From Musical Theatre to TV Presenting

I often teach TV presenting skills in theatre schools and recently I was delivering TV presenting workshops at a musical theatre school. On-camera drama training for actors emphasises ‘do not look at the camera’, ‘be in character’. With TV presenting it’s the opposite, ‘look at the camera’, and ‘be yourself’.

Some actors find this liberating, a chance to show their personality, others find it exposing. It’s all about confidence, talk to camera as if this is the most natural communication possible, without revealing the inner stress you may have.

Musical theatre actors, usually full of confidence, can find it challenging to create a natural performance for TV. It helps to think of your audience as one person, not a full auditorium, have a conversation with your viewer, be warm, but no jazz hands!

Next TV Presenting course with me is 23rd/24th September, The Actors Centre, Covent Garden, for non-members, all welcome, not just musical theatre! Limited places available.

From print to video

I frequently work with companies who are moving from print to video, from written reports to presenting/producing TV programmes for clients and a wider audience.

Understandably, even highly professional experts can feel out of their depth in the unfamiliar world of making TV. My advice, based on 25 years of TV directing and 15 years teaching TV presenting is to keep your target audience in mind, avoid jargon, and make it conversational. Talk to the camera as if you are chatting to one person at a time, be warm and friendly, and look down the centre of the lens to connect. Less is more, short bite-sized chunks of info that can be viewed on a mobile in the back of a taxi may get more likes than long form programmes. The language of TV is images, use anecdotes and real examples to bring your content to life and make it memorable. A dark suit, acceptable in a corporate setting, can look dull on camera, add some colour, look groomed and smile!

Energy Tips

What kind of energy do you need as a TV presenter? I don’t mean energy to go to the gym, or jog around the park, but on-screen energy.

If TV presenting is being You, then just be your everyday normal self in front of the camera and you’ll be presenting. Right? Well yes, but there is some value in TV presenting as if you are the host of a dinner party, with a bit more oomph than in real life and a twinkle in the eye.

Too little energy, and your performance could be dull; too much energy and you could be OTT (over the top) and irritating to the viewer. So, how do you know what level of energy is right for TV?

You need to use your judgement, because in the world of TV you may not get director’s notes. Prepare beforehand by recording your work to camera and playing it back on a large monitor to evaluate your performance. Does it seem sincere, are you shouting, are you making distracting facial expressions, is the performance engaging, or flat and boring?

Unlike theatre, in TV there is no need for larger than life facial or vocal performance. Unlike public speaking, in TV you should not be casting your gaze around the room. On video/TV you are only speaking to one or two people at a time, via the camera, so speak to them as if they are positioned where the camera is.

Over the years I’ve trained hundreds of different presenters, and have identified two opposites in on-screen energy (as a generalisation of course). Actors from musical theatre often have performances that are too big for TV; they are used to reaching out to their audience, to be seen and heard at the back of the amphitheatre. What works on a musical stage does not necessarily work within the confines of the video screen, and I usually find I ask them to tone it down, to do less.

On the other hand, people from management consultant backgrounds often deliver video performances that are flat – perhaps because they’ve been trained to reduce the emotion in their performance, keep a neutral expression and take the heat out of the situation. Here, I often find myself asking presenters to raise their energy level, to do more.

When practising TV presenting you need to apply the right energy to the situation, for example, Newsreading and Children’s presenting require very different energy levels. But, as a general rule, on TV and video take care not to be too musical theatre or management consultant!

 

 

How to talk to a camera

How can you talk to a camera and make it seem real? A camera is just plastic and electronics on a tripod, so what can you do to make your performance natural? Imagine the camera is a person.

Your job is to connect with the viewer through the lens, so if you imagine the camera is a person, your performance will be sincere.

Who should you imagine? It can be your best friend, your mum, or a typical viewer. If you’re presenting a shopping channel imagine someone at home who is watching the channel, if you’re presenting a pre-school TV show imagine talking to a four year old on the sofa.

How do we watch TV? Usually on our own, or with another person, so when speaking to camera, talk to one or two people max. Even if hundreds, thousands or millions are watching your video, they are in their own space, not all crowded into one room. Make it personal and the viewer will relate to you, they will think you are talking to them individually and you will create a bond through the camera.

The same goes for radio. We tend to listen in the bathroom, in the car, doing the ironing or through headphones … again it’s the same rules as for TV. If you’re presenting a radio show imagine talking to one listener. Some radio presenters place a photo of their mum, boyfriend, or girlfriend by the mic to help them talk to one person they have in mind.

