Writing to Time

It’s hard to get all your camping equipment in the back of a 1979 Triumph Spitfire. I know this from bitter experience. But it is possible to get enough for a week if you pack cleverly… and leave out all the things that are not really important. Leave behind the airbed. the guitar, the cooker. (I can live off tree moss for a couple of days.)

Like mine, but mine had wire wheels.

It’s amazing how many clients think they can simply add words to their crafted radio commercial. “Can we just say we’re open 7 days a week… including Sunday?” (really… Sunday is included in those 7 days?) “can we just add our phone number?” The answer is yes, you can add more words but you will have to move to a different duration… from a 30 to a 40, or a 30 to a 45 (depending on how airtime is sold where you live).

It happened to me again today. The client gave us an ad (written by an advertising agency) that they said was a 30 second ad. I timed it at 50 seconds. They cut it back… I timed it again… 40 seconds. They insist that it was do-able in 30 seconds because they had “done a word count” and it came to 100 words… which in their opinion was OK for 30 seconds.
A few problems… they had not allowed time for the sound effects, they had not realized that the client’s name looked like one word but was in fact three words, and that a phone number (yes, a completely pointless phone number) was actually ten words. My word count… 125 words!

Even then, 3 words per second is quick… so 90 words for a 30 second spot is a little optimistic.

There is only one way to get an accurate time on your radio commercial. Read it out loud, with a stopwatch, and put in the sound effects while you’re reading it through. Project your voice a bit and read it clearly, don’t mumble a hurried script.

My belief is that a commercial SHOULD be as long as it needs to be to do the job. But if I’ve written it to a certain duration, and you want to add words, we need more time. It’s not like press where you could maybe reduce the font size.
No, I can’t make the voice go faster! It will ruin your ad!

No, I can’t speed it up, scrunch it with clever electronics and cut all the breaths out! It will sound false (or like Mickey Mouse on speed… not that Mickey would take speed… he’s been clean for years!).
So, buy a stopwatch… and read it out loud!

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Writing to Time

If you have a go at writing your own radio commercial, it’s very tempting to try and cram as much information into it as possible. But with Radio, less IS more. And if you have a limited duration you need to decide what is the KEY importand message you want to get across. Radio is not like press. You can’t cram more in by reducing the font size!
It seems to be one of the hardest things for a new writer to grasp. But its very important that you do not overwrite your radio commercial. If you listen to some of the bad radio commercials on radio stations perhaps half of them sound bad because too many words are crammed into the commercial.

Word Counting

An average talking pace is around 2.5 – 3 words per second. If you are running a single voice, thirty second, announcement style commercial that has more than 90 words it’s over written and you need to cut out some words. But this number is also influenced by the number of voiced you use, and how they interact, it’s influenced by leaving space for Sound Effects, by the pace of music and tone of voice. Only use the word count as a guide. There is no substitute for using a stopwatch.

Short Commercials

The hardest commercials to write to time are often the shortest ones… Ten second commercials. In a 40 or 50 second commercial the voices have time to pace themselves, and perhaps pick up time on certain sections. In a 10 second commercial there is little flexibility, you have to be spot on. Clients have said to me “Can’t you just read it faster?” Yes you can, but your message will sound garbled, rushed and you are not showing consideration to the listener. How would you like it if a door to door salesman launched into verbal machine gun fire as soon as you opened the door to him? Respect the listener.

Use A Stopwatch

Nothing beats reading out loud with a stopwatch!

The only way to truely get the timing on a commercial is to read it out with a stopwatch. Yes, outloud! Not under your breath. And you should read it with the music if you have music on you commercial… and leave time and space for sound effects, acting and dialogue. With practice you will be able to spot if a script is over written just by looking at the script. If your writer overwrites ask him if the script will fit in the allotted time. If your script is overwritten it will not sound as good as a script given space and time. Underwriting can also be a problem, but at least music and sound can fill the spaces in most scripts. The use of silence or pauses can also be very effective (not huge silences, as there are technical and programming issues with these). Soon a writer will be able to look at a script and know it’s over written!

Add A Word – Remove A Word

Also it is important to remember that if you add words to the script you need to take them out. Similarly if you take words or sentences out your writer will have to rework the script. It’s about creativity, clear communication and balance.

Exact Timings

You are probably wondering why your commercial has to be exactly written and produced to 10 second units (In some countries like Kenya 5 or 15 second units). These days many radio stations are networked, usually overnight. This means the same programme could be going out on several transmitters, so ad breaks have to be balanced. If you are running three minutes of commercials on transmitter A you have to run three minutes on transmitter B. Also the standards and costings are based on set second units. If a client books a 30 second slot, but runs 33 seconds of copy, they are stealing 10% from the radio station.

Using Different Durations

In the U.K. the Average commercial is around 40 seconds but most radio stations quote the airtime shedule based on 30 second spots, because of this 30 seconds has become thought of by many people as the standard duration: but some great ideas are ruined trying to shoehorn them into 30 seconds. In the USA, most commercials are 60 seconds with a few 30’s dotted around, but you listen to some minute long commercials where the idea has to be padded with useless waffle.
30 seconds may be fine. But your offer might need an above average creative treatment to sell it. The ad should be as long as it needs to be to do the job. Stick to one message per commercial, and instead of one cluttered long ad, have two or three shorter, simpler ads. I personally find my best work has come out at around 40 seconds, then it can be ruined because the airtime has been pre-booked as 30 second slots and I’ve had to remove 10 seconds of material.
Research shows that longer ads have better listener recall. Creative content can make your ads more memorable, and it is easier to write creatively to longer timelengths. Longer ads also give more time for branding, and are able to establish characters and situations. Longer ads also mean less ads per break, which means less clutter, more recall. (For more on using different durations and the benefits of longer commercials visit the RAB website).

Allow your writer to be creative with your timelengths. What is wrong with three 10 second ads every other spot in the break, or a 40 second at the start of an ad break with a 10 second reminder at the end. Or a different commercial playing morning, noon and night? Or a short ad directing people to a fixed, longer length spot at some point in the day (“listen out at 5.15 today for our late availability holiday offers / details of our used car of the week”). Your Sales Exec will be able to show you how you can use short ads tactically with longer ones to build O.T.H. (Opportunities To Hear).

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