Sound Stories #002 – How to Craft Stories that Resonate

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    What are the essential elements of a good story – and how can you incorporate them, even in less than 30 seconds? Award-winning media strategist and consultant, Keith Tomasek, shares his experience and insights to help you hone your storytelling skills. So no matter the medium, you can connect with audience on a deeper level through memorable stories.

    Presented by: www.voices.com

    TRANSCRIPTION SOUND STORIES #002

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Hi there, and welcome to another episode of Sound Stories, an inspirational podcast for creative professionals and storytellers who want to improve their lives at home and at work. I’m Stephanie Ciccarelli, your host and co-founder of Voices.com.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Today in studio I have with me Keith Tomasek. Keith is a professor at Western University. He’s also a podcaster, but he has a ton of experience in theater and also in writing for the artistic type. Keith, welcome to the show.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Thank you, Stephanie. I’m excited to be here, and thank you for visiting my class last week. I was doing some of the vocal warmups before I came in today just to prepare for this.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, that’s awesome. Were you doing the lip trills-

    Keith Tomasek:

    Yes, that’s right.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    … and all the little humming?

    Keith Tomasek:

    Unique New York was my favorite. Unique New York. It’s hard to do for me.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, it is a tough one. It gets those resonators going.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh my gosh, I’m just very excited to have you here today. Well, I know clearly that I know you, Keith, but our audience may not, so maybe just tell us a bit about yourself.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Sure. My background, it’s a mixture of everything. I studied Theatre at the college level. After Theatre, I studied English Literature and Film Studies, and then I went on to get a master’s degree in Communications.

    Keith Tomasek:

    You mentioned writing at the beginning. The thing about writing, and I want to really impress this on people, I struggled. In grade nine, I basically failed English, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m a terrible writer.” Well, it turns out I was going through lots of family troubles, and I had Crohn’s disease. Luckily, I didn’t let that stop me. Luckily, I realized, okay, just because I had a bad time at a certain point in my life with English, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer.

    Keith Tomasek:

    While I was studying to do my master’s degree, I came across a quote that I want to share with you. The quote is this. It’s from Thomas Mann. “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wow. That is deep. It really is.

    Keith Tomasek:

    It’s my favorite quote, because it reminds me that if writing is difficult for me, and it is, it means I’m doing a good job. It means I care. It means I really, really want to communicate my message to the audience.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Indeed. Could you tell us maybe a little bit about what you were writing? I know that you have a background in writing for others, and now you write for yourself a bit. Tell us about back then.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Primarily, I’ve always written for the ear as opposed to writing for the page or for the eye, and that’s why I was so glad that you came to my class and talked about podcasting. That’s why I think I have some things to share with the folks that are listening.

    Keith Tomasek:

    I guess it started as a performer. I used to do magic and comedy and juggling when I was young, and you’d have to write out your routines. Then you could work the routines in front of an audience and listen to what the audience said and get feedback. But it really nailed into me two things. It nailed into me the idea of storytelling, because everything is a story. As human beings, we’re kind of wired, we love to hear stories. You and I are both parents, and sharing stories with our kids has got to be one of the most fun and cool things to do.

    Keith Tomasek:

    At a really young age, I realized how important storytelling was and how important actually speaking in the active voice when you’re writing a script for someone else to say is. Now, I don’t know if you know about that. Again, in grade nine, if someone said, “What’s the active voice? or “What is subject, verb, object?” I would have tuned out. I didn’t care.

    Keith Tomasek:

    But I’ve had to teach it. I teach at Western University. I taught in Dubai for a couple of years. I taught a class there for non-native English language speakers on how to write for broadcast audio. At that point I discovered, and that’s probably where I learned that quote and all that sort of stuff, I really learned some techniques that I’ll share with you a little bit later. The first one, and this comes from theater, is storytelling. Storytelling is in English literature, the concept of the three main conflicts in a story and all that sort of stuff.

