Improving On-Air Performance

How to Polish Your On-Air Delivery

Your school broadcast is a small, in-school daily news and information program. How hard can it be to sit at a desk and read the news?

Plenty hard if you want to do a good job. Broadcasting is a class in professional television journalism and you, as a student, are expected to develop throughout the year as a student broadcaster.

The following are a series of tips designed to help you with those skills. With the right tools and commitment, you can do a credible job as an on-air performer.

Tip One: Television News is a Performance.

In Britain, there is no pretense that television anchors are journalists. There, the host of the news is called a "news reader," a person not trained in journalism, but in performing the news in an impressive and believable manner. The reporters and writers are journalists, but the anchor is a performer, plain and simple.

The British are on to something. In the United States, we have never looked upon television anchors as just performers, but anyone studying broadcast communications learns both the rules of journalism and how to be an on air performer. That's because good TV journalists know that doing the news is as much a performance as acting on a sitcom or appearing on the stage. To succeed on the air, you need to learn this, and to learn the same kind of skills performers in other media learn to please the audience and to come across as a good, likable character on the air.

Good on-air journalists know that the goal is not to go on the air and to
be themselves. To succeed on the air, you need to play the part of a news anchor or television journalist.

So what is this character you are being asked to play? The television newsperson is as well-known as Mickey Mouse in our society. Put into simplest terms, the broadcast journalist is:

Confident: A newsman fears nothing. Most people are terrified of going on television; a broadcaster clearly doesn’t give it a second thought. This strong courage in the face of something most of us fear is one of the main reasons we admire performers of all kinds. A broadcaster smiles ina situation in which most of us would run in terror.

Competent: A broadcast journalist knows what he or she is talking about. He/she understands the things being discussed on the show, knows how to handle problems on the air without blinking, and is completely comfortable handling all the challenges of being on television.

Happy and Attractive: A broadcast journalist has a good attitude. He or she makes an effort to look his best on the air and is very comfortable being there.

Trustworthy: A television newsperson is someone we believe in. We trust them to have done a good job of researching and writing the information they are telling us. A TV newsperson thinks the things he/ she is telling us are important and keeps us informed of the things we need to know.

Is anyone really this confident, competent, happy and so on? No, television broadcasters are performers playing the part of this perfect individual (and there is more to it than we have listed above). Dan Rather gets nervous before going on the air in the same way you will. But he has mastered the skill of playing the part of the perfect newsman on the air, and you can too.

Watch professional broadcasters on the air. Look for the little tricks they play with their voices, their posture, their pace of speech and their attitudes that are designed to make the audience trust them and to remain interested in what they are saying. Borrow those tricks (as they borrowed them from the broadcasters who came before them) and try them out on the air. Pretty soon you'll learn that you can play the part of the newsperson, and soon you may find that a lot of that confidence and competence will go with you out of the studio and into your day-to-day life.

Tip Two: Be a Brady

Remember the Brady Bunch? That happy and endlessly upbeat blended
family from the mid-1970's sitcom? Think about it: each of the kids had lost their real first father or mother. Their remaining parents had remarried, and they suddenly all had really attractive step siblings who might normally have been perfect to date, but who were suddenly living in the next bedroom as their new brothers or sisters. Beyond that, they all fought constantly over various problems in the family, the home and at school (that's what all the individual episodes were about, right). Sounds more like the premise of a Greek tragedy than a situation comedy. Yet they were all constantly happy, smiling and upbeat. (Well, except for Jan, whose insane jealousy of Marsha would have required years of therapy). The Brady kids would have made great T. V. anchors.

Why? Because no matter what's going on in their real lives television anchors are always expected to go on the air with smiles on their faces and an outwardly positive attitude toward the material they are reading, the audience they are addressing and the world in general. That's because, although T.V. is a mass media, to the audience, that person on the air is talking directly to each of them individually. That person on the air must be someone we can trust and with whom we want to spend time.

