Friday, November 14, 2008

The power of the "thank you" note

I have one drawer in my desk that is filled with happy stuff. Pictures of friends, media badges from various stories, funny articles...

And thank you notes.

Nothing brightens a bad day than re-reading an old message from someone who appreciated something I did long ago. May have been advice, an opportunity I provided; doesn't matter. What matters is that someone took the time to actually take out a pen, write something in longhand, put it in an envelope, stick a stamp on it and mail it.

And while most managers probably don't save stuff like this (the Grape, though a dyed in the wool New Yorker, has a sentimental streak), the effort sticks in their minds like glue.

Emails are easy, take a few seconds, and guess what? If you're sending them to a News Director you have about a 50-50 chance of them actually being read. No one sends snail mail thank you notes anymore, so this is your chance to stand out from the crowd.

Has a News Director sent you nice feedback on your tape even though you didn't get hired? Send a note. Have you been on an interview? Notes should go to everyone with whom you spent significant time. Did you rub elbows with a crew from a network or big market on a recent story... and did those people help you or give advice? They should get thank you notes.

It's old fashioned, sure, but it just screams class. It tells me a young person is polite and was brought up right. (And manners are in short supply in this business.)

And it makes me remember their name. Down the road that could pay big dividends for you.

So next time someone is nice, take a minute and go the snail mail route. You don't have to write anything long winded; it's the thought that counts.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Good book & a hot bath... or a bad date?

A few years ago I worked with a terrific young lady who was unattached. She rarely dated, didn't want to be fixed up, and once told me, "I'd rather sit home with a bottle of wine, a good book and a hot bath than have a bad date on Saturday night." In other words, better to wait for the right guy to come along than spend an evening with one just for the sake of going out.

Yes, time for another dating metaphor. Bottom line, grabbing the first job offered just to get outta Dodge might be a bad move.

Of course these days, multiple job offers aren't exactly the norm. And if you're looking for that first job, you don't really have much in the way of bargaining power. Still, you have to be selective when making any move. The right move can do wonders for your career, while the wrong one can really set you back.

I once was so desperate to get away from a certain News Director that I took a job that was totally wrong for me. The station wasn't committed to quality, and I didn't do my homework before making the move.

So when you get a job offer, take time to breathe, step back, and take a look. Remove the rose colored glasses and get an honest assessment of what you'll be going into.

-Check the product. You can usually do this online. Is the newscast a good one, or is the quality not up to your standards?

-Check the photography. Do the packages have great video and editing? Or are earthquakes (no tripod) prevalent in every story?

-Will your job be as a one man band? This is crucial, and you need to get your job description in writing.

-Research the ND. Screamer? Nice guy? One who will give you honest feedback? And you should also find out the ND's history. On the way up or down?

There are the other things that always factor in, like money and benefits, but the important factors are those that will affect your career.

And if the opportunity doesn't feel right, get a good book. Otherwise you literally could end up in hot water, and it won't be from the bath.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Live shots made simple

Long, long ago (about 1989) in a galaxy far, far away a lot of the fun and quality went out of television newsrooms when a meeting like this took place somewhere at a consulting firm:

Consultant #1: "We need to put more excitement into newscasts. How about more live shots?"

Consultant #2: "Suppose there's nothing going on that's live?"

Consultant #1: "Who cares? We'll go live for the sake of live! We'll do it in all caps with exclamation points! We're not live anymore, we're LIVE!!!"

Consultant #2: "But won't the reporter look stupid being live where nothing is going on?"

Consultant #1: "You're missing the point. The audience gets excited when you're LIVE! We can be LIVE! two or three times each newscast! Doesn't matter if there's anything going on. The reporter will be LIVE! so it will seem like a big story!"

And that's why so many of you do so many meaningless live shots. ("We're live at the scene of a car wreck that happened so long ago the insurance claim has already been paid.") That's one reason you don't have enough time to put together quality packages. Chances are that's not going to change, so we might as well deal with it. Problem is, so many people have never actually been schooled in the care and feeding of live shots. If you're one of those people who have been thrown into the deep end of the pool, you're probably wading through these uncharted waters by just winging it. And live TV is no place to do that.

Live shots are hard to teach. Some 20-year veterans can't knock out a decent live shot, while occasionally you see a rookie who is a natural. But you can make live shots more manageable and less stressful if you simplify them.

Problems generally fall into two categories; nerves and memory lapse. If you've been brought along with a teleprompter a live shot is akin to working without a net. So many things can go wrong it is scary. But don't drive yourself nuts worrying about technical problems. Reporters need to focus on getting comfortable. If you can master that part, that's half the battle. But the biggest problem young people face is trying to do and/or memorize too much. The result is a stumbling, read-off-the-pad live shot that looks awkward and doesn't deliver much information. (Tricks on how to get rid of the notebook in your live shots are coming up.) So start with baby steps, and then work your way up as you get comfortable.