    Keith Tomasek:

    I was at the Podcast Movement conference this summer in Chicago, and I saw Alex Blumberg from the StartUp podcast. He had a great thing, and I want to share it with you. He just talked about one of the key things to remember in storytelling, when you’re writing something, is to have a sequence of actions leading to a climax. Now, it doesn’t matter really what you’re writing. It could be instructional writing for the ear. It could be sales writing. It doesn’t really matter, because if you can start with a story, you’re going to hook your audience.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    It’s all about story, as you said, because for thousands upon thousands of years, that’s how we’ve communicated. That’s how we know what is important to us as a society, what we pass on to our children. The human voice is so powerful.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Yeah. Again, you are the master of working the tool, but what I have tried to do over time is collect the ideas about what is a story and how to convey that with words for the ear as opposed to for the eye. Here’s an example that Alex Blumberg gave. I sort of adapted it. He says you need a sequence of actions leading to a climax. So if I say, or write, “This morning, I left the house in a hurry. It was still dark. I jumped into my car, backed out of my driveway, and you’re never going to guess what happened.” You want to know what happens.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Of course you do.

    Keith Tomasek:

    It’s a sequence of actions, right? So let’s say I say, “I jumped into my car, backed out of my driveway, and you’ll never guess what happened. The garbage truck had come.” Who cares? That’s not a good story. You need a sequence of actions leading to a climax, but you also need to reveal something that’s interesting. That comes from playwriting and dramatic writing. There’s always a reveal. We’re unwrapping the onion to find something, or what’s the secret that the character is hiding? That’s something that comes up in drama as well.

    Keith Tomasek:

    In this case, you could just change the story. “It was still dark. I jumped into my car, backed out of my driveway, and you’ll never guess what happened. There was a grizzly bear on the road.” See, all of a sudden it’s a little bit more interesting. That’s the series of actions leading to a climax and revealing something that’s interesting.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Then the other thing that Alex talked about at the conference was you also need a moment of reflection after you reveal something. That would be act three in a dramatic structure. In this case, it could be something like, “The bear was walking along with a little cub, and it reminded me that I didn’t even kiss my son goodbye when I left this morning in a hurry.” Then you’ve got the structure of a story.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. Well, it touches the heart, is what the difference between that is, because you were able to relate to something that happened in experience. For people who are writing, you might not be able to convey exactly what your experience was, but you use that to create the universal experience that we can all relate to.

    Keith Tomasek:

    That’s Shakespearian now you’re getting on me.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, well, I know you know a lot about Shakespeare too.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Universal experience, that’s exactly it. We talked earlier about the three main conflicts. And if you remember from your grade 10 literature class, or English that I practically failed, back then, it was man against nature, man against man, and man against himself.

    Keith Tomasek:

    So when you’re thinking about a story that’s going to introduce, at least hook your audience into maybe there’s some persuasive writing that’s coming later on or some instructional writing that’s coming later on, but if you can just think about that story at the beginning in terms of one of those things. Is it man against nature? In literature, a great example is Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. In films, there’s so many of those hurricane movies or-

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah, Tom Hanks being stranded on an island with only his… What kind of ball was it he had?

    Keith Tomasek:

    A volleyball, Wilson.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wilson? Yeah.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Yeah. Although, that one might be man against himself. You know what I mean? Because he’s alone on the island with himself. Another man against himself, or a female against herself, Bridget Jones’s Diary. She’s preventing herself from succeeding. And in Shakespeare, because I started with Shakespeare, it would be Hamlet.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Then the third conflict, and the most obvious one that comes up in terms of story structure, is just man against man. In literature or playwriting, 12 Angry Men, where it’s clear each of those guys has a viewpoint that’s in exact opposition to another person. Or Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the boys on the island.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I think we all remember that book.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Exactly, the trauma of my English class.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yes, indeed.

