As a voice coach, I love working with journalists. A journalist’s curiosity lends itself to learning new skills, and they ask the best questions. I love teaching techniques to improve on-air delivery, and I love watching people gain confidence.
But far too often, when I start with someone new, they’re dejected and downtrodden. They’ve lost confidence and feel distressed.
“I’m getting a ton of criticism.”
“I’m stuck in my head now.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
What’s the feedback they’re hearing? I bet you know the list: sing-song, emphasizing the wrong words, too fast or slow, low energy, monotone, fry, upspeak, doesn’t sound authoritative. Sometimes this feedback comes from a supervisor, someone who’s in charge of on-air sound. Sometimes it comes from a well-meaning colleague.
But upon hearing this criticism, this person suddenly feels unsure, self-conscious and/or less sure of their on-air performance. Maybe they try something, and it doesn’t work, so they hear a different criticism. They were too fast, but now they’re too slow. They were sing-songy, and now they’re monotone. And when they can’t figure out how to solve the problems that people are pointing out, they feel even less confident and more stressed.
We know that the intention behind the feedback comes from a good place. You hear something that sounds a little off, so you mention it, thinking that it’s helpful. The on-air staffer can fix that, right? Not necessarily. Most journalism schools do little to no voice training, so on-air folks are often learning by experience — by trial and error. And these days, more and more folks aren’t coming to public media from journalism programs, but from other paths, so they may have no on-camera or mic training at all.
So why not tell them what’s wrong? How can they improve if we don’t? Here are just a couple of reasons that this doesn’t work:
- They now have a problem to solve. Every tracking session, host break, newscast — every moment someone is doing anything on air, or for air, is a performance. During a performance, the brain gets a boost of adrenaline. This surge is also known as “the stress response.” We all want our on-air staff to sound relaxed and confident, and this “stress response” doesn’t sound like either of those things, does it? When the brain activity is already alight with fight-or-flight-or-freeze activity, adding a problem to solve doesn’t help anyone feel (or sound!) more relaxed and confident. Now the stress of the performance is compounded with the stress of the problem. We’re going in the wrong direction.
- Now they’re focused on that problem, rather than communicating authentically. When they’re in a booth, studio, etc., they’re reading a script, and managing a board, and watching a clock, and trying to sound like the words are just coming out of their mouth organically, like it’s their own idea in the moment. They’ve got enough on their mind that needs to be there. Add in a problem with no solution? No thank you.
So what can you do? You believe in their journalism skills, and you want to help them improve. You suspect they can sound great on air, but how do you get them there?
- Offer positive reinforcement when you hear something done well. Point out the break, the newscast, even the sentence that sounded great. Ask them to do more like that. Now they feel more confident that they can do the job well, and they have a goal in mind. One of the upsides of the adrenaline surge is that it helps the brain focus. Having a goal is like magic — it channels all the powers of adrenaline into accomplishing this one thing.
- Create an environment of empowerment. How can you encourage the rest of the team to commend each other? While getting a haircut last week, I repeatedly overheard several stylists complimenting each other on their work. What a pleasant environment to be in! Can you include a round-robin of compliments in your daily news or weekly staff meetings? Can you create a shout-out Slack channel? Or a whiteboard in the newsroom for Snaps & Claps? (Remember to lead by example!)
- Offer solutions. Ensure that your staffer gets the resources to improve. A video, a coach, a workshop, or an article or specific section of a book that can help them to elevate their delivery. Or offer your own technique, as a possible way for them to work. (Remember, we humans are all different, so what worked for you might not work for them, but it’s worth sharing as an option!) Make sure you support their growth with techniques and skills, so they have a direction to aim and the means to get there.
Remember, effective feedback isn’t about “fixing flaws,” it’s about encouraging growth. Celebrate successes, foster a supportive environment, and offer concrete solutions instead of criticisms. By empowering our on-air staff, we unlock their unique potential, ensuring their voices resonate not only with clarity and confidence, but also with the authenticity that connects with audiences. After all, that’s why we’re here.
Jessica Hansen has coached on-air talent, producers and executives for NPR and dozens of its member stations, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Axios, Netflix, A+E Networks, and independent journalists, podcast hosts, authors and leaders since 2007 through her company Signature Sound, LLC.