Ah-ha! What Meteorologists Can Learn From Story tellers.

It is no secret that meteorologists are often the number one reason viewers tune in for newscasts.  Still the weather section of rundowns is not always getting the numbers it used to.  There are several reasons for this. Let’s take a look at one that can be tricky to solve: Trust.  Research keeps showing that viewers, even though they still watch newscasts do not always think they are getting accurate information. In fact, a recent survey by George Mason/Yale Universities on climate change showcases some of the issues for weather coverage.  It interviewed more than a thousand Americans in May, 2011.  52 percent said they trusted “television weather reporters.”   48 percent said they distrust “television weather reporters.” Nearly 50/50 isn’t bad you say?  Consider this:  The trust level for TV forecasters is down 14 points since a poll in November 2008.

You might be saying this was specific to weather climate change, a small element in our day-to-day coverage.  It still points to trust levels for a perceived large weather event.  Trust over severe weather coverage is a make or break for many stations and, therefore, its staff meteorologists.

Now let’s talk news icons.  The people you trust when you watch.  Here are two names to consider: Charles Kuralt and Bob Dotson.  Both master storytellers, who took facts, gave them meaning, and made you think of your world a little differently. (Dotson is still doing it for NBC News.) “Television weather reporters” have the same burden, despite being the scientists on staff.

So how do you connect the two?  Let’s take some basic storytelling principles and apply them to weather coverage.

Storytelling Principles for Television Weather Reporters:

  • Start with an image.
  • Be able to explain story in one sentence.
  • Showcase how it impacts people.
  • Find an Ah-ha moment. Let viewers see the situation in a way they haven’t before.

All of these bullet points are aimed at helping you provide perspective.  For all elements of television news this means identifying and clearly explaining an image.  This is why, when there is severe weather clean up, you hear management asking for the most compelling picture of the damage.  The goal is to burn an image in the viewer’s mind of what the storm meant for people.  Using visuals has to be more than calling up a weather map, full screen.  That’s because, for most viewers, weather maps look pretty much the same.  If you see something interesting on radar that you want to make your “headline” for a weather hit you need to be able to explain it in one sentence right away.  Spell it out.  Then expand on it.  Be visual while you do it.  Draw diagrams, telestrate, ask for interesting video or animation to spell out what the viewer should watch for.  This helps the viewer relate to the weathercast more.

The easiest way to pick your headline and spell it out is showcasing how an element of the weather will impact people each day.  Yes, you already sort of do this with hourly forecasts, school bus stop forecasts, game forecasts etc.  But it all looks the same, usually falls at the end of the weathercast and in a very predictable manner.  I know research shows holding those graphics helps with the all important meter points.  This means making the beginning and middle of the forecast more personal with mentions about how the weather will impact certain activities and neighborhoods while showcasing it in a more visual way than just putting up a map like viewers are used to seeing.

Often you are asked to give themes to each weathercast when you have multiple hits in a news show.  Frankly, many of those themes are not obvious to the viewer until the final outlook is put up with the weekend forecast, or a look ahead to an event.  The beginning of most weathercasts seems the same and can be confusing to viewers.  To viewers, the information is not clearly supported with visuals.  Remember, after a while, maps can appear like video wallpaper to the viewer:  Always there, no reason to stare at it.  That’s why I mention telestrating, animations and video to explain your headline along with those maps.

If you take away one suggestion for storytelling from this article make it this one:  Give viewers an “ah-ha moment” out of your weathercast every day.  Storytellers call this their “surprise.” Often it is an ironic twist or a very interesting fact that you didn’t know, or did not see coming, and makes the story relatable.  Weather has universal appeal, but forecasts often are not easily relatable for the viewer.  You watch all the graphics and hope you are actually guessing correctly where your location is on the various maps so you can figure out the impact.  I understand a meteorologist cannot give every person across the ADI a personal twist specific to their area.  But you can give them a headline that has impact and explain it in an extremely relatable way.  A recent example: Florida got a bunch of rain for a week this summer.  It lasted all but a few hours a day.  Usually Floridians see a couple of hours of rain late afternoon or early evening.  Many meteorologists focused on where the rain was in a broad base and what the next day would look like.  Helpful yes, because I was trying to figure out when to hit the amusement parks and beaches.  But everywhere I went I kept hearing: “Why is it raining like this?”  I watched the news for several days.  A few off hand comments I could not understand.  I went onto the weather channel website and searched “Why Florida rain?” Bingo!  I found a great explainer on why this was happening.  It was a change in a low over Texas and part of the midwest that drifted over.  Too often weather reporters are told to put so many graphics up for futurecasting etc, that the “why” gets glossed over in the middle of the weathercast.  You don’t need extra time to showcase the “why”, you just need to define it clearly in a sentence, with an image then, expand a few lines.  Here’s a big secret from storytellers:  The “why” in a story is often your most compelling and potentially ironic element.