The television personality is expected to you just as your few friends do: With a smile on his/her face and a positive toward you. TV news work hard at developing this on-air attitude. No matter what is going on off-screen, they try to be one of the few faces you are happy to encounter. That's why we come to like and feel connected to the television personalities we choose as our favorites. Subconsciously, they work hard to make us think of them as one of our personal friends.

The persona of the television anchor you need to adopt to succeed on- air is a part of the adult world, not the teen world you live in on a day- to-day basis. Your viewers have a mental picture of how a good television personality performs and appears, and if you don't live up to that standard, you will not reach your full potential as a news anchor.

Think about in-school theatre productions. Again, theatrical performances are judged by more of an adult, real-world standard. Ever seen an in-school play or choral performance? Most include some students who screw around and don't take the thing seriously, and other students who work hard with commitment and do a professional job, coming off as a really good actor or singer.

The same kind of standard will be applied to the way you perform on your news program. Successful television performers are positive, committed, upbeat and confident. They go on the air with a smile on their faces, approach the audience like a friend, and put forth a positive attitude toward the job they are doing and the material they are sharing with the audience. In other words, when it comes to going on the air, be a Brady.

One note of caution: You are expected to read the news with a smile and a positive attitude. But, be careful not to express the wrong attitude toward a given story. Many times on news shows, anchors have blithely read through stories of, say, an in-school murder spree somewhere in the country with a big, dumb smile plastered on their faces. Not a very professional manner for delivering that particular story.

Remember to be upbeat all of the time, and to smile most of the time.
But deliver news with the attitude you would use if telling it to a good friend. If you were suddenly discussing a terrible murder with your friend, you would still be friendly, but your face and attitude would reflect the seriousness and sadness of the situation. Good news people change attitude depending on the nature of the news stories they are covering. When they don't, it can be pretty funny, and they tend to lose respect.

Tip Three: Control your Voice

Make an effort to listen to the way most people talk. Then, listen to
the way a professional broadcaster delivers copy or reports a story on the air. You should notice a big difference.

The truth is that most people's voices are pleasant, familiar and realty dull and boring. In normal conversation, or while reading to a class, we just speak the words that come into our heads without a lot of concern for the way those words sound to the listener. Put simply, most of us make no attempt to be interesting or exciting in the way we talk or read.

Television personalities, however, seem excited all the time. They deliver copy as though every sentence is important; as though every word is interesting and exciting. Television news people clearly think that the material they are reading is significant and that it is vital that we, their friends in the viewing audience, know about it. The way they talk makes us want to listen to them and to pay attention to the ideas they are sharing. None of this is accidental. And it's not that television news people are really excited over the Federal Reserve raising interest rates a tenth of a point.

Rather, broadcast journalists spend years in college or in special classes learning how to deliver the news in a way which will be aurally pleasing to the listener (aural refers to something you hear). TV journalists who don't catch onto these skills will fairly quickly find themselves out of a job. This is the thing about broadcast journalism that is the most like theatre in both training and the way you do it. But, as that implies, it involves skills you can learn and which you can get progressively better at as the year goes forward.

What sorts of vocal control are we talking about? We'll work on this throughout the year, but the most basic skills are:

Vary your tone

Tone is the sound of your voice, the musical quality of the words. Different notes in a song have different tones. In speech, tone denotes the rising and falling of the pitch of your voice. Still not sure what it means? Sing the line "Mary had a little lamb." Each different note was a different tone. For that line, you used three different tones.

In normal speech, most people are pretty monotonous, meaning they speak in one tone (or, a few tones only slightly different). This makes most natural speech fairly boring and dull. Broadcasters vary the tone of their voices constantly, which makes the material they read tremendously more exciting and interesting than everyday speech. You can also learn to do so. Try the following example. Read these lines as you normally would, without varying the tone too much:

“President Bush welcomed little league baseball players from across the nation to the White House today. He threw out the first ball in the first baseball game ever played on the White House lawn”

Now read the same copy, but vary the tone of your voice. Make your voice go up when the words are underlined, down when they are bold, and stay in the middle when they are neither:

“President Bush welcomed little league baseball players from across the nation to the White House today. He threw out the first ball in the first baseball game ever played on the White House lawn.

