04 Oct

Out of the mouths of adults

Unless you’ve ignored the news, across all platforms, for the last two or three months, you’ll be vaguely aware of the poisoning of two Russian spies and two civilians (an accident, it would seem) in the town of Salisbury.

You’ll also know about the two Russian men – reportedly, former KGB agents – who have been accused of carrying out the poisoning.

Both men strongly deny being involved in any kind of plot, stating that they were merely tourists. In fact, they did this on Russian TV, in a now-famous interview.

I say ‘now-famous’ as the clip has been mercilessly pilloried by all and sundry.

Because what the men are saying, and the way they’re saying it, sounds ridiculous to anyone with an ounce of common sense.

One of them states that they were tourists, that a friend told them to visit Salisbury (they were there just 48 hours, then went home), and that they visited because ‘there’s the famous Salisbury Cathedral… famous not only in Europe, but the whole world’.

Already this sounds odd. People, in general, just don’t talk like that. It sounds stilted. The guy sounds like a speaking travel guide.

But it gets worse.

The same chap follows up with ‘it’s [Salisbury] famous for its 123-metre spire … it’s famous for its clock – one of the first ever in the world…’

Again, no-one talks like that: ‘famous for its 123-metre spire’.
It sounds alien.
As a friend put it – ‘he sounds like a talking Wikipedia’.

And in sounding like a talking Wikipedia, he doesn’t come across as convincing.
He sounds phoney.

Well, guess what?
That’s how radio, TV, and video content scripts sound when they’ve been badly written, or large chunks of the brief have been shoehorned in, exactly as written on the page.

People know they’re being sold to when they see / hear an advert… but it doesn’t need to be so painfully obvious.
Anything other than natural dialogue (i.e would real people actually talk like that?) sounds hollow – false. And in sounding hollow, it makes your product or service sound phoney, or even untrustworthy. In short, it doesn’t resonate with the audience: it sounds like dodgy sales patter, shouted from a market stall selling knock-off goods.

I’ve had the misfortune to be off work, poorly… which has exposed me to the horrors of daytime TV (to be fair, it’s my choice to reach for the remote control). This means I’ve seen a fair few daytime ads.
So, if you want to see what I’m talking about, in terms of an awful, hollow script, watch this direct response TV ad.
No-one, but no-one, but no-one speaks in this way – certainly not to friends (who talks in percentages??).
This is the marketing brief quite literally lifted off the page and plonked into the mouths of actors. It’s dire. It’s less convincing than the two Russian spies.

Please – if you’re writing a TV, radio, or video script – don’t do this.
Please push back against the client’s wishes if you have to.
Please think how the script sounds to someone else watching it.

And consider that there are easy ways to check a script works / doesn’t sound terrible:
1. Consider whether you’ve ever heard a natural conversation similar to the one you’ve written
2. Read it aloud; either to your creative partner, to someone impartial (or a group of people), or to your client … you’ll quickly hear if it ‘doesn’t sound right’
3. Think whether you’d talk like that in a social setting – in your lounge or in a pub – or how others would talk: does it sound like something that would come out of people’s mouths?
4. Think about whether you feel embarrassed as you read it, or if it makes you cringe. If it does, don’t think ‘ah, sod it’ – your brain is letting you know that it doesn’t sound right.

To finish off, here’s an example of natural dialogue, between father and son, in the latest Cadbury’s Roses ad.
This is exactly how a father and son might speak – a few words here, a few words there. Normal. Simple.

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