Yes, many of the things I am mentioning technically exist in weather hits already.  So, what’s the big deal?  Too often the message is lost in the delivery.  The comments are thrown in as asides or transition lines when talking with the news anchors.  The perspective and the “why” elements need to take precedence.  This is where you establish that you are keeping watch, wanting to make sure the viewers are safe.  These elements will build your trust with viewers.  Storytellers are trusted.  They know the facts and can let viewers see those facts in a way that wasn’t clear before.  So learn from the storytellers and provide more “ah-ha” moments.  Your credibility in your market will soar!

Share

You Tweet: What your Twitter account says about you.

No doubt about it, Twitter is a fascinating place to track news people.  Stations are pushing journalists to tweet.  It’s super easy and quickly reaps rewards that stroke your ego.  You cannot help but tweet nowadays and promote your work and yourself.

We have spent the last several months tracking more than 1,200 journalists and how they tweet.  Here are some trends we’ve noticed that really play a part in whether a journalist comes across as credible.

You Tweet Observations

  • Descriptions Are Crucial
  • Personal  Isn’t Personal
  • Watch Your Words
  • Variety  Is Essential

The first thing we noticed was how different the profile descriptions are. Some simply say: “Joe Schmo is a TV news reporter.”  Some only have a name.  Some say things like: “I’m a TV reporter who loves beer” or “I am really exciting especially when I am out on the town.”  Because so many of the descriptions were either really dull or a little too flashy, we want to delve into the importance of the profile description.  You need to place elements that make you seem like an interesting person to connect with, without being too flashy or unprofessional.  In general, bosses don’t want to read about your love of any kind of alcohol and anything that makes it seem like you party hard when you are not at work.  If you read that and are saying:  “Hey this is my personal account, back off!” read on please.

Always remember, your personal account isn’t truly personal.  It is too easy to type in your name and get access to both accounts, especially on Twitter.  Also, once you take a job on-air in TV news, that is who you are when you present yourself in public, period.  You represent your station at all times no matter how much you would like to separate yourself into a public person and a private person.  TV news employers can and will use your personal behavior (or misbehavior) in evaluating you because it reflects on them due to the high profile nature of the job and you being part of their public face.  It is simply a fact of life in TV news.

Besides, you want to use an account that is not directly tied to your station to help showcase your personality and all of its sellable points to potential bosses as well as your throng of adoring fans.  Even if you have a professional account (i.e. station required) and a personal account, people are going to monitor the personal one as much or even more. You tagged it as “personal” and that makes it more compelling to many viewers immediately.  It’s a chance to see the true colors of their favorite TV personality.  And we have seen plenty of colorful comments that make it obvious many think that industry professionals, like future bosses are not reading their tweets.  Not the case and potentially a major career mistake.

Which leads to our next point, watch your words when you tweet and not because of the 150 character limit.  Twitter is an excellent place to track people you are interested in hiring one day.  It is a real life way to see how they interact with other people, and how much they respect (or take for granted) their role as a journalist.  We have read about wild parties via tweets as well as drinking, sex jokes and crude remarks.  We’ve also seen plenty of the f word in journalists tweets.  In just a few short months we have groups of journalists we check on each day because they are fascinating reads in the tweet world.  We have also seen a lot of journalists who are, simply put, loose cannons.  Some of what they write is so over the top, there’s no way a manager that monitors Twitter would ever have interest in hiring them.  Remember, when possible, we monitored personal accounts.  We are guessing people act more in tune with their true character on those accounts.

So what’s a journalist to do if they want a personal account, but obviously need to avoid getting too edgy?  Variety is essential.  Give slice of life elements to your tweets along with work related stuff.  We love seeing journalists talk about standing in the heat for stories, relieved to get the interview they’ve been chasing all day or tweeting about a fact that fascinated them that day.  Tweeting about the stories you are working creates a personal connection that makes you wonder what the stories are these media folk churn out.  It can also help you source build (See How to generate story ideas when you are swamped ).   But remember, if the story you are working on is legally sensitive in any way, your tweets can be used against you if someone decides to sue you and/or your station.

Reading about the great meal you had or wishing a friend a happy birthday are warm and easy to relate to as well.  Many people are tweeting about running or working out and encouraging each other.  Some just have silly stories about their day.  Remember this is a great networking opportunity.  We are enjoying watching journalists really support each other and joke around while remaining professional.  But never forget, once you become a TV news journalist your public and private identities become highly intertwined. So while you are making sure your tweets are engaging, quirky and relatable also make sure they are professional and present you in a positive light.  The world is watching, not just your friends and family.

