Expose yourself on TV (Part 3)

“You’ve got to be you”

This column is part of Tim Knight’s series of Master Classes on the craft of Broadcast Journalism for The Journalist. Knight works out of Cape Town and is an Emmy-winning former head of TV journalism training at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

You’ve got to sing, like you don’t need the money,
Love, like you’ll never get hurt.
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching,
It’s got to come from the heart,
If you want it to work.

Kathy Mattea
- Come From The Heart

You’ve got the big story of the day. The week. The year.

The biggest story of your entire career. The sort of story reporters sell their grandmothers for.

Talk about ripping the lid off the rotten underbelly of society!

You’ve spent months on the story. You’re the only journalist who’s got it. You’ve shot eight tapes. But you’re still missing the key interview. The one piece of the puzzle that will hold the story together.

You’ve worked for six weeks persuading that one person to talk on camera. Finally, she’s agreed.

You and the crew fly clear across a continent to record the interview. You sit there in the plane, sip an excellent Cape Sauvignon Blanc, wonder whether your dinner jacket still fits and start working on the words for the acceptance speech.

“I want to thank the Academy … I couldn’t have done it without the little people …”

You get to the other end. Rent a car. Drive half a day. Catch a ferry. Rent mules. Arrive at the vital source’s house, camera rolling, microphone in hand.

“So very sorry.” they tell you at the front door. “She died yesterday,”

You persuade the mules to turn around. Which isn’t easy. Take the ferry again. Drive the rented car back to the airport. You and the crew sit there on the plane trying to salvage the story.

You rush back to the studio. With one minute to spare, you throw together the footage you’ve got and the soundperson records your narration.

Your voice is taut, tight, strangled.

You blame the stress.

“At least you didn’t stumble” says the soundperson politely.

Next day you cover a routine news conference at which nothing of any import or interest is said.

You cut a couple of clips and find some B-roll to wrap around them. Still a couple of hours to air. Lots of time. Even time for lunch.

You record the narration.

Your voice is taut, tight, strangled.

But this time, you can’t blame the stress. There’s been no stress.

“At least you didn’t stumble,” says the video editor politely.

Two entirely different recording situations.

One stressful.

One not.

Yet both times your voice is taut, tight and strangled. It’s certainly not the voice you use when talking to one other person.

It’s your performer’s voice — curse of our craft.

The problem is that we’ve been taught that our normal voices and normal behaviour aren’t appropriate for air. So we have to pretend to be someone else.

Which — whatever the circumstances — produces stress. And stress produces tension. And tension produces physical and mental anxiety.

Your throat tightens. You can’t get any air from your diaphragm (which is where you’re supposed to get air from).

The whole natural bottom range of your voice — the most interesting, attractive, informative part of your voice — simply disappears. So you declaim in semi-hysterical, strangled mono-tones.

Which is sad. Because an enormous amount of the information we pass on, one to the other, relies on your voice having:

  • Involvement
  • Range
  • Breadth
  • Nuance
  • Subtlety
  • Integrity.

So how do you get involvement, range, breadth, nuance, subtlety and integrity into your narration?

How do you get them honestly? With no pretence? No acting?

The answer is that you have to decide on three questions:

  • Who you are.
  • How many people you’re talking to.
  • Who you’re talking to.

DECISION #1 — Who Are You?

Are you an invented person? Are you the person you would most like to be seen as? Is the performance an imitation of your favourite newscaster?

Or are you you? You as you actually are? The honest, real you? you?

If you want to be the best on-air performer you can possibly be — there’s no question.

You have to be YOU.

You may be a second or even third rate performer as you. Tough. That’s the breaks. Because it’s absolutely certain that you’re a fourth or fifth rate performer pretending to be someone else.

To deliver a first-class performance you have to decide who you are
Most of us don’t even consider the question. We automatically put on the air:

The person I’d most like to be seen as.

This person is all-knowing, all-wise, omnipotent, sagacious, insightful, brilliant, charming, irresistible, even god-like. This person has not one iota of doubt about life, the story, the facts of the story or the meaning of the story. This person is deep into absolute certainty.

This person may have been a journalist for 35 years. Or 35 minutes. The attitude, the way of presentation is the same. Which is a pity.

Because “the person I’d like most to be seen as” is a fake. A fraud. An invention.
The camera doesn’t see everything. But it does have a nasty habit of seeing through fakes.

You’ve got to be you.

There’s a song in there somewhere.

DECISION # 2 — How Many People Are You Talking To?

This is not about ratings. This is about the fact that we behave differently according to how many people we’re talking to.

  • Is it 1,000 people?
  • Is it 30 people?
  • Is it 5 people?
  • Is it 1 person?

TV is an intimate, emotional medium. So it’s logical that TV works best, is most effective, when you use it in an intimate, emotional way. When you behave the same way in front of camera and microphone as you do when talking to a single friend about things that matter.

So talk to one person.

And only one person.

DECISION # 3 — Who Are You Talking To?

So far I’ve suggested that you must be yourself on air if you want it to work. No acting. No imitations.

Also, that you’re talking to one person. And only one person.
So who is that person?

Some performers on performance training workshops say they imagine that they’re talking to their mothers, spouses, lovers — interestingly, just the people who will respond with unconditional admiration.

But relationships with mothers, spouses, lovers etc. change. Sometimes briefly. Sometimes for days at a time. Sometimes permanently.

So, if choosing a mother, spouse or lover to talk to is not the greatest idea, who should you talk to?

Some TV journalists answer the question by not talking to anyone. They just read the words. Sometimes beautifully. With impeccable diction. But what looked great leaving the studio doesn’t work once it gets to someone’s living room. There’s simply no response, no involvement from the viewer.

It’s like masturbation. You don’t meet many interesting people that way.
So who are you going to put on air?

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, who founded the school of analytical psychology identified something called the persona as:

“the personality assumed by the individual in adaptation to the outside world.”

It’s the face you present to other people. To the world. Your outward and visible person.

All of us have a thousand personas — all valid, all real — to choose from. The appropriate one snaps automatically into place as soon as it’s called for. No thinking needed. Your personas appear and adapt according to your circumstances.
You’re different when talking to your father, your former spouse, a potential lover, a stranger, a child, a potential boss, the cop who’s just stopped you for speeding, the waiter who’s spilled hot soup on your lap etc. etc. etc.

So before you go on-camera or record a voice-over, you have to make a decision. Which of your many already-existing personas is it appropriate to use?

Here now, Knight’s definition of the ideal professional relationship between you as the performer, and your viewer.

YOU, at your very best, most prepared and persuasive, know some stuff and care about it.

You’re talking to ONE other person — someone you know, like and respect — who knows likes and respects you.

Your job is to help that one other person know the stuff and care about it too.

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.

Next week in this series, Knight explains why reading at viewers is the worst possible way to pass on information — because it lulls them to sleep.