Breathing Life into Copy
One of the most important skills announcers learn is how to read copy. The term "copy" refers to the script of an announcement: the words the announcer is expected to say. Sometimes announcers write their own copy, but more often than not an announcer reads copy written by others. Announcers do more than simply read words printed on a piece of paper or displayed on a teleprompter screen. They must be able to "breathe life" into those words.
Think back to your earliest memories of reading words out loud. For many people, it was in elementary school. Your teacher may have asked you to read a paragraph out loud from a book. Perhaps you had to read a nursery rhyme or a portion of a story. You probably had to read out loud in front of your classmates, some of whom may have been better readers than you were. How did that make you feel? What was your reaction to hearing others read out loud?
For many people, reading words out loud in a classroom setting is not their most pleasant childhood memory. It's not as bad as having to give a speech in front of your peers, perhaps, but it probably was not as fun as other things you did in school. Especially if you were not very good at it. And most people weren't.
When you hand a sheet of paper to someone and ask them to read it out loud, it typically sounds a bit boring. Rather dull. Lifeless. That's because when most people read out loud, it sounds like they're reading out loud. As an announcer, you don't want to sound like that.
An announcer doesn't read words out loud. An announcer communicates.
When you read out loud, your mind is thinking about the words on the page. When you communicate, your mind is thinking about the meaning of those words. When you read out loud, your eyes focus on print. When you communicate, your eyes focus on the audience. When you read out loud, your goal is to read the words correctly. When you communicate, your goal is to get your message across. And perhaps most importantly, when you read out loud, you sound like you are reading out loud. When you communicate, you sound like you are communicating.
Three steps to communication
In order to move from simply reading words out loud to communicating a message, it helps to understand the process of communication. Now while much has been written about that process, I'm going to simplify things greatly for purposes of this discussion. Focus for a moment on the following three essential steps to communication.
First, you think about what you are going to communicate. This is the "thinking stage," where you use your brain to analyze and synthesize the key ideas you wish to convey. Sometimes this is referred to as intrapersonal communication, since it is a form of communication (or "pre-communicative activity") that occurs inside of you, inside of your head. It's important that you try to understand what it is you are going to say before you actually say it. That means that you do more than just keep in mind the meaning of each word that you say. It means that you think about the meaning behind the message you are going to communicate.
Second, you "capture" that thought into language in order to create a purposeful, meaningful message. This is the "encoding stage," where you use your linguistic abilities to put your thoughts into words. You try to find the right words, and put them in the right order, so that they make sense. The goal is to form a message that has both meaning and purpose, one that you can communicate effectively, and others can understand easily.
Third, you deliver that message to the audience. This is the "speaking stage," where you project the words into sounds intended for others to hear. You use your voice to add impact and vitality to the words of your message, and you aim your voice to the listener. You aren't just talking out loud, but rather, you are directing your thoughts, your words, and your voice to your intended audience.
Most of the time, when an announcer is reading copy, the first two steps have already been done. The ideas in the copy were someone else's ideas. The words in the copy were someone else's words. But it is your voice—your speech—that is trying to convey those ideas and breathe life into those words.
That's the key challenge of announcing: to take copy that someone else has written and make it sound like the ideas you are conveying are your ideas, that the words you are using are your words. And that's not easy to do, in part because the only step in this process where you have full control is in the final step, where you speak the words out loud.
In order to meet this challenge, let me share with you what I have found to be three essential qualities for breathing life into copy. Each of these qualities reflect one of the three steps to communication mentioned above. While an announcer's involvement in the communication process may seem limited to the "speaking stage," a talented announcer will sound like he or she was involved in the thinking and encoding stages as well. How? By clearly visualizing the message, expressing it with enthusiasm, and delivering it with a popular aim.
The first quality is visualization. An announcer must be able to visualize, to "see" the message clearly. Like the "thinking stage" in communication, visualization occurs inside of you, inside your mind. To visualize effectively, an announcer needs to have a good imagination, and the ability to keep their mind focused. That's not as easy as you might think.
Here's a little experiment I'd like you try. Below is some broadcast copy for a thirty second radio commercial. What I want you to do is first read it—out loud—all the way through once. Then scroll down the page right after you read it, and avoid looking back at the copy. I've put some space above and below the copy to help keep you honest.
When you're ready, scroll down the page, read the copy out loud, and then scroll down some more to continue the experiment.
Remember: just read it through out loud once!
