People in ads and social content don't usually speak like people in real life… nor do they speak like the characters in our favourite shows and movies. Writers walk a treacherous tightrope, balancing the need to be on brand and include cumbersome product points or calls to action with writing dialogue that's engaging and entertaining - whether it's realistic, comedic or dramatic.
LBB’s Alex Reeves hears from writers across the ad industry about the craft of dialogue and their tips for cracking conversation.
Chief creative officer at BMB
I’ve been mystified for the last 20 years by how bad most of the dialogue in British advertising is. It’s always seemed to me that you write good dialogue with your ears. If you actually listen to how real people talk – stuttering, awkward interjections, speaking over each other, talking at cross purposes, meandering off mid-sentence – it bears absolutely no relation to the vast majority of dialogue in ads, which sounds more like a secondary school dramatic adaptation of a particularly poorly-written episode of ‘Hollyoaks’.
Now, you might argue that it’s tough to write realistic dialogue in 30 seconds or whatever, but I don’t buy that. If you look at the best of American advertising’s dialogue, for example, it’s far more authentic and writerly (even the really overblown, ‘selly’ comedy dialogue in those ads feel like a considered stylistic choice).
At BMB we recently found ourselves writing a mammoth amount of dialogue for our series ‘The Chat’, which was a WhatsApp drama series for Breast Cancer Now
that showed four best friends navigating an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis through video messages, voice notes and texts, all in WhatsApp. It had to be completely natural and authentic to work – that meant bad language, misspelt messages and pauses that would have given Harold Pinter an aneurysm.
We created 1,293 pieces of ‘dialogue’ over six weeks, testing its authenticity with multiple table reads and countless revisions to make sure each character’s dialogue was completely believable, before allowing our incredible cast to adlib and suggest revisions during the shoot. All that effort made the dialogue as real as possible, which was imperative given how important the subject matter was.
I suppose the good thing for all budding writers is that we’re exposed to more amazing dialogue on our screens than ever before, so if you’re stuck writing it, my advice would be to watch ‘Succession’ for drama, ‘The Office’ for comedy and ‘Bluey’… well, just because it’s brilliant.
Creative director at BETC Paris
The dialogue is by far the hardest part of the job of a copywriter. Everybody can have an idea, but as soon as you actually have to create dialogue, things take a difficult turn. What do we have to say? Do we need to be brief or do we instead have to let it flourish? Why is this line better than this other one? A lot of open-ended questions that I will try to answer.
I'll start by saying that it is not a science. I can give you general guidelines, but there is no magic trick to make dialogue work every single time. You're going to have to sweat it. It is also hard to define what good dialogue is, because it depends on the message and the emotions we are trying to convey in the script, the creative idea, the genre (comedy, drama, etc.), the duration, and the client constraints.
I'd say that the first step of writing a great dialogue is to create backstories for characters. Ask yourself which social class they are from, how they would talk (in a familiar or a distinguished way), and especially, what the link between them is (brother/sister, husband/wife) and their relationship (confrontational, friendly, etc. ).
Also, in an advert - compared to a feature film - you need to get straight to the point. Oftentimes, you only have between 30 seconds and 1 minute to express yourself. I believe in the ‘less is more’ rule, and I avoid saying what we all can see on the screen. For example, if you portray someone that is appearing to be relaxing on a sunbed, the image is telling. You don't need to have the character say ‘It's so good to relax’ (except if it is part of the creative idea, such as if the character is saying that just to annoy someone else). A good example is the iconic Starburst commercial, ‘Acid’
, where two workers drop a piece of candy in acid. The dialogue is extremely simple and doesn't need many words.
I'll add that you need to keep in mind that silences are integral parts of the dialogue. Don't forget that the visuals are there to help also, so you don't have to say everything. And don't be afraid if your characters are not speaking all the time. Quite the opposite in fact - you can play with looks, acting, and cringe just by adding some silence. Another commercial that I’d like to mention is H2Oh!’s ‘Braids’
, which is a clever mix of dialogue and image.
Finally, you have to work on your craft. Write, write and write some more. I also advise writers to read out loud, and act out the lines to see if they sound right, if the rhythm is working, and if it sounds believable.