    Keith Tomasek:

    It all goes back to that. But it’s so important to think of, when I want to communicate something, what is the story that I want to communicate, and then to think about is there a conflict in that story, even if it’s getting out in a hurry in the morning, getting out in the car. “Oh, I can’t believe my life is so crazy that I forgot to kiss my son goodbye.”

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Right. That sounds like a longer story, maybe somewhere where you have a lot of time to tell, but what about in something a little punchier? What about a commercial, or maybe a promo or a movie trailer? That’s tight.

    Keith Tomasek:

    That’s super, super skill. I worked in radio quite a lot at the beginning. That’s a really good question. In the case of radio, like a 30-second spot, it’s really just knowing what your key message is that you want to get out. What is that message? And almost more important maybe is, who’s the audience?

    Keith Tomasek:

    Working as a street performer back in the day, we could make contact with the audience. A friend of mine, Lorne Elliott, a comedian, said, “The most important thing is to listen to your audience.” The nice thing is, when you’re street performing or in a theater, you get to do that. In radio or in broadcast, you don’t get to listen to your audience, so you have to really do some work and try and figure out, who is it that this message is for? If you can nail that, that will help you get that 30-second spot and make it that much tighter, and use words that are meaningful to that audience.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, I love what you said, because that’s exactly what we say at Voices.com, too, is that you have to know who your audience is, because if you don’t, then you’re not going to communicate very effectively to them. You don’t even know why they would care to hear. Then you won’t even know what kind of casting decision to make, because if you don’t know who the audience is, what they’re receptive to, just that demographic you might be playing to, and even localizing a script, for goodness’ sake, all these… A phrase like “Oh, a piece of cake” could mean absolutely nothing to someone in another country. You know what I mean?

    Keith Tomasek:

    Yeah.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    As a writer, then, how would you go about learning who the audience was? Was this a collaborative process between you and other people who had the vision for maybe what that spot was going to be?

    Keith Tomasek:

    I’ll take it to another example. When I came to London, I had to write all the promos. One of the biggest ways we need to introduce the news product to people is to have 30-second promos, so we needed to figure out who that audience was. We did research. We spent a lot of money, and not everyone can do this, obviously, but we spent a lot of money to do phone calls and research to figure out who this audience is that we have.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Stephanie, one of the funny things we learned… When I first got there, there was ton of golf content on the show. People were talking about golf scores, golf tournaments. When we did the research, we found out that in this region, golf really doesn’t resonate with a lot of people. People in the newsroom loved it, so we talked about golf a lot. But in our survey, what we learned was water sports were one of the biggest activities in the summer. Well, because we have a lake on top of us and a lake below us.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Believe me, we changed the content. Golf was no longer the predominant summer sport. It became water sports. As much as we can, we would talk about the weather conditions. We would talk about the water. We showed pictures of people in boats. Ultimately, that made a difference, as you said, speaking to the local audience.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    No, absolutely. You have to know who the audience is, and sometimes you have to adapt to them, as you pointed out. Maybe you have to learn their language. You’ve got to do that. In that way, then you might actually have to bring in people who can help you to do that, to shape the message a bit more.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Absolutely. Another time, I showed up in Winnipeg. I worked on a national radio program, and it was an afternoon… It was the public radio. It was the most popular public radio program in Canada in the afternoon. It was sort of comedy. We would take the news and play with it and have fun. I remember I wrote a piece of script for the host, and I made a reference to Grey Poupon.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, yes. Yeah, it’s mustard.

    Keith Tomasek:

    It’s a mustard. Right. I used-

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    A classy mustard.

    Keith Tomasek:

    A classy mustard. Because I was talking about Lou Dobbs, a classy financial analyst from CNN. They had to pull me aside, and they go, “The host of the show doesn’t even know what Grey Poupon is.” He would just never say that, so I had to change it to French’s.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, goodness. Well, again, you have to know even who you’re writing for, right? It’s not just the audience, but as you said-

    Keith Tomasek:

    Exactly, the voice of the character that you’re writing for, and what is that? In a commercial, it could be the voice of that mother that is selling the product to the audience. You have to understand the audience, but the authentic voice of the person speaking.

