Listening leads to better stories

By: Mandy Mitchell

How many times have you been interviewing someone when you have no earthly idea what the person just said?

You are busy thinking of your next question. Or maybe there are complicated facts you are going over in your head to make sure you don’t look silly. Maybe you are one-man-banding and the cloud just covered up the sun AGAIN and you have to adjust the iris AGAIN and you didn’t hear what the person you are interviewing just said.

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That is stuff we all do and it’s stuff that gets in the way of truly listening. It’s the kind of stuff that can not only make you less effective as an interviewer, but can also cause you to miss out on something really great.

Quick story…

I was covering the College World Series at my last job and the coach surprised us all by naming a relief pitcher the starter for the next game. It may not sound like a big deal, but trust me, this was BIG news in Columbia, SC. It would be of great interest to our viewers and it was cause for many questions from the assembled press.

As we threw question after question at the coach, Ray Tanner, he mentioned the team’s trip to the local children’s hospital and casually noted that it was great to see an “old friend” who just happened to be a young man with cancer. No one was listening when he said that. Everyone was busy with this big story.

Luckily, I was listening.

I hung around after the other reporters had left and asked coach Tanner about the boy. He smiled and told me all about how Charlie was a bat boy for the team years earlier and how they had kept in touch. “Charlie will be at the game tomorrow,” he said. “You should meet him!”

Long story short, this ended up being an incredible story.

When the story aired another reporter came to me and said “how the heck did you find out about that?”

I told him how he had been there when Tanner mentioned it. “Oh…I didn’t hear that.”

This isn’t the only time this has happened. I have found many a story by simply listening during the interview process. I am also certain I have missed out on stories by not truly listening. It is very easy to focus on the 97 other things in your brain and that looming deadline.

Next time you are doing an interview, make a real effort to listen. Don’t worry about your next question. If you are listening, you will know what to ask. This practice will not only lead to great stories, it can also lead to better questions.

Post is originally from 2015

Resume reel mistakes

By: Mandy Mitchell

Like most people who have been in this business a while, I get asked to look at a lot of resume reels. One thing you should absolutely understand is that I am no expert on resume reels. I don’t think anyone is, really. What gets you a job with one shop could be thrown out in 6 seconds at another.

I can tell you a few things that ALWAYS stand out to me as looking “small market.” These are things I see in reel after reel. Yes, they are coming from folks in small markets, but these folks are trying to move up. It’s time to start looking big market if you want to be big market!

**I can only speak about on-air reels here**

1- Poorly framed interviews

I can’t tell you how many times I see interviews in PKGs on reporter’s tapes that are not framed well. Your interview should look like this:

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There should be head room and room in front of the person and he shouldn’t be looking at the camera, but looking at you.

This is an example of stuff I see often:

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2- Interviews shot against a wall

Please DON’T DO THIS! You want to have some depth in your shot. Let’s say you are shooting in a classroom and want some books in the background. You’ll want to seat your subject several feet in front of the books…not right in front of the books. The idea is to get the books to be a bit out of focus.

I made this mistake many times as a young sports reporter. I thought shooting in a locker room would look “awesome” and “just like ESPN.” So I would put the player on the locker room bench, roughly a foot front of the locker. Didn’t look awful, but you should instead get a chair and get that person as far away from the locker as is logistically possible.

3- A hand holding a mic in a shot

You should be using a lav for any PKG worthy of your resume tape. I don’t want to see your wrist and your ugly mic in the shot. If you don’t have a lav, make sure you frame the mic out of the shot. Most of us have editing equipment with zoom functions now. Use it!

While we are on the subject of lavs and looking “small market,” I don’t want to see  the mic wire hanging from the shirt. Go ahead and take the extra 30 seconds and have your subject hide the wire behind a tie or under the shirt.

4- Jump cuts and too many dissolves

Learn the value of close-ups, and cutaways. If you are an MMJ, learn to shoot those. If you are working with a young photographer, learn to ask for those. Don’t rely on dissolves to get you out of trouble. The best storytellers only use dissolves for impact, not to avoid a jump cut.

