The Number #1 MISUSED Phrase Uttered by Talking Heads (& the US President) In the Media.

August 28, 2018

"I’ve sat in during hundreds of production meetings and pitches as Executive Producers tout their launch of the next “big thing.”  That being, a new show, a new segment or a new feature.  Content curators are constantly in creative mode for the next “big thing”.  70% however, of the next “big things” fail and end up getting cancelled. And most often it’s not the thing (the show) that is the failure.  The TV talent presenting the thing on the air, is the real failure." 

 

That statement in the above paragraph is how I commence many of my training sessions with new TV talent clients or in my seminars to larger groups.  I firmly believe shows fail because of average talent.  And that’s why today I focus on building and developing elite TV talent.  I have 500 slides of training curriculum on how to make someone better on TV.  Most of them involve on-camera skills that I teach to enhance one’s presentation, skills one can add to their TV game to make themselves better on the air.  I also focus on eliminating errors by teaching talent how to identify the mistakes they make on TV, then to stop making them. This is addition through subtraction.  That means within the first fifteen minutes of every session, we address the number one mistake that all talking heads make.  Every one of you reading this makes this one mistake too, I'm certain, several times a day. So does the President of the United States.

 

Imagine that you are getting a diagnosis for a medial meniscus tear and your surgeon says,

 

“I think I can fix your knee and have you running full speed in two weeks.” Now... what's wrong with this statement???  Well, read it again because you might not have got it the first time without the first two words bolded. Your surgeon says, I think I can fix your knee and have you running full speed in two weeks.”  Now do you get it?  That quizzical head turn that you just shot back at your doctor was because he was not convincing and conveyed to you a lack of confidence in his surgical ability to actually repair your meniscus tear, by saying, I think I can…”. That statement reflects doubt and uncertainty, which is exactly the wrong communication you want to send to a receiver.  And therein lies the mistake committed thousands of times daily by TV talking heads.

 

A significant portion of news and sports media content today is what we call “debate and opinion.”  1) Sports analysts are paid to render their subjective evaluation. Former players, coaches and columnists serve in these roles. Wannabe analysts launch their own debate thing on social media or via streaming networks. 2) Color commentators are in the booth seated alongside the PBP announcer to offer their expert game analysis.  3) Industry experts and sage insiders serve as contributor analysts on news shows because they have a mastery of the subject matter for example, war/defense, politics/government, forensics/police investigations, legal/trial courts or terrorism/homeland security. The worst thing an "expert" can say is "I think." That's just not very expertly for that phrase to come out of the mouth of an expert. 

 

They’ve been placed in their respective roles to be emphatic, direct and exactly to the point.  Not evasive, hedging and non-committal.  Yet every time an analyst says, “I think…”, they send the audience a message they’re being wishy-washy, that perhaps the analyst is unsure of what they’re really proclaiming, which reduces the conviction of the speaker's comment. It all becomes weak babble. Everything an analyst “thinks”, I as a listener, can already suppose that.  For example, as in, “I think this next pitch will be an outside fastball.”  The analyst’s job is NOT to constantly tell the audience what he might be thinking.  I want to hear what you “know”.  This is what makes FOX’s MLB Analyst John Smoltz so good.  He is not vapid.  He speaks emphatically.  He doesn’t hedge.  He avoids wishy-washy statements.  That’s because he knows baseball so well, that he’s not worried if someone disagrees with him.  The listener is entitled to his opinion, and Smoltz is entitled to his, always a decisive one.

 

Yet all too often, the analyst is worried that their opinion might be “wrong”, as in not a prevailing opinion, so he couches it delicately by saying “I think…” almost backing away from it as quickly as they say it. If you’re a TV analyst and worried that you might get it wrong, or offend someone because of your expert firmly stated opinion, then you should NOT be on TV! The viewers by and large don't care if you are right or wrong. They're more concerned with something else. (I'm only referring to analytical commentary here.)  They want to hear an informed opinion and get the impression that you stand for something.  So reward them for taking time out of their day to listen to you.  Take a stance, be direct and say something emphatic without saying “I think…!”  The thousands of times a day talking heads on TV utter the "I Think" phrase, is one of the reasons viewers find it hard to distinguish the difference from one program to another. Because Marc the “announcers all sound the same,” is what constantly turns up in my research.

 

SOME BETTER ALTERNATIVES

 

So you might be asking, what if I’m a TV talking head and want to state it better next time I go on the air. So how should I say it Marc, if you’re telling me I’m banned from saying, “I THINK”? Well (see slide 52 above) I advise one the following.  A) “I believe…” B) “I expect…” C) “By my account...” D) “The way I see it…” E) “I feel…” F) “I know…” or G) Just say it directly by making the declaration.  Anything but “I think…!”  For you analysts, commentators and opinionists out there who straddle the fence on everything and are fearful of coming off as too convincing or as a know-it-all, I’ll let you in on something.  Listeners and viewers like the tough talk because it prompts them to become engaged with you.  Be frank with the audience.  Be provocative.  Be bold. The teaching lesson I offer in the classroom is to state it on TV like a Supreme Court Justice would say it in the courtroom. Come with it and own your remarks.

State it like a Supreme Court Justice would say it.  Even in something as

interpretive as the law, you would never hear a Supreme Court Justice say, “I think”, when rendering an opinion. Own your remarks.”  