    Keith Tomasek:

    So I went back then and I just listened to a lot of that radio program to find out, okay, what is this main character’s voice? How do I get my head into that person’s voice? I learned as much as I could about him personally, about what he thought was funny, what he thought was fun, and then just listened to old radio episodes to try and find out, okay, I’m not going to say Grey Poupon again.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah, because it wasn’t something he would have authentically said. As you said, you’ve been writing for other people, and no doubt there’s somebody listening who has the job of either ghostwriting for the CEO or maybe there’s someone who is preparing statements. Maybe they write script or a speech for some public event or what not. For that person who’s listening, they may be in close proximity to the person, they might be able to study them a bit more, what sort of things should they be looking for to get inside that person’s head?

    Keith Tomasek:

    That’s fascinating. Now, I almost do that instinctively, and I take it for granted. I think part of the reason I do that is because I’m a first-generation Canadian. My mother is Dutch. My father is Czech. It’s a miracle I can speak English, really. I was brought up in Quebec, where everyone speaks French. I had all these different languages around me, so I’m what I would call an active listener.

    Keith Tomasek:

    When I’m around that CEO, or once I realized I wasn’t listening to that radio host the way he spoke effectively enough, I became an active listener. There’s a technique called active listening, where you’re actually really specifically paying attention to, not only the words that they’re using and the words that they’re not using, but also the cadences and the rhythms of their voices. Are they speaking in short sentences, long sentences? Are they using metaphors a lot or just speaking in simple terms without metaphors and without similes?

    Keith Tomasek:

    It’s important to make note of the people that you’re going to be writing for, and then when you have a chance, start just taking notes. Carry a notepad with you and write words down. I’ve written for a lot of different radio hosts, and they all have different styles. I guess I just gravitated towards it naturally, growing up in an environment where there were different languages and I was always forced to listen. Active listening is super important.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Listening is a skill that I think everyone needs to have, regardless, especially performers. They need to be good listeners too. But if you’re actually writing in the voice of someone else, that is a huge responsibility. You want to make sure that you’re representing them well and it’s something that they would say, or you would leave out things that they would not, and again, the pacing, the tempo, the tone of voice, the inflections, the way that you might phrase something.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I’m just thinking about how in our industry we also have a voice match or a soundalike. You could sound like a celebrity, and perhaps the scripts are written in that way so that you get the feel. Oftentimes, people are saying, “I would like someone who sounds like James Earl Jones, George Clooney,” whoever it might be. But what they really mean-

    Keith Tomasek:

    Is the script.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. Well, it’s the cadence, the way that they’re speaking. They want someone who speaks in the manner of so-and-so, and to sound like them too, but for it not really to be that person, but just to present something as if to get that-

    Keith Tomasek:

    That voice of authority.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I guess the real estate in people’s minds is already there for that voice. They already trust them. They already think, “Oh, well I would buy this car from Kiefer Sutherland,” for instance, or I would do whatever.

    Keith Tomasek:

    That’s fascinating.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Because people will debate this all day long. Do people actually find celebrity voiceover effective? Is it because you’ve paid the big bucks to get someone and the great stuff that goes along with that?

    Keith Tomasek:

    It’s like buying a Boss suit. Well, it says Donald Sutherland, so I guess it’s going to work, just because it’s Donald Sutherland.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    He’s got a great voice too.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Oh my gosh, yeah. Well, that’s because that’s one of the ones that comes to mind.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah, of course. But is it the prestige around that voice, or is it, I guess, the way that that voice has influenced them in the past that controls it? It’s subtle. Sometimes they’ll never know who the celebrity was because it won’t be publicized, but it’s like, “Oh, well, I had no idea that so-and-so did this commercial, but somewhere in my mind I recognize this voice.” It has some currency to it, let’s say. So I wonder if maybe even in writing style, if there’s a way of doing that that makes you feel that what you’re hearing really has a lot of weight to it.