The most important part when writing dialogue is to have the dialogue sound natural and not artificial (except if the creative idea is based on that and having characters saying absurd things is the actual creative idea). A great example of an absurd dialogue that elevates an idea that is also absurd is Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival’s ‘Cat with a Pipe’
Executive creative director at Five by Five Global
Scene: Outside The Dog and Duck, Dean St. Last Wednesday. Around 6pm.
Ken and Kiera, two copywriters, are enjoying their drinks; him, Timmy Taylor’s, her, Neck Oil.
Ken: Orange Goldspot. Samsung School of Rugby
Kiera: And your point is?
Ken: How come ads don’t have dialogue any more?
Ken: Fuck off.
Kiera: Two words. Sound and Off.
Ken: Hmm. But no time limits? Isn’t that the dream?
Kiera: Well, yes.
Kiera: And no.
Kiera: Because all ads get cut down to 6 seconds.
Ken: We used to call 10 seconds a moving poster.
Kiera: And, you have to tell your whole story in the first 3 seconds.
Ken: 3 seconds?
Ken: Fuck off.
Kiera: The social platforms have told the clients if you don’t hook your audience in 3 seconds you’ve lost them.
Ken: That’s bollocks.
Kiera: Actually it’s fine, it’s all about stopping thumbs - and you’re not going do that with polite conversation anyway.
Ken: Who said it had to be polite?
Kiera: Well, those old school ads were just chit-chat. “Deidre, are you still struggling with stubborn stains…”
Ken: You lot just don’t know how to write.
Kiera: Yes, we do.
Ken: Mareen Lipman for BT, that’s what you call dialogue.
Kiera: Before my time.
Ken: Mine too, but look ‘em up on YouTube.
Kiera: Films on YouTube work best with a technique. Like boomerangs.
Ken: What’s a boomerang?
Kiera: You slide the film back and forward so the action loops round like a – look it doesn’t matter, it’s just another reason to avoid dialogue.
Ken: These days most ads are more like pop promos anyway. Pick a track, stick your logo on the end, give Megaforce a call and…
Kiera: …and the results are awesome.
Ken: But where’s the skill in that? You might as well use AI.
Kiera: What, get ChatGPT to write your ads?
Ken: The clue’s in the name
Kiera: If ChatGPT’s any good it’ll avoid chat.
Ken: Come on, where’s your ambition. Remember Bob Hoskins? “Iss gud ta tork?”
Kiera: Was that a cockney accent?
Ken: “The worta in Majorca, don’t taste like wot it oughta…”
Kiera: What are you on?
Ken: That’s kind of you, Timmy Taylor’s
Kiera: For chrissakes…
Ken: The point is, back in the day writers could write some decent chat.
Kiera: Different times, different customs.
Ken: Who wrote that
Ken: Who’d he work for?
Kiera: You know the real problem.
Ken: What’s that?
Kiera: Dialogue’s all in English. You’ll never win at Cannes.
Ken: Now that is a good point.
Kiera: I mean if you can’t win at Cannes, why bother?
Ken:. No fucking point without the old shake and take.
Kiera: Awards save careers. Talking of which, are you busy next week, we’ve got a brief that might interest you…
(They move inside to order another round.)
Ken and Kiera were being eavesdropped by David Prideaux.
Associate creative director at Continuous
How to write dialogue for commercials (and still sound like a person).
1) Don’t be a Lovecraft.
H.P. Lovecraft, father of modern horror, was a creative force to be reckoned with. The issue? His dialogue absolutely sucked. As a recluse, he had no idea how actual people spoke, and as a result, his vocal interactions gave off a strong whiff of a 15 year old’s drama exam.
The solution to avoiding writing like this is pretty simple. Before you put words into people’s mouths, listen to them. Listen to how they say what they say, and what they leave out. This will help you give a sense of authenticity to your words, and avoid any conversational horror shows.
2) Narrators are the voice of your brand. People are just people.
Have you ever spoken to someone who sounded like a brand? Probably not. And that’s because, by and large, people don’t. No matter how many tone-of-voice documents are stuffed to the gills with sounding ‘personable’, ‘honest’ and ‘genuine’, real people have much more nuance, personality and flex than any brand could accommodate comfortably.
