How to get inside your anchors heads, then write in their voices.

Recently an anchor wrote us two articles, from his perspective on the desk, about how producers relay information during newscasts.  (see Your producing voice and See it rather than say it.)  In one of the articles he referred to creating blocks in the anchor’s voice.  If you want to be a rock star producer, and chart your own path, knowing how to do this is KEY.

So here goes.  In order to write blocks that cater to your anchor’s voice and talents, you have to get to know your anchor.  This means really paying attention to what the anchors pitch during editorial meetings.  This means figuring out catch phrases that drive them out of their minds so you can avoid them.  It also means sometimes sitting back and eavesdropping when they are having casual conversations in the newsroom.  Listen to how the anchors talk.  Are the sentences long or very short?  Does the anchor have his/her own catch phrases?  Are there subjects the anchor is really passionate about?  What is his/her favorite dinner or drink at work?  All of this helps give you a clue into how the anchor ticks.  It also helps you keep the anchor psyched up before the newscast and throughout the newscast.  Designing elements in that person’s voice is more than just writing style.  It also is giving the person room to breathe and interact with others during the newscast.  You want the anchor to have a conversation with the viewers during the newscast, not just read copy.

To showcase the difference, think about reading a child his/her favorite book.  Children want to hear them over and over.  You start to memorize the book.  You learn when to do the character voices they love.  Before long, you can read and emphasize the key points, while daydreaming about something else.  You start going through the motions.  This can be the same for news anchors.  Because you must hit meter points, newscasts can become formulaic for an anchor to read.  It can almost become robotic for them because they know that the same kinds of stories are coming, in the same places, every day.  So they start to read it the same way and your “killer” copy becomes boring on-air because of “robo-anchor’s” delivery.  It’s not necessarily all their fault either.  It’s tough to not fall into that habit if you’re faced with reading nearly the same thing day-after-day.  So, a producer who throws in elements that are a little different, and play into the anchor’s speaking style and interests will really help the anchor remain engaged.

Another really good approach to getting to know your anchor is to sit down with her/him every once in a while and ask what his/her favorite part of the newscast is.  What continuing stories does the anchor find particularly fascinating?  Is there a point in the newscast where the anchor feels like she/he is dragging a little bit?  These can be areas where you amp up the writing to help the anchor kick it into high gear and keep her/his energy up.

Once you know how the anchor talks, pick a few stories you plan for that person to read in the newscast.  Next, try writing those stories the way the anchor speaks.  Now closely watch how they copy edit those stories.  This technique lets you see if you are on the right track.

Another technique is to ask the anchor to call and check on a reporter’s progress every once in a while.  Make sure the anchor will be the one pitching to that reporter  during the newscast (it might be the one time where even if something floats or there’s a breaker, you don’t change reads).   Have the anchor and reporter draft an anchor intro together.  Let the anchor copy edit that reporter’s package.  Tell the two of them to come up with a compelling extra tag element the anchor can read.  This will give the team a little extra connection when they go to air, and often boosts both of their energy levels.  Sometimes I did this with stories I knew the anchor really found fascinating.  Sometimes I chose stories that the anchor was not thrilled to have in the newscast.  It helped the anchor find a connection to, then sell, the story.  This is an effective technique when doing on-set interviews with experts as well.  If the expert is arriving early enough, I would even ask the anchor to walk the person in and explain how IFB works and have them mic the person up along with the production crew (if you’re not in a union shop).  The anchor feels an extra connection and it will be easier to deliver that element with authority.

When designing blocks with the anchor in mind, sometimes it can also be good to shake things up and make the anchor read sections that they do think are silly.  It can force them to focus and keep them off  guard a little bit.  Again, do not do this often, just enough to keep the anchor from getting into a rut.

Now I know some producers are reading this and saying:  “But what if my show blows up and I have to change anchor reads?”  Then the anchors will not get to read all the copy you crafted just for them that day.  It happens.  Everyone knows that’s the way it goes.  The anchors should be talented enough to either deliver the copy, as is, effectively anyway or ad lib on the fly to sell it as their own voice.  The point is by making these efforts to give them a “footprint” in the newscast you are showing respect and creating a more solid team.  That leads to winning newscasts!