    Keith Tomasek:

    There’s two things there. There’s the voice itself. The research shows, and I’ve had arguments with friends who were in the film and video business, but the research tends to show that listening is more powerful than seeing. This is a society of pictures and videos, but ultimately the voice is the primal sense. When you’re in your mother’s womb, you can hear voices. It’s the first of the senses to be developed, and people say it is the most primal.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Therefore, it is the most important in making that connection, so having an authoritative voice, no question about it. A guy like Donald Sutherland, do we recognize, “Oh, that was Donald Sutherland”? Probably not, but his voice is so… Well, there’s all kinds of adjectives you can use to describe it. Powerful, calming, authoritative confident. So that’s worth the dough.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Now, if you can’t, in your example, you can’t afford Donald Sutherland, but you want that feeling, it becomes a style. Even if you have someone who can represent Donald’s voice, the writing style… Because trust me, a dear friend worked quite closely with Donald Sutherland and wined and dined him several times. Donald is going to tell you if he doesn’t like your script. If he doesn’t like that and it doesn’t fit his natural cadences, he’s going to correct it right there and then.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. Well, they’re the expert on themselves.

    Keith Tomasek:

    That’s right.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    If you’re writing something for them, and this is important for anyone who’s writing for a high-profile figure of any kind, that they’re going to have a certain way of presenting themselves or saying things. I can’t remember quite which actor it was, but I’ve heard a story of an actor who was in his senior years, very good actor, but someone said, “Oh, this is how the scene plays out,” and he took one look at it and he’s like, “I’m not doing that.” Then he just went up there and he did whatever it was that he felt comfortable doing, and it was 100 times better than what was written.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Right. For the writer, so it’s a two-step phase. You can hire that soundalike voice, but then you need the writer that’s going to be able to go, “Okay, well, what does Nathan Lane sound like? I’ve got to go watch Ratatouille. I’ve got to go see if I can find some of The Producers on Broadway.” You need to tune into the thing we talked about earlier, the rhythms, the cadences, and the style of that person’s voice. In terms of writing, that’s the active listening that I talked about earlier. It’s so important to say, “Okay, what is the way this person communicates?”

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wow. So what would be a good example of writing for someone else? Can you think of one offhand?

    Keith Tomasek:

    Well, personally, for me, was when I showed up… Twice, I’ve walked into existing radio programs that had huge audiences and had to just slide in and write in that person’s voice. And in both cases, it was really just becoming familiar, as much as I can, listening to the voice, listening to the person’s cadences and rhythms and speech patterns from the past, and then starting to write.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Then one of the key things is to read your writing out loud and then vet everything. Before it even got near the host or the celebrity voice, we’d write it, we’d sit in a room, just the writers, go over it, saying it out loud, “Oh, Jack would never say that. That doesn’t sound like Jack,” rewrite it, then present it to Jack in a rough area where it’s not going to tape. He would read it and go, “Oh my God, that’s horrible.” There’s a lot of steps before it would become high-quality material for sure. Don’t take that for granted ever.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, I love what you said there about it being a lot of steps.

    Keith Tomasek:

    It’s a lot of steps.

    Keith Tomasek:

    That was something I wanted to ask you about. When you are actually in that creative process, clearly there are a lot of people involved, probably, in this. Every decision is made painstakingly. You’ve been through some kind of an exercise on why this is the right thing, maybe a focus group. I don’t know. But when it comes to that final piece of copy, it’s the script. It’s done. It’s beautiful. It’s sitting there. You’ve all agreed on it. How important is it to you that that script is read verbatim?

    Keith Tomasek:

    Not at all.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    No?

    Keith Tomasek:

    No.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Really?

