Thousands of writers are heading to Dublin city in Ireland this week in the hope of gleaning advice, encouragement and inspiration at the International Literature Festival.
I spoke to festival director Martin Colthorpe about what keeps drawing people back nearly 20 years on, as well as authors Vanessa O’Loughlin, Catherine Ryan Howard and literary agent Sallyanne Sweeney on their advice to get your book on the shelves.
I recently attended a presenting course at The Actors Centre in central London. Led by Kathryn Wolfe, a TV director and media lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire, the focus was on understanding what we wanted to convey and how, with the overall goal of building our confidence in different areas of presenting.
It was a diverse group: several worked in the creative arts, as voiceover artists and dancers; others were there to improve their group presentations or to just get a bit more experience and direction in front of the camera. I was the only journalist, so I enjoyed when we had to interview two people at a time, and get out on the streets with a camera to do vox pops in Covent Garden.
One of the most interesting things I learned was that when presenters begin, it’s not “action” that’s said on set, but rather “standby, and cue”, by the producer through the ‘in-ear talkback’ in the gallery. We watched a BBC news bulletin where the open ‘in-ear talkback’ was played, so as well as the presenter hearing her directions and being told “Camera 3” or “Camera 1”, the camera operator was being told whether to go to a wide shot or close up etc, and the graphics operators were being instructed too. All of this can be heard by the presenter. While you might be reporting on a breaking news story and concentrating on speaking to the audience, you’ll also have to listen carefully to what the producer is saying to you.
However, what struck me the most is that time is always crucial when it comes to presenting and production. Everything is timed to the second, so it’s hugely important to be aware of. For example, if it’s a news show, there will be a breakdown made out in advance of how much time will be given to each section. So think about how many seconds are devoted to the music, your intro, and then maybe a live report before the camera comes back to studio.
Perhaps the live report has taken a little longer than scheduled and you’ll have to cut something by 30 seconds – but it’s about maintaining a cool head, listening to your producer in the gallery who will tell you how much time is remaining, and for you to fill in the five or ten second gap without your audience noticing anything.
I found presenting with ‘in-ear talkback’ and being counted down a fun challenge. We tackled pieces to camera, too, which involved learning off a section of the script and saying it confidently down the lens of the camera, sometimes walking along at the same time. A 10-second link is about 30 words, so slow it down, memorise it and be ready to go, smiling if appropriate for the piece when “standby” is said.
So, here are three key steps I picked up from the course to become a better presenter:
1) Warm up properly.
I hadn’t particularly considered this as an element of preparation for presenting, but it can make a huge difference when you take a few moments to stretch your muscles, complete a physical and vocal warm-up, and get yourself mentally ready.
To deal with nerves, ensure you’re breathing slowly, almost like yoga, focusing on the ‘in’ and ‘out’. But stay a little bit nervous – it’ll give you energy to keep going! We tapped our bare feet off the ground as a calming exercise. Consider your posture (shoulders back), body language, clear diction and a smile. Be natural.
Talk through any potential problems with your producer or director, and mark up your script with your own personal notes on tricky pronunciations or long figures. You could ask the autocue operator to spell out “two hundred and ninety seven thousand, five hundred” in your script instead of trying to decipher “297,500” quickly when you’re reading. Rehearse what you’re going to do, read your intro and ending out loud, and do one or two practice runs of your piece to camera. It will all help you to feel extra confident with what you are doing, and that will come across to the audience.
2) Be prepared…for everything and anything.
Do your research in advance. Know about the guest you’re interviewing, what they’re passionate about, what they’ve done recently, any topical comments they’ve made which you can discuss, and what’s coming up for them. You or a researcher could put together a briefing pack on them for you to go over again before the interview, so you’re fully up to date and ready with suitable questions. If you want to run the guest through a few of your questions so they feel more at ease, that’s up to you, but more often than not, the best answers are spontaneous.
Learn your script – this will give you the confidence to continue even if something goes wrong, or if you suddenly have to report a breaking news story on air. There could be many versions, so mark the latest script and always have it with you. Have a printed copy on your person in case your technology fails, and make sure to turn the pages as you progress through the show, in case you have to refer to something and you don’t have to awkwardly find page 20 when you’re in the middle of a bulletin.
