Should you write your own demo copy? Avoid the pitfalls of using copyrighted material


In our newsletter a dozen years ago, we wrote a few lines on the subject of using copyrighted material in demos. But it’s a multifaceted issue that deserves more than a few lines. Stay tuned for an update. For now, suffice it to say:

  • For recordings you’ve been paid to voice, it’s okay to put them on your demo, but get prior written permission from the client or their agent.
  • For auditions you didn’t land, it is even more important to get the client’s prior written permission, and even then it might not be advisable, for a variety of reasons.
  • For text cribbed from existing ads or commercials and other copyrighted works, we believe the legal doctrine of Fair Use allows you to use it on your demo, but it is better to use custom-written copy that doesn’t even include brand names. This, too, is for various reasons.

But if you’re not a professional audio copywriter, how do you go about developing unique copy appropriate for your demo?

Writing your own demo copy helps you avoid various potential legal issues and embarrassments. Not the least of these is the possibility that the client hasn’t even run the spot or released the recorded product yet!

Even mentioning a brand name could cause confusion or embarrassment. Suppose Product Y wants to hire you? Thinking you’ve already voiced Product X, they may pass you by. And that’s just one example.

Here are some tips for skirting those and other issues altogether, by writing your own copy:

1. Work with an experienced demo coach who is knowledgeable in your genre. He or she can advise you as to your content options and how best to choose among them. Your coach might even present you with custom copy they’ve developed for you. This has the advantage of freshness and performing under realistic conditions ... you’ve never seen it before, and your coach will have chosen it to demonstrate your strengths.

2. Look for prototype text in print sources that resemble the type of copy in your genre. For example, if you’re making a Commercials demo, look at print ads that have short copy. If it’s Narration, look at biographies, nature subjects, long copy ads, websites, excerpts from professional literature, etc. If it’s Technical Narration, look at how-to manuals, installation guides, etc.

3. Ask yourself: exactly what sort of recorded product would this be? A commercial? Website video? eLearning? A simulation is more realistic and just plain better when you and your engineer know the medium, its standard practices, the audience, etc.

4. List subjects you already know about. For example, golf. You can authentically write about a golf swing, a golfing experience, or a golf product without much trouble at all.

5. If the subject is unfamiliar, be sure you understand what the prototype copy means. You can’t reliably simulate copy that you don’t understand. If the meaning is unclear, do a bit of research to get yourself up to speed, or move on to other copy sources.

6. Listen to existing professional productions in the genre. You should already understand the requirements and practices in your chosen genre, or you’re not ready to demo it yet anyway. Now you should analyze the writing. How is it structured? What are typical subjects? Does it use big, professional words, or is it at a 7th Grade level? If it involves dialog, how long are the lines? And so forth.

7. Don’t feel intimidated. You have only a few of the creative pressures that a professional A/V copywriter faces. You don’t have to write to an exact time length. And you need only about 15 seconds of copy at most, (plus maybe a bit more in order to select the best stop and start point). You’re not on a tight deadline, with a client or boss to please. And your ad or whatever doesn’t really have to boost product sales – just the sales of your own VO services.

Once you’ve found good examples and input, there are basically two ways to proceed:

a) Use the example as a template. Write a script that follows the same form, but about a different subject and in different words. For example, if it’s a narration about the flight of eagles, follow the same form but talk about the raising of eaglets. If it’s a humorous dialog, don’t use the same punch line, but come up with a fresh one. (Maybe over some beers with friends?) Ideally, the humor should also sell the product, but luckily you’re just demo-ing your voice capabilities, not yourself as an advertising copywriter. Focus on factors that will make your performance shine.

Original:

The special flavor of Old Eyeglasses Whiskey comes from how we judge its maturity. Charring the new oak barrels contributes color and flavor, but if allowed to age too long, those qualities will become unbalanced. Our system pinpoints precisely the right moment to retrieve the aged product and proceed with our exclusive process.

From this, you might create these “translations”:

The great taste of this exquisite wine begins with how and when we pick our grapes.

OR

Leaving bourbon in the charred barrels for too long will unbalance the very flavor and color qualities that the wood contributed.

b) Use the sample as inspiration. Sometimes the example can’t be simply reworded or paraphrased. This is especially the case in advertising, where agencies pride themselves in coming up with highly memorable creative concepts and unique sales messages. You can’t just substitute words or paraphrase the message and make it work. Either the concept (and thus the product) will still be recognizable, or the highly-specialized concept or selling message won’t work with the other product you’ve invented. But you can use great advertising and other distinctive material as inspiration.

To return to the above example, suppose their ad says:

Old Eyeglasses Whiskey, for discerning palates – If you can’t taste the quality, maybe it’s the quality of your taste.

That might inspire you to say

(fade in) ...ersand Wineries. Oenophiles can see, smell and taste the incredible difference. Can you?

OR

(fade in) ...ersand Wine patrons enjoy the most sensual properties. For example, this property in Beverly Hills.

Okay, so those won’t land an agency copywriting job, either. It may take you some time to come up with some really authentic-sounding spots. (Refer to our article a few weeks back on how to come up with ideas.)

Once you’ve got the idea in mind, heed the principles of writing for spoken word. Printed material (especially expository content) is written very, very differently. In fact, some people who write excellently for print are not at all conversant with writing for audio.

Many of these principles, you are already aware of, from having seen so many good examples, and probably your share of bad examples that you’ve had to muddle through. Among the principles are these:

  • People speak in short sentences. Break long sentences into shorter ones, or at least punctuate them so that they sound that way. In many genre styles, sentence fragments are usually okay.
  • Written copy is often organized logically for the mind, but not logically for the ear. Make the thoughts flow, without requiring parsing. In particular, don’t put modifiers in the middle of a phrase. For (albeit too obvious an) example, it would be award to break this phrase, however logically this thought here might be, up.
  • On the other hand, although we just stuck “albeit too obvious an” in the middle of the phrase “For example,” it actually works better when spoken, doesn’t it? Read your copy for others and see how it sounds.
  • Remember the principles of efficient writing that hopefully you learned in high school. For example, avoid wordiness. Rather than “I will be going to the store today at 3 this afternoon,” consider “I’ll go to the store today at 3.” (Verbs ending in “ing” are always a wordiness warning flag.)
  • Avoid tongue-twisters and auditory ambiguities. For example “win cash and/or prizes” sounds like “win cash and door prizes.”
  • On the other hand, if not obviously gratuitous, you might include a challenging word or phrase that you know you will voice admirably.
  • Be sure your text is technically correct. For example, if you’re reading copy aimed at engineers, they may spot a gaffe that you’d never notice. This is why it’s important to understand what you’re writing about. As a chemist might attest, sometimes a simple change in word order can blow up on you.

Writing your own copy will have another advantage for you. It may give you new insight into the challenges that others faced when they wrote the copy you’re given.

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