Radio made the video star: what has radio taught me about speaking?

I wasn’t completely green

When I first took on the role of radio presenter, I was already an accomplished communicator; professional writer, martial arts instructor, mindfulness coach and trainer. Shaping ideas, knowing how to express them with clarity, and having the courage to let others hear my voice was not an issue. So, what did I learn?

The art of the interview

My show promises to celebrate the music, the culture and the people of the world, and I do this by conducting two-hour live interviews with people I find interesting.

From the start, I didn’t want to be overly researching guests. Firstly, this seemed like a recipe for reproducing the same kinds of responses and content that any interviewer would generate, simply encouraging my guests to regurgitate what I had already researched.

Secondly, interviews are like living beings; they grow and evolve, and as seasoned journalist Christa Ackroyd said at a recent event I attended, the questions we want to ask will depend on the last answer given by the interviewee.

award-for-culture
It’s nice to be appreciated. Here I was given recognition for my coverage of different cultures from around the world – from the Cajun people of Louisiana, the Shona and Ndebele peoples of Zimbabwe, and the Mandinkas of The Gambia, I try to bring something new to the table. I’ve interviewed people from every continent.

I wanted my interviews to be authentic. My aim was to share a genuine conversation with my audience; to let them listen in while I had a chat with someone I admired. It worked. To date, guests seem to love The Culture Pot experience, often commenting on how unique the interview has been and how they have shared things they had never spoken about before. Feedback from the listeners has also been very positive as I provide them with a window to a different perspective on life, the universe and everything. Result.

From a speaking perspective, we are often using a story to share a message; to inspire, to motivate, to give hope, or to pass on valuable knowledge or insight. The art of live interview has not only taught me a lot about the art of storytelling, it has also shown me what many great stories have in common.

There is a period of darkness, a time of confusion, lack of insight, some kind of pain or suffering, a journey riddled with wrong decisions and a lack of direction. Then, we have the moment – or more often moments – of realisation, where we find clarity, truth and a renewed sense of direction. Finally, this leads to the most powerful part of the story, the period of transformation that delivers the insights and wisdom. I am currently writing a book on how people transform, featuring the stories of people from all walks of life who have experienced some kind of awakening.

Plain tiger butterfly about to emerge from its chrysalis. Many of us go through something similar, mentally and spiritually.

Speaking with clarity

When I write an article, I hear it as a speech, and it’s great because the audience will read at their own pace. I can check and double check the words I have used, take out anything that doesn’t add value or confuses the issue, and I certainly don’t have to worry about “hesitation, repetition or deviation” – that’s a playful reference to one of my favourite radio shows, Just a Minute.

Speaking to an audience is different. Unless you memorise a script, and I’ve never rolled like that, there are going to be ums and stutters. That’s a fact of life. There will also be very dodgy sentences, verbs conjugated incorrectly, poor choice of adjectives and other inappropriate uses of words. Hell, that’s coming from me, a professional writer. But it’s true.

You can get away with all those imperfections when you are delivering a training course, helping someone to perfect their movement or when you are involved in a coaching conversation, because you can sense if your audience is understanding you or not. These situations are interactive. You can adjust your delivery to suit the audience.

Delivering a talk however, like speaking on radio, is a different animal because you are not interacting with the audience – not in the same way, anyway. Of course, I do interact with my guest but not with the listeners at home. Radio forced me to be more mindful of how I was speaking.

Pace

When I reflect on my earlier shows, I believe I probably spoke far too quickly. A two-hour show translates into around 50 minutes of talk time, once things such as the news and weather and music are taken into consideration; if the story was meaty, I would want to say what I had to say as quickly as possible, to allow my guest more talk time. Speaking more slowly, using carefully placed pauses, meant my questions and responses took a little longer but also added gravitas and clarity to the interviews.

Speaking more slowly and consciously also helped me to eliminate the ums, which anyone who has had to speak in public will be familiar with. At the moment, I am dealing with a secondary issue that arises from hesitation, what I call “verbal ticks”. Instead of saying “erm”, I tend to fall back on “you know”, but aren’t we all striving to improve? If there ever comes a day when I believe there is nothing more to learn, tell me to pack it all in because things can only go downhill from that perspective.

Discipline

Live radio is a discipline. There are many things to consider at once:

  • Has my guest turned their phone off?
  • How do they feel about speaking live on air?
  • Are they nervous?
  • Are there elements of their story that they want me to avoid?
  • What sort of chemistry do I have with them?
  • Will they clam up?
  • Will they swear on air or say something that serious offends my audience?
I was a co-presenter with Radio Sangam’s Farah before I took on my own show. This was my first time in the Sangam studio. She didn’t have to worry about me swearing on live radio!