    Keith Tomasek:

    No. Because if I’ve hired Nathan Lane… Assumingly, Nathan Lane is going to be involved one… He’s not just going to show up and read; there’s going to be a bit of time for him to go over it. As the director, and I’ve been a performer and I’ve directed voices as well, as a director, I’m going to be completely open to what he wants to bring to the table for sure.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Now, I’m not representing the agency. If the agency is like, “Well, wait a sec. He has to say front-wheel drive,” and Nathan is like, “Well, I just wouldn’t say front-wheel drive,” you’re going to have to work that out because you’re buying Nathan. You’ve got Donald Sutherland there for a reason, so you might want to listen to him. It’s tough. It’s a really tough question.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, it’s a balancing act, because when you have someone like a Nathan Lane or a Donald Sutherland or maybe, I don’t know-

    Keith Tomasek:

    Kiefer Sutherland.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    … Kiefer Sutherland, any of these wonderful actors, they’re at a certain level. They’re at a level where they can say, “I will not do this.” William Shatner, he obviously has a way of working with directors too. Some of the actors will say, “No, I know best. Please just let me do what I do, and you can listen.” There’s that, and that’s wonderful. And maybe some celebrities are a little easier to work with. But then you’ve got your workaday actor, and the workaday actor has no cred outside of maybe their own career.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Within the community, absolutely.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Within the community, they may, but it’s not as if they can necessarily have the same creative power or sway as someone else who has that inherently because of their celebrity.

    Keith Tomasek:

    And the results. The high-profile people have gotten results. The workaday actor might be getting results, but they might not be as quantifiable. Hey, the workaday actor might even be getting more results in the voicework, but it might not be quantifiable. So they might need to be a little bit more deferential and not be that celebrity diva which all those celebrities can be, and at times are. The workaday really has to go, “Hey, I’m part of the community,” and just work a little slower to get to the point of maybe not saying front-wheel drive or whatever.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. Well, that’s just it. Someone else who might have that authority or ability to say, “I won’t say that,” they can say that and maybe something can be worked around them because they’re just worth working around, but for somebody else who might be in there, maybe it’s just an actor called into the studio or a voice talent, in the recording, how much leniency is it for them to go off script or to be creative?

    Keith Tomasek:

    Yeah. Again, it depends on their training and their background. If I’m working with a Second City improviser and I’m looking for a script that’s got attitude and comedy, I’m going to hear them out for sure and get them to do it their way, and then get them to do it my way. Maybe let them do it their way first. I’m speaking as a performer here now. Okay, I’ve got it done. I’ve tried it. And then, okay, let’s do it my way.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Then you get a safety, obviously. The first take usually always is-

    Keith Tomasek:

    Hilarious. The one.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    … the right one, but as we know sometimes-

    Keith Tomasek:

    It’s so funny.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Have you had experience being in studio directing people?

    Keith Tomasek:

    Oh, yeah.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Maybe just share some of those experiences as someone who’s wanting to make sure that that message that has been written and scripted in such a way actually comes across the way with the vision that you had intended.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Yeah. As I said earlier, the writing process, by the time it would get on the page in the recording studio, we’ve developed so much. There’s been a process, with the writing process by ourselves and the vetting process with another writer and then a vetting process with the reader. Then in the studio, sometimes things change.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Yeah, you’ve got a lot invested and you really want to see it succeed, and we’re all there for the same reason, of course. In my case, I tend to be a little bit more lenient, and I would let people play. If I had the time in the studio, I would let people play, no doubt. But at the end of the day, I’m paying the fare, so we’ve got to get from point A to point B.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Am I answering? I feel like I’m dancing around your question.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, no. No, you’re hitting on it. But if an actor isn’t getting it, not that they don’t understand it, but they just don’t see the vision, how can you give that to them so that they can nail it?