If you have a client that’s worried about their tone of voice missing in dialogue, this could be a place to introduce your ‘omniscient narrator’. Think your sign-off line at the end of an ad, or the caption of your social film - that sort of thing. Let them carry the tonality of your brand, but please god, just let your characters talk like people do. It’ll avoid the unfortunate accident of making your dialogue sound like it’s being performed by Borgs, but more importantly, the cadence and switch of the tone allows people to naturally hear when the entertainment part stops, and when the key information is being imparted that they need to remember about your brand/product. Which brings me to my next point…
3) Always be closing.
Richard Curtis once said a good trick for screen writing is to put a reminder for your audience, about three quarters of the way into your film, on what it’s all about.
Remember Julia Roberts’ famous ‘I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her’ speech in ‘Notting Hill’? Case in point.
If you’re writing for commercial creative (and god bless you if you are), you’ll have the pleasure of a client who will want to include an amount of information about their product no humans have ever spoken about together in their entire lives. Not only is it unrealistic to listen to, but it’s also really hard to retain a big amount of information when you’re usually dealing with 30/60-second slots.
My advice would be to carefully horse-whisper your client into agreeing upon a key message – ideally ONE LINE that summarises what the whole ad is really hinging upon. The place this goes is just before the end, as per Curtis’ suggestion above. This is so after enjoying your extremely well-written and authentic dialogue, your audience knows exactly what the takeout is about your brand or product, and what they should go on to do next.
4) Slang can (ironically) age you. Use sparingly.
In an effort to sound more relatable and *ahem* ‘with it’, some writers fall into the trap of what I’m affectionately terming gen z Tourettes. Whether your brand actually is slaying, or giving, or really okuuur with any of the above, is not the point. Is this really how the characters in your script would speak? And more importantly, how long is the piece intended to be in the public eye/ear for? The beauty of colloquial language is that it changes with the pulse of culture – and in an age of speedy yet extremely dateable content, that pulse is at a heart-stopping rate. If you want your work to have longevity of more than a week or so, my advice would be to keep very current slang to a minimum, if you use it at all. This doesn’t mean regressing to the queen’s (king’s?) English, but keeping a level of relatable phrases, verbal fillers and natural pauses that feels fresh, and not toe-curlingly cringey, whenever you hear it.
5) Speak sense.
The true litmus test of good dialogue is simple: read it aloud. Better still, give it to one of your fellow creatives to narrate to you. Watch where they trip over words, what’s too long, what they chew over, where a dash more punctuation might be necessary, if words are even needed here at all, or if it could be communicated in a look/action etc. The written word is simply not the spoken word; life would be very tedious and Arial 11 if we all spoke the way we write. By performing your piece, you’ll naturally see where parts need to change to feel more organic, and you’ll have a more human-sounding script to boot.
Creative director (copy) at Cheil UK
For me, writing dialogue for a brand all starts by getting under the skin of that brand.
If you’re lucky, there’ll be a brand book. And if you’re really lucky, a well-written one that helps you effortlessly slip into that brand’s shoes (trainers, slippers, boots, stilettos).
I find that once you understand a brand, it makes it easier to find and craft the right style for that dialogue (conversation, chit-chat, natter, tête à tête).
Whether it’s serious, humorous or quirky, the style of dialogue needs to be believable and for me, the ability to craft realistic dialogue starts with listening to real dialogue. From phrases and rhythms, to language and sentence construction, eavesdropping on the number six bus always used to be a favourite of mine.
Your audience is already out there, you just need to tune in – translating product points and calls-to-action in a way that resonates with them.
As we all know, writing dialogue isn’t as easy as it sounds, so make things easier on yourself by reading your dialogue aloud while writing it. Trust me, it’s way better to pick up awkward exchanges and unnatural phrases at your desk than it is in the recording studio.
Group creative director at Battery
Here are a few things that I wished someone had told me 20 years ago.
Proper names in 30 seconds: If you are writing dialogue where you’re addressing another person, don’t give that other person a name unless you absolutely need to. Dropping ‘Carol’ or ‘Gary’ in a line will cost you more than a second, all in. And you can totally make something funnier out of a second than that.
