Leading up to last Halloween, a show I work with did a wonderful break that leapt out of the radio about Trick-or-Treating in a Halloween mask. After talking about how restrictive one could be, one member of the team did a “trick or treat” delivery like his face was being smashed in by the mask. It was really funny and SO visual.
Then his partner followed up with how it could have been raining, and did a rain sound effect.
While well-intentioned, this violates my “fire one bullet” philosophy. Think of it like the Lone Ranger. Part of his “legend” was that he used silver bullets. As a kid, I thought “those must be really expensive, so that’s probably why he’s such a good shot.” After all, you wouldn’t want to waste those silver bullets.
Most air talents keep trying for one more laugh, like an amateur on an “Open Mic” night at a comedy club. But for 99% of jocks, you need to remember that you’re not Jim Gaffigan or Jerry Seinfeld. No one paid to see you. One bullet is probably all you’re going to get. So fire it, then move along. If you do have a second thought that you think is valid, do a second break later and fire THAT bullet.
Prior to this past Christmas, I heard a talent talking about how his whole family was going to another state, where they hadn’t gathered in years, for the holidays.
But the story really bogged down when he started itemizing everyone who would be there. One sister, her husband, and her two children; her brother, his wife, and their three kids; her, her husband and their three daughters; and an aunt that they hadn’t seen in years.
No one’s reading the guest list. Summarize, instead of Itemize. “Three families, an aunt, 13 people in all…”
The Art of Storytelling lies partly in honing things down to their most concise version, then just letting it breathe a little bit. But when you get too detailed – especially about people your listener doesn’t know (or care about), the story becomes rudderless and lacks momentum.
Okay, you’ve got a story you want to tell. Great. Tell me the story…but leave half of it out.
Yes, I’m serious. Too much detail, unneeded side roads, too many words to express a thought, too much setup, more than one “punch line”, or “backing and filling” because you’re not very well-organized…those things make even the best story incredibly tedious, and not worth the Listener’s time.
To be a great talent, you have to develop discipline and get concise. Great storytellers hold people’s attention every step of the way, from beginning to end. And remember, you’re not paid by the word; you’re paid by the Connection.
(Yes, I’m sure there’s an exception you can think of, some show in your city that gets away with doling out overly long drivel and has high ratings in spite of it. But that’s not the norm, and their time is coming to an end. The world is getting used to 140 characters being all they have time to read. Listening habits will eventually reflect that, too.)
This is a follow-up to the “Less is More, and More is Too Much” tip from a couple of weeks ago…
Thirty seconds is a significant amount of time. Companies literally pay millions of dollars for ONE 30-second ad in the Super Bowl.
The latest research is showing that millions of Gen X-ers and Millennials go to You Tube to see a video, and if doesn’t have a “Skip this ad” thing after just a few seconds, they won’t stick around to watch it at all. That’s the mentality we’re dealing with.
You owe it to the listener not to waste his or her time. You owe it yourself as a performer to develop the skill set of refining and editing what you do so you don’t waste words, repeat things, or take unnecessary “side roads”. Sixty seconds is a LONG time, and two minutes is an eternity.
Yes, of course, an occasional longer break is fine, but automatically thinking “you have two minutes” (or more) is wrong. You don’t…unless you EARN it. You want more TSL? Try not being tedious to listen to.
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.