If you’ve ever tried to write a script, you know that delivering your message through dialogue can be (literally) easier said than done.
Although the written word and the spoken one may technically be the same language, how writing translates into the verbal world can be challenging to anticipate and control. Even harder still, is to make the end product appear natural, conversational and entertaining.
Long Island-based Iyna Bort Caruso, is a widely published feature writer, copywriter and New York Emmy Award-winning video scriptwriter. She’s written for a range of clients, from HBO and Clorox to Graco and Rubbermaid, to name a few. And after over a decade of crafting scripts for a variety of end clients, she has become familiar with how to navigate these challenges.
In this Q&A interview, Iyna describes how she creates scripts that delight and entertain, even when the subject matter is, ahem, dry.
Q: What are the kinds of scriptwriting projects you’ve taken on — and the unique challenges of each?
A: I’ve written dozens of scripts–from behind-the-scenes tour scripts for major arenas like Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall to radio, TV and training scripts. Of course, they’re all very different and each requires its own approach.
For instance, with a tour script, you need to engage listeners over a period of time using storytelling techniques that will resonate. In that case, I think about anecdotes that will stick with visitors so when they go home they’ll want to share those stories with friends and family. On the other hand, a script demonstrating a product is all about simplification and clarity.
I’ve also written training scripts for medical devices, consumer products (baby strollers), luxury car manufacturers and universities, to name a few.
Q: We’ve heard that training scripts can be particularly challenging because the material can be complex – or even boring. How do you know you’ve written a great training script?
I think this applies to all writing – but for training materials especially – you know you have a great script when you can capture an audience who doesn’t think they’re going to be interested in what they’re about to see.
Training scripts can be tough because, usually the audience has no choice but to watch. They have to be there, filling a seat in a mandatory training class, for instance.
In these situations, if all of a sudden they’re paying attention because they’re genuinely interested and not because they have to be there, it’s a win.
When you surprise the viewer in a good way, you’re successful. I also like surprising the client
and giving them something they hadn’t thought about, but which still meets their objective.
I had a client who told me he got chills reading my script. That kind of feedback lets me know I’m on the right track.
Q. So how do you technically breathe more ‘life’ into dry subjects?
A. Whenever I’m writing about something that could be dry, I try to find an interesting hook – a bit of trivia, or the arc of a narrative. That process starts with research and sometimes interviewing a wide variety of people to get different–and unexpected–perspectives.
You can be interviewing someone and they’ll say something that you immediately know will make a strong ending, or a very interesting opening. If it sticks in your mind, chances are it will also stay with viewers, too.
I did a script for a university’s annual fundraising gala. Fundraising can be a tough sell. I started with a very dramatic, emotional quote to open the video, which immediately elevated the cause to a higher level.
Q. On that note, are there other special considerations when you’re writing educational content?
A: As much as I do want to be creative with training content, ultimately, the goal is clarity, that people understand the information you’re communicating. You can be too clever about it and it doesn’t meet the client’s objectives.
Training materials can be very technical, so you really need to understand what you’re writing about on a very granular level. For instance, if you’re creating a demo about the features of a baby stroller or how to install a car seat, details are everything. Miss a certain step or gloss over it and there can be huge safety consequences.
Q. When you’re writing, are you also visualizing how the end video will look?
A. I’m definitely picturing as I’m writing. Often clients are interested in my ideas for visuals to go along with the narration as part of the deliverable. What images, what camera angles, what graphics, plus music–the whole package. These elements really expand the scope of the job.
Recently, a series of scripts I wrote for a line of baby products involved animation. I spent a lot of time thinking about that since you have so much more freedom with animation than with live action. You can go in any direction. By thinking through how your script will come alive in the video, you’re approaching it in a much more holistic way.
Q. What are some exercises you do to ensure that your script is going to be engaging – or absorbed (learned) for the target audience?
A: I read it out loud for timing, of course, but also to make sure the copy rolls off smoothly. I’ll record myself and play it back, too, which can help me pick up issues with flow and tone.
If I have the time I let it sit for a while, preferably a few days, and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Sometimes the copy needs a tweak. Other times I’ll shuffle sections around to see if that works better.
As far as content, on technical matters I like to have someone with subject matter expertise give it a look. I had a scriptwriting project with an automotive client, and as part of the creation process I ran it by a field expert for an extra layer of fact-checking.
Ultimately, the more I get to know my client, the more confident I am that I can give them what they want. Good communication is crucial.
Q. We’d be remiss if we didn’t ask about the voice over element – do you consider that as your writing as well?
A. I do write with a certain voice in my head that’s dictated by the content and the approach of the script. Sometimes I’ll suggest the kind of voice I think will do the script justice, and occasionally offer recommendations but usually that’s left in the hands of the producer. It’s rare but sometimes a script gets paired with a mismatched voice actor and that’s disappointing. More often the voice-over transforms what I write.
I’m always mindful that in everything I do, whether that’s writing an article, website content or a script; it’s the collaboration with other creatives–voice actors, editors, producers, developers– that makes a project successful.
About Iyna Bort Caruso
Iyna Bort Caruso is a New York Emmy Award-winning promotional writer, corporate writer and tour scriptwriter. She’s worked on projects for Fortune 500 and mid-sized companies including Cablevision (now Altice), MSG Network, Chase, Two Trees Management, Sotheby’s International Realty and Mercedes-Benz, among others, in developing on-air, online, print campaigns and tour scripts for internal and consumer audiences. Her writing has also been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal (special sections), Washington Post, American Way, American History and Saturday Evening Post. In addition, she was the author of Long Island’s first travel app.