To bring convoluted copy to life, merge its voice with yours.


Most people talk in short sentences or sentence fragments. Much of today's writing, whether informal advertising or a scholarly tome, is also composed of relatively short sentences, compared to the way people wrote and delivered speeches 150 years ago. Today’s structure --short, step-by-step progressive thoughts -- is much easier to follow, and people from copywriters to politicians have come to realize that. (To be fair, so did Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address.)

But what if you’re handed a script that for some reason does NOT have short sentences? In fact, it may ramble on for several lines, and even include asides and other distractions. In print, a reader can go back and forth to make sense of it all. But in an audio format – which is linear and ephemeral – that is not an option (or should not be relied on). A professional narrator can probably make it sound “intelligent,” but that’s not enough. How should you – how can you – make sense of a rhetorical maze, for true communication?

Let’s get to work on this passage, which is “only” three sentences long:

Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously, we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass by process of reasoning from the one phenomenon to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened and illuminated as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain, were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be, and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem.

(This is from Victorian physicist John Tyndall's 1868 address to the Physical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The full paragraph is at the end of this article. )

To work with such copy, break it into simple steps

1. What does it mean? To truly communicate with your listener, you need to understand what you’re saying. So that comes first. What is this passage about? To divine that, go through it phrase by phrase. If the meaning of a phrase isn’t clear, skip past it and read on ... maybe it will be explained or become obvious when you have more context. If not, come back to it, and ask yourself, why it is there? If possible, look up the phrase, or key words.

Can you paraphrase the script (or in this case, the speech) in your own language?

This passage is a little more difficult than some because it's not based on modern science. Still, you're probably not a neurosurgeon yourself, and neither are we, so science isn’t really the issue. Rhetoric is. Let’s take a layperson’s stab at it:

Interpretation:

Thoughts and chemical processes occur in the brain simultaneously, but it's not within the capacity of our brains to explain how they are related. Even if we could somehow observe the chemistry in action, and even if we could fully understand all possible thoughts and emotions, we still would not be able to do it.

2. What is the “core” passage? Knowing this will help you determine what phrases are minor thoughts (mentioned in passing) and what is the key thought -- which the rest of the sentence or paragraph is leading up to, or will expound on. Another way to approach this is to discard everything but the key thoughts. Let’s do that. The most important thoughts are boldened:

Key thoughts:

A thought and a molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously, but we do not possess the intellectual organ [brain faculty] to[relate them]. They appear together, but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded to see and feel the very molecules of the brain, and were we intimately acquainted with thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution.

(By the way, remember that because this speech was delivered to a proper British audience, the words “should” here means “would” in American English.)

3. What do you think? Now that we know what we’re saying, we can say how we feel about it. As with most voice-over copy, each sentence (or in this case phrase, clause or statement ) should convey at least a slight change in emotion. This is because one statement is different from the other, or why say it? A following statement might elaborate, or add a twist, or a spontaneous new thought, or turn in a different direction, or change the subject, or even contradict. In ordinary conversation, each of these twists calls for a different emotion.

But there is also one overall emotion, a tone of voice. Do you see this discussion as ironic (that the brain can’t analyze itself)? Or sad (that we are mentally so limited)? Or proud (hey, you’ve figured this out!)? Or confused? Hopeful? Dismayed? What?

Don’t get so bogged down by complicated copy that you can’t think in simple emotional terms.

4. How should you mark it up? That is, how will you choose to hit key words and phrases. Where will you go fast, or slow? Considering that the author might not (and in this case definitely was not) have been writing for a modern narrator, should you ignore any commas, or insert some? For your own purposes, can you break it into shorter sentences (without changing any words or their order, of course)? Where to intone up, and where down? Are there any tongue-twisters? Where should you breath? Are all pauses just to breathe, or should you make a more dramatic pause or two? And so on, as you would with any copy.

Let’s try one. Because of typographic limitations on this page, we’ve limited ourselves to worded notations, but you’d want to include your personal set of mark-up symbols:

Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain[COMMA FOR READABILITY, NO PAUSE] occur simultaneously, [BREATH] we do not possess the intellectual organ [ASIDE][QUICK BREATH] (nor apparently any rudiment of the organ), which would enable us [QUICK]to pass by process of reasoning [BREATH/PAUSE] [SLOW] from the one phenomenon to the other. [HIGHER AVERAGE PITCH] They appear together, but we do not know why.

[BREATH] Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened and illuminated -- as to enable us [BREATH] to [WONDERMENT] see and feel the very molecules of the brain – [BREATH] were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges – [PAUSE, MUTTER] if such there be, [PAUSE, THEN A NEW THOUGHT, DELIBERATE AND THOUGHTFUL, SLIGHTLY SLOW] ... and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, [DRAMATIC PAUSE, THEN QUICK AND IRONIC] we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem.

This rudimentary markup and notation works, but your interpretation and choices might be very different. At the last statement, you might even remind yourself to throw up your hands in frustration.

But don't be frustrated when you meet copy like this. Our point here is simply to see difficult copy as an achievable challenge in communication, just as any more “readable” script would be. Rather than just grit your teeth and plow through it, remember that you are the author’s voice. The key is simply to figure out what the author thinks, merging their voice with yours.

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The full paragraph from the speech:

"The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously, we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass by process of reasoning from the one phenomenon to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened and illuminated as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain, were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be, and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem. How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness? The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would remain intellectually impassable...Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why?" would remain as unanswerable as before."

http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/09/28/495735676/how-does-molecular...

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