Writing for Broadcast: How to Sound Like A Real Person

The best anchoring and reporting starts with great writing.

Reporting and anchoring are as much about delivery of content as they are about the content itself.  Stress the wrong word and the meaning changes.  Mispronounce a name and your credibility is shot.

And you don’t want to sound like Ron Burgundy.

Making the transition from expository writing–or even print journalism–to broadcast can be tricky and requires journalists to think about writing from an entirely new perspective.  Instead of writing for the eye (when reading words on a page) you must write for the ear.  In the famous words of Yoda, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

The following tips come from the invaluable text Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production written by Jonathan Kern.

The main idea is to WRITE THE WAY YOU SPEAK.

  • Think about your delivery as if you’re speaking to one person–your mom.
  • Use contractions: it’s ok to say “doesn’t”  “it’s” or “we’ll find out”
  • Don’t use words you wouldn’t use at other times.  For example, a “robbery” is not a “heist.”  And “snow” is not “the white stuff.”  “However” becomes “but.”  And forget about SAT vocabulary.
  • Keep sentence structure short and put the subject at the beginning of the sentence.  Viewers can’t go back and read the beginning of your sentence like in a newspaper.  You only get one shot at conveying your information, so don’t lose them with complicated sentences.
  • Write in the active voice.  For example, “Students have been told to report sexual harassment” becomes “Teachers and principals have told students to report sexual harassment.”  This also helps paint a vivid picture of events.
  • Avoid hypothetical questions.  Never say “Have you ever wondered…?” (the answer is no). Or “What about America’s love affair with celebrities?” (well, what about it?)
  • Don’t overwhelm people with too many names and numbers.  Similar to long sentences, the audience will get buried with stats and forget what you’re talking about. Better to use titles or graphics over your voiceover to SHOW these numbers.
  • Know how to pronounce foreign words and unusual names.  Even common names might be pronounced differently that you think.  NPR host Michele Norris pronounces her name MEE-shell, for instance.

Michael Hernandez teaches broadcast journalism at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, CA.  Follow him on Twitter:  @cinehead.

Michael Hernandez

Michael has taught Film/Video Production and Broadcast Journalism since 1999, and advises the Pacemaker-winning Mustang Morning News. He regularly presents seminars on journalism, video and technology-related topics, and is a former JEA National Broadcast Adviser of the Year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cinehead

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One thought on “Writing for Broadcast: How to Sound Like A Real Person

  • March 2, 2012 at 10:12 pm
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    You have just validated my instruction for the unit my Broadcast I class is in the midst of. Good to know we’re speaking a similar language. I also like to refrerence a great technique from Al Tompkins from the Poynter Institute. O.T.P.S= One Thought Per Sentence. This helps the young writer find a focal point to write clear, concise, and simple sentences.

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