If you’re interviewing multiple people, consider what they have in common, or indeed, what they disagree about. Balance it so that each person gets the opportunity to have their say. Be aware of closed questions – ones where your guests could simply answer “yes” or “no”. Try asking them “Why did you do that? How did it make you feel?” Encourage them to explore their reasoning, that’s the way to a natural conversation.
Think about how you’re going to start and wrap up too. It’s all very well if your interview goes fantastically but if you give it a terrible, mumbled and rushed ending that’s what will stick out. If you have a structure in mind (even a list of bullet points), that can really help.
3) Know your audience.
When you look down the lens, maintain that eye contact and don’t be afraid to do so, because you’re speaking to one person. That’s who you’re trying to engage. But really imagine it’s someone – your mum, your best friend, your nephew – and think about how you’d explain this topic to them and what words you’d use. Don’t drop eye contact when you finish presenting a report and you’re handing back to studio, because you might still be live. Keep looking.
If you do look away during your report, have a good reason for doing so. But remember, the audience’s attention will be diverted by this. They’ll want to know what you’re looking at. Will it intrigue them too? Get the camera to show them. But if you make a mistake, just keep going and it will soon be forgotten.
Most importantly, who is your audience? What tone should you take? Are you presenting to an eight-year-old or a 35-year-old? An amateur historian or a professional one? Is a YouTube vlog or a weather report?
What’s going to interest your audience most? Ask the questions they’ll want the answers to. Be naturally engaged and genuinely interested; a viewer will know if you’re not, they’ll see it in your eyes.
When you find that connection with your viewer, emphasise their value: “Lovely to see YOU. Thank YOU for joining me.” Even if you have an audience of 20 million people, it’s essential to make every single person at home feel like you’re speaking directly to them.
How do we tell a news story? Can the way we write be the same even in a different language? Here I look at the main stories from three newspapers in three countries – Britain, Ireland and France – on Monday June 2nd, analysing the style, tone, choice of words and the use of quotations.
The name ‘Kathleen MacMahon’ has been on the tips of literary tongues since April 2011, when the award-winning Irish journalist picked up a €684,000 advance and a two-book deal from Little, Brown at the London Book Fair for her début novel, This Is How It Ends.
Rhian Jones has just finished her year-long apprenticeship with freelance education journalist and The Guardian contributor, Janet Murray, and is now Editorial Assistant at Music Week. I spoke to her at the ‘So You Want To Be A Journalist?’ Conference about how she nabbed the apprenticeship and why a journalist is always learning.
I’ve officially finished my Erasmus year in France – eight busy months of language, culture and many creative writing submissions – but I haven’t given up the travelling just yet. Last week, I flew to London to attend the So You Want To Be A Journalist?conference at City University.
I have only two months left on my Erasmus year abroad in the south of France and I can’t believe time is flying by so quickly. After much-needed catch-ups with the family and friends in Kerry – and my boyfriend’s sister’s wedding in Galway – I returned to Avignon at the end of January, and it’s been an absolute whirlwind of chaos ever since. After the freezing gale-force winds of the Mistral (as a friend said, “If you think it might be the Mistral, it’s not the Mistral”), the blushing sun of the last few days is serving as a lovely pick-me-up.
The Erasmus in France/Creative Writing experience thus far has been like nothing I had expected. As I blogged in September, the nerves were hitting in: I had just moved to a different country, with a different culture and a different language. Being a French resident for the last six months has helped me become more accustomed to life outside Ireland. I’ve definitely become more confident in speaking French and interacting with native speakers. I’ve noticed that it’s a lot easier for the Anglophone French to realise what a challenge it is to integrate yourself into an entirely new place and improve your language skills. I’m very glad that those students make the effort to speak in French with us.
On the creative side: I’ve put more work into my writing since September than I’ve ever done in my life, and I’ve got my fantastic course at NUI Galway – and my editor, Geraldine Mills – to thank for that. It’s been a hell of a lot more hard work than I thought it would be, but so far I’ve had an absolute ball doing what I’ve wanted to do since the age of five. I’ve been writing all the time and got my first ever cover story published earlier this month by my university newspaper, Sin, on the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn’s, increase in college fees.