5- Clothing that makes you appear young

I can’t stress this enough. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Do not wear trendy clothing. Do not wear shorts in a stand-up. Do not let me see you wearing flip-flops during a live shot. Why am I saying all of this obvious stuff? Because I have seen them all on resume reels.

I am amazed at what young people not only think is ok for on-air attire, but think is ok for a resume reel. This should be a reflection of you at your absolute best. Would you wear a tank top to an interview? How about don’t put that shot on your reel!

6- Music in PKGs

I am sure I will spend an entire post writing about this subject alone at some point. Let me first say I am not against music at all.  I have used music many times.

What I am against, and what makes someone appear “small market,” is simply adding a music bed to a pkg to make it “sadder.”

Doing a story on cancer? Add some sad music! YUCK!!

If you don’t know how to properly add music to your story, please don’t do it. If you like music, I encourage you to watch people who use music well and learn how it works. Until then, I encourage you to rely on NAT sound and writing to make your stories standout.

 

This post is originally from summer 2016

 

 

Give a pat on the back

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By: Mandy Mitchell

TV news is a truly thankless job. In fact, it’s one of those jobs where you are more likely to hear what you did wrong than what you did right on any given day and we all know viewers are happy to e-mail in with helpful suggestions on what to do with you hair the next time you’re on TV!

That’s why it’s important to support your co-workers. If you see a live shot you loved, don’t just think to yourself “wow that was really creative,” go ahead and send her a note and let her know you were watching and appreciated the effort.

If you are in the field and the producer rocked it as far as making sure you stayed informed during breaking news, send him a note and tell him you really felt comfortable and appreciated the information in IFB.

I can remember every single note from a co-worker I’ve gotten in the last decade.

Not too many people take the time to do it. I get that. You are busy with YOUR story and YOUR deadline and you don’t often even see other stories. But you do see some and I guarantee you like some of the stuff you see.

So say it! Take the 30 seconds to say “loved the tie!”…”Great question in that press conference!”…”Wow that standup was great!”….”That story was so well shot!”

Praise from a boss is always nice, but praise from a peer can be even better. It also shows you are engaged in the product and not just focused on yourself. A thumbs up goes a long way!

This post is originally from September 2016

Leaving your comfort zone

“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”

By: Mandy Mitchell

I haven’t talked about this on the blog much, but I made the decision to leave my job as sports anchor at WRAL back in January. The decision came after a lot of thought about what I want to do in the future and where I want to be. To make a long story short I just wasn’t having fun working in traditional sports anymore. And while I understand it’s a job, and not all aspects of work will always be fun, I wanted to follow my passion for journalism and storytelling and I knew to do that I had to make a major life change.

So I made the jump over to the news department where I am now a reporter focusing on longer term “enterprise” stories. It’s a dream job for me for sure, but that doesn’t mean the transition has been easy.

When you do anything for 14 years, like I did when working in sports, you develop a comfort. There are some tough and challenging days, but it eventually becomes easy. When I made the decision to leave sports I made the decision to leave my comfy little nest of security. I didn’t think that would bother me. I was confident it was all similar work and would be an easy transition, but I was not correct.

I know this isn’t a news flash, but leaving one’s comfort zone is extremely uncomfortable. We all hear that, but to experience it has been eye opening. I’ve been way more anxious and nervous than I ever imagined I would be. I have woken up in the morning feeling sick and feeling a stress I haven’t felt since my first days in the business.

But guess what? It gets easier every day. I learn something new every day and I feel like I am growing. I’m also learning the angst is coming from within and isn’t worth it.

I’m not saying you should jump to some new job at a new station, or to another department at your current station simply to avoid a comfort zone. However, I would encourage you to recognize your comfort zone and make sure you don’t let it keep you from your goals.

We all settle into a “normal” in life and that is totally ok if you are enjoying your work. But if you are not, don’t be scared to take a chance. As uncomfortable as it has been I would not go back and make a different decision.