There are two rules to make your live shots simpler when you are just starting out. The first is to put the bulk of information in your package and the intro for your anchor. The second is "short live intro."

So let's start with our hypothetical live shot and our two reporters, Jim Goodhair and Susie Smart. Both are young reporters. Jim wants as much face time as possible in his live shot, so his live intro is very long and his package is short. Susie wants to hit her roll cue perfectly so her live intro is short and to the point. She has also put some key information in the anchor intro. (In case you hadn't figured this out, Jim is a Ken-Doll with the IQ of a tabletop. Susie sat in the first row of her class.)

ANCHOR: "The long awaited meeting at city hall is over. Jim Goodhair is standing by live with the details…Jim?" JIM GOODHAIR: "Well, the proposed tax hike made for a packed house at city hall and a close four-to-three vote in favor of the bill. When all was said and done, there was plenty of bad news to go around. There will be a five-point-seven percent increase on property taxes, a new garbage fee of fifteen dollars per household, and an increase of the driver's license fee of five dollars per year. Most of those new fees will be implemented during the next fiscal year that begins on October first."

Did you get all those numbers? Because unless you're a CPA standing by with a calculator you'll have to buy the morning paper. And don't you want to know if your councilperson voted yes or no as soon as possible?

OK, let's give Susie a crack at this. Remember, think short and simple and don't be afraid to delegate some information to the anchor intro.

ANCHOR: "The cost of living just went up in the city… as four council members voted to pass the long debated budget. Susie Smart is standing by live…Susie?" SUSIE SMART: "Well, if you own a home, drive a car and throw out the trash, it's going to cost you more to do it. The new budget will cost your family about two hundred dollars each year…now meet the people who passed it."

We're only about fifteen seconds into the newscast and already we know the budget passed by a close vote, how much the taxpayer is going to get hit, and what's going to cost more. Susie used three key words on her notes: home, car, and trash. She only needed to memorize two sentences to hit her roll cue and she's into the package identifying the evil council members who raised taxes. Jim, on the other hand, loaded his intro with numbers that needed a graphic (Susie, being the smarty that she is, put that in her package) and had to read them off the pad to make sure he got them right. You can save more information for your live outro because you don't have to worry about a roll cue. If you're going to stumble and lose your place, better at the end than the beginning. Psychologically, you'll be less nervous if you've nailed your two-sentence intro. You can now take a breath during your package and relax.

By the way, if you can't remember roll cues, here's a trick. Many reporters just say, "Take a look." Just make sure the producer and director know this is your style.


Maybe it is just me, but when I see a reporter doing a live shot with a pad, that tells me the person really doesn't know the story all that well. For the most part your live shot will look better if you are talking instead of reading. Boil the points you want to make down into key words, and then hide the notes. (For those of you who did this in high school, it should be a breeze.)

So here are some tricks to let you cheat with what is basically a low budget teleprompter.

-Write key words on the inside of your fingers. You can use your hands to gesture while stealing looks at your notes.

-Write your key words on a piece of cardboard, and then clip it to the tripod or bottom of the camera lens. (But don't clip them to the lens if the camera is going to move or if it is windy.) If the camera is going to be moving, put your notes on the ground.

-Make objects your notes. For example, if you are doing a live shot after a hurricane, you know you're going to talk about a damaged hotel, a closed bridge, and military presence. So you are going to point to those three things in a walk-and-talk instead of trying to memorize them. And it is always nice to actually show something besides yourself during a live shot. Get the camera to move around if there is something interesting. Remember, show and tell. You can use chalk to mark your spots on the ground if it will help.


-The Big-Ego anchor. Occasionally you'll run into an anchor who likes to throw curveballs to reporters on live shots in the form of really obscure questions. I once heard an anchor say "it keeps you guys on your toes." In reality, some anchors do this to make themselves look smarter on camera. Bottom line, it makes the reporter look unprepared, and the station look foolish. Work it out with the anchor and news director.

-Questions that have been previously set up. Is there anything more transparent than having an anchor ask those seemingly obscure questions and the reporter remarkably coming up with an answer? ANCHOR: "So, Jim, I guess the new nuclear power plant will mean lots of jobs. By the way, what is the atomic weight of uranium?" REPORTER: "Well, John, it happens to be 238.0289." You're really not fooling anyone. The only time for a question should be if you are honestly live with breaking news.

