The language of motivation

With PSAs, you have just a short time to get people to act.

With PSAs, you have just a short time to get people to act.

There's no formula for writing good PSAs, but there are four main things to consider: client objective, audience, talent, and outlet. Because spots are typically 60, 30, or 15 seconds, you've got to hook, inform, and deliver a call to action very quickly.

A good script appeals to a broad range of people - teens, adults, the elderly. With some research, it's possible to find individuals from all walks of life that have had that experience. Sit down with the client and find out how to make the story as universal as possible.

"Speak to the common man," says Christiane Arbesu, VP of production at MultiVu. "Don't use big words. Make it as simple as possible. I personally like to iterate [the message] in three different ways."

The amount of information to include will vary according to the complexity of the issue. With well-known topics such as heart disease or obesity, don't waste time defining it. But when audience knowledge is minimal, you might only have time to introduce an idea, so it's important to direct the audience to a further source of information with a strong call to action. In these, phone numbers and URLs need to be simple and catchy.

Perhaps the most difficult part of scripting PSAs is the time limitation. "In 15 seconds, just [identify] the condition and call to action," Arbesu adds. "In 30 seconds, there's room for two or three sentences."

Ben Garrett, executive producer at On the Scene Productions, advises writing copy that is four or five seconds shorter than your spot. He also suggests showing the script to as many people as possible to get feedback, as well as looking at previous PSAs online to make sure your call to action is unique.

But watch out for any language or visual that could be construed as self-serving or partisan. Beware of logos in visuals and never use politically loaded language. And don't script something that is too graphic or that might offend people.

On the Scene recently wrote a TV PSA for the ASPCA about cruelty to horses. "It starts with someone beating a horse, but it's shot Alfred Hitchcock-style, so you never see the hit," Garrett says. "If we showed someone beating a horse, it wouldn't fly. If it's implied, you can get away with it. If it's too graphic, it won't get airtime."

Lynn Medcalf, EVP and cofounder of News Generation, says that airtime has gotten very competitive and some radio stations are now doing 10-second spots, which are even more challenging to write.

"It's important to use direct language because you only have the voice," she says. "You don't have the advantage of video to support what you're saying. Close your eyes and imagine what you're writing on the air. Make sure it says what you want it to say without begging more questions."

Rarely will a script work for both TV and radio. "Each medium is different," Garrett says. "In TV, visuals have to carry an impact. In radio, it's more of a personal connection. Most good PSAs work without sound on TV. You should be able to turn down the sound and still understand."

Radio requires more description. "Sometimes you might need more statistics because you don't have a visual," Arbesu says. "With drunk driving, you show car crashes on TV. On radio, you must start off with statistics."

Most agree that music is helpful in radio PSAs. Larry Saperstein, VP of production at WestGlen Communications, would "rarely" use a voice without music, "unless it's a very famous voice," he notes. "Music can be dramatic. It can change, uplift, and give a message of hope. It can be used very effectively, but should never dominate."

Tailoring music to stations or leaving it off altogether can help get airtime. "Change the music to match the station you are targeting," Garrett says. "It's not that much more expensive and makes it that much more available. I also offer PSAs without music so the station can add its own. Provide the script so the DJ can read it. You don't really care how they use it. Think locally. Let them feel like they own it."

Technique tips


Know your client, audience, talent, and outlet at the outset

Keep scripts brief, clear, and simple

Include a call to action that is as simple and as memorable as possible


Make any corporate mention or use partisan language

Use big words, jargon, or complicated scientific terms

Tease too long. Get to the point and stay on message

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