Saturday 2 November 2013

Words - The Most Powerful Drug used by Mankind

When the redoubtable Julia approaches your table with a welcoming smile, she has but a twenty word opportunity to influence how you feel about your time in her lovely bijou Birmingham restaurant; and whether you plump for a bargain single course, or treat yourself to a tasty a la carte selection.

The way she'll smile and talk to you about the lovely lean cut of beef, the delicious chilled French wine, or the mussels being fresh in that morning.  Not just pepper, but "a splash of pepper".  It all matters.  

Yes, corporate copywriters in some restaurants have maybe over-drizzled the menus, but this is important stuff.  It's her restaurant. She cares about it. Julia wants you to enjoy your time there, spend a decent amount - and pledge to return. Yes, the food is crucial, and so are the words. 

Just as TV now does food porn, words can do it too.  When I write the words 'sizzling fillet steak', just try to stop your mind dwelling on that bloody cut of beef, smeared with English mustard. 

There. You can't.  It is the brain which causes salivation, and yours just has.  In radio, just as in the kitchen, words matter.

You can always hear when a presenter is holding a newspaper cutting when they tell a story. The sentences are wrong, the words are wrong.  The grammar is wrong.  Hear them relate that same story, from memory, to a friend, 35, over a glass of Pinot later that night, and they'll choose the perfect words.  Presenters gripping a cutting will try to put the item in their own language, but as long as the printed words are in front of them, you'll find the tabloid language seeping on-air like the disease it is.

Travel news is classic.  If I hear again about my journey home being delayed by 'an earlier
accident', I'll scream.  What the hell is one of those? As opposed to what?  A lorry about to keel over?  As a motorist, I do not care whether my delay is caused by the lorry still being there, or whether they are just now sweeping up the glass.  I am simply delayed because there was an accident.  If I were to ring a friend and tell them of my delay, I doubt whether I'd use the phrase 'earlier accident'.  All accidents were earlier.

Whilst we're on travel news: "drivers are asked to take the A5 instead' is not quite how you'd share that info by text with a friend.  You'd more likely choose active language: "you need to get off the M1 at junction 2".  On BBC national TV news tonight, a reporter whined that 'the public are being warned tonight'. Does that include me or not?  Sounds as if they are talking to someone else.

Unless, of course, you are rehearsing to be a police press officer in which case you must indeed master the art of plodding passive material like 'members of the general public are asked to...'. 

When I hear a news story refer in the third person to 'people in (area)', it sounds to me as if they are presuming they are not broadcasting to people.  Maybe to dogs and cats, I presume. And 'electricity users are being faced with price hikes...'. must come as reassuring news to the many folk listening who rely on candles and gas mantles. On conversational news bulletins on contemporary radio stations, the word 'you' is fine. 

Having said that, there is a danger of taking this inclusiveness too far.  There was a classic genuine example when one journalist delivered the line  'this weekend the police have staged a knife amnesty, so take your knives and guns down to'...

"Call me with your stories", invites the presenter. It's certainly better language than was employed a generation ago. 'Me' is good, 'story' is excellent. But why the plural? As a presenter you have likely set a topic and you want your listener simply to get in touch with their one great story. 

Why make things conditional? 'If you want to win/take  part/got a story', gives the casual listener an easy option to shake their head and say 'no, I don't'. Presume every listener has a story or a desire and wants to take part. After all, aren't those listeners the very people you are really addressing at that precise moment.

Off-air too, words make the difference as to whether your BA persuades the great caller to go on-air or not.  At the outset, the nervous contributor might be more agreeable to "having a word with Sue" than the frightening prospect of being '"put through to the studio'/'going live on-air".

Isn't it great to hear someone say 'first time I've got in touch'.  Makes you feel warm inside.  Something you said made them call in that day. And,  given that most topics come round again and again, it was probably the way you expressed it that day which prompted them, at last, to want to speak to you. On every previous occasion, you had failed to motivate them.

The enduring radio puzzle is why some subjects floated for listener involvement work, and why others don't.  The sure-fire topic may often sink; whilst the obtuse accidental topic flies.  Similarly, the stunt you spent years planning is forgotten within days whilst that surprise aside is recalled a year later in a focus group.  Maybe it's because the language in the latter was wholly natural - and the pacing of discovery for you and the listener were utterly aligned.  That's not to say preparation is futile.  When you know what you want to talk about,  it takes real skill to finesse the proposition to generate the optimum response.

And those lovely cliches: 'with you through until 10'.  Someone once felt it was appropriate to trumpet the end of the show. What exactly is significant about the end?  I fear you'd never hear about Coronation Street being 'right the way through 'til eight'.  And 'one lucky winner'.  As opposed to an unlucky one?

As a broadcaster, all you have is the words and the way you say them.  To fail to consider vocabulary is a sin.  Peel back the layers to enrich your story, and change that picture from black and white to colour.

Comedians do it all the time - vocabulary and delivery.  When I interviewed the gifted Jon Holmes recently, at a jolly Radio Today away day at Alton Towers, we touched on how specificity works.  In an anecdote, a Tesco carrier bag is funnier than a carrier bag; and 'a Jack Russell' lends more humour than 'a dog' . And there's that good old rule of three, where lists of three are inherently funnier and more satisfying. 

Many broadcasters have wisely studied comedy rules, and some of the greats have soaked them up inadvertently and employed them in their story-telling. The heightened impact of the funny word being deployed the end of the gag - and the fact that some words simply sound funnier than others.  

An anecdote with 'Greggs' in is funnier than one with 'O'Briens' in.  Words matter.  

Lest you wondered, by the way, the quote at the head of this blog is from Rudyard Kipling; and Julia's canalside Birmingham restaurant, JuJus, is genuinely well worth a visit. 

Grab a copy of my book 'How to Make Great Radio', published by Biteback

1 comment:

  1. Saying "I'm here until 10" is effectively telling the listener to switch off at 10pm. I may say 10-15 minutes before the end of the show "Joe Blogs coming up at 10 O'Clock" for example, but that is all that is needed. By doing that, the listener then knows exactly who is next on air.
    Repeatedly saying "Here until 10" two hours before the end is also saying to the listener that the presenter doesn't really want to be there.


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