-Live shots & alcohol mix about as well as Bailey's Irish Crème and tonic water. If you get stuck with a live shot in a bar, you might as well tack a "please harass me" sign on your back. If you're a woman, take along a CSI team to dust you for prints. Doing live shots surrounded by sloppy drunks, guys cheating on their wives, and people who have called in sick is just a recipe for disaster. Make your live intro and outro as short as possible if you are assigned one of these.

-The Mix/Minus problem. Occasionally someone at the station forgets to throw a certain switch. All of a sudden your own words are coming back into your earpiece on a two second delay. This can be really confusing. If this happens, pull the earpiece out of your ear. Someone at the station will hopefully notice and fix the problem.

Hopefully this will clear up some live shot problems and make life a little easier for you. As you get more experienced you'll get more comfortable with the process, and eventually you'll be able to do live shots on autopilot.

But as for how to make a ten-hour old car wreck interesting, I have no clue.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The confidence machine

Wouldn't it be great if there was a device television reporters could use to turn their confidence on to its highest level when it came to job hunting?

Well, there is. It's called a microphone. Stick one in the hand of the most shy journalist you've ever met, and chances are that person will morph into a take-no-prisoners reporter with absolutely no fear. The microphone and camera and live truck give you license to act outside your personality, to become someone you're probably not. They are your shields, protecting your true self. You're almost bulletproof, protected by the First Amendment.

And that's why so many of you lack confidence when applying for jobs. No microphone. No live truck. Pit bulls in the field, wallflowers with resumes tapes. It's almost as though the resume tape sucks the confidence out of you like a vampire. Give a man a microphone and he's Brad Pitt in a singles bar. Take it away and he's a tongue tied kid at the high school dance.

It's amazing to look at resume tapes of reporters who can truly kick the competition in the field, then hear them over the phone as their self-doubt won't let them put a tape in the mail.

So, wise Grape, how do you get the confidence in the field and translate that to your job hunt?

For that, you need to watch the movie "Hoosiers" with Gene Hackman.

(At this point you're thinking the Grape is heading off the deep end, but bear with me.)

In case you haven't seen this movie, it's about a small town basketball team heading to the state championship. Toward the end of the movie the kids walk into the biggest arena they've ever seen and their jaws drop. Hackman takes out a tape measure and shows them the rim is still ten feet off the ground and a foul shot is still fifteen feet.

And by the same token, a package on the network is the same as a package in market 210. Video, nat sound, sound bites, standup, good writing and editing. There's no magic formula that makes a network or major market package any different than the one you do today.

Opportunities for young people have never been better, as my generation is leaving local news in droves. Take your shots now. And if you have to hold a microphone while going to the post office, well, so be it.

Thank a vet today

Over the years I've worked with lots of veterans, many of whom were photographers. Many had both external and internal battle scars.

All served so that we remain free to do things like broadcast news... and write blogs like this one.

Many people think Veterans Day is yet another day for shopping, but in reality it is meant to celebrate those brave souls who keep us free.

There are veterans at your station. Find them and thank them today.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mailbag: How do I know when I'm "over the top?"


I'm an anchor in m first job and I'm trying to inject more personality into my delivery. When I'm on the set I think I'm going "over the top" but then when I watch the tape I'm still a little dull. So how do you know when you've done enough?

-Rookie anchor

Dear Rookie,

First you need to remember that you are the worst judge of your own work. But it is good that you are watching your airchecks in an effort to get better.

How much energy do you need? Well, what's your goal? I've always told you guys to dress for the job you want, not the one you have... well, the same holds true of your performance.

The "animation spectrum" is very broad. At one end is Mary Hart, who is the ultimate "over the top" television personality... but she does an entertainment show, so it's OK. You couldn't go that far in news. At the other end are the small and medium market longtime anchors who died in 1988 but no one told them. They make Ben Stein look like Chris Tucker.

Everyone needs a touch of Mary Hart in their delivery, especially if you want to make it to a big market or a network. Mastering the art of "talking" versus "reading" takes a long time for some, while some are born with that talent. But unless you can connect with the viewer and look excited while doing so, you're probably not going very far.

Two little tricks that can help you...

-Before you watch your aircheck, tape a piece of paper to the monitor so that the bottom of the screen is blocked. Turn the sound off. Now roll your aircheck and look at your eyes. Are they excited or somewhat lifeless? Remember, the eyes are the windows of the soul, and yours must connect with the viewers.

-Next, roll your aircheck and don't watch, just listen. Does your voice sound excited, or are you just reading without any inflection? Would your voice draw a viewer into the room the way a sportscaster's does when something exciting is happening?

You should also, if you're in a small or medium market, watch the networks and visit big market websites to watch the talent. You'll note that being "over the top" can pay big dividends, as long as you don't take it too far.