I am learning to enjoy the discomfort and understand it is what will get me where I want to be.

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Complaining: a newsroom’s favorite pastime

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By: Mandy Mitchell

I have been working in a newsroom on a consistent basis since 1997 when I was an intern at WPEC in West Palm Beach, Florida. I’ve learned two facts about working in newsrooms over the last two decades:

1- they are basically all the same.

2- They are filled with people who LOVE to complain.

I’m not saying every newsroom is equally toxic. I have worked in newsrooms that are better than others. But tv people, if given the chance to complain about something, will complain and will complain often.

I remember the first complaint I heard in a TV newsroom. It was from the sports anchor I was working with and he was explaining how terrible it was that the weekend sports anchor no longer had a producer because of budget cuts. He was distraught. “This business,” he said “is going down.”

If someone said that these days you would get a puzzled look. “What’s a sports producer?”

My how times have changed!

Now the complaints are about social media obligations. There are complaints about stations hiring “young and cheap.” There are too many newscasts now. Too many people being asked to MMJ. Too few media companies owning the stations.

Then there are the personal complaints about schedules, not making any money, not having a social life, not getting any respect, getting taken advantage of. On and on and on…

 

The young eager people will eventually become the bitter veterans. It is a pattern that I have watched personally for 20 years.

My challenge to you is to stop the pattern. We don’t gain anything in a day from complaining. It may be fun and it may be therapeutic at times but it isn’t helping us be better journalists and create better content. It is taking what little energy we have and flushing it.

It is SO easy to be negative about every single thing that comes with the business. If you start to think about holidays missed and your paycheck and how much you are being asked to do, you can find yourself in the gutter quickly.

The next time you start doing that try to think about why you started. There have to be good days where you produce a great newscast and get that high. There have to be moments when you land the exclusive interview and feel the pride.

Focus on that.

If you don’t get any joy from this business and you feel put upon, there are other careers. Go ahead and start looking around and get out because no one benefits from your complaining. You aren’t helping the product. You aren’t helping your coworkers, and you certainly aren’t helping yourself.

I know the enthusiasm still exists.

I’ve been to workshops filled with positive people who love the business and want to make it better. I see Facebook groups where people gather to get better and share ideas. It’s motivating and uplifting to be around people who can see the good.

Let’s bring that kind of energy to the newsroom. It’s just more productive than complaining.

Ways to improve your delivery

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By: Mandy Mitchell

I get two questions more often than most from people just entering the TV News business.

The first, and by far the most common, is: When should I hire an agent?

Ugh. Really? Why is that the most asked question? If you want an answer to that question please read this post . Or you can read this one.

Now that we have gotten that question out of the way I will go to the more practical question I get often: How do I improve my delivery?

Honest and quick answer? Time. Time. Time.

I know you don’t want to hear that. I bet you want some trick that anchors and reporters use to “improve” that aspect of performance. All I can tell you is, after more than a decade of being in front of the camera, the answer is time.

Your delivery develops as you get more comfortable in front of the camera.

There are a couple of tips I can offer as you get these reps.

  • Don’t talk in a news voice. One of the best compliments I can get is if someone tells me I “sound just like you do on tv.” That means I am comfortable on air. It means I am talking in a normal voice to the viewer. It means I am not shouting. You don’t have to have some sort of “news voice” to be taken seriously. Just talk to me. Just tell me a story.
  • Write like you talk! I am stealing this from the book (which we talked about in this podcast.) If you write like you talk, you are not only writing in a way that will avoid “news speak” like blaze, or shots rang out…you are writing in a way that will be easier to read. When you write things that are easier to read you  don’t sound like you are reading.
  • Slow down. Chances are, you read too fast. You likely read too fast on the desk and you likely read too fast in the audio booth. You are reading too fast because that’s what happens when you try to inject ENTHUSIASM! and try to have ENERGY! I assure you that you can have enthusiasm and energy without spitting out a million words a minute. Take a deep breath. Tell me a story.
This post originally ran in December 2016

Back Time Your Day

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By: Mandy Mitchell

I totally get it. I understand how overwhelming it can be to work in a newsroom and have all of the demands of the day on your mind when you walk in to the morning meeting. You may have 2 VOSOTs to shoot and a PKG. You have to think about social media. You have to be live at 4 and 5 and 6. Then you have to post your stuff to the web.

