We recently sat down with Jill Geisler and Scott Libin, University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism Senior Fellow and RTDNA Chair, to talk about some of the shortcomings of on-air coaching, what it really takes to be a newsroom leader from the anchor chair, and how anchors can get the training they need. Read that discussion here. We were intrigued when Jill mentioned "skills without script," so we asked her to tell us more. Jill said: “Years ago, while heading the leadership programs at Poynter, I wrote a column in response to a New York Times piece that said that the events of 9-11 made 'anchors matter again.' It truly undervalued the everyday excellence that the best anchors bring to news coverage. I adapted that column into a handout with a list of critical anchor skills, and use it in my teaching with anchors. I’m happy to share it."
Great news anchors make their work look easy – but it isn’t. Beyond voice, looks or delivery, the best anchors possess what I call “skills without script.” They communicate with command, comfort and clarity, even – or especially – when a story is developing so rapidly that formats and scripts are useless. “Skills without script” are built on mental agility, critical thinking and continuous learning.
Here are eight essentials of “skills without script”:
1. Knowledge base: An understanding of issues, names, geography, history and the ability to put all of these in perspective for viewers. It comes from the journalist’s commitment to being a student of the news.
2. Ability to process new information: Sorting, organizing, prioritizing and retaining massive amounts of incoming data.
3. Ethical compass: Sensitivity to ethical land mines that often litter the field of live breaking news — unconfirmed information, graphic video, words that potentially panic, endanger public safety or security or words that add pain to already traumatized victims and those who care about them.
4. Command of the language: Dead-on grammar, syntax, pronunciation, tone and storytelling — no matter how stressed or tired the anchor or reporter may be.
5. Interviewing finesse: An instinct for what people need and want to know, for what elements are missing from the story, and the ability to draw information by skillful, informed questioning and by listening.
6. Mastery of multitasking: The ability to simultaneously: take in a producer’s instructions via an earpiece while scanning new information from computer messages, texts or Twitter; listen to what other reporters on the team are sharing and interviewees are adding; monitor incoming video — and yes, live-tweet info to people who have come to expect information in multiple formats.
7. Appreciation of all roles: An understanding of the tasks and technology that go into the execution of a broadcast, the ability to roll with changes and glitches, and anticipate all other professionals involved.
8. Acute sense of timing: The ability to condense or expand one’s speech on demand, to sense when a story needs refreshing or recapping, to know without even looking at a clock how many words are needed to fill the minute while awaiting a satellite window, live feed or interviewee.
Whenever viewers have the chance to witness the control room of a broadcast facility or observe live at the scene during breaking news events, they are inevitably amazed at the on-air calm and command that transcends the off-air chaos. That’s the essence of skills without script and the measure of the best broadcast journalists.
Adapted from “Skills without Script” – Jill Geisler, Poynter Online
Want to build your "skills without script?" The first RTDNA/Loyola University Chicago Anchor Leadership Summit was held in July 2018. Subscribe here to be the first to know when the next leadership training is scheduled.