Not so easy, was it? But if you managed to vary the tone of your voice as indicated, you probably made yourself sound something like a professional broadcast journalist. Broadcasters never read monotonously. They vary the tone of what they are reading constantly to make the material sound interesting and exciting.

It'll take practice, but this is something you'll need to do as an anchor on the news.

Vary your timbre

Timbre is the intensity of your voice. This is much harder for most of us
to learn about, because the timbre of your voice is controlled in a much more unconscious manner. While we are used to singing and varying tone, the timbre we use, how powerfully, calmly, happily, etc., that we sound is something we control without thinking about it.

If you learn to think about it, and to control the timbre of your voice, you will find it a powerful tool in communicating and keeping people who listen to you interested. Try it. Try saying a sentence casually, as though you don't care too much about it. Then say the same thing again as though it is the most important thing you've communicated that day. You'll find a big difference.

You can use this as a tool. Choose to use your timbre to point out which portions of a script are funny, significant or ordinary. There is no formula, but if you take control of the timbre of your voice, you'll find it a powerful tool for both making your copy more interesting and your performance more powerful.

Tip Four: The Slowest Horse Wins the Television Race

Pace is the speed at which you perform copy. Your pace is the speed at which you work on the air. What makes for a good on-air pace? It really depends upon what you are doing, but generally speaking, when it comes to working on television, slow is always better.

Someone who speaks slowly and carefully on the air is easier to understand and, exudes the confidence we expect from a good broadcaster.

That's the problem. Everyone is nervous going on the air live in front of a large audience. And when we're nervous, we tend to do two things: Speed up really fast and giggle. The problem is that everyone else on the planet knows that people who are nervous speed up and giggle. Therefore, when you behave that way, you are advertising that you are anything but confident and competent, two of the key elements of being a good broadcaster.

It is crucial, that you set a relatively slow pace to your performance when you are reading copy on the air. Remember this simple idea, a fast, racing performance will make people laugh and shake their heads at you; a slow, steady pace will impress them with your confidence and intelligence. As to the giggling, nothing is more embarrassing than losing control and giggling or laughing at yourself on the air. It is the most unprofessional thing most of us will do.

What's the psychology behind giggling? An amateur, facing problems or just plain terror on the air thinks that it will be less embarrassing if the people watching his moment of shame think that he is not taking it all seriously. So, giggling is a way of covering the embarrassment.

BIG mistake, everyone on the planet has pretty much the same psychology. Therefore, everyone knows that if things go wrong during a performance and you bust up laughing you are trying to cover for your problems. And being caught covering up a problem is more embarrassing than just having a problem. You should never try to cover problems on the air by laughing your way through them. You are only laughing at yourself, and 2,000 other people will be happy to join in.

This is different from laughing at something that happens which is genuinely funny on the air. If a light pole falls in view of the audience, and you laugh good-naturedly, explain to the audience what happened, and then go on with the show, everyone will be impressed with your professionalism and ability to handle an emergency situation.

So, if it is psychologically natural to race and giggle, what do you do? Real broadcasters know that doing a good job is really a matter of control: Taking control of one's voice, one's nerves and one's body.

Pace is really a matter of taking control of one's body when the terror of going on the air takes over. How do you do that? By practicing your reading now, and setting a pace for your televised work before you ever go on the air. What should that pace be? Slowly and carefully read every word as though it were individually significant.

And remember, when you get on the air and become nervous, a pace which feels ultra-slow to you may seem ultra-fast to your viewers. Try reading the following passage from a real script slowly and carefully:

“Attention all students who are interested in learning more about French culture.

The first meeting of the French Club will take place on Thursday, September 28th, in Room 403. They will discuss ideas for this year about ways to have fun learning about French speaking countries and their cultures.

