When the script is a poem, how should your read roam?


A while back, EdgeStudio.com’s Weekly Script Recording Contest involved a radio commercial script that was in limerick form. Although “Poetry” as such is not a distinct voice-over genre, there may be times when you’re asked to read a bit of verse. In Commercials, for example, copywriters sometimes resort to rhyming, often in silliness. You might also encounter poetry in Audiobooks, where authors sometimes use poetry or song lyrics to convey a character’s personality. So let’s revisit this subject in a bit more detail than we were able to include in our contest comments.

First, let us hasten to mention the obvious case – an audiobook version of a poetry collection. If you’re hired to read a long poem or a collection of serious poetry, or are seriously interested in pursuing such a project, you probably know a bit more about poetry than we’ll deal with here. (And you should also check our past article, “ How To Read Poetic Copy Poetically.”)

Here, we’re dealing strictly with drivel (no offense intended; it means “silly” or “nonsense”) – poetry that should be read poetically, but not necessarily as serious poetry. In fact, if it’s in a commercial, the writer may have taken significant liberty with the poetic form, since the product name and message are generally paramount.

Our contest (a simulated audition for a hypothetical client) was such a situation. Here is the script: (Incidentally, “Llawn” is not a typo; it’s a hypothetical table manufacturer.)

Get a Llawn table now for the holidays.
For your ketchup, your mustard and mayonnaise.
If you come in right now,
You’ll save, and oh, how!
At CompTent Furniture you’ll save in so many ways.

One key issue that arose was where to put the emphases. What syllables should be stressed? In other words, where is the hit, whither goeth the accent?

(And remember, “stress” or “hit” doesn’t necessarily mean to say something louder. In this case, it doesn’t mean any louder than the normal ebb and flow of syllabic volume in everyday speech. In voice-over generally, a word or syllable can be hit by raising its pitch, stretching it, or other ways. In this limerick, the stresses are mostly a matter of pitch.)

Some people think that the stress (aka “accent,” “hit” or “emphasis”) should go on the rhyming syllable(s). That’s not the correct approach with regard to poetry. However , in a Commercials or comedy context, it sometimes has merit, which we’ll discuss below.

Generally, it’s a matter of rhythm, throughout the line.

The conventional limerick uses anapestic rhythm. It’s like this:

ta-ta-TUM-ta-ta-TUM-ta-ta-TUM-ta-ta
Get a Llawn table now for the holidays

As voice talent, you don’t need to know a poetic anapest from an iamb (nor from a Budapest or a baby lamb). Just get a sense of the typical limerick’s rhythm by reading a bunch of them aloud (or visiting an online reference such as Wikipedia).

There are exceptions. We ran our bit of foolishness past an award-winning poet, Terry Eicher, who advised, “the limerick, while famously anapestic, is still open to all the variations of rhyme and meter in English poetry, especially in the interests of its usual thrust: humor. But this is a hard limerick to scan.”

He meant the store name, which tears the rhythmic pattern asunder, and advised that the simplest solution would be to change the name. Although we made up the name for our contest, in the real world changing the client’s name is obviously not a practical solution.

At CompTent Furniture you’ll save in so many ways.

So, what's the best way to shoehorn an awkward name or marketing phrase into a poem, in this case, a limerick?

If we are to keep with the traditional limerick rhythm, it would be like the following – with the hits on minor syllables, too many syllables to the line, one syllable too few at the end, and the store name said very unnaturally. There is no reason to be this anal:

ta-ta-TUM-ta-ta-TUM-ta-ta-TUM-ta-ta
At Comp Tent Fur ni ture you’ll save in so man y ways

The usual first consideration is to rescue the client’s name. Let’s combine its pieces, stressing them equally, to simulate two syllables:

ta-(TUM) -(ta) -ta-TUM-ta-ta-TUM-ta-ta
At (Comp Tent Furn) (i ture) you’ll save in so man y ways

In the above, we're missing an unstressed syllable at the start of the line but will have to live with that. We can hardly not stress the store name’s first syllable (“Comp”), especially when it is normally stressed in everyday speech.

Having gotten out of step during the store name minefield, is that all the more reason to get back into form in the rest of the line (as we did in the example above)? Or does it mean you can dispense with the limerick’s rhythm for that line? It might be argued either way, especially considering that this is a commercial and the sales impact is most important.

We suggest that, after promoting the sales message in whatever way is necessary, you should “contain” the damage to the poetry. Get back into rhythm.

And, as it happens, “many” is a more important word than “ways,” so hitting the first syllable of “many” deals with both issues -- you’ve emphasized the more important word, and satisfied the poem’s meter.

What if the client or director asks you to emphasize the rhymed syllable? As we’ve noted, that’s not the usual guide to reading poetry (unless the rhymed syllable is also a rhythmic high point, of course). But there may be a reason you’re unaware of. Maybe it’s a more important word than you realized, or it’s for comedic effect (e.g., if it’s a tortured rhyme), or maybe they’re technically right. In that case, consider hitting both final words, perhaps extending them, or changing pitch on "ways."

And a final thought, since, this example was taken from a simulated audition. Who would run such a commercial, anyway? It only mentions the advertiser once! Actually, lots of advertisers might. For example, in a small market, everyone might already know the store well. Or it might be one in a series of spots, maybe all silly limericks, suggesting that the store is a fun place to shop. Or maybe the storeowner just likes poetry, however bad.

Yet more reasons: Even if it were a real audition, it might not be a real script. Or it might be an excerpt, or the client might still be working on the finished script.

Or maybe it’s not the entire commercial. There could be a live announcer tag, or a jingle, or some additional element. Heck, maybe the finished commercial will be a full-blown production where you are the featured speaker at a poetry reading, complete with introduction and cheering.

Seriously.

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