How to Interpret Punctuation in a Voice-Over Script


    While not all scripts are perfectly punctuated, those that are act as a roadmap for voice actors and allow for moderation of pace, rhythm and breathing in a manner that permits the smoothest and most natural delivery possible. Voice over coach J. Michael Collins believes that understanding and reading punctuation is essential to a quality performance. Intrigued? Tune in now to this edition of the Voice Over Experts podcast.

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    J. Michael CollinsAs an industry-leading voice talent and coach, J. Michael Collins is able to call upon a wealth of experience and accumulated knowledge to provide his clients with the very best product possible.
    Throughout his career, he has dedicated himself to providing voiceovers of superior quality to all of his clients, large and small.
    From advertisements for major corporations such as Coca Cola and McDonald’s, movie trailers for worldwide release, television documentaries, Fortune 500 corporate narration, and audio-books, to promos for the local pizza place, his experience with a wide range of clients allows him to expertly create a perfect product for them, whatever their needs.


    [Opening Music]
    Welcome to Voice Over Experts, brought to you by the number one voice over marketplace. Voice Over Experts brings you tips, pearls of wisdom, and techniques from top instructors, authors and performers in the field of voice over. Join us each week to discover tricks of the trade that will help you to develop your craft and prosper as a career voice over talent. It’s never been easier to learn, perform and succeed from the privacy of your own home, and at your own pace. This is truly an education you won’t find anywhere else. Now for our special guest.
    J.M. Collins: Hello everyone. I’m J. Michael Collins and today I’m going to talk about how reading a script is a lot like reading a piece of music. Recently co-founder Stephanie Ciccarelli published an interesting article correlating music notation to punctuation in voice over scripts. This comparison couldn’t be more apt and in this short podcast I will expand upon her thoughts and hopefully provide some useful tools for your next read.
    We know that not all scripts are perfectly punctuated but those that are act as a road map for voice actors allowing us to moderate our pace, our rhythm and our breathing in a manner that permits the smoothest and most natural delivery possible. As a coach I teach that understanding and reading punctuation like a musician reads a score is essential to a quality performance. Let’s explore what different punctuation can mean.
    The simplest punctuation mark is the humble period or the full stop as our British friends might say. I mention the British term because it is a very relevant way of understanding what a period means in a script. It is literally a full stop. It gives you an opportunity first and foremost to take a breath and measure how your delivery will proceed as you begin the next sentence. Depending on content a period can be a signal to subtlely change inflection as you start the next bit of text. This is particularly so when the period exists at the end of a paragraph. Usually your inflection should change at the beginning of a new paragraph, the same often applies from one sentence to the next as we vary our inflection as voice actors just as we would in conversation.
    A period is also very often an indication to be conclusive in your tone, again specifically if it appears at the end of a paragraph. Ultimately the period is your friend especially with regard to breathing technique as it allows for a comfortable pause that can be easily edited out in post production.
    The comma is probably the most critical punctuation aid when reading a script. Commas are an opportunity to breathe just like a period but more importantly they often clearly signal the need to change inflection especially when reading a sequence of words. Often we will see scripts with lists of things like dogs, cats, gophers and horses. Four nouns, three commas. Notice how my inflection changes on each animal. Thank you, commas. Without the commas the read might sounds like dogs cats gophers and horses which would be a bit lifeless.
    Commas also can signal an inflection change when they appear between clauses. Narration scripts are full of these Bob thought he knew everything about IT, but Bob was wrong. The comma after IT tells you that the next clause is a contrast to the first and it needs a different inflection. I mentioned breathing earlier and commas are your best friend when you encounter a long section of text without any periods. Commas offer you a clear idea of where you can break up your read to keep your breathing from beginning strained. Remember breaths are easy edits in post production so a deep breath where commas allow won’t hurt your read as long as you resume in the same rhythm and pace as before.
    Now, let’s discuss the mysterious ellipsis. In case you haven’t heard the term before, an ellipsis is a series of dots between two words. It acts just like it looks, as a space and usually is meant to indicate a dramatic pause in voice over. Ellipses are often used in documentaries, PSAs, audio books and other dramatic reads. Occasionally an ellipsis will just mean a pause. Don’t be dramatic if you see an ellipsis in an e-learning script. But most often it’s there for effect.
    Hyphens or dashes often serve the same purpose as an ellipsis. If you see a hyphen or a dash, that’s a signal to take a brief pause before resuming the text that follows. Colons and semi-colons are most often seen in two different contexts. The semi-colon is used to show contrast between two clauses that could have existed as separate sentences. John liked cats; cats did not like John. As you can hear the semi-colon that separates these two clauses denotes a subtle inflection shift that allows the listener to perceive the contrast. When you see a semi-colon make sure your listener hears that shift in your voice even if it is only a slight shift.
    Colons often appear in scripts before lists. This is particularly common in e-learning where many scripts contain bulleted lists of items including things such as: company functions, procedures and processes. See what I did there. The colon after as was a clear indication that a pause was required. This is usually so that the person taking the training can see the bulleted items appear on the screen as you speak them. When you see a colon in a script it means pause.
    So there you have it, a simple guide to punctuation inspired by musical notation. When a script is well written it really is like a piece of music. It has natural ebbs and flows, stops and starts and an inherent rhythm and pace that when read correctly will be sweet music indeed to the client and to your booking rate.
    For Voice Over Experts I’m J. Michael Collins. Happy voicing.
    Announcer: Thank you for joining us. To learn more about the special guest featured in this podcast, visit the Voice Over Experts show notes at Remember to stay subscribed. If you’re a first time listener you can subscribe for free to this podcast in the Apple iTunes podcast directory or by visiting To start your voice over career online go to and register for voice talent membership today.

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    Stephanie Ciccarelli is the Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of 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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