I’m really glad I wasn’t on the weekend shift in the BBC newsroom on Saturday night. Because in newsrooms across the world, journalists were being tested at the highest level in the skill that makes them stand out from many other professions — agility.
The task facing any journalist covering that extraordinary Women’s US Open Final was daunting. To calmly observe a mass of facts, changing by the moment. To keep track of each one, whilst still seeing the big picture. To have no idea how long it would all take, and how short would be the amount of time left to you to produce your report. And to stay calm and clear headed while doing it all.
(So as a tennis fan myself, you can see why it might have spoilt the fun a bit.)
Whatever the result of the match, the online news desk would require the biggest story in recent British sporting history to be written up within minutes.
A TV report — edited, and of a fixed duration — would be required within the hour for the News Channel.
The midnight radio news bulletins — an hour or so later — would need a set of items that reflected the facts, the excitement and the context.
So how do journalists do it?
We have a set of phrases for it in newsrooms … ‘turning the story around’, in order to make sure it ‘makes its slot’. Since developing my consultancy, I’ve discovered that the business world has another way of putting it: ‘agility’.
I’ve not often had to turn material around that quickly on such a huge international story — but I have had to turn plenty of other stories around on equally eye-watering deadlines for the lunchtime and early evening bulletins I’ve worked upon over my thirty years in newsrooms.
So here are three tips that I hope may help you do the same when you have a deluge of facts to process, under pressure, with your audience (staff? clients? customers? stakeholders?) requiring a clear result from you at the end of it.
- KEEP THE CHALLENGE SIMPLE IN YOUR MIND. Here’s the online video report that appeared, edited, with graphics and music, within two hours of Raducanu’s win. The producer had set herself a task — the five best shots. You’ve got a storm brewing at Head Office? Focus on your one, or three, or five key messages by 3pm/5pm/7pm. You choose your numbers, you choose your time-frame, but I suggest you make the decision quickly, and stick to it. Nothing more. Keep it simple.
- HAVE A RED PEN HANDY. When processing a vast amount of changing information for a news report — listening to a judge concluding a trial, for example, when my job was to choose the most pithy phrases — I grabbed my red pen to circle anything in my notebook that emerged that was so important it simply had to be in the shortlist for inclusion. It meant trusting my own judgment, but it’s what I was paid to do. So when the event was over, and I had to sum it up for our viewers, I had vastly reduced the amount of options that lay before me. That eases the pressure. “A red pen” sounds old school, but it works for me every time.
- REMEMBER THAT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT. Your audience will not know what you haven’t chosen (even if you may fret that you didn’t quite make the right choices at every twist and turn.) But your audience will know if you’ve failed to deliver anything at all. And that’s far worse.
To put my approach to the test, take another look at that short online video compilation of Emma Raducanu’s Five Best Shots — that appeared (beautifully edited, with music and graphics) within two hours of her victory.
The producer stuck to the challenge she’d been set by her editor: just … five … shots.
She will have had her own method of judging each shot of the match as it went, and will have trusted that judgment.
And she will have realised — boy, will she have realised! — that pretty much whatever decisions she made about the shots to include in her compilation, nobody would give her a hard time later about her decision-making … so long as a result appeared, ready for its eager audience, professionally delivered, and on time. Which it did.
Writing this article, I set myself a deadline, and my time is almost up. Yes, I do have a few other thoughts jotted down that haven’t made the cut, but everything on my notepad in red is included here — and I’ve got other things to get on with now.
So I think I’ve followed my own advice: I decided the framework for this blog post — I’ve judged that you won’t fret about the bits I’ve left out— and concluded that what I’ve written may help you keep calm next time you have a developing drama to stay on top of at work.
(Oh, and I’ve realised something else, too. I do still love a deadline. Maybe I do wish I’d been in the newsroom at the weekend, after all …)
Want some help encouraging your teams to be more agile? My newsroom themed workshops will give them an exhilarating couple of hours experiencing the adrenaline rush of newsroom life — delivered virtually or face-to-face — with real business takea-aways that stick. Give me a call and I can talk you through how it works …