On a cold, winter day, there’s nothing quite as delicious as a bowl of Campbell’s Tomato Soup ... The wonderful aroma ... the delightful taste ...Mmmm ... Campbell’s Tomato soup really satisfies a winter hunger. And Campbell’s is good for you: a hearty lunch of Campbell’s soup, a sandwich and a glass of milk provides a wholesome balanced meal. So the next time you’re looking for something good to warm up a winter day, remember — Campbell’s Tomato Soup is good food!
Scroll down please! No looking back (at least not yet).
OK, now try to put the message you just read out loud in your own words. Write down what you think you just said. Now scroll back up and compare what you wrote with the copy you read. What ideas did you recall? What ideas did you omit? What ideas, if any, did you express that wasn't in the copy?
Perhaps you recalled the name of the product. Perhaps you recalled a slogan or catchy phrase. Perhaps you recalled a word or two that "stuck out" while you were reading the copy. But none of those things represent the meaning of the message. They are just words, and if all you remember are words, you have yet to "see" the message behind the words. Remember, as an announcer, you want to focus on meaning, not words.
Now let's read the copy again. This time, let's begin by reading just the first phrase:
On a cold, winter day...
Stop and think for a moment what that phrase means. Now try to picture that meaning. That is, try to vividly imagine a cold, winter day. Get it clearly fixed in your mind. Close your eyes and "look" at that picture for a moment.
Did you close your eyes? C'mon now. Do it with me. Close your eyes. Practice "seeing" with just your mind.
Now try to answer these questions:
- How cold is it?
- Is it snowing?
- Is it icy?
- Is it sleeting?
- Is it windy?
- Is it sunny or cloudy?
- Are you outside in the cold, or inside a warm house?
- What are you wearing?
- What color clothes are you wearing?
- What state are you in?
- What month is it?
- What time of day is it?
- Are you with someone else, or by yourself?
- Is it the present, are you in some other time?
- If it isn't the present, what year is it?
- How do you feel?
- Do you like cold, winter days? Why or why not?
I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. Were you able to sustain in your mind a clear and detailed picture of "a cold, winter day?" Were you able to not only describe it, but see it with your "mind's eye?" Was what you saw in your mind a fuzzy, general image or a clearly detailed image?
Practice doing this with the other phrases in the copy. Read a phrase, then stop and imagine it in your mind before moving on. Probe your "mental picture" for details. Try to get as specific as you can. Visualize.
The second essential quality is enthusiasm. Announcers do more that just talk out loud. They communicate messages with genuine enthusiasm. They may not always get to choose the words they are saying, but they make it sound like those words are their own, that they are a natural expression of a real desire to share something special with the audience.
The word "enthusiasm" has an interesting background. For most of human history, the word had a religious connotation. An "enthusiast" was a person inspired by God (or Gods, as in the case of Greek Mythology). The word itself is of Greek origin, formed by combining the root words en (in) and theos (God). In essence, if you had enthusiasm, God was in you.
Of course, today the word has lost much of its religious significance. We typically use the word "enthusiasm" to describe an intense interest or enjoyment. Perhaps it might be used to describe a zest for life, or a zeal for a worthy cause. But while the word may not be used in the same way as it used to be, it still has, at its core, a touch of the Divine.
Whether you believe in God or not, consider for a moment what it would be like to have God inside of you. At the very least, you would probably say it would make you feel different, a bit out of the ordinary. Some might say it would make them feel inspired. Perhaps even ecstatic. A few might even say that it would make them feel like they had achieved their "highest destiny," a state of supreme fulfillment.
Now I'm not suggesting that announcers should try to read copy as if they were divinely inspired to deliver a message from on high. But I am suggesting that effective announcers convey with their voices a remarkable aura of passion and conviction. They are able to captivate an audience with their words, almost as if they had some kind of mystical inner power of persuasion. They are able to communicate a message in such a compelling and irresistible manner that people can't help but listen.
Let me ask you a few question about your personal experiences with communication...
- Have you ever been able to talk so deeply and intimately with someone else that it seemed like you had known them all your life (even if you had just met them)?
- Have you ever met someone that seemed to understand you better than you understood yourself?
- Have you ever felt someone was able to "break down" your defensive psychological "walls" and speak to the "real you"?
- Have you ever had the sense that someone knew what you were going to say before you said it, almost as if they could read your mind?
- Have you ever had the feeling that you could communicate with someone without using words...just by a look, a knowing glance, a wink and a nod?
- Have you ever known someone who was a "born communicator," seemingly able to connect with anyone, at any time, at any level?
If you answered yes to any of the above, perhaps you can appreciate what I'm about to say next. Communication doesn't just occur at the level of words, and it doesn't just occur at the level of our minds. The most powerful communication occurs at the level of our innermost beings, our souls, if you will. The most effective communicators speak from the heart...directly to your heart.
