Production 212: Still Thinking WAY Too Much

Prod212 Logo 2014 webby Dave Foxx

This month we continue with the Top 10 Most Common Mistakes I see people make over and over again. This is NOT all encompassing; in fact I wrote last month’s column over and over again as I remembered some things that were worse than what I originally wrote about. This month’s group will no doubt give me brain freeze more than a few times. These mistakes generally count for imaging and commercial work and aren’t in any particular order. Here are the last 5:

5. Write the script like a High School term paper, so everyone can relate to it.

Honestly, as a VO artist, I have the most difficult time with this. I spend all my training time with my VO coach learning how to be conversational when I read copy. I really try to make sure I don’t keep coming back to the same inflection at the end of every sentence, to not be afraid to let my voice go up in pitch more often, to sound like I’m having a conversation with the listener. The picture I tend to go to in my mind’s eye is a friendly tavern like Cheers. Everybody in the joint knows everybody else and for the most part, likes everybody else. Then I see myself having a conversation with Carla (Rhea Perlman), explaining how really cool a concert is gonna be. When I’m done, she makes some flip comment that is drop dead funny and we switch to another scene. The problem comes when the words I have to say sound like something being read to a class during my Sophomore year of High School.

I almost expect copy like this when it comes from an AE. It’s not their background, and yet many Sales Managers and clients expect the AE to write it. Would you ask your dentist to design your house floor-plan? Um… the answer should be no. Architects design floor-plans, dentists drill teeth. This is almost universally true of anyone who writes copy who has not trained specifically for it. Joe Anybody will write in the style they grew up writing, which is almost always the “High School Term Paper” style. It gets the facts out there, but it is almost always without any artistic merit. You don’t HAVE to tell them that their writing sucks, just write something better and offer it as an alternative. Unless their ego is tied up in it (unusual, but it happens), they’ll almost always go with the better copy.

I have preached often about the importance of knowing that your copy is supposed to be a dialogue with the listener. True, the listener isn’t there to give the VO feedback, but you have to assume an imaginary person is sitting with the VO, nodding in agreement. If you think classroom when writing, just know that like the classroom, your listeners are going to be bored hearing your report on the Peloponnesian War or Sam’s Used Cars… whichever.

If you’re in a situation where the AE is expected to do the writing, do like I did a few years ago: buy a few copies of Roy H. Williams’ The Wizard of Ads and hand them out to your AE staff. Again, don’t insult them, just get them to understand that they could be writing amazing copy and making everybody’s life better. (Especially the client’s!)

4. Get ALL of your pertinent facts into one sentence. Try to use as few periods as humanly possible.

This is mainly a promo kind of thing, although I’ve seen it in commercial copy too.

I have a couple of client stations who cannot seem to grasp the idea that people think in spurts. I’ve actually had a few scripts cross my monitor that were almost completely devoid of periods. I will have to painstakingly parse the entire promo just to have it make sense when read out loud. Sentences that contain 3, 4 or even more ideas are nearly impossible to understand. However, 3, 4 or more short sentences are easy for anyone to get without missing a beat. When writing (or parsing) think of each sentence like it’s a nugget of food. Your listener can pop one in his/her mouth and chew on it with ease, and is able to appreciate the taste and texture. When you give them a gigantic BLOB of food, there’s just no way they can chew on all of it at once, and most often they’ll just think, “No… I’m not gonna put all that in my mouth at once,” and poof!, they’re gone.

Here’s my advice on this one. When you’re finished writing it, pretend that you are the VO talent and try to read it. If you can’t, I doubt the audience will be able to figure it out.

3. Let’s give this whole piece a “futuristic” sound and fill it with lasers.

The ‘80s called and want their effects back!

Back in the late ‘80s, I made a nice little piece of change with an effects package called Zings, Zaps and Zoo-dads. I created all of the effects on that CD (99 of them because that’s all a CD Index could index) with a Roland M-50 keyboard. At the time, they were considered pretty cutting edge. Today, they sound like Star Wars rejects. Around 1993 I sold the rights to that collection, thinking that I had made all the money there was to get for those sounds. I was recently astonished to discover that they are still available from the guy I sold them to and that people are still buying them! STOP IT!

It’s not that I don’t want that guy to make money, and yeah, it would be nice to get the money myself, but I would be ashamed to sell them. I am more than a little perplexed that people still think they are viable in radio production. Trust me when I tell you they’re not.

