Wondering how to create a good radio ad? It isn’t just about writing a great script – it’s also about the thinking that goes into everything before and during the studio session. I asked two award-winning ad industry experts to share their top tips on making an ear-catching radio commercial.
Expert advice from an audio producer: Pam Myers
- Give your script context – I’ll often see a script with a SFX that says ‘Door opens’. But … a door hasn’t just opened: there’s somebody coming through the door, or going out the door. You have a scene where maybe a person is talking and the door is open, because their dog or mother or whatever has come in to talk to them. Radio has to be a performance so think of the script like a drama script – look at some for really good examples of how things are written. A script can quickly explain the setting by including a line at the top that says, for instance, ‘We’re sitting in an empty room’. Even if your script just uses a single voice, it still needs some context.
- Listen to radio – whether it’s ads, plays or podcasts. Head straight to Radiocentre where you will find a fabulous archive of ads and can search by category, sector or any number of things.
- Listen out for voiceover talent – you don’t have to use a known voiceover artist. The best artists can come from any background – from theatre, film, TV, radio, or may never have had any training. In fact, stand up comedians and musicians tend to have very good mic technique and good timing, and confidence as well.
- Actors work in different ways – never forget that the artist you’re working with is a human being; you can only push them so far. If your script is far too long, they simply can’t deliver it in the appointed number of seconds.
- Never underestimate the post-production side – what takes place after the recording will hugely benefit from the skills of a highly experienced sound designer like Tim Lofts. No matter how the radio ad sounds at first, by the time Tim has spent half an hour on it he’ll have smoothed out the breaths, fixed any little gulps without changing the timing and have polished the ad without radically changing it. The effect that Tim can make to help create a good radio ad as a result of these changes can be jaw-dropping.
Expert advice from a sound designer: Tim Lofts
- Preparation is always key – it amazes me just how many people turn up at the studio without a fully written script or even the correct version. This happens several times a week! Even a simple session booking can end up taking several hours so think about the execution in detail before coming to the studio – it’s helpful if you can have references to your sound effects in mind.
- Prioritise what matters – it can be tempting to think ‘We’ve got the voiceover here for an hour so let’s get our money’s worth out of them’, but then you put yourself under time pressure because 30% of what you’re recording is superfluous to the session. It’s best to concentrate on the task in hand and consider getting the VO back for a second hour rather than trying to do too much all in one go.
- Lots of sounds can sound the same – such as rain and frying bacon, which it’s why it’s important to set the context. One radio ad I worked on involved guys walking around a cave with water dripping in the background. It could have sounded like a leaky bathroom but the opening line was ‘It’s a bit dank in this cave, isn’t it?’ So, straightaway, the scene was set and the sound effects just added to that.
- Choose your voiceover wisely – don’t book a Royal Shakespeare Company actor for a really hard-sell script which is essentially just products and prices: book a regular voiceover who can roll off your fifteen taglines for you. And if you have got the wrong VO for the job, then be brave enough to decide not to carry on with them rather than waste two hours pushing them. Obviously there’s money at stake but, ultimately, you’ll have a better end result. We used to do lots of casting sessions with a day’s worth of casting for big campaigns but the money doesn’t really allow for that now. Having said that, I had a casting session recently between two people for a massive campaign with a lot at stake so it was money well spent. Most VO agents today will be quite happy to get their artists to record a script over the phone to give you a rough idea.
- Don;t be shy about asking your voiceover for help – don’t be afraid to ask: actors can give often really invaluable input on the way in which a script is written.
And a few tips from a copywriter: me
- Check the script length and check again – it may sound obvious but always read your script out aloud rather than rely on how long it looks. And take care not to gallop through it; a good script needs air.
- Afternoon sessions are often better – the VO’s voice then has time to warm up.
- Let the actors act – is your script set in a storm / involving an argument / denoting physical exertion? Ask the studio to set up the mics on stands and get the voiceover(s) to record the script while standing up rather than being passively seated.
- Be accountable – it’s rare to get a recording right in one take, let alone the first take. Take note of every version and make a note of which bits worked well. Never rely on your producer instead!
- Ask the VO to do their own thing – I’m a great believer in getting the VO to do a version of the script at the end the way they want to do it.
Do check out my recent interview with Pam Myers for other helpful insights and advice on how to create a good radio at What Does Creativity Mean To You: The Audio Producer
Written by Caroline Gibson, freelance copywriter (and hugely proud owner of several radio ad awards, including D&AD).
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