There will be a freshman class meeting on Thursday, September 28th at 2:30 in room 408, Ms. Prince's room. During the meeting, the group will discuss homecoming and class elections. They look forward to seeing you there.

Congratulations to the new officers of the National Honor Society this school year. This year's President is Nick Auger, the Vice President is Bob Sheridan, the Junior Vice President is Andy Barker, Secretary is Elizabeth Kowalski, Treasurer is Susan Holloday, the Parliamentarian is Larry Koss, and the Historian/Publicist is Greg Jones”.

“Juniors and sophomores: The PSAT will be given on Saturday, October
21st. Cost for the test is twelve dollars. Registration for the PSAT will begin on Monday, October 2nd and will continue through Friday, October 13th. Bring your twelve dollars to the registration table set up in the cafeteria during the first week of registration. If you wait until the second week, you must go to the Guidance Office during the last fifteen minutes of your lunch period.

This test is a great and inexpensive practice for the SAT. For juniors, the PSA T is used by the College Board to select possible National Merit Scholarship winners. Remember, the PSA T is administered only once a year. Don't miss this opportunity!”

If you did a good job, you read carefully, slowly annunciating every word carefully. Try again and practice on your own in a place where you won't be too embarrassed. Get used to reading at this pace and set it as the rhythm you'll use on the air.

As to giggling or losing it on the show, there is no trick to avoiding this other than self-control. Remember where you are, that you are a professional, and that professionals simply do not lose control on the air.

Tip Five: Keep Control of Your Body

Professionals also keep their bodies in check.

Another difference between just reading on camera and doing a solid job of performing on the air is the way you handle your body. Professionals (and really good amateurs) know at all times how they are sitting, moving and behaving on 'camera. They also know that the way you position and handle your body can convey confidence and strength, or it can convey weakness and terror.

The simplest element of taking control of your body is to sit up and keep your posture upright and erect. How important can that really be? Studies have shown that good posture is one of the strongest elements in human attraction. In research, for example, women were more inclined toward less physically attractive men with good posture than they toward better looking men with poor posture. So sitting up and walking erect can be a powerful tool. Beyond keeping your back straight, however, you need to look comfortable in your posture on air, not like you are straining to sit up. Get in the habit of sitting up all the time so that it is a natural thing to do on the show.

There's more to your body than a straight back. When you get on the air, you may suddenly become aware of your hands and arms and not know what to do them. Do not start moving them all around. First, people wonder what's going on under the desk, and second, moving your hands about is no the way to put forth the calm, professional air toward which we are working. Also, you shouldn't cross your hands in front of you and drop your elbows onto the desk, because you may suddenly begin wiggling your fingers nervously on the air, and you will almost certainly begin sinking down onto your arms on the desk as the show goes on.

What, then, to do with your hands? Most professionals bring tools onto the set to occupy their limbs while on camera. Watch one of the local evening news programs. Most likely, the anchor is on the set with a pen in one hand and a pad under the other. Between stories, he/she makes check marks on the pad, counting down the copy as he/she covers it. Does he/she really need to keep track? No. It's really just a way of occupying those pesky hands and arms. It is important to note, however, that the anchor always keeps his/her elbows off the desk and her shoulders up. Try this method and see if it helps you occupy your own hands.If you like, you can make a list of one word story cues during run-through, and then check them off as we go on with the show.

Punch Key Words

Real broadcasters go through their scripts in advance to choose which words are key in every sentence. Selecting key words, they underline or in some other way highlight them in the script. They then "punch", or accentuate the key words by saying them with more strength and intensity than other words in the sentence. Try reading the following short passage, and punch the words in bold:

“On this day in 1963, Martin Luther King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Before a crowd of more than two-hundred thousand demonstrators, King appealed for an end to racial segregation and discrimination.

Today in 1861, Cape Hatteras, North Carolina was captured by
Union troops in the Civil War. After a two day battle, the North took over the port, cutting off a key route for blockade runners smuggling supplies to the South.

