A lesson from TV

Published by Jackie Barrie on

Think about TV chat shows that are recorded in front of a live audience. Presenters such as Ellen Degeneres, Ant & Dec and Graham Norton have this down to a fine art. They are able to make those in the room feel as included as those who are watching remotely, and the other way around.

We have to do the same thing at our hybrid events. Unless we are being ‘beamed in’ for the people present to watch us on a big screen, we have to engage the remote audience just as much as the people who are in the same room as us.

TV presenters sometimes look directly down the camera lens to make eye contact with the people at home. It’s quite intimate. They also interact with members of the audience and getting them clapping and cheering to create a high-energy atmosphere.

On 5 November 2021, I analysed what Graham Norton actually did, step by step. By happy coincidence, the transcript happens to be relevant, and there are useful learning points that we speakers can adopt which I’ve italicised.

He starts the show standing stage front, looking directly down the camera lens to the audience at home, applauding as music plays. In front of him, off-camera, the live studio audience is applauding. Behind him, the panel of guests can be seen applauding. Everyone is applauding. It sets a noisy and upbeat mood.

I was interested to note that Graham applauds too, even though he’s the presenter and the show is named after him. But it prompts people to follow his lead, and I think results in him seeming more like ‘one of us’. I haven’t seen many speakers do that. Might be worth a try?

To introduce his headline guest, he says, briefly: “Tonight, the Oscar-winning director who started out as the biggest child star in the world… Happy Days.”

He doesn’t give the entire agenda for the programme. All he does is announce the main star’s most important achievement, as a tease to keep people watching. The lesson is KISS. Keep It Short and Sweet. Pick one thing – the USP (Unique Selling Point) or main value proposition of your session, and focus on that in your headline or opening announcement.

Graham continues, using inclusive language: “Let’s start the show!” Then the music and titles play as he takes his seat.

With the camera back on him, and applause continuing, he starts: “Hello, good evening, you’re all so welcome to the show, and Happy Guy Fawkes’ Night!” He looks to the audience. “It IS, yeah.”

This is an in-joke because everyone knows the show is recorded in advance and transmitted later, on the date he mentioned.

“So, who’ve we got on the show tonight? Well, later I’ll be chatting to Oscar-winning actor, Halle Berry… [Cut to the TV screen behind him as she waves from her hotel]

“Yeah, and we’ll have music and chat from the wonderful Gregory Porter, ladies and gentlemen… [Cut to Gregory on the music stage]

“But, joining me right here, right now, he’s an author, actor and tie-wearer extraordinaire, it’s Stephen Fry… [Cut to Stephen wearing a colourful tie that demands to be remarked upon]

[Back to Graham applauding]

“He’s the Oscar-winning director of Splash, Parenthood, Apollo 13 and The Beautiful Mind, it’s Ron Howard… [Cut to Ron Howard, waving and saying “Hello”]

The audience is still going wild, Graham is still applauding.

“She’s an actor, presenter and a force of nature, it’s Miriam Margolyes… [Graham gestures to Miriam, cut to her taking her applause]

“And he’s one of Hollywood’s funniest actors and a Marvel superhero to boot, it’s Paul Rudd, everybody… whoo!”

[Cut to Paul]

Unlike most speaker introductions, Graham doesn’t give an entire biography for each guest. The lesson for us when we write introductions for MCs to read out is to focus just on our one biggest or most recent achievement. It’s a bit like writing a CV. Your school qualifications probably aren’t relevant anymore, but your latest book probably is.

He uses the inclusive word “everybody”. He also, potentially more problematically, says “Ladies and gentlemen”. There is much debate in the speaking and performing community about whether that expression is politically correct these days, as you don’t want to accidentally offend anyone who doesn’t identify as a lady or a gentleman. To me, “everybody” seems a safer bet.

The camera view pulls back to a long shot of the stage. Graham is looking at the guests.

“Welcome all, very nice to see you all. You’ve all been here before so this is nice [looks at the studio audience] and we should say, before we say anything else, since you were last here, Miriam Margolyes, 80 years old, congratulations!”

Close-up on Miriam. Audience applauds, other guests applaud, Graham applauds: “Yes.”

What a lot of applause! You’d think their hands might be getting tired by now. It reminds me of live events where a speaker is introduced, takes a long time to walk on stage, and the audience has to keep clapping until they get there, breathes, and open their mouth to speak. If they don’t, there’s an awkward silence. By applauding throughout all this preamble, Graham keeps the positive energy up until he’s ready to ask his first question.

To Miriam: “Were you able to celebrate?”

Miriam: “Yes, I was. I mean, I don’t drink or anything silly like that. But I had a Zoom.”

Audience laughs in recognition as we’ve all been in lockdown and no-one has been able to celebrate anything the way we might have wanted to.

Stephen interjects: “I was one of the little squares on an enormous screen.”

Miriam: “I know! It was, y’know, everybody talks at once. That’s the trouble.”

Stephen: “And so, Miriam, in your beautiful voice [he does an impression] ‘I’d like you all to shut up please, while I speak’.” [He laughs]

Miriam: “That’s true.”

