Friday, December 14, 2012

Anchor tip week: life force and "the rule of 22"

Resume tapes for anchors are a little different than those for reporters. While reporters need to show their versatility in a montage with live shots, standups and set pieces, the anchors need to do so in a different way.

Here's the key. While reporters need to show a wide range of reporting skills, anchors need to show a wide range of personality. And a ton of life force.

This goes back to our "talk, don't read" rule of anchoring. A great anchor not only talks to the viewer, but also conveys his or her personality. Viewers don't want someone who just reads the prompter well, but someone who can do it with the right tone, the right amount of emotion, the facial animation that shows a life force which jumps through the screen.

It's like going to a party. There's always someone who is the center of attention, someone with such a strong life force it attracts everyone.

Anchoring is the same way. But here's the problem: anchors work in a business in which they have to have our most energy at the end of the day. When most people in the real world are getting ready to pack it up for the evening commute, anchors need to bring that life force to the front in a big way. Many times you're tired, your muse is sluggish, you're ready to head home and relax... but you know you've got a newscast to anchor. And you might not have the energy to do it.

So here's the rule of 22: In every thirty minutes newscast, there are eight minutes of commercials. Which means you're on the air for just 22 minutes. Subtract maybe six minutes for weather and sports and you've got even less face time. But during those 22 minutes, you're the focal point of the newscast.

So don't think about the newscast you have to anchor at the end of the day as something to do before the shift is over, think of it this way: "I really only have to be up for 22 minutes every day."

Several years ago I worked with an anchor who was always dragging at the end of the day, and it came through on the air. I took a big black magic marker, wrote the number "22" on it, and taped it above her computer. She used it as a reminder to make sure she was up at the right time of the day. Her anchoring got a lot better.

If you have to pace yourself and conserve energy to do this, then do so. But great anchors manage to bring that life force to the forefront every day for those 22 minutes. They may be absolute slugs the rest of the day, but when the red light goes on, their energy level is at its peak.

Remember, the viewer, and the News Directors you're trying to impress with your resume tape, don't care how hard you worked all day before the newscast. They just want to see the end result. It goes back to Bill Parcells' tacky quote: "Don't tell me about the pain, show me the baby."

Can you be at your best for just 22 minutes every day? If you think about it that way, and save your best for the studio, you'll take your anchoring to the next level.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Anchor tip week: breaking in

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth they broke in reporters on the anchor desk by having us do the cut-ins. It was basically ninety seconds, toss to weather, and that was it. Throw in a vo/sot or two, and you were basically on camera for less than a minute. Do that four times a day for five days, and by Friday you were pretty comfortable on the desk.

Why News Directors don't do this anymore is beyond me, as it is one of the best ideas of the past that has disappeared. Why throw someone in the deep end of the pool when you can let them wade in from the shallow end?

Anyway, after a few weeks of doing cut-ins, a full newscast wasn't a big deal for me.

But since you probably don't have the luxury of practicing during cut-ins, some suggestions.

-Schedule a practice session, perhaps between newscasts when someone can run the prompter for you. Then look at the tape to see how you're doing.

-On the day you anchor, make sure you read your script aloud. By doing this you'll spot the places you might run out of breath, and then you can re-write accordingly.

-If a producer is going to write your script, you need to re-write it to your own style. It's easier to read your own words than those of someone else.

-Go over the script with the director before the newscast. He'll point out any problem spots and make you feel more comfortable.

-Learn to read off the script. Prompters die all the time and you need to keep up the old fashioned way when they do. And you'll be able to see those breath marks and camera changes.

-Make sure you have plenty of breaks in the first newscast. Packages and vo/sots give you a chance to regroup. Nothing is worse for a rookie anchor than to have two straight minutes of copy at the top of the newscast, because if you stumble out of the gate you'll be a snowball going downhill.

-Read normally. Psychologically you'll speed up, since you want the thing to be over with as soon as possible. What this does is make you stumble and causes your voice to get higher, same as a record played at a faster speed. (Sorry for the dinosaur reference, but it's the only way I know to explain it.)

-Make sure you have water on the set. Cotton mouth is a really common problem among rookies.

-What the heck, ask the ND if you can do some cut-ins before your debut. Your morning anchor sure won't complain.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Anchor tip week: Chemistry and avoiding the dead fish

Chemistry is one of those intangibles you can't predict. When a News Director puts co-anchors and anchor teams in place, he has no idea if those pairings will click or not.

And even the best anchor in the world can look average when paired with the wrong people.

A few years ago I had a client who was very talented, but couldn't get any decent cross talk with her co-anchor. She was loaded with personality and he made Jim Lehrer look like an extrovert. Luckily she managed to get some decent chatter going with her sports and weather anchors.

