This column is part of Tim Knight’s Master Class on the craft of Broadcast Journalism for The Journalist. Knight is an Emmy-winning former head of TV journalism training at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), now working out of Cape Town.
You’ll never move others, heart to heart, unless you speak from the heart.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This performance technique relies entirely on your following some simple steps.
One by one.
It takes a little time (you have to carve a few more minutes out of your day. Maybe one less coffee break). It demands considerable concentration. But it works.
There’s even a guarantee attached. I guarantee that if you use this technique your on-camera and voice-over performance will improve.
This doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly become a great on-air performer. It does mean you’ll be the best you can be. And if you really want to be a great performer — and are prepared to work at it — this method will give you the best chance you’ve got.
It will help you take ownership of your script. So the information comes from you, not from your script.
Instead of just reading words, you’ll think the information aloud.
But, you say, you’re a broadcast journalist. You can’t ad lib the script. Far too many chances for mistakes.
Anyway, pieces of the script often have to fill exactly into already-cut voice-over sections.
So what can a poor broadcast journalist do? Funny you should ask.
Prepare your script using this technique.
STEP #1 — Preparation
For both on-camera and voice-over narration the script should follow the writing guidelines (Write Like You Speak) from a previous The Journalist column.
Particularly the parts about vivid, strong, simple, conversational, spoken language.
The script should be laid out:
The font should be large, 16 or 18.
In upper and lower case.
Cantered between lines roughly two-and-a-half inches apart.
Each sentence on its own, separate paragraphs.
With an extra space between each paragraph.
And a line indicating where each scene ends.
The reason for all these shoulds is that if you lay a script out like this you’ll be able to recognise thoughts and ideas when it comes time to speak those thoughts and ideas to the camera or microphone.
You’ll speak from your own knowledge, like a real person. Instead of just mouthing black marks on white paper.
Laying the script out like this also makes over-long sentences stand out so they can be shortened.
Which makes editing a whole lot simpler.
Just as a reminder, this layout is as important for voice-over narration as it is for on-camera performance.
It works marvellously well for TV, radio and speechifying. In fact, for any communicating where you have to deliver a script accurately. And pass on information to other people.
It makes the information accessible. So it can be savoured and retained by the person you’re talking to.
STEP #2 — The Physical Part
Performing on TV is stressful.
Audio booths and TV studios are brilliantly designed to heighten stress, create tension, encourage anxiety and prevent any intimate, human communication between performer and viewer.
But audio booths and TV studios are part of our lives. So the trick is to control the stress. Make it work for you as energy. Not against you as tension and anxiety.
Sitting properly goes some way toward that end.
The chair should be high enough to expose most of your body. This makes you vulnerable — psychologically a good thing.
Sit straight and high enough so you can’t rest your arms on the desk —which squelches up the diaphragm and cuts down on the amount of air you need to speak easily and naturally.
Align your shoulders at a slight diagonal to the camera. It makes a more interesting picture, gives a little depth. Also, it’s less confrontational.
Shoulders should be comfortably back so that your air column is open and pressure is off your diaphragm.
Sit so that, if you need to, you can get up from the chair without having to push with your arms.
STEP # 3 — Rehearse
One person reading aloud from a script to another person is the least efficient form of human communication there is — with the possible exception of your average discussion between a parent and a teenager about the meaning of life.
Very little information gets through.
Almost nothing is retained.
It’s an unnatural act.
Rehearsing before you perform ends the dictatorship of the script. Rehearsing makes you — not the script — the primary source of the information.
Rehearsing forces you to think the thoughts, see the scenes, feel the emotions in the words. So the viewer, in turn, thinks the thoughts, sees the scenes, feels the emotions.
Rehearsing makes the script disappear. So the performance — both on-camera and voice-over — is entirely natural.
Rehearsing enables you to use your own real voice at your own appropriate cadence and speed. Makes you sound as if you know the story marvellously well.
Rehearsing hugely increases the amount of information you give the viewer. It also hugely increases the amount of information retained by the viewer. Both are consummations devoutly to be desired. In fact, they’re veritable revolutions.
So how do you do this rehearsing thing?
Find a quiet place. Not always easy, but it can be done. An empty office? Maybe the washroom? If all else fails, stay at your desk and ignore funny looks from colleagues.
Consider each story to be a one-act play.
Divide this one-act play into scenes — major thoughts — with a line. Don’t make any other marks except, perhaps, the occasional underline or italic.
The script should look something like this:
The clock over the administration building
stops at twelve minutes to eleven.
That’s when the explosion hits.
That’s when the five men die.
It happens in this building.
The explosives building.
It’s known as EN-EYE-ONE.
It’s built of wood … and tin.
But it’s enclosed in solid concrete …
to contain explosions.
So if all hell breaks loose inside … the hell
stays inside … and the buildings around it
Still … the shock of the explosion was felt
Most of the people who work in this mine live in
Beloil … just down the road.
Of course, in Beloil … at twelve minutes to eleven …
they know immediately what’s happened.
Everybody just stops what they’re doing.
Step #4 — Rehearsal
1. Quality of performance doesn’t really matter. It’s a rehearsal. Accuracy, however, does. You’re imprinting, not memorising. You’re pushing information into your short-term memory, becoming the primary source of the information. You’ll forget the script — but not the elements of the story — as soon as the performance is over.