When I say that an essential quality of breathing life into copy is enthusiasm, what I'm trying to say is that you need to breathe some of your own life into the copy. You need to en-thuse your copy, to inject a piece of your innermost self into your reading.
How do you do that? Well, it's not a skill that is easily taught. Everyone is different, and what works for me might not work for you. But I believe everyone can learn this skill.
In fact, I believe you already have this talent inside of you, but you might not choose to use it very often. Maybe you feel that it's risky to talk "from your heart." And indeed it can be risky. People might see the real person inside of you. But it can also be risky to not put your heart and soul into what you say. People tend to resist listening to someone that doesn't sound like "the real thing." If your announcing lacks genuine enthusiasm, most people will simply tune out. And if they tune out—no matter how good you think you may sound—you've failed to communicate.
Perhaps the first thing one must do to be genuinely enthusiastic is to be genuine. Be honest with yourself. Take a good, long, hard look in the mirror. Don't focus on your flaws; we all have imperfections. Nobody is perfect. You aren't perfect. But inside of you is something good. Something potentially great. Something that, if you just "let it out" and polish it a bit, can shine brightly. So let it. Look deep into those eyes in the mirror, gazing through the clouds of artificiality to get inside to your natural beauty. Lock onto it, and with as much determination as you can muster, decide today to never keep it hidden again.
If that sounds like a pep talk, well, it is. But if you are ever to achieve a knack for injecting natural enthusiasm into your copy, that's the kind of pep talk you need. And you need to be able to give that pep talk to yourself every time you get behind a microphone or in front of a camera. Whatever words, thoughts, ideas, images, or sayings that work for you—do what it takes to help yourself reach the point where you just naturally believe in yourself. All the time.
When I was a young man attending broadcasting school, one of my instructors said something to me that I will never forget. It's something I would like to share with you now. It's not exactly a pep talk, but for me, it was what I needed to hear. In a sense, it was my "announcing epiphany," the "ah hah!" moment when I finally saw the "light" of how to read with natural enthusiasm.
I was woodshedding—reading a piece of copy out loud, over and over and over again, trying to get it just right. But each time, my instructor said, no, do it again. So I would try to read it a slightly different way. Then another way. They still another way. "No, not there yet," he would say.
Finally, after trying what seemed like a hundred different approaches, I said to him, "I've tried it every possible way I've can!"
He replied, "Precisely. And THAT'S the problem. You're TRYING. I can hear that in your read...I can hear that you are TRYING. I don't want to hear someone trying to talk to me. I want to hear someone who IS talking to me. So DON'T TRY. JUST DO."
At first I thought he was crazy. But I decided to gave it a try. Or should I say, I decided to stop trying.
So I just looked at him, then looked at the copy, and just read it, without trying to do anything special. And I nailed it. We both knew instantly that It was much better than any read I had done previously.
He just smiled and said, "See, that wasn't so hard. You had it in you all the time. But all that TRYING was getting in way. All I could hear was the effort, not the real you communicating to me. So remember: DON'T TRY. JUST DO."
When most people read out loud the words on a piece of paper, they typically don't think too much about who may be listening. They focus on the words, not the message. They focus on the reading of those words, not the hearing of them.
But the words in a piece of copy are much more than just the words an announcer reads. They are the fundamental tools for communicating a message effectively to as broad an audience as possible. When a skillful announcer communicates a message, the focus is very much on those who are listening, and how they hear that message. Announcers strive for an audience focus.
Now perhaps you were born with perfect 20/20 vision, and you can see the world around you in sharp focus. I'm not so lucky; I've had to wear glasses most of my life. I'm very nearsighted. That means when I'm not wearing glasses, anything that isn't within a few inches from my eyes is blurry. If I want to see something in focus, I either have to bring them right up to my face, or I have to put on my glasses.
There are some announcers who have perfect 20/20 "audience vision" as well. They can clearly focus on the unseen audience that is hearing their message. They just naturally sound like they are connecting with the audience, speaking as if they can see the people they are speaking to. Maybe some announcers are "born" with such perfect audience focus.
But I think most announcers must work hard to bring their audience in focus. A clear focus on an unseen audience doesn't come easy for most people. Sure, beginning announcers may be able to imagine the audience, but not with a very sharp focus. Like the world I see without my glasses, the audience may seem rather blurry. So while it may be relatively easy for you as a beginning broadcast performer to imagine that someone is in the audience, listening and perhaps watching you as you deliver your message, it will take time—and a lot of practice—to develop the ability to develop a clear, sharp focus on the audience.
There are a number of strategies