Posts from writing

Voice and Tone

“Voice and Tone: Creating Content for Humans at MailChimp” – Kate Kiefer Lee at Confab:

She described part of her job as being “to guard MailChimp’s voice, and keep it consistent across a huge range of content.” She said that the voice stays the same, but the tone changes all the time. Emotions are key to her belief on how important this. The way we write copy on the web affects the way people feel. And, she said, if you get it right, you can “get people to do stuff” — visit websites, buy products, subscribe to services.

via currybetdotnet — Martin is bravely attempting to live-blog the Confab conference, which I’ll confess I only heard of via his blog (RSS: not dead yet, whatever Google thinks).

This is good stuff. I forget, sometimes, that I learned to write primarily by writing for others. Most of the time when you’re writing for speech it’s important to have a voice in your head; when scriptwriting that has to be your character or performer’s voice, not your own. Scriptwriting is an acting job too.

Less obvious, perhaps, is that every organisation should be concerned about its voice and tone. It sounds like Kiefer Lee did a good job of articulating how that can impact the organisation’s bottom line. Read the rest of Martin’s post for some good practical advice.

Another terrific source on this is an interview with Mars Phoenix twitter writer Veronica McGregor, which still ranks as one of the STEM engagement projects I most admire.

Too much information?

Here’s a summary of Dr. No:

The Western world falls under the shadow of a great and mysterious evil. The source of the threat is traced to a monstrous figure, the mad and deformed scientist Dr. No, who lives half across the world in an underground cavern on a remote island. The hero James Bond goes to the armourer who equips him with special weapons. He sets out on a long, hazardous journey to Dr. No’s distant lair, where he finally comes face to face with the monster. They enjoy a series of taunting exchanges, then embark on a titanic struggle. Against such near-supernatural powers, it seems Bond cannot possibly win. But finally, by a superhuman feat, he manages to kill his monstrous opponent. The shadowy threat has been lifted. The Western world has been saved. Bond can return home triumphant.

I’ve chosen that version from The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, which uses this particular form to illustrate that Dr No shares the same core story as Gilgamesh, written four or five thousand years earlier. Cute.

My point is slightly different, in that you’ve just read a 135-word summary of a 110-minute film. You can comfortably read 135 words, aloud, in under a minute. I just tried, and not just reading but performing that paragraph I clocked myself at 42 seconds. Whatever, the implication is that the running time of Dr No comprises roughly 1% information. What’s the other 99%?

Aesthetics. Emotion. Character.

My hunch is that most fiction fits the same sort of pattern. Where it doesn’t — Game of Thrones, anyone? — we get easily confused, baffled by the number of ideas and suffocating under the proliferation of cast. So, by way of comparison, how do we go about planning science media?

We pack as much information in as possible. In a demonstration lecture we rely on the ‘demonstration’ to drive attention, and shy away from the ‘lecture.’ We run away from aesthetics, emotion and character, which leaves only exposition — and we’re at least dimly aware exposition is the dull bit. Best throw in another explosion.

So we flit from one set-piece to another, relentlessly seeking pace!, excitement!, fun!, inspiration!

Dr. No contains its share of fun, excitement and pace. They’re not without purpose, and we’re not wrong to include them in our work. But our choice to shy away from aesthetics and emotion and character does not always serve us well. We should be good at those things too, and deploy them when they can be effective.

There’s a terrific example to be had in Brian Cox’s recent series Wonders of Life, which took Brian’s trademark emotion and returned an aesthetic sense we’ve not seen in science documentary for some time (if ever, frankly). I’ll have more to say about Wonders of Life in subsequent posts, it’s a fascinating case study. I wasn’t a complete fan.

5 Tips for Writing Effective Scripts For Clients

5 Tips for Writing Effective Scripts For Clients:
The narration is the voice of your client. The personality in that voice is the key to how well it resonates with a specific audience. Unless you’re video is to be played at a conference of English teachers, perfect grammar is not always required.
— via Masters of Motion, which I think used to be Canon Filmmakers.

Solid, practical advice. If you don’t find scriptwriting challenging you’re doing it wrong.

