By Dave Foxx
Ever since I started writing these columns for RAP, I’ve been getting, on average, 4 pieces of production in my email INBOX every week. Some of them are pretty good. Some are simply dreadful. The one flaw that seems to crop up with any regularity is verbose copy. Good Lord in heaven, do these people like to hear themselves speak!
This morning’s electronic dump brought a perfect example from The Great White North, British Columbia in Canada. To be fair to the producer (who shall remain nameless), the production was really pretty good. The VO was one of the ‘regular’ voices we always hear, and the music and effects were pretty choice, given the subject of the promotion. So I started off with a couple of fairly straightforward criticisms regarding levels and overall speed. He really wasn’t far off the mark as regards either. Then…I had to get into the writing. An excerpt from my reply:
The writing is fair to good, with a couple of “excellent” lines leading the way. Another way to “speed up” delivery is by using an economy of words. The writing on these is a little verbose in that you’re using 50 words where 30 will be more powerful. Instead of saying “XXXX-FM is gonna take you back to a time when the A-Team kicked butt,” lead with the action: “The A-Team kicked butt.” (Insert TV theme/cut to Billy Jean) “Michael Jackson was actually cool.” Right away, you have everyone’s attention. Then, you can come back to “XXXX-FM presents...” Of course, you might not have the option to change the copy that much, but IF YOU CAN, it’ll really jump outta the speakers.
Okay. That’s a sticking point for a lot of you. I know that for years, my PD always wrote the copy and it was pretty much sacred writ. If I wanted to really kick it up a notch, I had to be there when it was being written and make gentle suggestions. My PD was open to ideas, mind you…but it was hard to be there when he habitually wrote promos on his laptop at home and sent them to the voice guy from there.
I’ve been preaching from these pages for a long time that the producer should write the copy, or at least be an integral part of the process. Why? It’s one less layer of interpretation the promo has to go through. I’m not saying that Program Directors are bad writers. Some of the most brilliant copy ever composed has been written in that corner office. The problem comes when it’s time to interpret the written word. Seldom can you really “hear” what the PD hears in his/her head. When you ARE the writer, the creative process is streamlined, making everything clear and the process simple.
The point I was really trying to make with our Canuck friend is that the easiest way to create pictures in the listener’s mind is to let them create those pictures. If you’re trying to be dramatic, cut your text. Let the music and sound effects do the heavy lifting. Choose your words very carefully. Think of them as bombs. There are big bombs and there are hand-grenades. You’ll never win a war with just hand-grenades.
On the commercial side, John Williams (The Wizard of Ads) makes a lot of sense when he points out that most of the words we fill our copy with are just connecting words. Many of them have absolutely no bearing on the subject at hand and very often detract from the message. I’ve written in this space before about the words “convenient” and “located.” I HATE those words. In the context of describing a place, they’re of no use whatsoever. When I see copy that says, “3 convenient stores located at…” I want to scream. Every store is convenient to somebody, and the word located is just verbal filler. If you must give the addresses, the sentence flows much better when it’s “3 stores at….”
All right, that’s enough standing on the soapbox. Back to my reply:
Once you’ve got things cooking with the copy, make sure the read actually picks up the pace. If you have to, use a time compression plug-in. Don’t go crazy with it...just make sure it clips along at a really good pace. Your editing is excellent, so no complaints there, but once you’ve sped it up and mixed a bit hotter, you’ll find the editing will automatically get tighter. (That’s a big plus.)
Speed is not always the answer when the question is: “How can I improve my production?” However, it’s a really good starting point. In 90% of the promos I produce or even hear, speed is the simplest way to add excitement. I’m not talking about Formula One fast; I mean a few notches over the speed limit. Nothing sharpens the attention of the listener as much as picking up the pace. The human brain almost always reacts to speed with a nervous edge, closer concentration so as not to miss anything, and a more diligent effort to understand the content. Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but this is exactly what you want in a station promo.
I have a trio of examples on this month’s RAP CD for you. They’re all promoting Z100’s Commercial Free Hours using a series of little “blackout” sketches. They’re all around 30 seconds long but they all demonstrate the speed concept beautifully. The first cut is a City Council meeting in which the Water Manager is going over statistics, something that would normally cause brain freeze. Check the speed of delivery. The second features two cops sitting in their patrol car, chatting. Again, this is something that would normally put people to sleep, but their phrasing is very fast and choppy, allowing the effects to tell the story. The third example is a classic fast-talking boss with a rather lethargic sounding employee. The contrast not only pushes the listener to lean in and pay closer attention, it also provides some great texture for the entire piece. I want to give special kudos to Eric Chase who provided the sketch voices.
Once again from my reply to our Northern friend:
You’ve got all the tools. You could be a great one. Just remember the operative phrase: Less is more. Fewer words, less time, less difference between the gain on your VO and the music, will all make your production really pop out and “politely” slam the listener in the face. It’ll add a lot of excitement to your promotions AND to the radio station.
Okay. Now some of you are saying, “Gee Dave. That’s pretty elementary.” Yes. Nolo Contendere. But some people simply don’t get it. A lot of those are the same people who keep wondering why they haven’t gotten the call to the Majors. Knock-knock.