When writing dialog for a known person, don’t focus on their nuances. You’ll use them wrong. Before I start, I’ll find a scene of their dialogue I’m into and I’ll transcribe it. I’ll look at the pattern and check out the dynamics. When do they take beats? Are their silences the interesting part? Was it only funny when it was performed? You’ll want to over-write for them because you love them, want to impress them and make something worthy of them. But remember, when they finally do read your work, they’ll already be reading it in their voice. So, I don’t know, don’t try too hard? Wow, this really devolved into a lesson in slacking!
Tropes and old bits: What are you, an AI stand up? A boss once told me to avoid any of that ‘he’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?’ type dialogue. It’s a good watch out. All those overused bits - ChatGPT can weave those little chestnuts in there for you if you want. But I say let’s send 'em out into the fjord and give 'em all a proper hero's burial, with the flaming arrow and whatnot. Although, a script with all of them could be funny… maybe… probably not.
Consider the ‘kiss ass’. In real life, you talk differently depending on who it is. Same goes for your characters. Consider that when writing their dialogue. They don’t have to be a one note - even in 15 seconds. Think about a kiss ass. A kiss ass only kisses ass to certain asses. What does the kiss ass talk like to everybody else?
Lastly, overwrite for you. Give them the hits.
Group creative director at Battery
Be wary of explaining too much or having too much exposition. There's a lot visually that will fill in the blanks and people only need to understand the main message. Try a scene where the dialogue starts mid-conversation at a key moment like ‘What's that?’, ’I'll take it’, or ’Doesn't it bother you that…’.
Oftentimes, writers take too much time to get to the reveal or punchline. After all, we're competing with limited attention span and lack of interest. Try flipping the script and say what you need to say first (i.e. product benefit), so you have more time to play with the premise. A well known example is the Geico rhetorical questions work – ’Could switching to Geico really save you 15% or more on your car insurance? Is Too Tall Jones too tall?’.
Senior copywriter at Conscious Minds
Cracking conversation doesn’t have to be this great daunting task that we often make it out to be. For me, it starts and stops with authentic dialogue. I think, as writers, it’s easy to get caught up in the ‘latest lingo’ in an effort to reach certain audiences, but it can fall flat when misused. I avoid using slang or colloquialisms that I’m not well versed in when writing, because inauthenticity can be sniffed out. If you can’t describe a ‘slay’ or know when to ‘bffr’, that’s OK,– don’t use it to pander to niche audiences.
Second, I say, ‘lead with your brand’. Sometimes, before I write copy for a client, I go old school and create a persona. Who is this brand? How old are they? Are they pessimistic? Optimistic? Are they into pop culture or street culture? Exploring and humanising your brand will help you land on a voice that feels right. It’s easy as creatives to forgo the technical parts of our job - like research – but sometimes, that can be the most important step. Taking some time upfront to really learn who you’re talking to and who you’re talking about will allow you to fall into flow and create something beautiful, cool, or thought-provoking.
Rens de Jonge
Creative director and empathic advertiser who loves people and brands at KesselsKramer
A GOOD DIALOGUE IS ABOUT SILENCE!
We (don’t) talk about problems.
It's not the words that make a good dialogue, it’s the silence between those words. You can write the best dialogue ever written, but if you don’t give it the space it needs, it doesn’t last. And in advertising, sadly, there’s less and less time for everything, let alone silence… Unless you make it into the core of your idea.
We’ve noticed that dialogue is a starving breed in the advertisement world. To give dialogue its depth and resonance, it needs interaction, empathetic acting by two actors, and time. And let these things, in specific time, be exactly what’s less and less available. For 113 (Dutch Suicide Prevention Helpline), our ‘Men don’t talk about their problems’ campaign was built around dialogue. Or actually, the lack of it. Dialogue, in this campaign, was what the idea and literal message is about: to engage more in meaningful interaction.
