Podcast: Talk to Me — the Art of Conversational Writing

 

Hello, and thank you for listening to the “Writer’s Resource” podcast.

I am your host – Bridget A. Foster.

And this is a podcast dedicated to making you the best broadcast news writer you can be.

Today, I want to talk to you about conversational writing.

When it’s done well, it makes our broadcasts sound like we’re actually speaking with our audience as opposed to reading press releases to them all day.  Many people think conversational writing is difficult.

But it’s really not.

You practice it every day – all day, and you don’t even think about it.

Then I put you in front of a computer and ask you to do the same thing in a script, and all of a sudden, poof, it’s like someone flipped a switch off.  And now you can’t do what is in your very DNA to do.  It’s almost like stage fright.

Look, at some point, we all got into news because we like to tell stories — right?

Then – get out of your own head, and do it!

Okay, that may sound harsh.

But that is a huge part of the issue as to why this seems like such a difficult thing to do.

The other reason you may be having a hard time with conversational writing is this – press releases are working against you.  Let’s call it “press release syndrome.”

Media alerts and press releases are fine ways for public relations professionals and others to disseminate information.  I use them all the time to get my message to the media.  But that’s all the press release is – a collection of facts usually peppered with the jargon that the sender’s business uses.

It’s our job to sift through all of that, find the story, and convey it to our viewers in a conversational manner.

The only problem is.  Sometimes, the jargon sticks in our heads and winds up in our news copy.

But why?

Well, have you ever been speaking with someone, and they use certain words or phrases – and then later in the day, you start using some of those terms and phrases?  Sometimes, things just stay in our minds, and we can’t shake it like a catchy song.

The issue here is – you never want press release language to linger and then go into your script copy.

Why?

Well because a lot of it sounds like this:

“While deputies were responding to the residence, dispatchers advised via the
radio, the suspect fled from the residence on foot.”

Cop speak—

Or this—

“Joint commission experts evaluated compliance with advanced disease-specific care standards and total hip and total knee replacement requirements, including orthopedic consultation, and pre-operative, intraoperative and post-surgical orthopedic surgeon follow-up care.”

Or

“Through a proprietary algorithm powered by machine learning—”

All of it is press release-speak–

And it’s deadly in your scripts!  No one speaks like this in real life.  So, your scripts should never sound like this.

We have talked a lot about writing that is *not conversational.

Let’s hear some that is.

This is an excerpt from one of the books I am writing about the journalism field.

One year to the day that I started working at this station, the September 11th terror attacks happened.  I’ll never forget it.  I was filling in on the Noon show that day.  I remember thinking what trivial thing I was going to do after work – cash my check and grab my favorite dinner – a salad and breadsticks from Wendy’s.  Then we looked up where all of our televisions were — where we monitored other stations and the feeds.  We saw one of the twin towers smoking.  And then we saw a station replaying the moment the plane slammed into it, and at first everyone thought it was a small plane, someone who obviously had something catastrophic happen in the air and it ended with this tragedy.  So, I knew my Noon show was about to change drastically, and I’ll never forget this producer who had been doing this for quite some time and was taking it upon herself to make sure the newbie understood the gravity of the story leaned over and said “You know this is your lead, right?”  Then, we saw the second plane, and once we realized it wasn’t still the replay we were watching, and this was another plane that had slammed into the towers, we knew this was unlike anything any of us had ever covered before.  Then, time literally stopped.  When I tell you the newsroom ceased to function, I am not exaggerating.  We all stood around and watched the monitors as national news started to go wall-to-wall with breaking news coverage.  This was intentional.  No one uttered those words, but we all knew.  Things became a blur, almost foggy—quiet except for Peter Jennings telling us what was happening.  I looked around, and the one person’s face who I will always remember was that of our talk show producer.  She was crying.  It was the first time I had seen someone cry in a newsroom, but this certainly warranted it.  My Noon show was called off.  We would go to national news coverage on our channel and keep it there.  But then things started to speed up again.  Wait, what about our airports?  Wait, the president got the word while he was right here in our area at a school.  Wait, MacDill Air Force base is right down the street, and whatever this is, the people there are going to be in the know.  All of a sudden, we were very much in need of local live shots to tell this big story.  At 11:30, 30 minutes before air time, we decided I would have a Noon show after all, and we all went into hyper speed.  I remember one reporter tripping into the mailboxes mounted on the side of the wall as he ran out the door heading to a live location.  I remember my assistant news director standing over my shoulder dictating everything “Put this in.  Put this over there.  Go live here next.  You’ll have this element available to you.  Use this.  Use that.  Go to national when you need to.”  I had to leave the emotion of the moment, and I went into some sort of robot mode.  “We’re live in 5-4-3-2-1 open, mic, cue.”

Again, that is an excerpt from a book I am writing.

What did you hear in that passage?

You should have felt like you were listening to a friend tell a story, and that is exactly how your script copy should sound as well.

So how do you bring out your inner conversational writer?

First, write like you speak.  Just don’t go too far.  We’re not talking about using slang here.  Just writing a script with words you would actually say.  I’ll never forgot.  I used to have an anchor who hated the word “blaze.”  If she ever saw it in a script, she would get on her soap box and say — “When’s the last time you were talking to someone and used the word blaze!?”

And she was right—I have never used the word ‘blaze’ when speaking to anyone – unless I was talking about not using it in a script.

That leads us to our second tip – write the story as if you were telling it to a friend or relative.  How would you relay the information if you were just talking to them in the living room or at a restaurant?

I taught this to a class recently, and I had the main group write the story like they would for broadcast.  Then I took two volunteers from that team and pulled them into the hallway away from the other group and told them to act out the story, and I let them pull from a hat.  Inside the hat were pieces of paper that said, “Tell the story like you’re telling it to your mom in her living room” or “friend in a bar” or “significant other”.  The main group had no idea what the other group was doing in the hallway.  When it was time to put our cards on the table, as you can probably guess, the group from the hallway was much more conversational than the one writing for broadcast.  The group writing for broadcast got lost in the facts and essentially forgot about being conversational when giving out those facts.

Some stations invent a person for their producers and writers to speak to.  It’s usually a person who represents the station’s target demographic.  But what it also does is help writers and producers imagine talking to a person rather than just putting text into a computer.  It’s much like an anchor who imagines he or she is speaking to a specific person … a grandmother or parent – rather than the camera — so that the anchor’s delivery is more personable.  It’s just a tool some anchors use.  And now I have given you the same tool to help with your writing.

I hope you try some of these ideas. They are guaranteed to help you take your writing to the next level.

You can find more helpful writing techniques on my website, BridgetAFoster.com.  Just click on the Coach’s Corner tab.

For the Writer’s Resource podcast, I’m Bridget A. Foster.

And remember – great writing takes practice.

Write now and write often.

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