How to write the words that people will hear

“Everybody complains about bad writing.”  Broadcast journalism trainer/author Deborah Potter, who runs NewsLab, worked for years as a reporter for CNN and CBS-TV and Radio. The author of Advancing the Story,  Potter maintains: “Much of what we hear on the air is badly written. Good writing is not magic. It is a craft. It can be learned and it can be improved.”

The following is excerpted from Beyond Powerful Radio – Getting, Keeping & Growing Audiences. Potter says “Every news director I’ve worked with has expressed frustration at the lack of writing skills in new hires. They say, ‘Kids come out of college and they can’t write…’ But how can someone learn to write effectively for broadcast unless somebody takes the time to train them?”

Potter maintains, “Your staff won’t learn if no one teaches them.”People can improve their writing skills, but first everyone has to know that it matters.”  She adds it’s important to offer regular feedback about writing. “Words count. If you want listeners to tune in and believe what they hear, you need to care about what is being said. Praise good writing and you will get more of it.”

Deborah Potter’s “Write Stuff”

1. Take time at the front end to understand the story. CNN’s Candy Crowley puts it this way: “The less time you have to write, the more time you should take to think about it.” Try telling someone in six words or less what your story is about. If you can’t, you will have trouble writing it.

2. Choose information that will tell the story best. Avoid the cramming impulse. Select specific details—the brand of beer, the make of the car—that will bring the story to life. Leave the rest out.

3. Organize your information in a logical way. If it helps, make an outline. Keep related facts together. Answer questions as they come up. Know where you are going before you start.

4. Tell it, don’t report it. Imagine that every story you write begins, “Hey Mom, guess what I just found out!” Or, “Honey, you won’t believe what happened today!”

5. Rewrite. Revise what you have written by looking at it backwards. Look closely at the end of every sentence, paragraph, and story. That is where you want the strongest words, because that is where they have the strongest impact. Crisp endings are one simple way to sharpen your writing.

6. Put your writing on a diet, and think of adjectives as empty calories. Particularly the adjectives so overused in broadcast news: senseless, horrible, tragic, ironic, and the like.

7. Do use active verbs that add energy to your writing. The right verbs do more than convey information. You build understanding and make the audience care. It’s the difference between a story saying that a bus was involved in an accident and a story that tells how the bus skidded down an embankment, rammed into a guardrail, and flipped into a ravine. Active verbs in the active voice are the hallmark of writing that communicates clearly. The active voice tells you who. Then leave out all the words you do not need.

See It on Your Radio

Because of the internet, radio now has a visual component, though most people still don’t think of radio as a visual medium. But a talented storyteller who writes with dazzling detail can tap into all of the imagery and emotion stored in the listener’s brain, allowing the listener to believe they’re “seeing” the story. While telling a story in just a few words is key in writing powerful news copy, the visual element is important to keep listeners engaged.  Talented songwriters have mastered this in their lyrics. Take, for example, Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” When you hear the line “To dance beneath a diamond sky with one hand waving free,” you can see it. And that makes it more powerful.

Visual Writing Engages

I heard a wonderful example of the power of visual writing about eight years ago. I was coaching air talent in Australia during the Athens Olympics. Part of my job was to listen and give feedback for some of the reporters. Frankly, I didn’t have much enthusiasm for an item that began, “Up next, it’s the women’s archery competition…” until I heard the reporter tell the story:

Reporter: “This young woman first picked up a bow and arrow when she was just a child. Her parents are right here beside me. Here’s what she’s about to do: Hit a black target the size of a grapefruit, across three football fields.”

Two minutes ago, I could not have cared less about the women’s archery competition. Now I was fully engaged in the story.  One of the secrets of powerful radio – If you can get a listener to “see it” or “feel it,” then they’ll care and will pay attention.

Men Are Visual

Visual descriptions are especially important to men. Brain research shows that men are more stimulated by visual details along with language that describes events with visual elements. If there is a strong visual image, men tend to pay closer attention to a story.

Guy Talk

Sports announcers are the best in the business at visual description. They are mostly men, talking to men, in a way that men understand. If you have ever attended a baseball or football game, you will notice men listening to radios while they watch the game with their own eyes. The play-by-play announcers enhance the visual experience for these men.

For Powerful Writing: Use Visual & Emotive Language

Women, on the other hand, are more emotive. If a woman can “feel” an emotional connection to a story, she is more likely to listen closely and take in the information. For a story to appeal to both men and women, it should deliver information using both visual and emotional language.

Here’s an example that took place in England. A reporter, working from a camera phone video taken by a bystander, painted the visual and emotional scene of a pit bull attack on a small child, using both kinds of language to help listeners see and feel what happened:

“The boy and the dog were about the same size. The pit bull’s jaws were embedded in the child’s neck. The boy screamed in terror and pain. Within moments you couldn’t tell the difference between the red-and-white pattern in the child’s shirt from the blood, while his mother watched helplessly as the vicious beast attacked her child.”

Useful Tips

One way to improve your visual writing and learn to speak more visually is by imagining you are talking to a blind person. Start by seasoning your everyday off-air conversations with descriptive details. Build and stockpile files of mental imagery. Describe events so loaded with sensory information that your audience actually feels transported. Use all the colors in your verbal paint box. Make observations of little things in life a part of your normal speech. And, if you do, your writing will improve.

About the Author of Beyond Powerful Radio – A Communicator’s Guide to the Internet Age

Valerie Geller, president of Geller Media International Broadcast Consultants, works to help communicators become more powerful in 30 countries, including Australia, for news, talk, information and personality. Through consulting and individual coaching for news and talk talent, Geller finds and develops personalities, leads “Creating Powerful Radio” and “Communicate Powerfully” workshops and seminars for radio and TV broadcasters, internet radio and podcasters. Geller is the recipient of the Conclave’s 2010 Rockwell Lifetime Achievement Award and is the author of four books about radio including her latest from Elsevier’s Focal Press Beyond Powerful Radio – A Communicator’s Guide to the Internet Age. To contact Valerie Geller for a one-on-one coaching or consulting, appointment, or for information on the “Powerful Radio” seminars and workshops, call +1 212 580-3385

Note: This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on and has been republished with permission.