Copywriting blunder: Are you a “radio head” writer?

September 30, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

radio head copywritingThere are two kinds of copy.

One is meant to be read silently. The other is meant to be read out loud, like the copy you hear in a radio ad.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen copywriters confuse the two and write “radio” copy for printed materials. This is a major copywriting blunder. I call these people “radio heads.”

Here’s an example of radio head copy in a neighborhood flyer:

Savings. Selection. Low prices. Now at AMC Grocery. Come in today for spectacular savings for the holidays. Get Pepsi 12 packs for $3. Progresso soups just $7 for 8 cans. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts now just $1.99 a pound. Yes, thousands of items on sale at your local AMC Grocery!

If you read this copy aloud, as a radio announcer would, it sounds fine. But for those who read the copy silently and don’t “hear” the words in their head, it appears choppy, terse, and amateurish.

So why do some copywriters churn out copy like this? Two reasons.

First, many people subvocalize when they read. That means they actually speak the words to themselves under their breath or hear a voice in their head speaking the words. This is common.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes subvocalization:

Subvocalization, or silent speech, is defined as the internal speech made when reading a word, thus allowing the reader to imagine the sound of the word as it is read.

Second, too many copywriters these days are not readers. They watch TV, listen to radio, and tend to be more aural in their approach to language. So they pick up on the style and rhythm of broadcast media rather than learn effective patterns of the written word.

Radio head writers can’t detect the problem because when they read the copy, they hear a little radio announcer in their head. The copy reads fine to them.

The problem works in reverse as well. When I write radio copy, I often have to read the copy to clients over the phone so they can “hear” how it sounds. Reading radio copy in print doesn’t work for clients who don’t subvocalize and have little experience with broadcast media language patterns.

The challenge for you is knowing whether you’re writing the right sort of copy for the right sort of media.

When you’re writing for print, you should try to avoid subvocalization as much as possible and read the words visually. When you’re writing for broadcast media or videos, read the copy out loud in your best announcer voice.

Because I’ve worked in broadcast media as well as print, I transition from one to the other with ease. But if you have experience in only one or the other,  be careful. Make sure you’re using the right kind of writing for the right kind of media.

Have you seen choppy radio head copy in print, such as my example above?

Related posts:

  1. How to write a radio ad that generates calls or traffic

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Smart Comments

7 Comments on Copywriting blunder: Are you a “radio head” writer?

  1. Lucy Thorpe on Sep 30th, 2010 9:46 am
  2. I am an ex BBC radio newsreader and I guess I subvocalize by trade. However, all written media, especially internet copy, should be read aloud to check for flow.
    The kind of radio ads you talk about are very salesy and loud and have a dynamic all of their own. No one really speaks like that in the real world. But if you write for the spoken word then I guarantee you will have better copy!

  3. Olin Hyde on Oct 1st, 2010 11:22 am
  4. I’m an ex-Hollywood writer for broadcast, film and info-commercials.

    The maxim: No one ever reads.

    Before criticizing simple, easy to ready “Radio-head” writing, I challenge you to back up your criticism with relevant data on what writing styles are the most likely to be syndicated across the web.

    You have inspired me to look into seeing if such a study has been done by Technorati, et. Al.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. Dean Rieck on Oct 1st, 2010 11:38 am
  6. Olin, I’m not criticizing radio writing. I’m saying that copywriters should use the right type of writing for the medium they’re working in. There’s a difference between the way an announcer might talk to a listener and a writer might talk to a reader.

  7. Art on Oct 1st, 2010 12:04 pm
  8. I see your point, but I think you might be generalizing about the styles of copy. I think there is value to short and choppy in an ad, because attention spans are short. I also think conversational–as in a radio ad–is helpful, too, because it engages the consumer. I guess what I’m saying is that radio copy could be appropriate for print; I think it’s less important to focus on writing for the medium and instead focus on writing for the audience.

  9. Andy Bartling on Oct 4th, 2010 5:39 pm
  10. I’d argue that the right sales message can overcome any shortcomings in writing style.

    Granted, style and substance working together are best. But, if I had to choose, I’ll take message first every time.

  11. Art on Oct 4th, 2010 5:48 pm
  12. Well said, Andy–totally agree.

  13. james on Oct 19th, 2010 1:49 am
  14. I don’t think you should read aloud every piece of copy. I think the article’s basic point is accurate.

    Writers who think everything should be read aloud prioritize aural forms of communication because they think this equals natural conversational style.

    The truth is really that good prose writing tricks the reader into thinking the style is more relaxed than it is. Polished prose sounds relaxed. It’s smoke and mirrors–not just the banal technique of reading things out loud to make them sound like speech. Often “natural” human rhythms are choppy, disruptive, and telegraphic. Not suited for writing.

    You just need more breaths to read things out loud and the point is academic: nobody reads sales copy as a bedtime story.

    It should sound right but should use the eye and ear.

    You have much more flexibility with the eye. Not that the ear shouldn’t count. But read, for example, the warm, conversational prose in the New Yorker–it takes much more liberty with long sentences and uses the quickness of the eye that would be impossible if you simply tried to “make it sound like someone speaking.”

    Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be read aloud, but they don’t sound like anybody would actually speak: they are carefully constructed and so should sales copy.