Look at all those considerations, and we still haven’t looked at my side of the equation! I also have to make sure I mind my language and the subject matter. For example, if I am interviewing someone who has a particular political perspective – such as the time I interviewed Gina Miller, who has a very definite stance on Brexit – I have ensure that I provide the opposite perspective for balance, whether I agree with the other person or not.

Just one flippant remark can get you into trouble. I will never forget the time I was interviewing a relationship expert. Him and his wife were using their own experience of relationships and emotional growth to help others. I made some remark about how people get too obsessed with qualifications and accreditation, and how we must never forget the value of experience. Someone sent a text telling me not to disrespect people who had studied hard for qualifications, pointing out that I was stupid and that was why I was “just a radio presenter”.

Be ready for anything

During a live show, anything can happen. There was once a problem with our phone lines. My first thought was to use my mobile phone to call the guest and hold it next the mic. That worked remarkably well, but they were on the other side of the Atlantic and a standard call would cost a fortune, so I was going to have to use an internet app instead. The problem with that solution was that if anybody tried to make a standard mobile-to-mobile call to me, they would knock out my internet call. People are always trying to call me, so I had to brace myself for impact. Fortunately, on that occasion, I was able to complete the interview without interruption.

I’ll never forget interviewing Gina Miller in February 2019. We agreed to a pre-recorded interview months in advance, and I was delighted with the timing. The UK was originally set to leave the EU on 29 March, and Gina had made a massive impact on the process. That said, the focus of my interview was Gina Miller, the person, so mostly we talked about her life.

There are many other things that can go wrong mid-show. Every soundtrack that is broadcast, whether it is a song, an advert, a jingle or a sweeper, will play on one of four channels. For me to talk, I have to bring down the slider for the appropriate channel and turn up my mic.

If my guest is talking about something particularly intense, I might decide not to interrupt them for the next track; I have to bring down the right slider for that track, in advance. That sounds so simple, but when you are in the thick of a discussion, looking into the eyes of your guest as they reveal their most personal stories, it is easy to get caught out. Suddenly, you are both jumping out of your skins as the opening sequence of Welcome to the Jungle is blasting into your headphones.

You have to accept it, laugh it off, say a one-liner and get on with it. The same thing can happen to a speaker if they trip on a wire, the mic malfunctions or something goes wrong with the slide show. We have to stay calm and improvise.

On that note, a phenomenon the psychologists call “The Pratfall Effect” means that presenters who are able to bounce back with confidence after a disastrous error actually appeal more to the audience than those who are slick from start to finish or totally incompetent. It’s human.

“You are listening… to Radio Sangam”

The start of Radio Sangam’s 20-second sweeper

Understanding content

Speakers have to choose their content carefully.

Not only does it have to match the purpose of the talk, which has to meet the expectations of the event organisers, it has to be appropriate for the audience in terms of factors such as age or occupation.

As an interviewer, I have developed a nose for recognising where the real juice is in the story. If I sense something highly relevant and valuable lurking on the tip of my guest’s tongue, I will home in on it and dig deeper. Radio interviewing has definitely made me more effective at uncovering the story of the people I write and edit books for – and vice versa. These roles have enabled me to better tap into my own stories to choose the content most relevant for my own talks.

Understanding structure

There are many ways to skin a cat. One of the most common questions from people who want to write a book is “Where do I start?” Speakers have to strike a balance between maximising the impact they can make with their opening lines and telling the story clearly and accurately.

Do we tell the story chronologically, starting at the earliest relevant point, building a picture of the main characters and revealing the various dynamics at work, until we reach the crisis point where something has to change?

Or do we start in the middle of the drama, let the audience taste the confusion and the discomfort, and then explain how on Earth this situation has arisen?

These are just two possibilities. We could, and I often do for my radio interviews, start at the happy ending, and then explain that things were not always so rosy for my guest.

Interviewing people for radio has taught me a lot about people, their stories, and how their stories can be told.

Never get bored

To sum up, I will also add that I am sure there are many other ways that I have improved as a speaker because of radio. There has never been a dull moment. You should never be bored. Seriously, if you feel bored then you’re not in the right occupation.

Life is about being challenged and learning from it. It is also about challenging oneself. Now that I am moving into the world of speaking on stage, I have had to develop other skills such as speaking to camera and recording video.

When I look at more recent videos of myself speaking and compare these with earlier video coverage of me talking about mindfulness or martial arts, it’s like listening to two different people and I put that down to what I’ve learned from running a live radio show.

According to the 70s song by The Buggles, video killed the radio star, but in my case, I’d say radio made the video star!

If you’d like to know more about my work as a speaker, give me a call.