 

 

Share

Can You Picture It? How to write to video.

Of all the terms you hear in a newsroom, this is the hardest to clearly explain.  Television news is dependent on video for its existence, yet few TV journalists really know how to write to the images on the screen.

Writing to video means taking the images and making them mean something to the viewer.  You are providing perspective and complimenting the video the viewer is seeing.  Let’s start with aerial shots of flames burning up a motel.  In the video you see that the flames are shooting way above the roof.  There seems to be more than one floor.  It is early morning, before sunrise.  The flames are red, orange and yellow and the building is dark black.  You can see thick walls, but seem to be able to see through the building.  This is an aerial shot, so while there’s a lot to look at, the only movement is a pan from one end of the building to the other.  No close ups.  Here are the facts you get from the assignment desk and the crew on the way to the scene:  The motel houses 150 families; Most of the families called this place home, because they cannot afford to live anywhere else; The fire woke them up; Firefighters on the scene are struggling to save even a small part of the building which takes up nearly a city block;  You have the address;  No one is hurt.

Now let’s write to those aerial shots we talked about above.  Most would start off with a breaking news banner or breaking news open and say something like:  “Take a look at these flames in (city name).”  So, you mentioned the fire in the video right away.  For many, that’s writing to video.  Saying the phrase “take a look at these flames” is referencing video.    But it’s not writing to the video.  And, it’s also an overused phrase in news copy.  (see “So cliché”) Writing to video means coming out of the breaking news open or banner and saying “A fire almost the size of a city block is burning right now in (city location).  While you look at these flames shooting toward (helicopter name) consider this:  150 families are watching this same fire knowing all of their belongings are burning up.  This motel on (street name) was home for nearly all of them.  The only housing they could afford.  Firefighters are trying to save some of the building, but you can see what they are up against.  You can tell the fire is stripping this building down to its foundation.  While you look at this exposed skeleton of a motel, we want you to know that no one was hurt in this fire.  Even now these flames keep shooting into the sky, lighting it up more than even the boldest sunrise ever could. An awful way to wake up this morning, for so many people.

Read that one more time.  All the facts are in this story, and the copy uses images to help compliment and put into perspective what viewers are seeing on the TV screen.  The phrases “this fire,” “these flames,” “you can see” and “you can tell” are all meant to get people to turn around and look actually at the video.  The phrases “lighting it up more than even the boldest sunrise ever could” and “While you look at this exposed skeleton of a motel” help explain the intensity of the fire for people just staring into a TV screen.  These lines are meant to make the flames lasting images in the mind of the viewer.  Mentioning that this is how the families woke up helps make the video more relatable to the viewer as well.  It makes them think about what it must be like to wake in the middle of the scene playing out before them.

Now I want you to look back at paragraph 2 where I set up this fiery example of how to write to video.  Notice that I described the video before I told you the facts of the story?  That was intentional.  When writing to video, you have to see the images then, write.  This is opposite of what we are taught.  You probably have had it ingrained in your head that the facts are the most important thing.  That is true.   But what you need to consider the video as facts in your story.  Actually, in TV, the images are the most crucial facts.  That means when you start writing a story you need to know your video.  And, you need to be able to boil down your story into one sentence, in a way that puts a picture in your head.  In other words picking a first image is as important as writing a first line.  Luckily when you identify that image, the words will flow naturally as you explain the facts behind the pictures.  (For more on how to flow your stories read “Rule the Word” and “Storytelling on a Dime.”)

Let me give you another example of how to use images to provide perspective.  When we went to war a second time in Iraq there was a visual moment that summed up why the U.S. was there at all.  American and Iraqi troops knocked down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.  The head of the statue fell off and Iraqi’s dragged it through the streets.  Saddam’s head was literally handed to the Iraqi people after 24 years of his reign.  This moment was easily summed up in one line and with one image, “American and Iraqi troops join together to topple a key symbol of Saddam.” A powerful image, partnered with powerful facts, burns in your mind.

Now that you know how important writing to video is, I offer a challenge.  Before you write anything, put a shot list in your script to reference.  This goes for all writers.  Even assignment editors should write some sort of list of images that either the crew on the scene or stringer picked up.  It’s another question in a long list I know, but it will help everyone see the worth of a story in terms of television.  TV is writing to video.

