One of the basic skills that television news reporters need is the ability to speak to camera without notes.
Commonly called, Stand-ups, these short segments showing little more than the reporter saying a couple of sentences at the end of a news piece to sum things up are a real challenge for many.
I’ve worked alongside some reporters who will do upwards of 20 takes, or attempts to camera before they get their 18 seconds of wisdom out properly.
For the uninitiated you might think that the solution is to write the words down on cards to be held just outside of camera shot so the reporter can read them off. That will work only if there is a third person to hold the cards, and most frequently there isn’t a third person, and it can only work if the reporter is skilled enough not to stare at the cards. Humans are highly adapted to detecting eye movement and direction and we can all tell instantly when someone is looking at us, even across a room, or whether a reporter on television is looking at the camera or some notes to one side.
You might think that memorization would be the answer. For some that is true, but unless you have had proper training as an actor everything you say to camera will scream “I am desperately trying to remember the next word I have to say after this word and then the next one, and just what the hell was I supposed to remember.”
So, how do you explain how some reporters can speak coherently and effortlessly to camera for far longer than the typical 18 second closer?
Practice goes a long way but the main skill comes from acting. While everyone has their own techniques the main one that pays dividends for the inexperienced reporter is focus; simple concept that completely escapes many journalists.
In essence, you decide what you want to get across, the message, decide on the general thrust of your thoughts, shape them to your own way of speaking and then like a frog leaping from one lily pad to another across a fathomless pond, you proceed from focus to thought and to sentence until you are done.
Once you have this basic technique it is possible and reasonable to pull off the most complicated, script-less, and cogent performances with a minimum of stress.
The greatest example of a performance to camera that I know of is Robert Carlyle’s 5 minute 30 second Johnnie Walker Scotch commercial where not only does he deliver a flawless script but he does it on one continuous camera shot, without cues or notes, and while walking and performing through a rock strewn landscape.
While you watch this incredible performance also be aware of the unbelievable camera work which is as much a delight to watch as is Carlyle. (The bit near the beginning where the Highland Cow turns her head with his movement was unscripted and unplanned and very nice)
You are going to have to take my word for it but there was no post-production audio work other than equalization etc in the making of this — in other words nothing was fixed up in a voice-over studio afterwards.
Carlyle worked over two days before on the 40th take he pulled it off. I could try for 40 days and never do this. I know some people who wouldn’t be able to keep things in the air for 40 seconds no matter how long you kept them before the camera.
There are a couple of things going on here that helped him greatly.
First, he is a highly trained actor.
And second, notice that he is performing actions in relation to props and locations as he goes. He clearly had blocked out the walk so that when he came to a particular rock, bend in path, or prepared prop such as the whiskey barrels etc, he knew that he had to be saying a specific thing in his script at that precise moment.
And that’s the key technique that television reporters can use to nail their 18 seconds of on-camera faux wisdom.
Put some movement into those 18 seconds. Start talking, take two steps, raise arm and point, gesture to camera – all of these elements and things like them in an on camera standup or bridge give you markers. The act of finishing the two steps acts as a trigger to the next phrase, the arm raise prompts for another sentence, the gesture to camera triggers to emphasis you need in your concluding statement.
If you just stand still in front of the camera, have no clear idea of the kinds of things you want to say (never mind the actual words) and try to look natural, then all you will do is provide endless fun for the video editor who will snigger uncontrollably as butchered take after take comes up on screen.
This is a skill that any television reporter without brain damage can master with some practice. Watch the Johnnie Walker commercial a few times and see what you can learn. Also, pay particular attention to BBC World Television reporters. They are the best in the world at this stuff, not because they are intrinsically better journalists, (although in fact they probably are,) but because they have been trained and trained in how to do it. They also practice, or rehearse, every chance they get.
I have seen some of the best pull off 60 second ad-lib walking-talking, all but dancing, performance to camera without a single mistake and in one take.
One final tip. If you stumble three times in your stand-up, at about the same point in your spiel, then back off for a couple of minutes and rethink what you are trying to say. Repeated stumbles on the same word or in the same spot mean that you do not have a clear focus, your thoughts aren’t right, your internal cues aren’t working, and you are probably trying to use a word that you would never normally use.
Plowing on through another 43 takes is unprofessional and a waste or everybody’s time.