In the original black and white movie, Count Dracula walks into a big, loud party in a castle. He’s all duded up in a tux. Heads turn. All conversation stops. This guy is putting out shear energy, and he’s not even talking!
This month I’m addressing the first of some beginner reporter mistakes and misconceptions that seem to be cropping up more often than before. I think it may have to do with misconstruing labels and terms by believing they are learned behaviors that will get you to the Promised Land – aka your next job. Today is the first in our series.
The goal of this “energy” concept is to alert your viewers: “Hey! Here I am and boy do you want to pay attention to me and listen to what I’ve learned!” But many reporters take this to mean: boost your volume close to a shouting level, decide which words you want to "punch," and overly inflect your sentences with an up and down voice. Three bad things happen:
- Many reporters going for a louder voice are pushing from their throats instead of from their stomachs. This creates a tighter sounding, thinner and higher voice. Tight because the throat isn’t meant to propel words. Thin because you’ve lost all torso resonance, and high because the straining from your throat also tightens your vocal cords, thus making your pitch higher. Remember that your voice is pumped out from the stomach and develops a lovely, natural resonance by vibrating in your torso as it passes up through your vocal cords- and out through your mouth. You can be silly, warm, deadly serious, friendly or as loud as your story calls for (eg. speaking over crowd or first responder noises) but you don’t want to push out your voice from your throat.
- Punching or emphasizing individual words only serves to relegate your information into a series. Of isolated. Words. As many of my clients know: I refer to it as "oomphing." This is not news reporting:
I’m hearing a caveman grunt, trying to communicate with the few words he’s learned. Here’s what he’s really intending to tell us (with a few names changed):
Westvale Borough Councilman James Smith takes full responsibility for what happened.
The suit says their company earned more than $50 million dollars in fees by conspiring with insurers to over-charge 180 clients.
Do your research, write your story and share what you’ve decided is important. But provide your information in complete units, or cognitive chunks. Do not be afraid to try this. The energy within the information will naturally fall into place.
- In effort to impose an overlay of hoopla and excitability- often when it’s not warranted- many reporters are imposing a "fake energy," as distinguished from “fake news.” This wreaks havoc on the real sentiment behind your information. I’m hearing sentences broken into a series of segments that veer upwards... [pause]... upwards... [pause]… and finally land with an up/down at the very end. Mid-sentence upticks make you sound nervous or rushed, and the up/down ends definitely create a semantic implication of “There you go! Bet you didn’t know that! Whoa!” This often does not convey the real sentiment that you intend to communicate.
Let’s try fixing some or all of these bad habits by trying a few sentences. Think about projecting from your stomach and not forcing your voice. Do not get caught up beforehand with what you should emphasize (hint- remember the cognitive chunks), and trust that the facts and implications that your brain is aware of will create a natural flow and up/down inflections of your voice. You’ll read the sentences quickly to yourself to internalize the information. It’s ok to use a quiet muttering voice as you do. Then- go for it! If you’re successful, you’ll be hearing a new, improved voice that better reflects the smart reporter that you are.
Script: Parishioners at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Pebbletown learned this morning that their altar was set on fire overnight.Our Lady of Mercy is the third unlocked church in Simmons County to have been vandalized this week.
Each of us has a unique voice and manner of communicating. Our passion for our work registers differently, as do journalists’ reactions to the same story. If you allow your anatomy to help you speak and project in the most natural, effortless way, if you’re in touch with the greater and more localized nuances of your story, if you remember that each viewer or listener has all kinds of personal reasons for caring and if you don’t try to impress us by trying to be the kind of reporter that SNL loves to make fun of, then you have found your personal energy. Viewers will like you, trust you and want to get their news from you.
Up next: Your Countdown. It may be the devil you don’t know!
News consultant Joanne Stevens has written extensively about broadcast writing, reporting and anchoring, including columns in the former print version of RTDNA's Communicator Magazine, and earlier versions of the RTDNA website. She has taught at Columbia and New York University and serves as a news award judge for the New York Press Club. She has returned to RTDNA.org to offer a new series of News Coach columns with tips, best practices and more. Many of her previous columns are available on her website.