I’m really saying this a lot in sessions these days: “Do something today that you haven’t done before.”
My friend Don Godman is one of the people I hit with that thought recently. And the first attempt he sent me was really quite good, except for one fatal flaw:
Coming out of the weather guy doing the forecast, Don said, “It’s really hot – 99 – and it’s supposed to be even hotter…”
Then we heard the sound of a refrigerator door opening and the unmistakable ‘hum’ of it, as he added “In fact, I’m just gonna do the rest of the show from this freezer. Awww…that feels so good…”
Really cute. It caught the ear, surprised us, and his inflection was perfect. So GO! Right there!
But no; he continued with “Very nice. You know I think I may be suffering from something called Post-Traumatic Thinking of Heat Overreacting,” and then went hopping down that bunny trail for another sentence that led to a more obvious, theoretically “bigger” ending.
But that never works. You can never have another moment of ‘discovery’ as powerful as the first one. Had he stopped with that delicious “Awww…that feels so good” thing and the little chuckle in his voice that ‘flavored’ it, then he’d have done the perfect break.
The lesson is simply “Don’t try to make it ‘more’.” Less is more. And more is too much.
The reason those scenes in movies that we all remember are so great is that, unlike real-life conversations, they’re EDITED.
As we continue to hear the buzz word “stories”, it seems to me that people are talking more, but not necessarily being all that interesting. Every movie is edited. Every book is edited (usually multiple times). Highlights are watched more than actual games. Top 10 lists are the vogue, not Top 100 lists. Stand-up comics start with a good 10 minutes, not a 90-minute HBO special.
The cardinal sin in radio is wasting people’s time. And from a coaching standpoint, believe this: if you can’t do a short break, you can’t do a long break. Most people tend to wander around, stagger into “related” thoughts that can easily take us off the main road into the forest somewhere, and instead of taking the First Exit – the first place where there’s a “reveal” of some sort or where the subject resolves – they keep trying to top themselves or fire more bullets into a dead body.
Try this for a month: not letting any “Content” break or story take longer than 40-60 seconds. Only after you MASTER that length should you do anything longer. And even then, my rule is “Take as long as you need, but be as brief as you can.”
If you’re having trouble getting into Content, well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. Every air talent either struggles with this at some point, or worse, doesn’t know yet that they’re struggling with it. : (
There’s lots of coaching available on this, including my own. We’ve all heard the “Headline first, then tell the rest of the story” thing, for example. And there’s tons of stuff about how to construct a story, how to physically lay out a story in just bullet points, etc., and what a great ending should be.
But here’s the problem: You don’t really know until you know. Human beings may become aware of things and intellectually understand them through reading and talking with people about them, but in the long run, we really only learn through experience – trial and error.
So let me try and help you with the single most important step in doing any sort of Content on the air – the way it starts. My friend Brian Yeager sent a break to me the other day in the aftermath of the 4th of July that began this way:
“I’m not proud of what I did, but…I mean, you know what it’s like. The folks that are up all night after the 4th of July blowin’ off the leftover fireworks…I mean, that’s what it was last night at my house. I recorded a little bit of it; you’ve gotta hear this…”
Then he went on to play the sounds of loud fireworks exploding and his daughter’s chihuahua being completely freaked out by them – and his letting the dog go, which chased off the guy doing the fireworks, complete with our hearing “get this dog off me!” It was really imaginative, and the use of sound made it three dimensional and ultra-visual.
He asked me what I thought before he aired it, and I texted back:
“Good, but the beginning is just about you (the first sentence was “I’m not proud of what I did”) and it kind of lurches along for a few seconds. Just start with “Here’s what happened last night,” and hit the sound effects. From there on, it’s fine.”
Like a lot of people, he just couldn’t get “traction” for a few seconds. (And fyi, one of my basic rules is to not start with “I – me – my” stuff – which is just you talking about you – and instead, either start with the Subject first, then tell your story, or start with the Listener first, then tell your story.)