The language you use reflects this approach. If you’re on stage presenting a public event you might say,

‘Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen’.

If you’re hosting a children’s birthday party, you might use,

‘Hello girls and boys’, or ‘Hello everybody’.

But when talking to camera address the individual –

‘Hello and welcome to the show. It’s great to be with you again and I’ve got a fantastic line up of guests for you to enjoy this afternoon.”

It’s about being relatable, connect with the camera so the viewer can connect with you.

Am I too old to be a children’s TV presenter?

After teaching a recent TV presenting course I was asked by a thirty something if he was too old to be a children’s TV presenter.

It depends how you connect with your viewers and which target audience you are aiming for.

Some wonderful TV shows for younger viewers feature more mature casting including James Bolam in Grandpa in my Pocket, and Lynda Baron in Come Outside – both shown on CBeebies.

CBeebies is the channel for viewers under 6 years, their presenters tend to be maternal, paternal, aunt or uncle figures who can reassure the viewers whilst entertaining them. Popular and long-lasting CBeebies presenters include Justin Fletcher (Mr Tumble) Chris Jarvis and Pui Fan Lee who are all mid-forties and have presented children’s programmes for around 20 years. Justin Fletcher was made MBE in 2008 for services to children’s broadcasting, and won a BAFTA Award for Children’s Presenter in 2012. Currently he presents Something Special and Justin’s House, and Chris Jarvis and Pui Fan Lee present Show Me Show Me.

CBBC is aimed at children from 6 to 12 years, although older children watch the shows. Their presenters tend to be youthful, sometimes looking like teenagers themselves. Current popular presenters include Blue Peter’s Lindsey Russell, Sam Nixon and Mark Rhodes from Sam and Mark’s Big Friday Wind-Up, Scrambled’s London Hughes, Arielle Free, Luke Franks and Sam Homewood, and Katie Thistleton from CBBC presentation.

Children’s TV presenter Gemma Hunt demonstrates how to move successfully between the different children’s channels. Gemma studied Media Performance at the University of Bedfordshire and as soon as she graduated she started presenting with CBBC – her many credits there include Xchange, Barney’s Barrier Reef and Bamzooki. In 2013 almost 10 years after joining CBBC, Gemma moved to CBeebies to present Swashbuckle the pirate themed pre-school game show. In 2015 Swashbuckle received a BAFTA for Best Entertainment show at the Children’s Awards and filming has just finished on the fourth series. As a young presenter, fresh out of University CBBC was the natural home for Gemma, and as she matured her style was ideal for CBeebies.

Different audiences demand different presenting styles, as ever, it’s about knowing your brand. So, my answer to the question, am I too old to be a children’s presenter? You’re never too old to be a children’s TV presenter!

Shopping Around

This week one of my TV presenting students was shooting a reel to send to a shopping channel. Choose a product you can relate to and record a 2 – 3 minute sell in the style of the channel you want to approach. To demonstrate that you can talk without the need for re-takes, don’t edit the presenting section. Shopping channels are live or as live, their producers want to know you can present in one simple take without losing structure or focus.

So, develop the knack of ad libbing about the product as you describe its key features and benefits. Demo the product and explain how it works. Lifestyle it –who would this product suit and why, know it inside out, be the expert. Look good – maturity is a plus for some channels, but grooming is key.

Live shopping channels use in-ear talkback to give timings to presenters. You can practise this at home by working with a friend giving you a countdown, or pre-record timings and play them back via headphones.

Watch one of my former students Marie-Françoise Wolff presenting Kipling bags on QVC to see how she connects with the product and structures the sell, with lots of energy, enthusiasm and product knowledge.

To read more about being a shopping channel presenter, see my book The TV Presenter’s Career Handbook, published by Focal Press.

A prompt success

I was observing some TV auditions recently where the presenter had to read from a prompt, and I felt some sympathy for the fragile performer under the glare of lights and onlookers reading from a screen – where it isn’t easy to scan entire sentences at once. Intonation, understanding and communication were made tricky for the presenter who faced unseen text and clunky sentences lacking sufficient punctuation and correct grammar –  and that were somewhat overlong. (Like the above!)

Where was the poor presenter going to pause for breath, let alone smile?

Presenters, when faced with reading from a prompt you can ask for a hard copy in advance – unless it’s for a broadcast journalism job where coping with breaking news is part of the skillset. If you familiarise yourself with the text before the audition it will be much easier to read from a scrolling screen because you will know what is coming next. If you’re not happy with the pace of the text or your performance during the screen test, don’t reveal this in your face or eyes (until after you hear the word ‘Cut’).