The era of promos (or God forbid, commercials), full of stand-alone laser zaps is WAY over. Quite honestly, that’s not the way I intended for them to be used to start with. Electronic effects of any sort should be used to enhance the music track. When you listen closely to a David Guetta or Calvin Harris track, you’ll note that as they lead up to a really strong point in the music, they’ll have a kind of ramp, usually percussive like rapid tom-toms increasing in speed up to the break or sometimes a moving drone coming up in pitch. Once it reaches a climax, there’s a bit of an explosive sound timed to hit on the big note. THAT is where those sounds should be, not hanging out all by themselves with their dangly parts showing.

Instead of lasers now, I use percussive hits like door slams or servo-motors. Very often, I pull a piece from the music and cut it into the track on top of what is already there. Timing is critical of course and it has to blend into the overall music track or it just sounds goofy. But not as goofy as hearing Star Wars Stormtroopers firing their weapons at Hans Solo and Chewbacca during a commercial for a car dealer.

2. Let’s have this be a dialogue between a guy and a gal.

To be fair, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it almost always is for a couple of very important reasons. A. “Mary down in accounting can read the girl part” and B. “You sound more natural when you’re talking to another person.”

No and no.

  1. Mary is an accountant. Even if her hobby is appearing in local theater productions of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas to rave reviews, I can almost guarantee she will not sound natural at all.
  2. Unless the writing is brilliantly conceived and executed, it will never sound natural to have you or her say, “Tell me that web address again.” Nobody talks like that in real life!

There is a third reason that is even more important. The concept is basically that the listener is eavesdropping on a conversation about Yolanda’s Massage Palace, like that would ever happen at all. But once you get past that, the ideas you have to pass on to the listener cannot and will not ever sound like a normal conversation. The second the conversation stops sounding like a conversation is the second people tune out mentally, or if it’s really bad, physically.

It’s a MUCH better idea to have a direct conversation with the listener. Involve the listener in the conversation and everything becomes so much more clear and direct. It gets to be stupid simple to arouse an emotion, you can have an honest-to-God communication and maybe… just maybe, sell whatever it is you’re trying to sell.

  1. 1. How many clichés can we fit into one promo or ad?

Actually, that’s a funny idea. Do a commercial ABOUT clichés. It would have to be the perfect client, but it has strong potential.

I swear, if it weren’t for clichés, most of the copy I read every day would be a whole lot shorter. What is a cliché? I just pulled this definition off of the web: A cliché or cliche (/ˈkliːʃeɪ/ or /klɪˈʃeɪ/) is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.

How many times must I say, “The soundtrack to your summer” before everyone realizes how utterly common and trite it is? I’m not certain, but I am pretty sure that I lost a good paying job a couple of years ago over that phrase when I told the person who wanted me to say it that it was a crispy critter. If, by chance, he is reading this column, I think he’ll instantly know that I’m talking about him. He took it as a personal affront and it was shortly thereafter I was let go (one of the two times in my life.) I have since said it dozens of times for other clients and never said a word. Sometimes being right sucks.

One of the lessons I try to teach young producers is to immerse yourself in the culture your radio station (or client) is trying to appeal to so you sound relevant. You always want to strike a note that will resonate with your intended audience. If you don’t know how they speak, how can you ever hope to do that?

Have you ever heard anyone say that their business has 5 convenient locations? ONLY in a commercial. Have you ever heard anyone say, “to get all the details go to www.thisisacliche.com?” ONLY in a commercial. Too often it’s just easy to grab a cliché and drop it in instead of finding a fresh way to say it. I get that and completely understand, especially in a tight deadline, “we-gotta-get-this-done” situation. But, if you really want to get into the audience’s collective head, you need to take the time and energy to come up with a novel way to say it.

There you go. My Top 10 Most Common Mistakes I hear producers, AEs, clients, Program Directors and Promotion Directors make, just about every damned day. I hope I offended someone. Thomas Payne once said, “He who dares not offend cannot be honest.” It’s not my aim to offend, but only to be honest.

For my sound this month, I present a promo that I sincerely hope doesn’t make any of these mistakes. The emphasis in image production here at Z100 the last couple of months is definitely on the “less is more” track. Keep it short, keep all the parts short. Any drops used must be über short, just “Yeah!” or “Booyah!” I love the way this one turned out, mainly because I don’t think it caused any tune-out. (See what I did there? {sigh} It never stops.) I hope you enjoy. Please steal it. If not the idea, at least the energy.

Dave Foxx is the Director of Creative Services for iHeartMedia New York. He welcomes your comments and questions at davefoxx@iheartmedia.com.

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