 

What good is an opinion that straddles a fence?  If you as a talking head want to connect with an audience, you must be direct with it.  Of course, there are many other ways to do this which I teach also.  But one of the ways not to do this is by constantly saying “I think…”

 

 

Let’s examine this comment by President Trump on July 16th after the Helsinki Putin Summit.  He was speaking on the Mueller investigation. Pres. Trump said, “I think that the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept up us (the U.S. and Russia) apart.  I think it’s kept us separated.”  He hedged, with three usages of “I think” in three straight sentences which makes it a weak statement.  That sounds so uncertain, almost as if Trump really does not believe it himself.  The proper way to state this would have been...I think that The probe is a disaster for our country.  I think It’s kept up us (the U.S. and Russia) apart.  I think It’s kept us separated.”  So here you see, just by striking one trifling phrase from your everyday vernacular, how you can become a more powerful speaker, even if you are the President of the United States. 

 

"All too often, the speaker is worried that their opinion might be “wrong”, as in not a prevailing opinion, so they couch it delicately by saying “I think…” almost backing away from it as quickly as they say it." 

 

I’ve been a conversation analyst, analyzing the way people speak, for two decades now.  As a broadcast media agent in 2007, I signed on newspaper editor Roland Martin as a client and then placed him as an analyst/contributor at CNN in 2009.  Roland always had the intellect, the gift of gab and grammatical skills.  But Broadcast-Speak is a different animal. Roland took to my TV coaching well, was not afraid of being provocative and is now a masterful TV communicator. I still represent Roland today as he launches a streaming platformed show in two months. #BringTheFunkRolandMartinUnfiltered 9/4/18

Watching Roland’s development motivated me to start keeping an evaluative-diary for every appearance he made on TV, which led to more notes, then teaching curriculum to today the broadcast academy I run in Los Angeles. Now I'm writing a book.  I believe(notice the wording) that I’ve identified every readily used phrase that is toxic to a person’s on-camera verbal presentation. There are crutch words and wasted phrases that block the real meaning of what someone intends to say.  "I THINK" is the worst of all. Most people don’t even realize they’re saying them until I point them out to them.  And watching their excitement when they learn the rules of TV communication, is like watching a kid when they get a new toy. The good ones learn quickly how to say the most in the least amount of time, which is a key skill when doing live TV and radio. They no longer worry if they don't speak first in the roundtable. They don't gobble up all the segment time saying nothing. They enjoy watching their air checks because they know they nailed it.

 

The I THINK rule should also be observed by radio and podcast hosts.  With the plethora of podcasts that have popped up across the globe, the participants struggle with the challenge of finding an audience and how to increase downloads.  A few simple changes in your speech can have a major impact on your reach #I THINK.  The goal is to separate yourself on the air from the rest of the pack, speaking professionally in a way that distinguishes you.  The audience must know what you stand for when they tune in to listen to you.  This is what explains the success of Rush Limbaugh. If the host is fickle, the audience will sense it, and over time will simply tune out.  Radio/TV sports and news consumers are a lot smarter than on-air talent give them credit for.  The audience will rarely reward you if you stray from taking a point of view, regardless of how much the show is promoted by a network.

 

For some on-air personalities, media training is like plastic surgery.  They don’t want to admit they’ve opted for it which causes me to utilize discretion when I mention the talent I’ve worked with.  But I can tell you about this new up and comer. Recently I had former NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman at the academy.  He was prepping for analyst work in anticipation of the 2018 football season and also training to be a host. 

 

Shawne "Lights Out" Merriman Putting in the Work at Marc'd Academy

 

I’ve only been right on about 1000 people, so marc my word when I tell you, Merriman is the next big thing in sports media.  People shook their heads when I stated this about Nate Burleson.  Critics all told me shaking their heads, “No Marc, Nate doesn’t have a gold jacket. He'll never make it big.”  Same thing they told me about Michael Robinson and Akbar GbajaBiamila and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Keep watching.  Now I’m saying be on the lookout for Shawne Merriman.  “Lights Out” has been Marc’d.

 

 

Fmr. NFL DB Brock Vereen Training at Marc'd Academy with Host Cole Wright

 

The other one to look out for is former NFL DB Brock Vereen.  He doesn’t come with the same name recognition or star power that Shawne Merriman has, but once a smart exec gives Brock a break on TV, he’ll be good to go. Brock will make a fine TV host one day. 

 

 

So transformed was former NFL WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh by the "I THINK" lesson that he now proclaims, “Marc I don’t even use that phrase anymore at any time when I’m speaking.  It’s totally changed how I even talk to my wife and daughters now.”  Smart move that he’s sworn off it.  Just saying.  You can catch T.J. regularly now on Fox Sports 1.

 

T.J. Houshmandzadeh Swearing off the "I THINK"during one of our sessions.

 

So remember producers, when you think you’ve created the next big thing.  You can devise on paper an incredible show idea, with an incredible format and writing. The success of any news and sports show hinges on the on-air talent, and the way the show is cast.  Not the distribution, the bells and whistles, music, production or graphics.  Yes, those are all important, but the real drivers of any show are the proper talent who are properly communicating the product. The result is staying power content.  

 

Marc Watts runs a broadcast training emporium and agency called Marc’d Academy.  He worked as an on- air correspondent for nearly 15 years, then became a broadcast talent agent and worked as a network TV exec.  He is based in Los Angeles. www.marcdacademy.com 

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