Three key steps to becoming a better presenter

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.

Credit: Sam Saunders
Credit: Sam Saunders

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.

Credit: Scott S
Credit: Scott S

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.

Credit: Ted Eytan
Credit: Ted Eytan

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.

Credit: Vancouver Film School

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.

Credit: James Cridland
Credit: James Cridland

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.

Credit: Matt Biddulph
Credit: Matt Biddulph

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.

Credit: Richard Masoner/ Cycleicious
Credit: Richard Masoner/Cycleicious

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.

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