    Keith Tomasek:

    Sure. A couple of things. That’s tough. One of the things that I would do is take away the script. Then, again, if I’m in a situation where I have time, and it’s a face-to-face as opposed to a virtual kind of a recording session, if it’s face-to-face, I would take away the script and just almost stop the session if I can, and just physically get up and move around a little bit, talk about something, and then sit down again and try it without the script, actually, and just see what that actor has to give.

    Keith Tomasek:

    A lot of times, the reason the performance isn’t there is because the script is not there. I will tend to defer to the script being a problem first, and how can we figure out what the stumbling block is on the script? That’s what I said, take away the script, and then maybe start to make notes to see if we… Again, assuming the agency is okay with the change, or whoever.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Right, because there’s a process. There’s a bunch of people involved. You want to respect everybody, not step on their toes. So revisions?

    Keith Tomasek:

    Revision, yeah.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    How frequent might those be for someone who’s writing a spot?

    Keith Tomasek:

    Again, ideally, the revisions happen before you get to the studio, because that’s when the clock is running and this costs money, so ideally the revisions happen before you get to the studio. But I’m the kind of director, or I was the kind of director, I’m not doing it as much as I used to, who always wants to play. I want to have room for play, because if you’re not having fun, that’s going to be reflected in the final product.

    Keith Tomasek:

    It’s a creative process, and it’s a collaborative process. We’re creating something from nothing, so I think that’s so important to create an environment, both the director and the performer, where there’s going to be a respect for each other’s needs and room to play and bounce off each other.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I like how the play comes through, and I know it’s because you have a theatrical background.

    Keith Tomasek:

    And improvisation, yeah.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah, and improv, which is amazing. Very good. Good skill to have in anything you might need to do, because you never know when that tech might not work, the PowerPoint blows up, you’re stuck at a conference and you have nothing to present from, and you’re like, “Oh…”

    Keith Tomasek:

    Here we go.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Exactly. But the ability to play, I think that is important, because, as you said, we’re all here, everyone who’s listening to this agrees, that if you want to get something done in a really wonderful way that shows the essence of what was meant to happen, then it needs to come from a certain place. Yeah, so when I heard you say about playing, the theater background immediately came to mind, and because you have that sensitivity as someone who writes but can also direct, then I think-

    Keith Tomasek:

    And perform.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    … that that would feed the actor.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Exactly. Yeah. Unfortunately, a lot of times the voices are the last that went in, and they’re just there to serve the function. As a director, you’ve got to really bring them in as much as you can into the process. And as a voice, you’ve got to respect the fact that there’s thousands of dollars here and God knows how many weeks of time writing all this stuff, so we’ve got to figure out a way to make it work.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    You’ve mentioned about the writing for the ear. Can you go into how you do that?

    Keith Tomasek:

    There’s a lot of research that shows that people tend to absorb audio, so again, writing for the ear, if it’s written in the active voice… Again, so the active voice, what is the active voice? It really is the difference between the placement of the subject, verb, and the object.

    Keith Tomasek:

    When I was teaching writing for broadcast in the Middle East, I came up with this example. I’d actually get in front of the class, get a student to take their keys and throw their keys from their hand to the floor, and then I’d say, “Well, what did we just see?” Someone would say, “Susan threw the keys.” Susan threw the keys. That’s an active voice. Subject, verb, object. Susan threw the keys.

    Keith Tomasek:

    But so much of our academic writing when we’re learning how to write, especially in English, or any kind of writing, it would be passive. They take it right out of you, the active voice, and they take the first-person voice right out of you. Often, the people would defer to “The keys were thrown by Susan.”

    Keith Tomasek:

    You’d see that in an essay. You’d see that in a newspaper article. But in terms of audio and writing for the ear, terrible. As much as you can, try to always write in… Just think of who’s doing the action. Susan threw the keys, or Keith threw the keys, that sort of thing.