Very often a problem like this one is caused by pairing people who have little or nothing in common. And when this happens, you can get handed what is known as a "dead fish" in the middle of a newscast. That's when another anchor makes such a bizarre toss that you have no way to come back, as if someone handed you a dead fish and you say, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?"

I've had this happen to me a few times, as we had an anchor who liked to hand off with lines that made absolutely no sense.

So, bottom line, you need chemistry and no dead sea creatures.

Sometimes chemistry is natural, as you connect with the people with whom you're anchoring. But sometimes you have to work at it.

The easiest way to do it is the most obvious. Get to know the people you're anchoring with. Go to lunch or dinner, spend some time together off the clock. (I'm not suggesting you date anyone at the station, which is usually a huge mistake.) And if you can't spend time together away from the station, take some time to talk during working hours about stuff that has nothing to do with news. Find out what your co-anchor does off the clock, wander back to the weather and sports departments and shoot the breeze.

The better you know the people you work with, the better your anchoring will be. Viewers can tell if the people on a news team actually like one another, and so can your future News Director.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Anchor tip week: Marking your script

You can always tell the anchors who are solely dependent on the prompter. When the thing goes out, and it always does at some point, it's a parade of "uh...well...uh..." and a bunch of stumbles.

The old fashioned paper script is your friend. It's your safety net, your guide. The sooner you get that idea through your head, the better you'll be as an anchor. It's like the rear view mirror in your car. You need to check it every few seconds. As an anchor, you want to glance at your script the same way.

Yesterday we talked about marking your script for camera changes. But there's a lot more you can add to a script to make your anchoring better. Remember, the black Sharpie is your friend.

(By the way, this assumes you actually rehearse before your newscast. This means reading it out loud. More about why this is crucial later.)

-Underline words or phrases you want to punch. There are keys in every story, since you don't just read the script in a monotone. Identify the keys and highlight them.

"We could go over the fiscal cliff this week if Congress doesn't start working together."

"Lindsay Lohan is in trouble again."

-Use arrows to indicate your tone. Some anchors use a down arrow for a somber story, and up arrow for a happy feature.

-Use breath marks if you have a really long sentence or want to pause for effect. You'll find these places when you read aloud. Remember, if you run out of breath when reading a sentence, the sentence is too long. Chop it in half. But if you're one of those people who runs out of gas with sentences of normal lengths, or if you want a slight pause in a sentence, you can put slashes in your sentences called breath marks / which look like that.

-Note which camera you're reading to on the top of the page with big, bold numbers and which camera you're turning to on the bottom.

-Write the names of your weather and sports people on your pages for those segments. You'd be amazed how easily you can forget this stuff.

-Write ideas for cross talk on those same pages. You might write "freeze warning" for your toss to weather and "Mets make stupid trade again" for your chit-chat with the sports guy.

Finally, don't always throw your script away after the newscast. If you had trouble with a certain story, go back and take a look at the script. Was your sentence too long? What words made you stumble? Could you have avoided it by rehearsing more?

Remember, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. When you get the opportunity to anchor, make sure you're prepared. Marking your script can go a long way toward that... and making your own luck.


Monday, December 10, 2012

It's anchor tip week: first up, the camera turn

Most young people getting into the business dream of the anchor desk. Then, one day, your shot comes.

You're given a script and told to read the prompter.

That, boys and girls, isn't remotely the definition of anchoring.

It's an art, one that is often natural, but one that can be improved upon. Some people "get it" right away, some never do.

So this week, we're going to focus on little things that can take your anchoring to the next level, make you more comfortable and therefore more marketable. Today we're starting with something so basic that it's almost never taught: the camera change.

Every newscast has them. You read some stories to one camera and the rest to another. And invariably, rookies finish a story on camera one and simply turn their heads to face camera two. This not only looks awkward, it makes it hard for the director to punch cleanly.

First, you have to know a camera change is coming, so marking your script is crucial. Let's say you have a story on an election on camera one and the next story will be one on the economy which will be read on camera two. Take a black magic marker and on the bottom of the election story draw a big, impossible to miss arrow pointing in the direction of camera two and write a big number 2 next to it. (This assumes that you actually look at your script occasionally, instead of just relying on the prompter. More about that later in the week.)

So now you've started reading the first story and you already know the next one will require a camera change. When you get to the end of the story, look down at your script, then look up at camera two. This will give the director a natural cue to change cameras, and make your anchoring smoother.

One more thing... just because you're looking in a different direction doesn't mean your whole body has to shift. If you want a different look, simply turn your head toward camera two and keep your body facing camera one. It will give you a different, slightly three dimensional look and make your anchoring more interesting.

Remember, anchoring often requires baby steps. You learn a little at a time, and hopefully bring it all together at some point.

Tomorrow, more tips.