16 Dec Shouting at the telly (and the radio)
What do listeners and viewers most hate about the presentation and vocal mannerisms of those behind the microphone or in front of the camera: the professional presenters and news readers? Hard to know where to begin. Sing-song style, mis-placed emphasis, accent, trailing off at the end of sentences, monotone, shouty, high pitched, patronising, faux-enthusiastic….one could go on. Some presenters just get up your nose for no better reason than that they remind you of your sister-in-law or that bloke in the advert. Then there’s that one who’s too posh, northern, estuary, Welsh, Scottish, Caribbean, Aussie….one could go on.
Likewise similar positive judgments are handed out to those we love, on presumably the channels, networks and stations we listen to regularly, for no better reasons – oh I always like so and so – he’s got such a beautiful voice; she can come round to tea – she reminds me of my sister-in-law.
What are these vocal qualities that get us going and why? If you are a broadcaster or want to be one, or just an occasional contributor, how can you acquire the skills to turn your audience on or at least avoid turning them off or, more importantly, avoid being turned off or zapped by the remote?
Should presenters try to change their accents, acquire deeper voices, become more or less excited, tone it down, give it more welly? As a voice and presentation trainer to broadcasters I am asked to tinker with delivery, pitch, warmth, clarity, speed, accent, intonation. Broadcasters often have problems with getting through long sentences, being nervous on live radio and TV, getting it off the page (if they’re reading a script), hesitations and structure (if they’re not). These are all things I can help with. Then there are those I can’t or won’t help with – lisping, weak ‘r’s, regional and foreign accents to name a few; or giving them a beautiful voice – whatever that is.
The issues I do help with that come up a lot are pitch, speed and intonation. Even a short training session can make a difference. Women can deal with their often wrong perception that a higher pitched voice lacks authority. Nervous or adrenalin fuelled performers are encouraged to slow down to keep their audience with them and prevent stumbles. Dry monotone can be spiced up with vocal variation to give meaning to sometimes uninspiring text. But will these techniques make you (the audience) like them more, or annoy you less?
I sympathise with those that shout at the screen because I do it myself. And I often turn the radio down between music tracks because I don’t want to hear the presenter’s over-modulated delivery. These are my reactions as viewer and listener. As voice coach I can suppress these responses to listen for mannerisms that can be dealt with. But I can’t deal with the whims, prejudices and judgements of the audience. It’s usually the case that if something annoys you on the media then it’s not for you – you’re too old, young, educated, ill-informed, male, female, A,B,C1,C2,D,E. But then a new announcer turns up on your cherished Radio 4, that gardener, ex-politician, sports personality, z-list celebrity starts appearing on Classic FM, Radio 2, Sky News, BBC1,2,4, Dave, ITV18…. someone must like them, or then maybe they’re having an affair with the station controller. Still one man’s meat is another woman’s poison. And we will always turn away from pet hates – in my case those who I regard as pompous, egotistical, over-modulating (ministers of funny voices) or who think they have beautiful voices sometimes defined by adjectives like – golden, deep brown, velvet, smoky, lived in, no-nonsense.
Two things that I look out for in those on radio and TV is whether they are focussed on their material (which must interest me), and whether are they speaking to me. Sounds obvious really doesn’t it? But it is something broadcasters are apt to let slide because they’re too busy, they’ve been doing it too long, they think they’re getting away with it, they’re wedded to a delivery that has worked for them well for a long time or they’ve been told they have a voice with an adjective attached to it.
Let’s look at how broadcasters can ‘speak to me’ – the audience. Broadcasting emulates conversation in some (but not all) ways. It’s like a dialogue where one person (the audience) is mute. If it sounds like a monologue where the audience is missing then we the audience are apt to switch off and go missing. We don’t want to be talked at. If however we are being engaged then the broadcaster is talking to us. S/he’s telling us something. Not reading to us, not over-dramatising boring lists – tracts of information, not enjoying the articulacy of their own interviewing technique, not hectoring, not hypnotising us with their dark brown velvet treacle nurtured on twenty fags a day. They are getting something across and here we come to the first of their obligations – to be focussed on their material – what they’re talking about. It’s not how you say it it’s what you say. This is what I tell my trainees – not because how you say it is not important – of course it is – but if a broadcaster focuses on how s/he’s saying it instead of what s/he’s saying then it will be all about how not what and the audience will be focussed on that too. What did she say?
Something else broadcasters need to think about is whom they are talking to, in their need to engage with their audience. Journalists usually have a shrewd idea of who reads their copy and these days they are responded to (and in below-the-line comment sometimes abused) by their readership. Maybe that toughens them up – and if their colleagues on broadcast media get some of the same treatment will they perform differently? And if they don the flak jacket will their performance be affected? Well they still have to reach out to us, and at least they can’t hear us shouting at them on the TV.
But how do they engage us? Well one way is for them to have that imaginary conversation with us, however diverse we are and however many of us there are watching or listening. They need to engage us as individuals, not as a group. So they need to speak to me as one person and you and you, even though we may be in our thousands. Indeed when I was broadcasting it was to millions.
At the BBC World Service radio in English during the nineties where I was working at the time we had a huge audience (45 million regularly tuned in weekly), the majority of whom were either in the Indian sub-continent or west Africa. So my imagination allowed me to focus on one individual representative of this multitude that would fill 900 football stadiums, based on a very sketchy demographic gleaned from audience research: young, male, educated, middle-class. So I started addressing myself to a 26 year old Indian post-graduate science student who I imagined was writing his PhD thesis on metallurgy at the kitchen table in his apartment in Delhi listening to me on the radio. 45 million into one. Hi Deepak!
But back to those we love and hate. Sometimes people say to me can’t you do something about so and so? S/he’s got that accent, emphasises all the wrong words, doesn’t know what s/he’s talking about, trails off etc. etc. and then a few months later these bêtes noires become household names and are not only acceptable but loved. What happened there? Do we now love them for drawing out those prepositions? And then there’s another problem – the airwaves are full of the same voices and faces – the ones we supposedly love; the same people get to do everything – news, current affairs, art, sport, gardening, documentaries, history, art, sport…… And so we end up only getting to see and hear a handful of people. Or it feels as if we do. Isn’t there any new blood?
The senior managers responsible for who ends up and stays on air move in mysterious ways. Their highly paid jobs involve juggling the often even more highly paid talent and moving them around the airwaves. And others are involved, like agents and bookers, which creates a labyrinth that only they understand in this competitive field which is as much to do with marketing as it is with editorial. And marketing one should perhaps leave to marketeers.
But, I will say, the more a broadcaster broadcasts and gets their feet under the table the easier the relationship is with the audience. They start talking to us, not at us. We get to know each other. And like our nearest and dearest we bicker a bit and we have our good days and bad days. Sometimes we fall out. Sometimes we kiss and make up. But they are there – in our living room, car, bedroom, even bathroom and on the train and bus too – and there’s not much we can do about it, can we? Well we can reach for the off button and go some where else which if we are numerous may worry those marketeers into firing and hiring. Meanwhile I will be there, working on the over- modulated, monotone, speedy, highly pitched, boring, slurred, pompous, wrongly stressed delivery style of those that come to me. And encouraging them with – yes that’s much better. Only to go home, turn the telly on and shout at it.