If you take away only one thing from this article, make it this.  Video grabs a viewer’s attention for a few seconds.  You have to give the video meaning to last the length of the story.  That is writing to video. Even video as compelling as a huge fire can quickly become a turn off for viewers, if the words don’t support it.  They have other distraction pulling at their attention.  They have the internet to check out later if they are only mildly curious.  Your words have to help bring the video to life, no matter what it shows.  Some of the most compelling lines I have ever heard referenced boring video.  Take the image of the outside of a home where someone was killed.  Write to the video and say: “So and so welcomed company through that front door.  But now (name is gone).”  When I think of the Casey Anthony case two images stick in my mind:  Caylee’s photograph and a still shot of Casey Anthony.  The images burn in my mind because of the meaning behind their repeated use:  This little girl is dead and her mother is accused of killing her.  The point is video (or in this case photos) don’t have to be full of action to be compelling.  It just needs perspective.  Can you picture it?

 

Share

So Cliché! How to avoid overused phrases

We all have news wording that makes our skin crawl: “area residents,” “alleged” and “budget woes” to name a few.  Recently on Twitter a group of us started listing phrases that make us cringe.  Then one producer tweeted, “What do you use instead?”  Great question and we’re going to give you some answers.

First we need to discuss why these phrases come up so you can better understand how to avoid them.  In seminars you are taught that these phrases are formal language and not written for the ear.  That’s often true.  It can be hard to write on a computer screen and imagine the words actually coming out of someone’s mouth.  There’s more behind writers using these so called “crutch phrases” though.  Because they are used so often, they have become a sort of news slang.  They seem dependable when you write.  In fact it almost becomes expected that you will write this way.  Take music for example.  Thanks, in part, to tons of country and rock songs the term “ain’t” is now in the dictionary.  Think about it.  If you start singing songs in your head, it won’t take long to come across one with “ain’t” in the lyrics.  Many of the songs have amazing phrases, cadence and messages.  Yet the lyricist throws in “ain’t?”  It seems likes “ain’t” is expected in a song.  Now consider news copy.  The clichés we’re talking about are news writers versions of “ain’t.”  They are slang terms that some writers use as crutches because they hear them all the time.  Where?  In newsrooms, all day long.  Ask a reporter for a headline as he/she runs to a fire.  Chances are you will be told fire is at such and such address and “completely destroyed” the building.  We simply use these terms all the time.  But that does not mean they should end up in our news copy.

Writers (and by that we mean everyone who writes: anchors, producers, associate producers, reporters even assignment editors) also use these phrases because they are writing in a hurry.  When you are slamming information into the assignment file or into a script just to get the show done, you are going to use terms you are most familiar with.  That’s how the mind works.  You might call it: “News slang  under duress.”  Then a writer comes along for the next retread and ends up not comfortable with the story.  He/she clings to the news slang already in the script to avoid possibly changing the meaning of the copy.  Now you see how the cycle repeats over and over.

So how do you break the cycle of “news slang under duress?”  Discipline.  It begins with you printing out the news copy you write once every week and reading it over at home when you are more relaxed.  Have your highlighter ready and mark your “crutch phrases.”  Then work to eliminate them one at a time from all of your writing.  Write the “crutch phrase” on a notecard, then write three alternate types of wording.  Post the notecard somewhere on your desk at work.  That way, when you are slamming, you have quick options to avoid the clichés.

Many of the worst news clichés are easily avoided when deleting one word: “completely destroyed” becomes “destroyed.”  “Clouds of uncertainty” becomes uncertain.  “Brutal murder” is “murder.”  Most of this “news speak” is used while trying to provide an image.  “Clouds of uncertainty,” “brandishing a firearm,” “budget ax,” “hanging in the balance,” even “hit the nail on the head,” all put pictures in your mind.  These terms are not how you provide images in TV news.  You have video to provide the images.  Moving pictures are what separate us from newspapers and radio.  Remember when “writing for the ear” as consultants say, you are also writing to, or complimenting, the video.  (We  explain how to write to video more in depth in Can you picture it article.)  Your words do not need to put images in a person’s mind.  Again, this is not radio or the newspaper.  Your words need to get someone to look at the TV screen to see the images you are showing.  Your words also provide perspective.

Providing perspective means you need to understand what you are writing about.  I saw this repeatedly as a producer and an EP.  If the writer, be it a reporter, assignment editor, anchor, producer or associate producer did not understand the content, the copy became cliché.  When we are uncomfortable, we cling to crutches.  If you are unclear in understanding the story, you must ask for information before writing it.

Now let’s address the comment from the producer on Twitter asking what alternates to use for the crutch phrases.  Since writing for television news is always under duress, we at survivetvnewsjobs.com has posted  alternatives in an extensive list. (Cliché list)  Here’s to making sure all of our copy isn’t “so cliché!”

Share