This report is provided by masterclass facilitator Clare Wright.
Lucy Maclaren, television producer
Alice Ford, television producer
Chris Masters, television writer and presenter
Mike Bluett, television producer
Iain McCalman, academic historian and television presenter
Facilitator: Clare Wright, academic historian and television presenter
The Presenting masterclass was intended to give participants the opportunity to hone their media communication skills, whether they were interested in working as a television presenter or appearing in a documentary as an expert interviewee.
Participants were asked to prepare for the masterclass by bringing an outline of a research topic they knew well. This brief would then be used by their mentor as the basis for interview questions or to deliver a PTC (piece-to-camera).
We started the masterclass by breaking up the ‘academic architecture’ of the room (earlier in the day one speaker had pointed out the formality of the stage vs audience seating arrangement) and bringing the chairs down from the dais. Once in close quarters, the mentors introduced themselves. (For full biographies see here.) I then asked them to outline their ‘golden rules’ for successful media presentation.
Lucy Maclaren kicked off by emphasizing that as as a presenter “you are not you … you are acting as a part of yourself, that part which you think will appeal to the audience”. Presenters, like actors, have to find the character within themselves and project it out. Lucy argued that this process requires an enormous amount of self-reflection (which is the reason most actors are a bit nuts) and suggested that if you are not interested in “going there”, maybe presenting isn’t the best option.
Chris Masters agreed that as a presenter, you cannot just “be natural”. You have to perform. Whatever your natural level is, “crank it up ten times”.
Mike Bluett focused on the “preparation and trust” that has to exist between a presenter and his/her director. Mike works closely with Iain McCalman and talked about the process the two had developed to make sure that both were comfortable with what was happening on set. Mike argued that the basic skill of the presenter was that of the storyteller and advised participants that they must “think dramatically about material”. He wondered whether an professional academic historian can “make the transition to storytelling”.
Iain McCalman reflected on his own experience of moving between academia and presenting his own research material on television. He asked “what is the pay off?” and concluded that filmmaking had taught him to “think filmically”. Writing for television had encouraged hi to “think in scenes, pictures and symbols”.
Alice Ford pointed out that the first knock on the door from a television production company is rarely because they want you as a presenter, but rather as an interviewee. She said the most important thing for an academic being interviewed for television was to convey “naturalness with authority”. Alice also indicated that by the time a producer comes and sets up cameras in your home or office, you have already been “screened”. It is in the initial phone conversations that a producer will determine whether an academic has the ability to convey their subject expertise with passion and conviction: “the performance has already been given over the phone”.
Mike gave some practical advice for interviewees: always fold the interviewer’s question into the response. He said he usually already knows what “grab” he requires from the outset, but some interviewees will need to have a long conversation to loosen up. Others are happy to deliver a more spontaneous reflection.
Alice agreed that different interviewees require different things from the interview situation, but for all academics it was important to “stop – think about what you’re saying”. And when in doubt about how an interview is going – whether you are performing well enough – just “go back to the passion you have for the subject matter”.
Iain agreed that a presenter has to develop a relationship with a director but in an interview situation you don’t have that luxury.
Chris said that you will always be on solid ground if it is ideas that drive your story. If you have something to say, “you will deliver with conviction”. Television presenters cannot be “tour guides”. If you find you are just going through the motions, “don’t use yourself if it’s not working”. At the same time, Chris emphasized that it’s important as a presenter or an interview to “be generous”, “stretch yourself”, “show the public something you haven’t revealed before”. And yet, there was a tension here, because you also have to “know your limits”, “don’t be who you’re not”. Chris argued that “everyone can be a good historian” but “camera-lovers have a poor shelf life”. At the end of the day you “have to have something substantial driving you”. Chris dubbed the work of the presenter “actuality performance”.
We discussed the skill involved in delivering PTC’s, particularly the question of learning lines, which actors are trained to do but historians are not. Chris advised to learn just one word form each paragraph in the script. Mike said you have to learn a script in order to forget it. Iain said he always extemporized his PTCs whereas Clare had to remember her PTC’s in Utopia Girls word-for-word.
After this initial discussion, which also involved questions from the participants, we watched a number of examples of different presentational styles, including Bettany Hughes, Tony Robinson, Iain and Clare. We then analysed the techniques employed to get the audience’s attention and keep it. Iain and Clare gave some of the backstory about what conditions were like on set in the particular scenes shown
Following this free flowing discussion, we broke off into groups, with each mentor working closely with two participants to turn their research material into mock interviews and PTCs.
Clare roamed the room and filmed the participants on her Canon 7D camera. Many participants remarked on how different it felt once they knew the camera was on. Some people found they were naturals. One participant, Damir, who was working with Chris, at first didn’t want to do a PTC. He didn’t think it would be for him to look down the barrel of the camera. But with a bit of coaxing he had a go, and by his own admission, discovered that he enjoyed the experience and even got a taste for it.
(Watch this space: videos of the mock interviews and PTCs will be uploaded here once a few technical issues are overcome. Clare apologises: she is really an historian, not a DOP!)
By the end of the 2.5 hour session, it was near impossible to separate the mentors from the participants. But with the rest of the symposium delegates beating down the door to return to the main auditorium, it was time to put the chairs back up on the dais and restore the academic architecture. Our participants had indeed stretched themselves and with reluctance they squeezed themselves back into their audience boxes.
Thanks to all the mentors for their generosity and the participants for their courage!