Jeff Butera is a three-time Emmy Award-winning journalist. A summa cum laude graduate of the University of Florida, he has reported for stations across the county, including in Phoenix and Tampa. He is currently the primary news anchor at WZVN-TV (ABC) In Fort Myers, where his work earned him a coveted Murrow Award for Hard News Reporting.
One of the most important tenets of broadcast writing is to be conversational. That means you should write like you talk. Your writing should sound like you’re having a conversation with the viewer, not like you’re preaching a sermon on a mountain.
Yet, far too often, the way people in news talk sounds abnormal; the words and phrases used would never be said in a real-life conversation.
Here are 10 words and phrases I’m sure you’ve heard anchors and reporters say before, but I’d recommend avoiding yourself:
1. “Lucky to be alive.”
Example: A Fort Myers man is lucky to be alive after flipping his car overnight.
We’re all lucky to be alive. But the phrase ‘lucky to be alive’ has become a television news cliché that you’re better off eliminating. Clichés are not your friend.
Example: Firefighters are fighting the 50-acre blaze.
No one in real life says ‘blaze.’ They just call it a fire. And no viewer is sitting at home counting how many times you say ‘fire.’ Call it a ‘fire’ 50 times in a row before saying ‘blaze’ once. Remember, write like you talk.
Example: Triple A expects 30 million motorists to be on the roads this Thanksgiving weekend.
I guarantee you didn’t count down the days until you turned 16 and could finally be a ‘motorist.’ Call them ‘drivers.’ Normal people do.
4. “High alert”
Example: Neighbors are on high alert tonight, after a murder in their neighborhood.
I’m not sure I really even know what ‘high alert’ means. I would just say neighbors are ‘scared’ or ‘anxious.’
5. “Breaks their silence” and “speaking out”
Example: The governor is breaking his silence, and speaking out about the allegations of abuse.
These two are among the worst ‘TV news creations’ out there. The only place I ever hear anyone say ‘speaking out’ is on the news.
My recommendation: Unless someone actually took a vow of silence, ditch ‘breaks their silence.’ And instead of using the cliché ‘speaking out,’ just say someone is ‘talking about’ a particular topic.
6. “Shocking” and “stunning”
Example: This next story is shocking.
We’re journalists. We deal with objective facts. Leave the subjective adjectives to someone else. Tell the viewer the story and let them decide if they’re shocked or stunned.
7. “Fled on foot”
Example: The suspect fled on foot through a wooded area.
Police officers talk a certain way. I call it ‘cop speak.’ But there’s nothing that says because they talk that way, you have to talk that way.
Translate their language into words that sounds conversational. For example, ‘fled on foot’ simply becomes ‘ran away.’
8. “The 35-hundred block”
Example: The robbery happened on the 35-hundred block of Main Street.
I barely know what ‘hundred block’ I live on!
I don’t think it adds much to say something happened on the ’35-hundred block of Main Street.’ I can’t imagine a viewer having that much knowledge of addresses to learn anything from that.
Instead, use well-known landmarks to help your viewer place where something happened. “The robbery happened on Main Street, right across from the Publix shopping center and the Big Boy statue.”
9. “Went missing.”
Example: The child went missing last night.
Far better to just say someone ‘vanished’ or ‘disappeared.’ The phrase ‘went missing’ just sounds clunky.
10. “Parent’s worst nightmare.”
Example: It’s a parent’s worst nightmare – their child waking up with a cough.
We have no idea what a parent’s worst nightmare is. And whenever I see the phrase used, my first reaction is usually ‘I can think of a million things worse than that.’
Let’s not presume to know what a parent’s worst nightmare is. Just tell the viewer the story and let them decide where it ranks on the nightmare scale.
Jeff is the author of “Write Like You Talk: A Guide To Broadcast News Writing.” It is available at http://www.WriteLikeYouTalk.com.