Relationships and audience scale

This is interesting:

It’s not about content: Part I:
I’ve been arguing that media should build their futures around relationships, using content as a tool to that end. I’d say that is even more true of brands.
— (Via Jeff Jarvis/BuzzMachine)

This tallies with my current thinking, that the revolution we’re living through (and shaping) revolves around audience scale. I see lots of projects which are rooted in managers trying to come to terms with mass audiences. ‘Mass’ in the television or newspaper sense: writhing mobs of millions of people.

From my experience, it takes several years of working with these audience scales before you even begin to get comfortable thinking about them, let alone understand them, and I’m not sure anybody truly does understand them. Without that background, too many web media campaigns are ill-conceived and badly-run, as people chase some weird chimera of what they imagine mass media should be like. But they’re chasing the wrong goal anyway, as are the people who relentlessly clutch at the glory days of broadcast and yearn for their return. It’s not about millions of people any more.

In the blunderbuss days of broadcast ‘millions’ was about as precise as targeting got, but maybe only 10% of that audience really engaged with the content. The rest were collateral damage, and with the aid of precision web munitions media we can try to zero-in on the ‘real’ audience and avoid wasting everyone else’s time. That ‘real’ audience, the people you can engage and connect with, may be a thousand people or a hundred thousand. Unless you’re Coca-Cola it’s probably not ‘millions.’

But that core audience is tremendously precious, because they’re your customers, your collaborators, your partners. They’re the people who receive your message and act upon it.

Jarvis is right: it’s about the relationships, and the content you produce as a way to establish those relationships.

The trouble with notes

This is why film-makers always cringe when anyone with the word ‘executive’ in their title gets to see a rough-cut:

I once worked on a series which had more BBC executives attached than we had production team making the show. We also had a four-day turn-around from shoot to delivery of edit (and another three days to transmission), every week for six weeks. That was fun.


A client of mine sent a rough-cut through for comment last night. It’s great, so while I sent copious notes in timecode detail, that’s all fiddling around the margins. They’ve got the hard bits right already.

More useful, then, is lessons to draw from this film to guide the next one. What I wrote applies rather generally:

  • How does it open? Start on action, clear statement of intent, etc. Usually, the first page of a script can be thrown away — come to the action late, and all that.

  • Where’s the story? Not just what is it, but when is it? Knowing where the bulk of it comes allows you to introduce terminology and context early, which smooths the whole film.

  • Know how you finish. This applies for each shot as well as for the film overall. What’s the end-point?

As ever: grab attention, sustain it, reward it, and close gracefully.

For short factual films, just about everything else flows from that arc.

Stories everywhere

Randall Munroe’s latest over at XKCD:

Also, all financial analysis. And, more directly, D&D.

We find stories everywhere. Where we can’t find them, we make them.

50 tips for writers

This is terrific: an eclectic mix of fifty ‘writing tools’ (PDF link). Written by Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, as you’d expect it’s aimed at journalists. Much of the advice fits for other types of writing too, and where there are quirks or specifically-journalism-related tips, they’re either challenging or inspiring.

It’s hard to pick favourites from so many gems, but try:

40. Draft a mission statement for your work.
To sharpen your learning, write about your writing.

…self-reflection being a useful tool in many circumstances, but I also think this applies on a smaller scale. Even for ultra-short two-minute factual films, the scripts I write typically include a block of information pertinent to the shoot but not vocalised in the film. One of those elements is a summary — a ready answer to questions like “What is this film about?” and “Why are we telling this story?”.

It’s ridiculously easy to forget what it is you’re doing, or (worse?) aim for something, miss, and never notice.

Here’s another gem:

8. Establish a pattern, then give it a twist.
Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain.

…which echoes the way the writing team on How2 used to challenge each other, and my absolute favourite:

37. In short pieces of writing, don’t waste a syllable.
Shape shorter works with wit and polish.

…because the explanatory line is simply delightful.

It’s tremendously challenging for some of the academics with whom we work to rediscover their voice as a writer. Research publishing labours under a smothering weight of received style, which must be thrown off to truly engage a reader; advice like this helps remind people that the third-person passive voice is not the only way of structuring a story.

(A tip of the hat to SciCast-alumnus-turned-New-Scientist journo Jamie Condliffe for the link to this. He got it from Richard Fisher, also of NS, who… etc.)


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