Pronunciation: Always worth checking

Pronunciation is the news announcer’s lurking nemesis.

It’s not always the foreign words or names that trip you up. Those, at least you know to try hunt down the pronunciation for. It’s the familiar-seeming ones that will get you, especially American place names. For example, Quincy in Massachusetts is pronounced KWIN-zee, not KWIN-see. And Cairo, Illinois, is pronounced KARE-oh, not KIE-roh, as in the capital of Egypt.

The lesson here: when in doubt, check. And when not in doubt, think twice.

Tips and links on how to find pronunciations coming in future posts.

Pulling Plosives (or How to stoP PoPPing P’s)

One very common problem when recording a newscast or the narration for a story (even for veteran announcers) is popping ‘P’ or ‘B’ sounds. It’s a very annoying sound to listeners, and reminds them that they’re listening to someone speaking into a microphone rather than a friend sitting next to them. The pop of a ‘plosive’ (the linguistic word for sounds with that ‘explosion’ of breath built up behind sealed lips) is unique to sound recorded through a microphone, because in normal in-person speech, the listener’s ear is never close enough to the speaker’s mouth for the overpressure of air to create the ‘boom’ of a popped plosive.

Which brings me to the first of several suggestions here for reducing or eliminating popped P’s.

  1. Back off the mic. For most stick and studio microphones, the ideal recording distance is about 3-to-5 inches from the speaker’s mouth. Much further, and the speaker starts to sound ‘off-mic,’ that is, too much room noise and room echo gets mixed in with the voice. Closer than that, and the mic starts to pick up too much breath and mouth noise, including popped P’s. (Note: some more-expensive hand mics — the kind used by rock stars — are specifically designed to suppress popped P’s even at very close, even point-blank range from the mouth. But I would not recommend these mics for newsgathering or announcing use, because they have other pickup characteristics that make them undesirable in these applications.)
  2. Talk across the microphone. Most people talk directly into any microphone placed in front of them. This is not the best approach. Instead, try putting the mic at an angle, pointing at the speaker’s mouth, about 45 degrees below and to the side. This minimizes air from the mouth hitting the mic pickup, while barely reducing sound waves at close range.
  3. Buy a mic filter. You’ve probably seen these in movies and music videos; they’re cheap and very effective at eliminating, or at least lessening pops. For studio mics, pop filters are widely available. You can even make your own for about six bucks. But for field recording, a hoop-type pop screen is too awkward. For stick microphones used in the field, the best portable solution is a foam rubber windscreen, also widely and cheaply available. (Radio Shack has ’em). Not only will a windscreen cut back on popped plosives, but, as the name suggests, it will also reduce wind noise. In the OutQ Newsroom, I have a studio mic with a double set of pop filters, which is very helpful, but still not enough.
  4. Pull your plosives. This is a mic technique that is highly effective at eliminating popped P’s and B’s, but somewhat difficult to explain, learn and practice, because it requires you to learn how to speak in an unnatural way. Essentially, you alter your breath control, so that you ‘check’ (i.e. reduce) the volume of air you build up in your mouth when speaking plosive consonants. One way to force yourself to do this is to tighten up your lips more than normal, so that you can’t build up too much air in your mouth. This is an awkward way to speak at first, but with practice you learn the breath control without having your lips frozen like the mouth of a puppet.

You’ll find that with the mic placed just inches from your mouth, you can essentially speak without uttering normally audible P’s and B’s (which would sound quite odd to someone sitting across the room from you), and it still sounds normal to the mic — better in fact, because there are no pops.

One way to check your Progress Pulling your Plosives is to Practice ‘Peter Piper’ with your fingertips upraised about an inch from your mouth. Speaking normally, you’ll feel a slight burst of air on your fingers with each plosive. But if you’re correctly pulling your plosives, you should hardly feel anything at all.

Please feel free to leave a comment here if you have any questions — or for that matter, any success — with this technique. I’d love to hear about it.

Tools for emphasis

Many newsreaders, including some veterans, seem to think there is only one tool for emphasizing the important words in a sentence, and that is to punch them. That is, to make them louder. But if you’ve ever heard a radio newscast or TV news story read this way, you know that having the significant words punched the same way, over and over, can sound monotonous and robotic.

