It’s a challenge for even some of the most seasoned TV reporters: having an authoritative yet approachable delivery as they “track” or narrate a story. Also hard: appearing at ease during the on-camera portion of the story, commonly known as the stand-up.
It’s also a challenge for those of us who teach journalism. While we can correct grammar and suggest more conversational phrasing as we coach young reporters on their writing, helping someone sound or appear more comfortable is another matter entirely.
Here are tips that can help a student journalist, or a professional new to narration and on-camera work, improve.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
At Syracuse University, I tell my students to take classroom news scripts home and read them — over and over again — into their smartphones. When they play back the audio, they will often hear problems, such as when they are talking too fast, when the pitch of their voice becomes “sing-songy” instead of steady, or when they emphasize the wrong words.
MARK YOUR COPY
As her clients read copy, NPR talent coach Marilyn Pittman advises them to look for “operative words.” She said these are the words that “tell the story, give it meaning.”
I have my students underline words that they will place a subtle emphasis on when they record their voice. These often include proper names, verbs and adjectives.
David Cupp, a longtime TV news director who now teaches a course on broadcast voice and diction at the University of North Carolina, says another way to sound more professional is “simply to articulate each and every sound you speak.”
“Speak as if the words in your script comprise the most important thing you have ever said. Seriously,” Cupp said. “This will help to fight the automatic flattening effect of reading printed words into a piece of equipment.”
AIM FOR A “NATURAL” SOUNDING DELIVERY
Developing a professional-sounding news delivery is an important part of preparing young journalists for the job market. News director CJ Hoyt of WTOL-TV in Toledo, Ohio, says it’s one of the things he notices when reviewing a resume reel of stories.
“The voice can’t be too high-pitched,” Hoyt said. “If I look at a resume tape and my attention is drawn more to the look or voice instead of what is being said, that’s a candidate I won’t consider.
“What I’m looking for most in a candidate is confidence. They should have a strong voice with an appropriate level of energy.”
PROJECT AND ENGAGE
Energy is indeed one of the hallmarks of a good news delivery. Pittman said it’s also a combination of being “conversational, dynamic, present.”
“A good broadcast voice on public or commercial radio, or even TV or video, makes us listen,” she said. “So the voice fills up the microphone. It’s not really like sitting around the kitchen table chatting. You make it seem real, not forced.”
As for on-camera work, Charlie Tuggle, who also teaches at the University of North Carolina, coaches students to maintain eye contact with the camera and audience.
“We also stress that in a conversation, you never turn your back (even momentarily) to the person you’re talking with,” Tuggle said. “So why turn away from the viewers to point out something over your shoulder that everyone can already see? Network reporters don’t do that, but local reporters very often do.”
Pittman advises keeping hand gestures under control.
“For stand-ups, know your camera shot,” she said. “How high up do you have to gesture to make sure your hands are in the frame? Do your gestures help express the ideas? Are they defined and sharp?”
IF YOU PRACTICE … IT WILL COME
Mojgan Sherkat has been reporting for WTOL for nearly two years and confirms that being in front of the camera every day helps.
“I am much more comfortable going live now,” she said. “Even if I forget how I worded something, even if I all of a sudden blank, I can still keep my composure.
“You’ll learn that you just need to say something that relates to your story. The viewer doesn’t know that’s not exactly how you wrote it in your original script. If you keep your composure and say something, the viewer will accept that.”
Her boss, CJ Hoyt, agrees.
“I’ve advised college students to grab a camera and go shoot a dozen standups a day,” he said. “They don’t have to be real news stories. They need to learn how to effectively tell a story in 8 to 15 seconds.
“You really can’t get enough practice as a young reporter. Those that succeed in this business spend a lot of time working on their craft outside of class and outside of work.”
Suzanne Lysak is an assistant professor of broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or interact on Twitter: @slyseven.