So the key challenge here is to stop wasting words in overly elaborate setups, and get on into the Subject as concisely as you can.
It’s kind of like swimming lessons. In an episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” Sheldon Cooper says he learned to swim by watching videos online. But of course, that’s not swimming. He’d learn more quickly if somebody just threw him into the pool.
And a lot of the time, that’s what works best on the air, too. Just throw the listener into the pool – put the listener IN the story, then move on. Try it. You’ll save a lot of time, and as we now know, you really only have a few seconds to connect with the listener. Be expedient.
The first version of Brian’s break was 1:06 long. The version he did on the air, with the slimmed down intro, was only 55 seconds. ELEVEN full seconds cut out, and the break was actually better for it.
Here it is:
By the way, Brian is remarkable in that he’s not even a regular on-air talent. He’s the general manager of the station, and was just filling in on morning drive!
One word can change everything. If you’re going to be a truly good Talent, you have to actually think about the words that are coming out of your mouth. I work with people all the time on this.
For example, I heard this the other day:
“I want to hear from you RIGHT NOW. Can you think of a song that’s got something about automobiles in it?”
No. And even if I could, why should I call you? What’s in it for me?
You can’t treat listeners like employees. They’re not here to do your bidding. You’re here to do theirs, actually.
There’s a palpable difference between “Stop by Safeway and get your coupon” (which sounds like an order) and “Stop by Safeway to get your coupon” (which is you explaining an opportunity).
I can hear the feedback now – “boy, that’s really nitpicking.” Yep. You’re right. And that “nit” is the PPM device, showing that I just got tired of being ordered around, and switched to another station with a more inviting tone.
Here’s another, easier to understand example, from my former morning show partner in Dallas, Rick “The Beamer” Robertson, a true wordsmith. Recently, I moved back from Hawaii to my hometown, Shreveport, Louisiana. Rick didn’t know we had moved back, and sent me this text, after hearing about the volcanic activity close to where I used to live:
“I saw there was an erection in your neighborhood. Are you safe?”
Then he sent, “…an eruption.”
No, it wasn’t a typo. He just understands the power of ONE WORD, and made me and my wife laugh out loud.
Maybe you haven’t thought about this in a while, but in moving back from five and a half years in Hawaii to my home town of Shreveport, Louisiana, I’m resetting the stations on my car radio. As a result, I’ve been listening to a lot of different stations recently. And I’m hearing a lot of things on music stations that I thought had been killed off a long time ago…
The “first in, last out” (FILO) thing where every break mandatorily starts with the name of the station, then also ends with the name of the station. (This was always ridiculous. Why do you want to sound like you somehow forgot that you said your name a few seconds ago? And why would you EVER put the name of your station right next to a commercial break? Think about it: You = commercials is not a good impression to lock into the listener’s brain.)
Jocks mindlessly repeating the stupid “positioning statement” (or slogan), as in “96.7 KKIV, your best variety at work.” Geez, this just sounds awful. Every single time they open the mic, robots repeating a phrase that even THEY don’t believe – and that’s what it sounds like.
Jingles singing a bunch of words that are just “print copy” set to music. “The best variety and the home of the Kidd Kracken Morning Show…96.7 KKIV” Why not just sing the phone book?
So-called “interesting” items plucked from a website, someone’s Facebook page, or a “prep sheet” that no one could possibly care about. “Brainbuster” questions that Siri can answer in two seconds. The definition of non-Content.
But the main thing that’s hit me is that most jocks can’t shut the heck up. They just prattle on, spelling out the not-very-entertaining ending to the prattle they’re talking about like they’re explaining it to a four-year old.
I’ve said this before as part of a couple of other tips, but let’s give it a special, stand-alone status: There’s No Such Thing as a Break that’s Too Short.
This is an all-out assault on reading crap off a computer screen. It’s Brevity vs. Rattling-on-for-no-apparent-reason-other-than-you-CAN’T-be-concise.
