Why you should expose yourself on TV (Part 1)

Make the information personal
Tim Knight’s series of Master Classes

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

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.

William Shakespeare

So you’re a TV journalist.

Your face is seen, your voice heard on TV.

So you’ve got lots of teeth and great hair and diction.

So you can read aloud and fit words into 15-second gaps on video tape without screwing up.

So the producer says your performance ”looks great leaving here.”

None of that counts.

It doesn’t matter how it looks leaving the studio.

All that matters is how it feels when it gets to the viewer.

All that matters is whether you efficiently pass information and understanding to the viewer.

All that matters is whether you pass understandable, accessible, retainable information to the viewer.

The art of efficiently passing on information to another person — one of the greatest of all human skills — is truly rare in our profession of TV journalism.

In fact, we often don’t communicate at all.

  • Instead, we read at the viewer.
  • We read loud at the viewer.
  • We read loud and fast at the viewer
  • We read loud and fast at the viewer without any involvement in the words or the emotional meaning of the words.

The lights may be on, but there’s nobody home!

TV is an intimate, personal medium. Viewers watch it in living rooms and bedrooms.

An uninvolved person reading loud and fast at innocent people in their own living rooms is very Animus. And entirely inappropriate. To say nothing of rude.

An uninvolved person reading loud and fast at people in their own bedrooms is even less appropriate. And even ruder.

People don’t like it.

If you don’t believe me, try it some time.

So why do we do it?

Why do uninvolved TV journalists read loud and fast at innocent people in their living rooms and bedrooms?

  • Because reading loud and fast without involvement is entirely appropriate to the TV sound booths and studios where the performance is done. Energy levels are high. Time is short. Broadcast technicians and most producers look for efficiency, not art.
  • Because we’re behaving in a manner appropriate to the place we’re in — the studio. Not the place we’re going to be in — the living room or bedroom.
  • Because most of us learned to read by rote — by monotonous chanting. Remember Mary Had A Little Lamb? We don’t really know any other way to read aloud.
  • Because — to lessen the monotony of chanting — we learned to put exaggerated, artificial enthusiasm, cadence, speed and volume on the reading. Teachers praised us for it, too.
  • Because someone once told us that reading loud and fast without involvement somehow gives us energy and authority, to say nothing of objectivity. Think about that for no more than 10 seconds.
  • Because most of our role models as broadcast journalists read loud and fast without involvement and they’re rich and famous and powerful so it must be the way to do it.
  • Because broadcast journalists always have more to say than the time available to say it.
  • Because we think TV communication is somehow different from other forms of human communication. It isn’t. The same rules apply. Human communication is human communication is human communication. It’s the same whether we do it face to face or through TV. How can it be otherwise?

Before you can make the viewer see and feel the information you — the performer — have to see and feel it. So your ability to communicate on TV, just as in life, depends first on:

  • Taking ownership of the information away from the script.
  • Processing the information you’re sending through your own emotions, your own knowledge, memory, experience and humanity.
  • Making the information personal and human instead of impersonal and abstract.
  • Making the script disappear into the thought — so the viewer hears what you’re talking about, sees pictures of what you’re talking about and — most important — feels the emotion of what you’re talking about.
  • If you do these things when you perform on TV, you will automatically think the thoughts, see the scenes and genuinely share in the story’s emotions.

And so will your viewer.

But if the information has no real and human meaning for you — if it’s just words and facts neither tapping into nor triggering your own emotions — you will be no more than a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

Noise without meaning.

You have to be involved, your emotions have to be involved or you’ll have nothing of value to give to the viewer.

You have to make the information in the script personal. So when the time comes to go on camera, you own something of value. Something that is yours. Something you can then give to the viewer.

But you can’t give something you don’t own.

So process and absorb the information, take ownership, make it personal.
Now you have a priceless gift to give away.

  • Now you can build an open, honest, human relationship with the viewer.
  • Now you can give accessible, absorbable information to the viewer.
  • Now the information you send will trigger memory in the viewer.

And once the memory is triggered, the information will be effortlessly received absorbed and retained by the viewer.

Knowledge is based on recognising and retaining facts so as to make connections among them (wisdom is another matter). Knowledge, in this sense, is memory.

Memory is the mind’s strongest element. Everything we are and most of what we do depends on memory. Facts, information, data have no meaning, no relevance, unless they find connections in the viewer’s memory.

When we’re told something on TV (or in real life), the only way we can understand it is by putting it into our own context, connecting it to something we already know. Something already sitting there in memory.

That’s why the information has to be first processed by the performer. So it’s delivered in a form compatible with the viewer’s memory. The viewer’s memory has to click in, recognise the information, categorise it, find its relevance, place it in context. Only then can the viewer process it, find its meaning.

Some more problems with reading aloud at the viewer:

  • You concentrate mostly on not stumbling when you read aloud. And pronouncing names correctly. And having a fine and sexy voice. You don’t think. You don’t take any part in the words. You just read them. As well as you can. But if you don’t take part in the information — think the thoughts, see the scenes, feel the emotions — the viewer won’t either.
  • You’re a reporter. Your natural voice changes when you read your script. Your head is down. Your voice is strangled. You’re saying all those brilliant things to a piece of white paper with black marks on it. You’re concentrate on saying them with what you devoutly believe is your best voice. Under the circumstances, it’s almost certain to be an affected, artificial, pretentious voice. A lousy way to communicate to another person.
  • You’re an anchor, reading from the teleprompter. Just like a reporter, you’re reading ahead just like you learned in primary school. Not concentrating on the information actually coming out of your mouth. You’re splitting your intellectual and emotional focus. The words may be there but involvement and intelligence are missing.
  • Whether you’re reporter or anchor, your speech pattern and cadence, are all wrong. They’re unnatural. Your voice has none of the intelligence, the thinking, the searching, the groping, the urgency — the humanness — of real speech.
  • There are none of the nuances and subtleties which are so vital a part of real, live, human communication. The nuances and subtleties are replaced by artificially smooth, droning assurance. Stories read aloud are not at all unlike those recorded safety messages played on airplanes before takeoff. The messages we all ignore.

When you read aloud you automatically leave out pauses for thought. You don’t provide those natural pauses within sentences which are so much part of human communication. You give no pauses at the ends of thoughts, except when a sentence ends.

But your viewer needs those pauses to process, consider and assess the information. To check it against memory, personal knowledge, biases, likes and dislikes.

Every scene in your script has a different emotional meaning. So your viewer needs you to change the emotional tone of the performance from one scene to the next.

In the end, there’s really not much point in simply reading aloud at the viewer.

Because it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t communicate information to the viewer.

And communicating information to the viewer — the bringing of understanding — is supposed to be our job.

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 writes Part 2 of Why You Should Expose Yourself on TV with practical examples and a written guarantee that his system works.