    Keith Tomasek:

    I’ll give you another example here. “The entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants to the school” is okay. “The entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants to the school.” But this is better. “Over one-third of the applicants to the school failed the entrance exam.” It’s active. When you’re using the active verb like failed, as opposed to was failed, it paints a picture in the head, and that’s what it’s all about in audio. It’s theater of the mind.

    Keith Tomasek:

    There’s nothing wrong with writing, “The keys were thrown by Susan.” That’s okay, but it’s just weak. In most cases, you’re better off with an action verb. You could say, “The president is back in the White House” or “The CEO is back in the CEO suite,” whatever. But “The president has returned to the White House.” Just that switching from is to returned paints a picture. It tells a bit more of a story. “The president has arrived back at the White House” is better than “The president is back at the White House.” It just sounds so passive.

    Keith Tomasek:

    As much as you can, find active verbs and create something. Don’t use the verb to be, is, was, all that sort of stuff. It just lacks energy. It doesn’t pop, doesn’t get the story moving.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. I took a course in linguistics at one point at Western, and you just had to learn how sentences were constructed and how that influences or impacts how they’re heard.

    Keith Tomasek:

    For sure. And use possessive words like his, her, or their to tie the sentences together. For example, you don’t want to talk about the car. Make it her car or his car. It just has, again, more value, and it’s easier to paint a better picture when you say it’s her car instead of the car. You have to write not only so that you’re understood, but you have to write so that you’re not misunderstood.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    There’s also connection there, because you said you could say the car, “Oh, it’s any random car that could be out there,” but it’s her car.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Her car. Oh, yeah.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    It belongs to her. There is some kind of relationship, some connection to that.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Any kind of really being super specific. Sometimes people are afraid of being over specific or too specific. I’ll give you one more, a vague word, a word like involved. You could say someone was involved in something, but what was he actually doing? Again, it’s not painting a picture. “The chairman of the board was involved in a crime.” I don’t know if she was the person who committed the crime or if she was a victim. Be super clear, as much as you can.

    Keith Tomasek:

    And avoid hollow words. Sorry, I said one. I’ll leave you this one. These are words like incident, activity, condition, situation, period, controversy. Those are kind of evocative words. You could string a sentence together with those words. “There was an incident downtown. There was lots of activity that changed the condition of the street. The situation is grave.” But it doesn’t tell me anything. All those are all hollow words, so try to find words that actually paint pictures in the listeners’ imagination.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Those words should also mean something to those listeners.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Of course, yeah. Again, that’s all about knowing your audience and trying to speak to them specifically. Yeah.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    We certainly learned a lot about how to write for our audience and to know who they are, and also just how to get in the head of the speaker, of the person who is actually delivering the message. I think this is great. We should have you back again sometime soon.

    Keith Tomasek:

    All right. Yeah, I’d love to come on. Hey, when I taught this in the Middle East, I really had to nail it so I get these kids up, and I was really of the fact that they got nominated for a Reuters student journalism award. Took a bunch of people who English wasn’t even their first language, and we just had so much fun. Yeah, I love it. I love communicating and telling stories.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wonderful. Well, thank you, Keith.

    Keith Tomasek:

    Thank you, Stephanie. This has been fun.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Thank you for tuning in. If you haven’t already done so, I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, as well as give us a rating. We love hearing from you and gathering your feedback. Once again, I’m your host, Stephanie Ciccarelli, and I hope you can join us for our next Sound Stories podcast.

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    Stephanie Ciccarelli is the Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of Voices.com. Classically trained in voice, piano, violin and musical theatre, as well as a respected mentor and industry speaker, Stephanie graduated with a Bachelor of Musical Arts from the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario. Possessing a great love for imparting knowledge and empowering others, her podcast Sound Stories serves an audience that wants to achieve excellence in storytelling. Stephanie is found on the PROFIT Magazine W100 list three times (2013, 2015 and 2016), a ranking of Canada's top female entrepreneurs, and is the author of Voice Acting for Dummies®.

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