Here’s what really works: Try to say things one time – no repetition – then hit the next element and turn the mic off. You’ll be amazed at how this simple thought de-clutters your station. And please stop trying to tell the listener what to think about who you are or what you do. Believe it or not, people actually make up their own minds. Instead, be a good neighbor; a friend who doesn’t waste their time. Trust that it WILL work. And you’ll stand alone like the only oasis in the desert.
The buzz word today is “stories”. That’s a simplistic way of saying that personal experiences are more powerful and memorable than just “bits” or “items”.
And the best example I’ve ever seen of how stories should take shape is the TV show “Survivor”. As I write this tip just before Christmas of 2017, “Survivor” just ended the 35th “season” (over a span of 18 years), with Ben Driebergen, a 34-year old Marine from Boise who openly admitted as the show unfolded that he’s struggled with PTSD after serving in Iraq, winning the million-dollar prize. The impact of this “reveal” on other veterans, and the awareness of how hard it is to deal with, no doubt made an impression on millions of people – and every season of that show has had dramatic, amazingly compelling stories like Ben’s emerge.
But there’s something here for you to learn: the primary reason why those stories have made that impact is that “Survivor” is, by far, the best-edited show in television history.
They film literally THOUSANDS of hours, then have to edit them down to the 13 to 16 episodes that make up a season. (Each episode runs 43 minutes. They edit, then edit some more, then edit some more.)
And that’s how you should approach your show. I told a morning team the other day that to reach the next level, the goal is to do breaks that would need little to no editing to make a promo for the show.
Art combined with work ethic. Stories + Editing. If you’re not doing that, hope that I don’t coach your competition. Because you’ll be the one that sounds like you can’t shut up, and are wasting the listener’s time.
A morning show host I work with recently found cause to read a poem on the air. While he meant well, it really stalled out the momentum of the show, and basically just sounded less personal. Here’s the right technique to use:
Paraphrase it, using your own words to frame the subject, then only directly quote a very SHORT quote or passage from whatever it is you’re bringing to the table – whether it’s a poem, like in this case, or an article about something.
My longstanding rule is “Only people with cataracts want to be read to,” but it’s more than just that. Anybody can read something; it’s the easiest and safest thing to do from a talent standpoint, because you can hide behind someone else’s words, not have to work very hard to fill the time, and dodge accountability for whatever the Content is.
But that’s not what we’re here for.
When you just read something verbatim in its entirety, the listener doesn’t learn anything about you, except for what your inflection might reveal. However, even that is limited, because if you do take a different tone from how it’s written, you can seem at cross purposes with the subject matter – in effect, impeaching your own source of information.
You’re FORCED to humanize it more when you read less of it. And that helps the listener bond with you. I often tell talent to “crack your chest open and show us what’s in there,” because in the long run, that’s what becoming a star is all about.
We hear a lot these days about being “transparent” on the air, and I get what the spirit of that is. But being totally transparent can be too close to the bone.
I always use the term “being open.”
Being open is different, and better. If you’re unsure where the line is between openness and transparency, just remember this: Nobody goes to a party to watch a guy fight with his wife. You’re in the Entertainment business. Some things SHOULDN’T be revealed.
This tip is team show-centric, but it actually applies to everyone on the air.
What Team Shows can Learn from Curb Your Enthusiasm:
In every great show, there’s a thin wire to walk between being spontaneous, but still being aware of how it “plays” to the ear. Larry David’s HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a great example of how ensemble shows should work.
Everyone in that cast knows what the circumstance (the scene) is, but it’s not scripted. They may not even have a concrete idea of exactly how the scene will end, but what made that show so successful, to me, is that they’re sensitive to those “don’t try to do more” moments. That’s how you get that perfect form of being Consistent, but NOT being Predictable.
“Curb” is something every team show could study, learn from, and get better as a result. You might want to re-watch a few episodes.