In fact, there are at least three other techniques skilled broadcast reporters or newsreaders can use to highlight important words. These tools also add variety, shape, and ‘music’ to a reader’s delivery. Besides amplitude (i.e. louder), there’s also pitch/stress (making your voice slightly higher and tenser), e l o n g a t i o n (stretching the word out a bit), and   pausing   (surrounding a word with slight pauses tends strongly to draw attention to it).

In fact, there’s also another kind of amplitude variation (besides, did I mention, louder?) that can be occasionally be used to emphasize a word. Some times lowering your voice can draw the audience in, and convey just the right note of intimacy or conspiracy.

Anyone have other techniques they use for emphasis besides those I’ve mentioned?

Get ‘thee’ gone!

For the last installment of my trilogy on delivery, I want to weigh in here against a bush-league mistake (in my opinion) that you still hear all over the place — sometimes even from experienced professionals.

How many times have I cringed when I hear a supposed newsreader pronounce the indefinite article (“A thing”) as “Ae” (like the letter of the alphabet) and the definite article (“The thing”) as “Thee”? Nothing is more of a dead giveaway that you are reading (except of course for a “read-y” monotone). Native English speakers almost never pronounce the articles that way, which is to say, it ain’t conversational at all. So always pronounce “A” as “uh” and “the” as “thuh.” Always.

Well, having said that as emphatically as I can, let me admit for ‘thuh’ one exception that I can think of. Regular people sometimes do pronounce the articles as “thee” or “ae” to emphasize them. For example, you often hear it spoken that way in a context like “thee one and only.” So put this rule in that rather large class of “nevers” that have an exception for “to achieve a specific, desired effect.”

An ounce of script preparation is worth a pound of oops

It’s all well and good, you may say, to wish for a varied and interesting delivery. But how do you actually create one?

One technique many newsreaders use is to print out and mark up their scripts. Underline the words you want to punch. Circle dramatic phrases; box boring boilerplate. Or come up with your own system.

Just the act of reading through the script asking yourself about each word and phrase will be helpful. As you grow more practiced, you may find you don’t need to print and mark your scripts. But no matter how long you’re in the business, it’ll always be useful to at least read through your scripts aloud before you deliver them on the air. Sight-reading is sometimes a necessary evil in a time crunch, but it’s never a good idea as standard operating practice. Things that look good on paper can sometimes sound awful (or worse, be a tongue-twister) when spoken aloud at speed.

It takes technique to sound conversational

Sounding conversational isn’t only the goal of news writing. It’s also integral to successful news reading, as well. But one of the paradoxes of sounding natural and interesting on the air is that it requires loads of technique. Rookie newsreaders just starting out (say, in college) typically read scripts pretty much the way they read aloud in high school classrooms, namely, in an uninflected, droning monotone. (Think Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “Bueller? Bueller?”)

But in broadcasting, and especially in radio, you must grab an audience and keep its attention for one to five minutes or more with just your voice. Your ‘read’ must convey the significance, meaning and emotion of each story as you read it. Scripts contain various textures: suspicion, intrigue, conflict, outrage, humor, colorful detail, boring detail, and much more. The anchorperson’s delivery must convey all that, both to help the listener understand what she is hearing, and to keep her interested.

In short, delivery compensates in some ways for what broadcast news lacks in detail. The mental picture you deliver with an interesting, colorful, musical read can be worth a thousand words of print-y minutiae.

So think of it not as ‘reading,’ but as an acting job. Invest your quotes and paraphrases with some flavor of how they might have been said by their source. Sound surpised when you say something surprising. Sound a little sad when you read something sad. Emphasize the important words (more on the various tools for emphasis in future entry), and muscle quickly through the boring, obligatory parts (like most attribution). Vary your read to follow the varying tones of your well-written script and you’ll hold an audience’s attention–right now, and the next time they hear you.

Link of the Week:

Each week, I’m going to offer up one of the many web sites I’ve found over the years to assist me in research, fact-checking, or writing. Some will be gems you’ve never seen or heard of. Others will be commonplace sites everybody goes to, but for which I’ve found a special use or hidden feature that I’ll share.

For my inaugural ‘Link of the Week,’ here’s one of the best all-around websites offering guidance on radio newswriting and delivery:

The site is written and maintained by Ohio radio newsman Michael Meckler. It’s a tribute to the good, old fashioned broadcast newswriting values of clarity, simplicity and concision. The site covers much of the same territory that I aim to discuss eventually, but for those who want an excellent, brief crash course in radio news, there’s no better place to start than this.