Magazine article Training & Development Journal

Scriptwriting like the Pros

Magazine article Training & Development Journal

Scriptwriting like the Pros

Article excerpt

Scriptwriting Like the Pros

An instructional designer shares his thoughts on how to build a better video script.

If all the words spoken during a half-hour news program were printed on a newspaper page, they would take up only a few columns.

That is usually cited as criticism of television news, but perhaps the comparison is unfair. Television news is television news; it does not replace seeing an event happen live or reading a newspaper reporter's account.

The script that guides an audiovisual program must be looked at the same way. It is its own thing, designed and written specifically for one medium. One medium can substitute for another, but it cannot replace it.

Any medium that starts with written words must have those words crafted specifically for that medium.

The corporate video newsmagazine delivers news in its own way; it cannot be as complete as the traditional, written, corporate news bulletin. A video summary of a new law or product should not be as detailed as a 50-page abstract. Video training is not a replacement for print material or hands-on learning. An electrifying half-hour speech may make for a tedious video.

In short, many rules and techniques do not translate from one medium to another.

Four rules for better scripts

Instructional scripts break down the information flow to guide the learning process. Here are four basic rules for creating them. 1. Know your time limitations. This is not a new insight, but it bears repeating and understanding. If you choose to deliver a message on video (or slides), you are constrained by the amount of information that the audience can absorb. Television has conditioned us to periodic commercial breaks. Even in live theatrical performances, audiences tend to have "points of restlessness" when that same time interval passes without a break in the action.

Therefore, a script must be short. If the message is long, then the program must be broken into modules separated by another type of activity besides watching a screen. Interactive video, with its short learning segments, takes that into account as a part of its basic design.

How long is too long for a linear audiovisual program? I like to stay between five and eight minutes. You can stretch the time toward eight minutes if the program delivers "soft" information that is nice, but not critical, to know. If you are teaching important skills, keep it shorter.

From a writer's point of view, it is easier to write short pieces than long pieces. It is easier to be creative and interesting for five minutes than for ten. And five minutes of bad video is proportionately less torture than ten minutes. 2. Know your information limitations. You cannot fit the world into five to eight minutes. Commit yourself to communicating only three items of information in each module. And touch on each of those three items three times--first in the introduction, then in a more complete explanation in the body of the piece, and last in the summary.

Remember the old television newscaster's rule: "Tell them what you'll tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them." If you remember that, even if you've never written a thing in your life, you will get your message across.

Early in my career, as an in-house writer, I wrote a "basic bicycle primer" script for salespeople. It was about eight minutes long, had bouncy music, was well-written, and made all the required points. Or so I thought at the time.

Five years later, my son had his first bike, and I felt it was time for us to watch the program, to better understand bicycles. I was overwhelmed (and embarrassed) at the amount of information that was thrown into that program. Even I could not understand a lot of it. The show was interesting, but ineffective as a training device. 3. Make points in a logical sequence. Keep the most important information for the end. …

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