Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Social Engineering, Radio Style

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Mouth and Microphone

You can hear an announcer sound friendly.  It’s when the corners of their mouth go up in a smile as they talk.  You can actually hear it in your earbuds or speakers when it happens.  It’s tangible.  Just like you can hear when they inject a momentary laugh (that sounds almost like a stutter) into a sentence.  In both cases, the speaker is trying to connect with you emotionally because they’ve been trained that a happy announcer makes for a relaxed listener.

You’ll hear that very short laugh, most often, when the speaker has made a mistake, like if they mispronounce a word.  Almost instantly, you’ll hear the stutter laugh, which is deployed in a self-deprecating manner that says, “I’m human and I made a mistake. Isn’t that funny?”   It’s interesting that so many announcers do it considering they are also trained to not draw attention to mistakes.  But you’ll also hear that laugh when the announcer is trying to grease a thought that will help you slide along beside their intention.  For instance, if a news reader is talking about a non profit’s mission that they believe in, although they can’t say so, they may unconsciously give a stutter laugh that quickly says, “This thing is good”, thus sending a flash message that it’s worth your consideration.

I also hear the stutter laugh is when the announcer, host or interviewer has a degree of contempt for something they’ve just heard or read.  But most professionals are savvy enough to know that also sends a quick and clear message that could cause the audience to question their credibility and impartiality (if their audience cares about such things), so they don’t use that laugh as much.  Often, I hear it used somewhere in a statement to add a momentary bit of levity to that statement.  And sometimes, I hear it when the speaker is reacting to something that either is or isn’t funny, but only mildly so.  But in almost all cases, it’s not about humor.

The smiling behind the mic is a little more involved.  Admittedly, when I hear someone who sounds technically proficient but low on emotion versus someone who sounds warm, I gravitate to the warmth.  In most situations where someone you can’t see is talking through a smile, they’re going to sound warm.  The thing about that is even though it sounds really sincere, you couldn’t get away with it in person.

There’s this thing called the Facial Action Coding System, which was developed back in the 1970s.  It identified every muscle of the face and created a matrix of combinations that identified almost every human emotion depending on which muscles you moved.  Whether the test subjects actually felt the emotions that gave them the faces, or whether they forced the faces, the emotions, strangely, followed.

But faked emotions don’t work when you’re facing another human being because we’re way too sophisticated to be fooled by feelings that aren’t real even if all the right muscles are pulled.  We add body language and vocal quality to facial expressions to help us calculate the honesty of the person we’re talking to.  In interviews where people are sitting across from each other and feelings are faked, you can hear the conversation fall like a cinder block into a cow pasture.

You can only pull off false sincerity if nobody can see you (though, political campaigns would seem to contradict this).  That’s different from a conversation that both people are clearly enjoying.  There, you can hear the goodwill and the smiles are not fake.  I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about the other thing; a solo announcer talking to and trying to somehow sway, the coveted “you”.

Talking through smiles and stutter laughs are two tools people behind microphones use to connect with you.  And most likely, they use them so well, you hardly notice because they’re designed to set you at ease, not raise your awareness.  These people don’t know you, but they want you to feel like they do (or would want to).  Because in the world of broadcasting, where a successful connection means money or feet on the street, that’s good enough.

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Written by Interviewer

March 22, 2016 at 05:14

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