2. Study scene # 1 until you think you can say it aloud pretty damn accurately.
3. Cover the script and say the scene aloud pretty damn accurately. Without checking.
4. If you get lost in the scene, struggle to find it. Think. Don’t uncover the script and check it unless you’re completely lost. Try to find the information. It’s there in your memory. You’re training your short-term memory to absorb information and make it accessible when needed.
5. If you still can’t find the information after struggling and have to check your script, do it. Then rehearse — just this scene again from its beginning.
6. Repeat process with each scene until you’ve said each scene aloud pretty damn accurately.
7. Now, slowly read the whole script again to yourself. Not aloud, because you’ll retain the sound of reading in your mind. Concentrate on the logic, the connections, the flow of ideas and scenes.
8. Congratulations. You’ve imprinted. You are now the primary source of the information. The script has become the secondary source.
9. Carry the story inside you to the studio. Don’t chit-chat with anyone along the way. Don’t call home. This is not the time to discuss the fallacy of journalistic objectivity or the merits of the clitoral orgasm. Short-term memory can be very short.
10. Tape or go live with the script as soon as possible after the rehearsal.
Step # 5 — Performance
11. Ad-lib something to do with the subject matter for about 20 seconds. The idea is to take your mind and senses back into the story and make your voice sound natural.
12. Pause briefly so the ad-lib won’t run into the performance (live). Or so it can easily be cut off by the editor (taped).
13. Start saying the script in the same voice and with the same volume and speed as you did the ad-lib.
14. Use the script. This is not a memory-test. Consult it. Check it. Refer to it. But don’t read it. You, remember, are now the primary source. You’ve imprinted the story, the information, into your short-term memory. It’s yours. The script is only a map. A way for you to go accurately from one thought to another. But the story and its meaning are yours. All yours. You’re in charge.
15. You should be able to spend at least half your time looking at the viewer instead of the script. Thinking aloud at the viewer.
16. Remember that line separating each major thought, each scene, in the script? That’s there to tell you where the scene’s climax comes. Respect it. The viewer doesn’t know what the thought is, what it means, until you’ve reached the line and completed the thought. So when you get to the line, be looking directly at the viewer.
17. That’s when you also pause briefly, still looking at the viewer. It’s exactly what we all do in real life. We wait to see if the other person has understood the thought. The pause is vital. It allows the viewer to process and consider the information, the thought, the scene. To accept the information. Or reject it. To check it against information already known. To add it to information contained in previous scenes.
18. The pause — while still looking at the viewer — is also vital for you, the performer. It allows you to wrap up a scene, a thought, with strength and conviction. To signal the viewer that one scene is finished and a new scene is to come. It also — just as important — allows you to adjust your emotional compass to the new information coming in the next scene. So you can give the next scene a differently appropriate emotional conviction and tone.
19. While you pause (how long should the pause be? Whatever’s appropriate in real life!) your mind is still on the just-finished scene. After the appropriate pause, if you need to, check the script and by all means start reading the next scene. But you’re the primary source of the story so you should be able to leave the script and look directly at the viewer fairly quickly. And finish the scene looking at the viewer.
20. If you screw up while recording, either start the scene again from the beginning or, if the performance is going really well, keep going and re-do the entire scene again at the end. And drop it in as a replacement. Everything is done in scenes because each scene has a life of its own, a different emotional meaning. Which means that each scene needs a different — and appropriate — emotional performance.
21. If it’s a recording and you’re not satisfied with the performance do another take and another unless there’s one minute to air and colleagues are lining up outside threatening to kill you. It’s not the mark of a professional to be a one-take wonder. If possible, keep taping your performance until you’re absolutely satisfied. In spite to myths to the contrary, the performance will not deteriorate. In fact, if you’re using this technique, it will improve.
22. You’ve now done the most difficult thing a broadcast journalist can do. You’ve performed a script absolutely accurately and made it sound as if there’s no script there. Just you, thinking aloud about stuff you know and care about.
Step # 6 — Analyse
Tape your performance and watch it at home. Not in the newsroom or studio where everyone’s hyped up on the broadcast equivalent of steroids.
At home. Just like viewers do.
Watch for reading without thinking. Watch for acting. For parts that aren’t honest.Parts that aren’t generous.
And don’t ever be dishonest or untruthful or selfish on air again.
Instead, lay out your script like I’ve described, rehearse, and go talk naturally to the viewer about things that matter to you both.
It takes a little time to learn and practise this technique.
You have to sweat and swear and strain a bit.
And colleagues will look at you oddly a bit.
But I promise that it’s worth the sweating and swearing and straining. And the odd collegiate looks.
This technique works.
For both you and — much more important — the viewer.
This column is adapted from Tim Knight’s book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition on Amazon and lulu.com.
It’s the eleventh instalment in Knight’s Master Classes for The Journalist on the craft of broadcast journalism. Earlier columns were The Business of Social Journalism, How to Interview (parts 1 and 2), The Unknown SABC Story (parts 1, 2 and 3), Storytelling Is Magic, Screw The Inverted Pyramid and The Curse of the MAMCWWM and Write Like You Speak.
All can be read at my The Journalist Contributor site: