Thursday, March 11, 2010

Talk Like A Person

"Motorists use caution."

I've heard that phrase come out of the mouths of traffic reporters for years, and winced every time -- because that's not how real people speak. No one says, "The motorist next to me didn't use his turn signal and then almost hit my vehicle!" You mean the man/woman/driver almost hit your car/truck/motorcycle? Then say that!

This has long been a pet peeve of mine, and it apparently bothered Randy Michaels, too. Michaels, the veteran radio executive who is now CEO of Tribune, issued a memo to the news staff of the company's flagship station, WGN/Chicago, listing 119 words and phrases they should never say on the air. He's catching some flak for it, but he's right.

"Motorist" and "vehicle" were on the list. So was "area residents." Hey, Jim, are you going to the game tonight? Yes, I'm getting a ride from some area residents after we consume a meal at a local eating establishment.

Michaels tells his staff to stop referring to towns as "up there," "over there," "down in...", because those are all relative -- if you're listening in that town, you're already there. You're not down, up, or over.

He includes redundancies like "5am in the morning," "close proximity," and "untimely death" (as opposed to someone dying exactly when we expected them to). Here's another one: "fled on foot." Not to be confused with the suspect who fled on a unicycle.

It's a matter of getting away from official-speak and talking like a person instead of a press release. There's a difference between writing something to be read (as in print) and writing something to be said (as in broadcasting).

In that regard, Michaels bans the phrases "those of you," "some of you," "you folks," because he knows that radio is a personal medium, so their comments should be aimed at a single listener, not "everybody." Use the second person singular, not plural (this policy doesn't apply in the south, where "y'all" is both singular and plural). Don't think of the audience as a stadium full of people, think of it as one motorist alone in a vehicle.

Unless they're fleeing on foot with a group of area residents.