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A Bulldozer for the Ears

On texts for corporate films and presentations

Trainers in rhetorical skills recommend never writing down a text of speech to be given orally. They advise against this because oral and written texts are very different, and it is extremely difficult to devise a good speech based on written language. A film or presentation is much closer to oral speech than to an article. Indeed, it is practically the same thing - a film and an oral lecture. In both cases we address our viewers or listeners.

However, a text of a film has to appear on paper. In the first place it is needed for Customer's approval. And here the conflict between the "written" and the "heard" is manifested in its entirety. You'll be surprised, but up to 40% of all working time (factual) is spent on agreeing the film's off-screen text.

It so happens because an oral text does not look "serious enough" on paper, whereas a written text, even a good one, aurally feels like a bulldozer driven over your ears. We very often recorder texts our Customers insisted upon only to make them hear that "bulldozer" and become aware that "something should be done about the text".

For those wishing to achieve a text that is easy to perceive, as well as to save time and money - we have listed the following simple rules.

  1. You should not indulge in participial clauses. Especially in the beginning of a phrase. Not "being aware of the need to change, the company decided…", but "changes were simply necessary, and the company decided…". In oral speech events should develop progressively, as a listener can not "see" the phrase as a whole. When we hear a participial clause we are forced to wait till the end of the sentence to find out what it referred to. This is hard. The meaning will certainly get lost, and the feeling of fatigue will be left over.
  2. Add emotions. "...We were amazed", "...we did not expect such results", "...the project caused us much concern and at the same time enjoyment". Do not forget the golden rule: "If a speaker does not care about what he says, a listener could not care less". We do care and we are not going to feel ashamed of it.
  3. Address the listener. "Trust me, we could cite many more examples", "and now let us listen to the head of transportation department", "wait, we'll talk about polyvinyl chloride a bit later". A film needs to evoke a sensation of dialogue with the audience. Involvement (even a slight one, like these bridging words) guarantees interest.
  4. Not more than one idea in one phrase. Attention is the most important thing.

    Let us analyze this text: "The enterprises to be set up will become large producers of high-quality products, will have their own sources of raw materials, and with a good reason will rank among the top producers worldwide".

    This encompasses at least five meanings:

    1. The enterprises are new;
    2. The enterprises are large;
    3. The products are high quality;
    4. They have their own sources of raw materials;
    5. The enterprises will certainly rank among the top producers worldwide.

    That's a bulldo-o-ozer! Too many topics to remember at least one. In 99% of cases it turns out that the phrase must convey only one thing, and all other meanings were piled up for substantiality's sake. What is the most important point in this phrase? Most likely it is the fact that the enterprises will without doubt rank among the top producers worldwide. Now let us think. Can products of less-than-high-quality bring an enterprise up to the top? Can smaller enterprises end up there? The very fact that we shall rise among "the top producers worldwide" speaks volumes. You need to voice this fact, and not to drown it out by superfluous, "intensifying" words. Other important facts (like own raw materials) should better be told separately.

    Now, the result is: "We do not doubt that the new enterprises will rank among the top producers worldwide". The proof should follow or precede, but not be crammed into the same phrase.

  5. Do not be afraid of colloquialisms, or even slang. A film should not pontificate, but talk to the listener. And talking should be done in colloquial language. That is why instead of "the enterprise commences implementation of this project" it is better to say "we started this project". Slang can help to animate your speech a lot, but it should be introduced not earlier than the audience is convinced of the speaker's competence. Accordingly, whether slang usage is appropriate or not depends both on the audience and on the speaker.
  6. Nothing can animate a film and attract attention better than a living person on the screen. Only it is important that this person really acts alive and not as a piece of text-reading machinery. Take their notes away from them when shooting. Let them say less, but be more full of life. The best way to get a lively statement on camera is to ask questions to the speaker.
  7. The price of silence is well known. Although the use of pauses refers more to the film's script than to the text, it has a direct influence on the text. A pause is the total absence of text. A pause underlines the importance of what has just been said. A pause underlines the importance of what is happening on the screen. A pause breaks the monotony of a speech (there was a voice, now it is gone - what happened?). A pause means some rest for your ears. It is a very good technique.

Practically always our work on a film or presentation starts with a conversation with a director of the Customer's company. Quite a lot of top managers speak about their companies in an exciting and emotive way. There were several cases in our practice when a story told by a chief executive became the film's voiceover text. And in those cases - you'll be surprised - no paper text was prepared at all.

But even if we take the classic path - using an actor to record voiceover - it is important to retain the feel of a living story, without turning it into a bureaucratic report.

Stall your bulldozers! And let us talk.

P.S. Professional jargon of different communities is a separate topic altogether. Usage of professional jargon does not abolish the above-stated rules, but it imposes certain requirements to the vocabulary. Otherwise the test will not sound credible.

Andrey Skvortsov
CEO, Mercator group


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