In the last few weeks, I’ve joined the ranks of the wonderful websites that are Studenty.me and Kettle, so I’m looking forward to writing articles for them. I think it’s great to have publications out there that specifically want student writers. Journalism is such a difficult industry to make your name in; the more credentials you have to your name the better, so I’m delighted that they’ll have me. I’m thriving on being involved with journalism. Even though I’m living in another country, each team has made an enormous effort to make me feel part of them. I’ll be contributing to Written in Ireland‘s online magazine as well, so make sure to check out that site.
I’m having a great time doing author interviews for writing.ie. Learning from other writers about what works for them will never stop inspiring me. I recently spoke to Tom Darling about his second novel, Summer, and he offered some great advice on writing – you can read about it on the site very soon. I’ve also set up a new blog specifically for Beauty, Fashion and Red Carpet blog posts, called Marése Martha, if you’d like to check it out here.
I’m terribly, terribly excited about everything that’s coming up on A Younger Theatre. The team have been nothing but fantastic since I started working with them. My interview with the internationally renowned performer, Michael Ball (currently starring in the West End adaptation of Sweeney Todd) will be published soon on their site. I’m also going to be interviewing English actress Jessie Cave, who played Lavender Brown in the Harry Potter films. My Want to Write?Blog is set for some amazing interviewees in the literary/journalism industry: I will be talking to Irish poet, Gerry Hanberry; the founder of writing.ie Vanessa O’Loughlin; TV3 broadcast journalist Sinéad Desmond; Irish children’s author Claire Hennessy; AYT‘s Laura Turner; novelist Sarah Webb; The Guardian apprentice Rhian Jones; Móna Wise of the brilliant Wise Wordsblog, who will be self-publishing her début book this year; and British children’s author Bali Rai (who is also now the Writer-in-Residence for Booktrust). Finally, I will also be interviewing a New York Times bestselling author for the blog…but I won’t reveal who that is just yet!
With the busy writing schedule and life in general, it’s been hard to utilise the great South of France base that Avignon is and find time to go travelling, but my trip to Paris last December with my lovely housemate Hannah – where I visited the most beautiful bookshop possibly in existence, Shakespeare and Company – worked wonders for me in terms of reminding me to stay positive about everything.
I’m lucky enough to be going to Paris again in April for the last week of my séjour in France and I already know it’s going to be a bittersweet goodbye. I plan to fit in some more gallivanting around Marseille, Nimes and Arles before I head off home too and a couple of other cities if I have time. I’m not saying au revoir just yet!
During a wonderful night out with my best friend of nine years, she came out with quite an unusual statement. Now, while our conversations are generally pretty mad anyway (spluttering with inside jokes, laughter and random digressions), this one contained a remarkably deep insight.
“When I read your writing, it sounds like it’s coming from a part of you that I don’t often see,” she said.
This is coming from someone who has grown up with me for almost a decade: from eleven-year-old kids in Irish College, to (cough, cough) agonising over our secondary school exams, to being vehicle-owning college students halfway through our undergraduate degrees. We have giggled together, we have supported each other, and, most of all, we have seen each other through the dark times, when it seemed like the world had stopped turning. She knows me better than almost anyone.
She’s well used to my book obsession, journalistic ambitions, and fondness for correct spelling and grammar, but for her to say that she doesn’t often hear my writing voice, I found a bit surprising.
Writing has always been my passion, and it was many years before I met Elaine. I can’t imagine my life without it. The love of literature is completely ingrained in me. Surely, if my best friend read my writing, she would hear my familiar tones, my stubborn opinions, and my innermost thoughts ringing out through my words?
Well, not exactly. Despite its huge importance and prominence in my life, writing is still only a part of me. Elaine knows I am a writer, but she doesn’t know my creative voice, because it’s not the one I use aloud. It drives me, but it doesn’t define me. It’s a small but essential piece of me, hiding shyly at the back of my mind, waiting for the moment it can let loose on a blank page. It’s always within me, whether it’s heard or not; like she said, it’s the part of me that others don’t really see.