The audience applauds.

Having been to live studio recordings, it’s likely that a warm-up comedian or a producer will be off-camera, indicating to them when they should applaud. Applauding enthusiastically whenever prompted is the price you pay for your free ticket to get in.

Graham facilitates his guests to interact. He oils the social wheels as well as giving them each dedicated time.

He holds branded cards with his notes on (he doesn’t seem to read them in an obvious way, but they are there if need be). He is experienced and quick-witted and able to add spontaneous quips. His body is turned to face the guests, but he glances occasionally at the studio audience to bring them in.

The guests are all there to plug (promote) something – because that’s how chat shows work. If they have a ‘party piece’, he sets them up to perform it. For example, in this episode, Paul Rudd takes smartphone photos framed by his fingers that look like buttocks. These action moments break up the static conversations.

When mentioned, Graham holds up their book or album cover as a prop (looking direct to camera) and the TV viewers see full-screen cutaways to graphics such as film posters where relevant. Whether these visuals are already prepared or edited in later, I wouldn’t know.

We speakers can do the same thing online. We can spotlight ourselves or our guests, hold up props, and share our screen to display a visual when we want to (literally) illustrate a point. And we can mix up our content so it’s not just talking, talking, talking.

We can use notes if we need to. However, it doesn’t look good to read them out loud. Either you break eye contact with your audience as you look down to a piece of paper, or you look shifty to them as your eyes slide from side to side.

Speakers are rarely as fluent when they read a script as when they talk about what they know. Typically, the written word doesn’t work so well when read out loud.

If it helps you to write a full script as part of your preparation, then do it. But then abbreviate it to bullet points on index cards if you need prompts, and keep your full script as an emergency backup.

Top tip: If you do need to read your script word-for-word, there are loads of apps you can use, for example Teleprompter from the Apple app store. TV presenters are skilled at reading from the Autocue. You need to practice if you want to be as good as them.

It doesn’t look as though Graham uses Autocue, as the conversations flow so naturally. Meanwhile, there are occasional close-ups of him nodding (my videographer told me these shots are called ‘noddies’ in the trade).

When it’s time to bring in Halle Berry, he turns to the camera and says: “Time to meet our remote guest.”

He turns to the TV screen behind him, and does another round of inclusive introductions. This serves to make her feel equal to the guests who are on stage with him.

He asks: “Where are you?”

That’s one of the main icebreaker questions that speakers and trainers often use too.

It turns out that she’s in a hotel. We know (because he asks her), that she can see Graham and the other guests on the stage.

As you’d expect, she’s nicely lit and nicely framed and with good clear audio, but we can’t see her set-up.

We can’t be sure all our attendees will be in a professional quality environment, but it’s the least you’d expect from the BBC.

Graham reads his first question to Halle off the card, on a subject that’s linked to the earlier conversation. Again, this includes her so she doesn’t feel separate from the others.

It’s a reminder for us to make sure our online and on-site attendees are welcomed, treated and included equally.

He shows a clip of Halle’s new film, there’s applause, he praises her and asks his followup question.

As an MC, it’s important to praise the guests without overshadowing them. I made that mistake in my early years. I was MCing an event where I didn’t feel the audience had value from a speaker, so I added something useful that the talk had reminded me about. I won the admiration of the audience who felt they’d learned something, but lost the admiration of the speaker who felt I’d stepped on their toes – which I clearly had. I’d done it naively with best intentions, but I learned never to do it again.

Halle credited the masterclass by fellow guest Ron Howard for helping with her directorial début.

There are masterclasses from over 100 celebrities on Masterclass.com. If you are a ‘celebrity’ in your sector, I think it’s a good benchmark for your online courses.

Graham’s show continues with Stephen – we discover that he sorted out his collection of ties during lockdown, featured them on his social media accounts under the hashtag #frysties, and has published a book about them. This makes sense of what he’s wearing, and the introduction at the top of the show.

The programme runs for 50 minutes, with a varied mix of content. After the interviews, it’s over to Gregory to sing. He then walks to the main stage for a quick chat as Graham leads the applause.

But it’s not all about the celebs, because it ends with a brief audience participation section. On the TV screen, he invites selected members of the public to sit in the ‘big, red chair’ and tell their best funny story or risk being tipped out.

To close it, Graham looks down the lens with a call to action: “If you’d like a go in the red chair and tell your story, you can. Just contact us via the website. Here’s the address.” [The caption appears on screen]

“Please thank all my guests – Gregory Porter, Stephen Fry, Ron Howard, Miriam Margoyles, Paul Rudd and Halle Berry. Join me next week with music legend Sir Rod Stewart, celebrity chef Nadiya Hussein, comedic actor Josh Gadd and the stars of the new film House of Gucci, Adam Driver and Lady Gaga. I’ll see you then, goodnight, everybody, goodbye.”

Once again, he teases the next session with the briefest possible introductions.

He applauds, everyone applauds, the camera pans pan to show the studio audience at last, everybody applauds. End of show.

Once again, there is loads (and loads) of applause – just what many keynoters are missing online.

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