It’s often the case that advertisement is a precursor, using the most inventive and well-tailored ways to grasp a viewer’s attention. It might be, on the one hand, reflecting our enhanced digital world, fast-paced, fragmented, where people aren’t interested in dialogues anymore, but more interested in the individualistic point of view: monologues. If this is indeed the case, let us argue that it’s very possible to counter this individualism. It’s something to fight against, just as has been done in the KesselsKramer campaign mentioned earlier. Let’s vouch for connection and dialogue, to encourage empathy and foster connections in an ever-distracted society.
Associate creative director at Camp + King
When it comes to dialogue, less is often more. When writing a script, I think of dialogue as my last resort and always look for ways to convey information and emotion without speaking. It’s the classic “show, don’t tell” line that perfectly applies to scriptwriting. One of the biggest challenges of writing relatable and engaging dialogue is that when we’re talking in real life, our conversations are filled with small talk, pauses, and random observations — all things we usually don’t have time to include in the 30 seconds we have to tell a story.
Something that helps me make dialogue more realistic is finding out why my characters need to talk. In real life, we don’t suddenly walk into an empty room and start talking about the first thing that comes to mind. Conversations have motivations — people speak when there’s a reason to.
So start with your scene, story, and backstory — think about what needs to happen in your commercial. Have your scene happen in your mind and your script, and only then start thinking about the dialogue and the message you want to convey.
Sometimes I catch myself filling a dialogue with questions in the early stages of writing a script. And that’s a major sign that the characters have nothing to say. Questions are usually fillers or icebreakers we don’t have time for in ads. This is an excellent reminder to drop any unnecessary preambles and jump right into the action. Always find the most exciting point when everything is already happening. It helps to think about your characters and what they were doing right before your commercial started. Then use dialogue to add some extra texture to the best part of the story.
By the way (and this shouldn’t be news to anyone), your characters should talk like real people. So always read your dialogue out loud, see how it flows, and pay attention to your word choices. Everything should sound like an actual person is speaking. And to develop a better repertoire, listen to people. Not in a creepy way, of course. But pay attention to conversations happening around you. We have our own ways of talking and tend to replicate that in our work. I find that paying attention to how other people talk (their mannerisms, their intonation) helps me widen the aperture and think of new ideas to bring to my work. There are things that maybe I wouldn’t say in a specific way, but the characters in my ad would.
Senior creative at Forever Audio
Audio has seen its fair share of badly written dialogue-style ads.
Too often we hear Mick and Bob reeling off entire web addresses in mid-conversation, two mums listing a product’s health benefits to each other as per the BCAP code, and we’re forced to ask, does Geoff really love his car finance deal so much that he can recount the entire interest rate to his neighbour Steve?
If this kind of ad must happen, at Forever Audio we make it as realistic as possible.
How? Firstly by doing some research. By listening in to real conversations, you’ll soon notice real people don’t talk like they swallowed a dictionary, chased with a brand bible. Natural conversation stops and starts, it ebbs and flows, it bristles and brims with emotion.
Then, it’s important to be selective by choosing who says what. By leaving the jargon and USPs to the brand voice, the characters will have time to be funny or sad or whatever you want them to be.
And finally, believe it or not, real people have accents, so try to avoid the RP accent where possible. Isn’t that right Bob?
Bob: That’s right, visit foreveraudio.com for more information!
Associate director, copy and storytelling at THE 3RD EYE
Good dialogue and good copy share the same components. It stems from really understanding both your brand and your audience. As a creative, it is vital to help clients understand the differences between what the brand's objective is and how consumers actually speak. That, and really being in tune and doing social listening to what those audiences are talking about and the way that they're speaking.
It all comes down to knowing your audience and bringing that human element into the writing. Brands are like people, and their language changes depending on their audience. For instance, I'm not going to talk to my grandma the same way that I talk to my boss, and I'm not going to talk to my best friend the same way that I talk to my mom. Therefore, brands need to keep many audiences in mind when they're developing dialogue. The best way to learn that and discover it is to dive into those groups and see how they communicate and speak.
From a digital realm perspective, social media, blogs and forums are effective listening channels to explore how people communicate with each other. Through these channels, marketing and communication experts can gain a deeper understanding of the dialogue and exchanges surrounding the brand. Part of the copywriter's job is to understand these language nuances along with the technical elements of the brand, in order to break them down and communicate in a manner that is engaging, social, and relevant to the audience you are trying to reach.