The Challenge of Conversational Writing

By Doug Drew 

Writing conversationally is something most television journalists know they should do, but have difficulty doing. As I monitor television news, I find it fascinating how so many reporters can ad lib so well while out on a live shot, but when they come back to the station to write their package, their writing becomes formal and their narration sounds stiff and emotionless.

Writing conversationally is one of the topics I teach in my workshops. Interestingly, it is not limited to the television news business. I recently discovered that the world of big business has the same issue, and there is a very interesting book that addresses this topic called Fight the Bull: Why Business People Speak Like Idiots , written by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky. The following is an excerpt from the book:

November 22, 1963. At 2:37 P.M. CBS news editor Ed Bliss, Jr. hands anchorman Walter Cronkite an AP wire report. Cronkite takes a long second to read it to himself before intoning: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1:00 P.M. Central Standard Time, two o’clock Eastern Standard Time.” He pauses and looks at the studio clock. “Some thirty-eight minutes ago.” Momentarily losing his composure, Cronkite winces, removes his eyeglasses, and clears his throat before resuming with the observation that Vice President Lyndon Johnson will presumably take the oath of office to become the thirty-sixth president of the United States. (excerpted from The Museum of Broadcast Communications)


What has been called the “most moving and historic” passage in broadcast history–and it’s hard to say otherwise–was a sharp departure from the rehearsed and stiff television of its era. News of the shooting broke an hour earlier, and there were unconfirmed reports that President Kennedy had been fatally wounded. Cronkite himself had delivered that momentous news, breaking into the soap opera As the World Turns. But it was this segment that got inside of everyone watching. Decades later, it has the same effect. There’s no doubt that Kennedy’s death would have moved the nation no matter who reported it, and others did, nonstop for days, but Cronkite’s broadcast is the one of record. Why?
There’s a brief but riveting pause while Cronkite reads the wire report. What’s he reading? It might have been that glance back at the studio clock, or the uncharacteristic clearing of his throat–news anchors have always been hired for their seamless, unflappable delivery. Why did he have to look at the clock? Maybe it was the removal of the eyeglasses. No one ever does that on TV. Whatever it was, the whole nation saw that the most even-keeled guy in the United States, in a decade when men were never caught weeping in public, was on the verge of tears on national television. Walter Cronkite! Choked up on the most important broadcast of his career. It gave the whole audience a license to share their grief. Cronkite went on to become a legend in broadcast news.

Avoiding the Anonymity Trap is all about making a personal connection with your audience. Templates are your enemy. Humor is your ally. At some basic level, though, the audience is going to decide whether you actually care about the topic or are simply standing there to read from a script.

The polish we apply to all our performances is one of the downfalls of business presentations. Whatever efficiencies come from cue cards, notes or scripts, they make it obvious that what we’re saying is coming from the page rather than from our brains. The listener knows that this presentation is a one-sided experience–it’s a repackaging of pre-digested ideas and facts that have been filtered of emotion for public consumption. What people really cherish are those unplanned moments–the authentic stuff that happens in live events.

I think we in the television news business can learn a lot from this book. Just as business people need to talk conversationally, so should journalists. The book is easily available. I know Amazon sells it and you can order it directly from the authors’ website. But whether you buy the book or not, the take-a-way for me is that the more real and transparent we can be in television news, the more our viewers will appreciate the authenticity.

Doug Drew is a morning news specialist with 602 Communications. He can be reached at Follow Doug on facebook and on twitter at