And, on this date in 1964, the first ever weather satellite capable of taking photos at night was launched, leading to the kind of satellite weather forecasting we are used to today.”

By punching key words, news people add excitement and interest to everything they read on the air. As the anchors in a typical high school news program generally create and edit their own scripts, highlighting key words to punch on the air is an easy technique to improve your performance on our program.

Which words should you punch? Everyone's presentation style is different, but as you become more familiar with going on the air, you'll find it easier to plan for the rhythm and feel in your own presentation.

The Perfect Pause

Placing a dramatic pause at the right place in a line can give it extra power and add a great deal to the impact of your presentation. This is another element in setting the right pace to the script you are reading. In real life, people tend just to charge on as they speak. But great speakers know that a brief pause, from a half second to up to two second in length, can add tremendous drama to any sentence.

How? It's really just the trick of anticipation. The viewer's brain is waiting for the sentence, the thought; the broadcaster is developing to be completed. By pausing, you keep the brain waiting that little extra bit of time. The anticipation tenses up the listener, causing him to listen that much more intently to what you are saying, and giving greater impact to your overall performance. The best thing is that this reaction is purely unconscious, so the listener's conscious reaction is to think of you as a really impressive speaker. Try reading the following passage, inserting a solid pause where you see a dash:

“In the News:

By now, we all know the bad news - The Washington Redskins lost for the sixth time in a row to the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. It was a close game - 27 to 21. The team missed the injured Michael Westbrook, but it was a painful defeat - against a weakened Dallas.

The Smithsonian received a big boost yesterday- when Kenneth E. Bering donated 80 million dollars - to refurbish the museum of American History. Three years ago, Bering donated another twenty million dollars. He said he hopes that his latest contribution will help the Smithsonian better depict the pursuit - of the American dream.

Again, real broadcasters go through their scripts in advance and mark key places to pause, usually with a dash (-). Others simply get into the habit of dropping pauses regularly throughout the script and grow to do so almost unconsciously. Either way, the pause is a powerful tool for adding impact to your presentation.

Energy!!

Dull, boring anchors bore the audience. Sleepy, worn-out anchors are tiresome. One of the primary challenges of being a television journalist is that no matter how you feel on a given day, to succeed on the air you must be bright and energetic. That means more than having a positive attitude. It means being bright, full of energy and downright perky.

One trick many professionals teach and that many real journalists practice is to remind themselves that they need to be bright and awake as they are about to go on the air. They use the word "energy" as a pre-show mantra to build themselves up. Huh? Just before they go on the air, some broadcasters will say out loud "Energy! Energy! Energy!" building up their energy level every time they say the word. Think of it as a volume button turning up the anchor's energy level with every pronouncement. It may sound strange, but try it, and you may be surprised at how well it works.

Look your viewer in the eye

People who look you in the eye are trustworthy, honest and attractive. People who avoid your gaze or who shift their eyes all around are suspicious and crooked.

That's a problem for those of us in the business of broadcasting. Why? Because everyone in television reads copy off of teleprompters. And whether the teleprompter screen is on the front of the camera or on a separate screen, when you read, your eyes constantly move back and forth from left to right. The effect of this is to make every inexperienced anchor look shifty-eyed and untrustworthy. What can be done, though? You've got to move your eyes to read, right?

Wrong, experienced television broadcasters learn how to read copy from a teleprompter without moving their eyes, and you may be able to as well. How is it done? Pick a spot on or near the teleprompter. Fix your eyes on that spot and don't move your eyes. Now try to read the text on the teleprompter using your eyes' peripheral vision. You'll find that even without moving your eyes, the words are generally not too far from the center of your vision, and you may be able to read them.

Reading without moving your eyes is a very difficult skill to master. With work, some people will be able to do it, others simply will not. Give it a try and see if you are one of the few who can handle the teleprompter without getting all shifty-eyed.