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Promo Workshop

part 3 of 7: How To Write TV Promos
the paper cut

Use this production technique from yesteryear to teach yourself how to write TV promos. This step-by-step process shows you everything you need to know about promo script writing from scratch.

• the basic promo producer skill set
• scene selection & writing
• introduction to the paper cut technique
• paper cut process: step 1
• paper cut example
• why paper cuts
• TV promo types

You can use this technique to make promos; movie trailers; even regular advertising!

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paper cut, close up

See an example of a paper cut for the Aircrash Investigations promo at the bottom of this page

a note about "promo writing"

It's not unusual for students of a profession to discover that the profession in practice differs greatly from the one they studied in theory. While watching this video training series you will come across certain moments where I flag these differences.

The biggest example is the concept of promo writing:
• what you think it might mean;
• what I think it should mean;
• what the industry has made it mean.

I have submitted to the popular term promo writing here so people can find this course online. But now that you are here, I need to indicate that writing isn't really the best description of what a promo producer does.

Just as there's far more to being an architect than drafting, there's far more to being a promo producer than writing.

As I point out in episode 5, once you add all the necessary soundbites from the show; and all the info that is mandatory for a promo script: the name of the show, the channel it's on, what day and time it's on etc etc; that there won't be much space left for any "writing" anyway.

Don't make the mistake of thinking (like much of the business) that this remaining chunk is somehow unimportant. Because if you (as I do) define writing as coming up with ideas then you are most certainly on the right track.

In practice, a promo script can be anything ranging from a piece of paper with just the words to be recorded by the voice over artist; right through to what I call a paper cut... which is a complete plan of how a promo should be constructed.

In any case, if the right words are selected, then they will generate interest and curiosity in the receivers of the message... which is, after all, the whole purpose of a promo.

There are many excellent producers who are able to plan everything mentally. Without ever putting pen to paper, they can simply envisage how they want their finished promo to come out.

This skill, by the way, is necessary; and develops over time the more promos you make. Whilst I can work this way (usually when I'm short for time) this is not my preferred modus operandi.

However the end result is achieved, the quality of a promo producer depends on how well they can corral the many and varied aspects to creating effective promos; whether on paper or in their head. Or both.

So, while I sadly acknowledge that paper cuts aren't something you see a lot in working promo departments; I still categorise paper cuts as best practice... and certainly recommend practice if you're, like me, not good at keeping a thousand plates spinning in your head at once.

As a way of training yourself how to make promos... to know what a plan looks like (mentally or otherwise)... then paper cuts are necessary practice.

a mini rant about editing

I should also say here, in spite of what the industry would condition you to believe, that there's more to promo production than just editing.

The majority of working producers these days use the editing software's timeline to visualise their promos. Again, this skill is necessary, and will develop the more spots you make.

However, this as a whole production methodology by its nature emphasises promotion as a visual medium and not an aural medium which is a grave error.

Sure, promos need to look slick and professional and consistent with a channel's stated brand values. But it's the words (soundbites+script) that the audience hear that do the actual selling. The pictures may capture the attention, but the words communicate the ideas and sell the show.

Unless you have a photographic memory, the only way to "edit" those ideas is with written words.

Video editing software timelines can only give you a command view of the visual channel of the communication; even then, mostly only in real time. Word processing software (or pen and paper) give you an at-a-glance command view of both channels; especially the most important one: the aural channel.

But wait, there's more.

The cheapness and ubiquity of video editing software has created the open plan editing complex; where rows and rows of operators click and generally fidget with frames for a living. 

Bringing editing (and graphic design) into the general office environment has made the production process more accessible than ever before, allowing more coordinators to meddle with the production than ever before.

As the video editing software timeline can only represent visual elements of the communication; over time the emphasis shifts to visual elements; eventually making the whole job about visuals.

This is one of the key operational reasons why so many promos are just so ineffective...  and why production techniques have misguidedly and wrongly come to override ideas as the real tools of audience engagement.

With that sneaky plug for my pro seminars out of the way, I hope you enjoy and benefit from this introductory course on "promo script writing".

the paper cut for working producers

Working producers may scoff at the notion of doing this; but as I said, what I'm talking about in this website is best practice; so I'm compelled to–– at least–– suggest a few reasons why you should.

Here goes: when you see a promo (or ad, or trailer) that you think really works, why not go through the process outlined in the videos, for exactly the same reasons I suggest it to newbies. Compare it to the scripts you write Monday to Friday.

I am 100% sure you will find something in your transcribed paper cut that you can borrow for your promos.

Secondly, A paper cut doesn't even have to take the word-processed form as shown above. You can write notes about promos/ads/trailers almost anywhere; no computer required. I'm more of a visual thinker. So, personally, I am a big fan of the A2-sized art pad, using a combination of text and pictures that I scribble out quickly with a pencil.

I'm a massive fan of RSA animations, and my paper cuts (coincidentally) look a bit like their work... except theirs are really fantastically well done, and mine look like a two year old's spaghetti doodle by comparison.

There is one last point that has to be made about paper cuts that makes them worth mastering. Once you can "see" what a promo looks like on paper, once you're familiar with the form of them, you will find paper cuts a ridiculously fast way of rendering ideas. Desktop editing---as convenient as it is---still doesn't come anywhere near close to the speed of creating promos on paper.

So it turns out, technology has yet to rival the creative fluidity of a good old fashioned pencil... which is exactly why I still use paper cuts for every spot I work on.

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