If you think about all of that stuff at once you will you feel overwhelmed and behind all day. That will not lead you to your best work.

This is really where time management becomes key. The most successful people I know are the best at “back timing” their days.

I’ll give you an example of a workload for the day. You have your morning meeting at 9. You need to get a VOSOT from the fire from last night. Then you are doing a PKG on “how hot it is” and how people who work outside can “stay safe”. Live at 4pm with your PKG. Lets just say you are an MMJ.

Your Day:

3:40- (Your first hard deadline) When you should be feeding your PKG for your 4pm Live shot. This is also a good time for a pre-live shot Facebook live.

2:15-3:40- Edit time.

1:15-2:15 Writing time.

12:45-1:15 Edit your VOSOT/Feed it in. Do any social media you may need to catch up on. Facebook live etc.

So this gives you from 9:30 (when you leave the morning meeting) to 12:45 to shoot your VOSOT and your PKG. That’s 3 hours and 15 minutes. And remember, we are being rather generous with our writing/editing time.

If you look at your day this way you will realize you actually have more time than you think. This will allow you to relax and use the time you have to shoot your story and shoot it well. If you think of the day as a “whole” you will be tempted to rush through shooting because you think you are going to run out of time. You won’t. You have plenty of time.

You can use this technique for most of your days. Sure, there will be occasions when you are called to breaking news or your story is switched. In that case you just figure out a new schedule. It’s all about creating small “deadlines” for yourself throughout the day no matter how many times that day changes.

If you are a faster writer, that allows you to budget more time for editing. Faster editor, more time for writing. Learn how you work and schedule it. You will be amazed how much more relaxed you feel at the end of the day.

 

 

 

 

No…you couldn’t.

By: Mandy Mitchell

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I was lucky enough to spend a few days immersed in the practice of storytelling this past week. I went to the “Sound of Life” storytelling workshop in Asheville, NC which included talks from brilliant storytellers like John Sharify from KING in Seattle, Mike DelGiudice from NBC 4 in NYC and Les Rose who used to work with Steve Hartman at CBS.

These guys really are some of the best! If you need proof check this Sharify story out:

I did notice something, though. I was walking to lunch on the first day and heard a few people making the same kind of comment.

“If I had 4 days to put together a PKG I could do that too.”

“If I wasn’t running around doing 3 VOSOTs and 4 live shots, I could do that too.”

“If I had 7 minutes to tell a story, I could do that too.”

Here’s the truth folks, No. No you could not.

I am not saying I don’t think you are busy and would love more time to work on stories you are actually passionate about. What I am saying is you are not on that level right now. Very very few people are and that’s what makes those stories extraordinary.

These guys have been doing this for YEARS. In many cases they started right where you are. They started by covering the local city council meeting. They got MOS’s. They covered weather. It’s hot. It’s cold. It’s snowing!

Many of you know of Boyd Huppert’s work at KARE in Minneapolis. Do you also know he is general assignment 3 days a week? Yeah, he gets two days to work on his fantastic stories for “Land of 10,000 stories,” but he also covers fires, and his GA stuff is just as compelling as the feature stuff. Why? Because he’s super talented.

You get there by doing it. You get there by telling stories, no matter how short those stories are.

If you are covering the city council meeting, find a way to make it a better story. If you are getting MOSs for a story you hate, find a way to be more creative. Doing this each day will get you closer to being able to do the kind of work the greats do. Les Rose really said it best when he said to bust your tail on the mediocre so you are ready for the great stuff!

So let’s stop using lack of time as an excuse. It’s not about lack of time, it’s about lack of seasoning. You aren’t there yet. If you want to be a great storyteller, practice every single day. Eventually you will get the gift of time and you want to be ready to take advantage.