Writing for the ear

June 3, 2015 01:30

By Donna Francavilla, RTDNA Contributor
How quickly do we tune out radio announcers and other audio programs? How long does it take until we are pulling out our cell phones to check email or return texts when the speaker loses our attention? 30 seconds? 2 minutes? Do you hit the “scan” button after a few words?
Almost always, as it turns out, when it comes to listening, our attention spans are short.
How do we best capture and hold the attention of our listeners? Here are my top tips:
Writing for the ear means…

Take the listener to the scene of the story
Let them hear where you are; allow the natural sound to infiltrate the piece. Reporters record a minute of sound in the room to be woven like a music bed under their voice during narration. For example, when tornadoes move overhead, I record the sounds of sirens wailing, wind rustling through the trees, and the pelting of the rain against the pavement as a way of setting the scene for the listener.

Use your voice
Your intonation, inflection, and emphasis appropriately place the listener in the room with you. Your voice should reflect the mood of the piece. If a basketball championship game has been won, you can shout above screaming fans. If you are reporting from the scene of a candlelight vigil, whisper as you describe the way mourners are swaying while softly singing.

Paint a picture
Use the most descriptive words you can think of in your script. Write and re-write. Avoid using pronouns when more nouns tell the story with greater accuracy. 

Use the active voice
Don’t tell us what previously happened when you can describe what’s currently going on. Instead of saying, “President Barak Obama remarked earlier today that pay-day lenders must be dealt with.” Say, “President Obama says pay-day lenders must be dealt with.”

Find compelling characters
For example, when I was covering the aftermath of tornado damage in Pratt City, Alabama on April 27th, 2011, I interviewed a man who told he was 82 years old. “Eighty-TWO!” he told me, with great glee. I told the audience his age, and then I let him tell his age again.  Normally, I wouldn’t repeat the same information twice, but the point of the story was that old Eugene was OLD, 82-years old, and he was thankful that he got to tell me he was still alive. Old Eugene was also a landlord. He not only lost his home to the tornadoes, he lost an additional 3 homes to the storm. Old Eugene was thrilled that he had survived the devastation even though his property had not. “God took my home, but he left ME here,” he told me. “I can get another house, but I can’t get another ME.” The passion in his voice seemed to bounce out of the speaker, compelling the listener to hear the wisdom he intended to impart.
Don’t just take my word for it.
I researched what others were advising on the subject. Here’s what I found:
According to Brad Phillips of the widely-read Mr. Media Training Blog, there are five OTHER ways you can write for the ear.
Here are five ways you can write for the ear, not the eye:

1. Use short words: Big words sound impressive. But multi-syllabic words are rarely as good as their simpler counterparts when writing for the ear. As Winston Churchill said, “Short words are the best and old words when short are the best of all.”

2. Use short sentences: Short sentences are more impactful than longer ones. The first example [here] has 39 words; the second has just 20. There’s a good reason the most memorable lines from famous speeches are short, rarely exceeding 20 words.

3. Use everyday words: One seminal study found that adults can understand 96 percent of all spoken language with a vocabulary of just 2,000 words. Although most native English speakers know thousands more, they tend to use the same limited pool of words in conversation. When speaking to a general audience, you should too.

4. Use contractions: Barring the most formal speeches, oral delivery requires the use of contractions. “Do not” and “I will” work best for the eye. “Don’t” and “I’ll” work best for the ear.

5. Speak them aloud: When you’re finished drafting your messages, read them aloud. If any of them contain a word that doesn’t roll easily off your tongue, replace it with one that does.
What techniques do you use to improve your stories to hold the attention of your audience? Let us know in the comments below.

Donna Francavilla is a freelance journalist for CBS Radio News and WBMA-TV, ABC 33-40 in Birmingham, Alabama