sure do...And your car never looked cleaner...
V1 And no brush will ever touch my car...? That's incredible...
V2 It's a state-of-the-art system.
V1 I'll say...
V2 And right now, Fred's will save you $3
V1 Three dollars...?
V2 Sure...It's a $3 savings off their regular wash...
V1 Okay...I'll write that down...
V2 So you get a state-of-the-art car wash that doesn't hurt your finish...
V1 ...and I save $3 bucks right now on a regular, brushless car wash at Fred's...Pretty nifty...
ANNCR: Make sure the next time you need to wash away the dirt, grime, salt and sand that winter driving slings on your car, take it to Fred's Car Wash, 16/25 South Main Street in Anytown...And don't forget, you'll save $3 right now on any regular wash, so hurry in. Offer good through March 31, 1996 only.

It's not perfect by any beans because the non-pro still has to do some of the selling. But this is a worse case scenario, assuming a difficult client who insists on having it done his way. If that's not the case, you can see how a couple of minor changes can take the sell totally away from the non-pro. They no longer have the burden of carrying the spot and you can let the professional deliver the sell.

So what happens when you have to work with a client who wants to read his own copy? Good question. See if you can rewrite it to include an announcer who handles the bulk of the sell. If that won't work, or they insist on doing it themselves, let them have it. Mercifully, with only one client like that on your station, the whole experience may work to your benefit by standing out so that the client gets response (even if people are laughing at how bad the commercial is). Remember, in this business, ANY reaction beats no reaction at all.

The thought with writing copy when you have to work with nonprofessionals is, keep their involvement simple, quick and easy. Let them ask the questions or become the foils that help feed the pro their setup lines. Don't give them too much to read, and avoid letting them have to do the sell if you can. You'll hear an immediate difference in the sound of a commercial written that way.

So, you've got the copy written. Now you need to produce it. Here, too, you must work under a few different rules. You're dealing with a nonprofessional, which means there will be some important points you must remember.

First and foremost, be understanding. The people you work with are probably really, really, really nervous. A microphone has a way of making people's knees weak and turning their tongues to cement. And that's just your every day on-air talent (just kidding). People who don't work in the business become seriously intimidated by all the equipment and the fact that their voices and outtakes are recorded for posterity. Be gentle, and always remember, you're dealing with a novice who is both terrorized and fascinated at the same time.

In that same vein, keep in mind that most people with no experience KNOW they have no experience. They also KNOW not only do they suck, but they know you think they suck as well. They already know they're not very good, so try not to make matters worse. Be patient. After all, there had to be a time in your life when you had to do a job you knew you weren't much good at, but got the "hey, we're bringing this guy/gal in not because we want to but because we need a warm body" treatment. Keep that feeling firmly in your mind as you deal with nonprofessionals. Sure, they have no idea what they're doing, which is not the best feeling in the world. So don't treat them like you're doing them a favor by having them make idiots of themselves for your listening audience to hear. A kind word and a little help go a long way.

Next, cut your spot in segments and edit it together, if necessary. It will help your talent stay a bit more natural. Long, uninterrupted blocks of copy cause people to start reading. Break it up for them.

Stay away from ambitious accents and dialects. A non-pro is going to have enough trouble being themselves. Don't burden them additionally by asking them to do something completely beyond their capabilities.

Finally, make the session fun, something they can look forward to, not dread. If they enjoy themselves and are enthusiastic, it will come through on mike.

Remember, we're not always perfect either. So handle your work with non-pros delicately, humanely, and with some basic copy structures and rules. You can even make this aspect of your production load sing.

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