It’s a beautiful sunset. The air is warm. You wade into a
pool to chest-deep water- push off and effortlessly breast stroke in.
We spend our days talking- with thousands of intermittent interludes followed by an equal number of instances in which we resume speaking. Pauses mark the ends of sentences.. ends of thoughts. In the world of oral journalism they serve as preambles to SOT’s.. to new paragraphs.. or to ends of stories.
Because talking is part of our profession, people who want to excel often develop a frustrating mind lapse: they forget how they talk all day long- and tighten up in effort to give their message “energy”.. .. to make it “compelling”.. or to “sell it”. I’ve heard an Asst. ND hiss this last term into an anchor’s ear as he began the newscast with a story about a child that died.
The driving factor here seems to be a sense of competition. Internet news is readily available.. and there’s a persistent fear that a competing station is presenting their information in a more marketable fashion.
We’ve elected to share news and information by speaking on TV or radio. But it’s the elements of our writing.. our reporting.. our video.. our soundbites.. and our standups that should be pulling people in- not an artificially dramatic or enthused voice that falls into what I call the “I’m on TV and you’re not” style.
I recently participated in a workshop with a friend and colleague I admire. He’s been in the local news business for over 25 years- on the management side. For the first time I can recall- we disagreed. A reporter in the group submitted her work for feedback. The reporting was solid but the tracking was not. She “oomphed” (my word) the beginnings of sentences for no apparent reason.. and similarly highlighted individual words she considered to be significant.
Oomphing is my term for unnecessarily emphasizing information- by highlighting words with a tighter voice or a higher pitch. The end result makes journalists sound like they’re trying too hard. It sends single words careening to our ears. We don’t speak in single words- and rarely is just one word highlighted when we say an entire sentence. We mainly do so when we contrast information: Texas vs. San Francisco.. humid vs. dry..
We speak in phrases- something I call cognitive chunks- and not in isolated nouns. Eg. in this sentence “A four year old boy was a victim of a kidnap attempt this morning..” if you’re oomphing ‘victim’ or ‘kidnap’ – think again.
Rediscovering your inner breast stroke
A natural speaking voice is a bit like jazz: it’s unpredictable in its sound. It’s a cacophony of high/lows.. pauses.. new beginnings.. changes in tempo and loudness.
We speak all day- and we don’t pre-ordain how we will sound to our listener. The semantic underpinning of our message or information kicks in and dictates the flow of our voice. Information can be surprising.. ironic.. slightly better than expected.. factual.. explanatory.. etc.
As journalists who communicate by talking- we need to hook into this natural way of speaking.
We should speak in a healthy, clear ‘normal’ voice- trusting that semantic sentiment will serve as the autopilot that makes our voice rise and fall.. effortlessly start and stop.. and change pace and loudness.
Our stomach contracts to send out air.. we open our mouths- and we share the news.
We don’t underline words.. we don’t try to sound important..
So read each paragraph quickly to yourself before you track it. Read each block quickly before you anchor it.. remind yourself of what you want to share before your standup. You are not practicing how you will ‘say’ it.. but rather you are briefly reminding yourself of what you discovered.. what you want to share.. and of the context(s) within which this story falls.
When it’s time to speak: Breast Stroke in.
Previously featured on the Radio Television Digital News Association as the News Coach blog series.