Producer – “So how long was the read?”
Studio – “2 minutes 41 seconds”
Producer – “Woah! This read needs to no more than 90 seconds!”
Studio – “But your script is 375 words! For 90 seconds, you have a limit of 210 words, unless you’re willing to let the voice talent race through the script, you are still maxed out at 240 words!”

It’s tough being a copywriter. Your client wants a phone book’s worth of blurb in a script, but they also want their video snappy and to the point. Having both is impossible.

So what’s a rule of thumb for how many words you can voice in a minute? First off, we have to clarify a few things –

  1. Not all words are the same. When we talk about words per minute, we’re really focussing on syllables per minute. Depending on the script, you could have a load of short words or be voicing a Big Pharma video where words are long – “pharmaceutical” is five syllables, and many chemical compound will gobble up more! So words per minute is always going to be an average.
  2. There’s a difference between a slow, medium or fast read. You can’t speed-read a perfume ad, and you can’t slow read an electronics store’s blowout end-of-year sale spot.
  3. Giving a video some room to breathe when there isn’t some voice is good as it will let the viewer have a beat of silence to digest the information. It doesn’t need to be long, it can be just a few seconds, but it does make a difference.

There’s a lot of debate over exactly what is the guideline for something like this, and there are numerous websites, like speechinminutes, Quora, Edge Studio, & Presentation. Two people fiercely debating a topic will speak crazy fast, closing in on 200, but that speed is no good when you’re trying to convince an audience/customer/client of your product. So we’re interested in what speed is good for a narration for a commercial, corporate video, etc.

We typically use 140 wpm for most scripts and 130 wpm for technical scripts, assuming the majority of things voiced are at a medium pace. (100 wpm would be slow, 160 would be fast)

We always to quote based on the word count of a script: we’ve been stung too many times by a client telling us the read is 5 minutes but then comes into the studio with a script significantly over 700 words (140 wpm for 5 minutes). Getting the word count confirmed early helps avoid that awkward situation.

So the answer to how long is a piece of string? If you don’t want to hang yourself by overwriting a VO script, then your string should be no more than 140 words per minute long!