The job description: “You will have the ability to easily and credibly ad-lib during breaking news, unexpected events in your newscast or when your teleprompter crashes. You will also ask relevant questions of reporters during live shots that add content and help our viewers better understand stories.”
As an anchor, that’s a shop where I want to work. It means management has high expectations of its anchors and believes they should not just be seen, but also heard by viewers. That takes a lot of work.
The art of ad-lib requires good preparation. The best ad-libs are seldom truly spontaneous. You have to be deeply involved in the content of your newscast.
I used to work for a news director who, correctly, prohibited scripted questions because nothing sounds more canned. So, I would talk with our reporters ahead of time about their story content to see what nugget of information we could discuss on the air unscripted. That accomplished several things. It helped me understand their stories better. If I had to listen to a producer changing the rundown during the live shot, I still had a pretty good idea what the reporter was saying. Also, a solid expected question gives the reporter a chance to shine with the answer. She looks good and so do you.
The “unexpected” during a newscast comes in many forms, but you can still prepare for a lot of it simply by understanding what could be coming your way. A few nights ago, a large fight with 400 people involved happened in a tiny town in our viewing area. Before she went on the air, one of our anchors thought to look up the population of the town so she could calculate the percentage living there involved in the fight. She was prepared to extend the live shot with our reporter if needed. Brilliant, because that’s exactly what happened.
Your preparation is your responsibility. Unless you’re working for a network morning show, no one gives you a briefing book.
One of the things that helps is to ask the question, how much of this newscast could I really ad lib if I had to? Not many of us can memorize a newscast, but understanding the content will carry you through a lot when the prompter crashes on the first story…like mine did last night.
Cameron Harper is an evening anchor/reporter at WPTY, Memphis. He has won numerous awards and his motto on Twitter is “the teleprompter is only a suggestion.” Check him out at www.cameronharper.com and you can follow him on Twitter @NewsCam.