The scripts in your hand and on the prompt are from the same file, so look out for typos, overlong sentences and pronunciation issues before you face them on screen. Check punctuation, commas and full stops, read aloud to see where you can take a breath. Talk to the viewer, don’t read to them, and look through the words to find the camera lens.

Production teams, are you guilty of writing corporate speak, jargon or tongue twisters? Fine for reading alone, but not aloud. As TV is a conversational medium, try reading your scripts aloud before you press save, and spare a thought for presenters who can deliver a much better performance if given a little prep time beforehand.

Geeks, Boffins and Experts

Being a geek is cool – it’s also a sure fire way to get near the top of the TV presenting pile. If you are an expert without TV presenting experience you can get training and interest an agent. If you’re a general TV presenter without an area of expertise you can spend months trying to be seen.

We live in the age of the TV expert. Whether it’s on niche channels or mainstream, experts give authenticity to a production. Just look at how many current presenters have qualifications and/or life experience in the genre they are working in. Celebrities and known faces are being outnumbered by specialists, buffs and boffins.

If you’re a female expert you’re even better off. In recent years BBC schemes trained up a widening pool of talented women media experts from Economists to Engineers, Art Historians to Scientists, and there was a BBC training scheme earlier this year for BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) women experts.

TV and media researchers seeking experts can only offer you work if they know you exist. Be visible. Accept invitations to speak at public events, present conferences, write articles, be interviewed for print, video or radio. Upload your details to websites used promote experts such as findaTVexpert.com, beatvexpert.com, thewomensroom

But, sincerity in performance is still key. You need to be passionate about your area of expertise, don’t become an expert just because you’ve read it can help your career, be the expert who loves being the expert, the boffin or the geek!

The Reel Thing

Recently I was contacted by an experienced TV presenter, wondering why his showreel was neither helping him to gain momentum nor open doors. Beautifully shot and edited, the reel included a range of professionally presented items in too many genres. A triumph of style over content, the pieces to camera lacked originality as the generic scripts, written by the showreel production team, failed to convince.

It isn’t necessary to spend a fortune on a glossy product to make a reel that stands out. Your talent will leap out of the screen even if shot on a phone. Content is the key. Write scripts yourself, based on your passions, interests and expertise; self shoot and edit, or skill swap to create some video footage. Presenting is about being yourself, so engage with the viewer by making a reel with your fingerprint.

Agents and broadcasters frequently state that mobile phone showreels are acceptable because they are looking for potential. So, worry less about the finished product and spend more time thinking about the ideas. I have viewed dozens of ‘sausage factory’ reels that were so superficial or derivative they didn’t leave an impression; I can count on one hand the reels that were exciting – even if the sound wasn’t perfect – they were the reel thing.

 

Strictly Success

Joanne Clifton & Kathryn Wolfe, April 2015As a tutor it’s so rewarding when one of your students achieves success, and it has just been revealed that the multi talented Joanne Clifton is to join the presenting team of BBC’s It Takes Two. Joanne, World Champion Ballroom dancer and pro-dancer on Strictly Come Dancing will be a regular dance expert on the Strictly chat show this Autumn, as well as performing in the Strictly series.

When Joanne attended my course Get into TV Presenting at The Actors Centre last summer she was clearly a bundle of talent. She was training in acting, singing and presenting after achieving World class in dancing, aiming to launch herself in a new direction. Appearing on Strictly last year, along with her brother, ‘Kevin from Grimsby’, it was quickly apparent that Joanne could present as well as dance – she was discovered!

TV Presenting is an extension of your own personality, it shouldn’t be fake or an acting performance. You need to confidently talk to the camera, to engage with the viewer. The skills can be taught quickly, and then it’s practise. Joanne’s dance background meant she could connect with the audience, and she combined this with her cheeky personality and sense of humour.

The 2-day course taught Joanne the basic presenting skills of talking to camera, speaking to time, interviewing, being interviewed, walking and talking, vox pops and reading Autocue. Almost immediately Joanne found herself being interviewed for Channel 4, and she performed brilliantly.

Feeling that TV presenting could be her new career Joanne followed up her initial training with personal coaching with me, and is now confident enough to hold her own on mainstream BBC. It all started with a weekend course. Who knows where it will end?

There’s plenty more info on my website and in my books, The TV Presenter’s Career Handbook published by Focal Press, and So You Want to be a TV Presenter? published by Nick Hern Books.