Good Writers Do Not Necessarily Make Good Presenters

Unless you’ve been living on the backside of one of Neptune’s moons for the past couple of years, you know that video is big on the web. There’s a major trend toward transforming text-only sites to text plus video and audio sites.

To change gears for a moment, back in 2005, I wrote this about podcasting:

you need the talent. Everyone learns writing in school, so the barrier to entry is pretty small. However, nobody (or very few) learns how to be a radio broadcaster. Like it or not, that takes ability, practice and, ideally, a great voice. I try not to read poorly-written blogs, and I don’t have the patience for dead air and mumbling…

Over the past week, I’ve had the opportunity to watch several short videos, hosted by big formerly-text-only sites and presented by writers. They are:

Take a couple of minutes and watch those. I’ll wait.

A. O. Scott is rigidly reading off cue cards through the bottom part of his bifocals. Emily Yoffe looks stiffer than her headboard (note the incredibly awkward nod to her dog). Walt Mossberg prefaces every sentence with ‘uh’.

These folks are all good writers who I admire. The operative word there is ‘writers’.

Presenting is a Craft All Its Own

Much as we like to take cheap shots at news anchors, being an effective presenter takes skill and practice. There’s an art, I suspect, to appearing natural on camera. People go to school for this, and usually spend years honing their craft before we ever see them on national television or radio.

Most writers aren’t presenters. They don’t know how to do it. They’re just victims of online content trends, and have been thrown to the video wolves by their managers, editors and publishers.

It’s odd that Slate would make this mistake. For the past two years, they had the wonderful Andy Bowers (who has a background in radio) reading articles written by other writers on their podcast. June Thomas usually does the Explainer podcasts (a podcast I skipped today because writer Michelle Tsai recorded the last two), but she never wrote them. Yet, when Slate went to video, they’ve thrown out the middleman and turned the camera on the poor writers themselves.

Back in 2005, I also wrote:

This issue is only going to be multiplied when video blogs, or vlogging becomes popular. Amanda Congdon is charming, smart, cute and has a great formula, but she’s not a professional newscaster. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you or me, but it matters to average humans who are accustomed to watching professionals.

I was wrong about that. Amanda Congdon is a great presenter. She’s natural, charming and charismatic on camera.

These media giants ought to hire people like Amanda to present their content. Let the writers write.


  1. Amen, brother — amen!

    I’ve tried to teach hundreds of technical specialists how to present over the years, and it’s an uphill struggle. If someone doesn’t have the need to be up on stage in their kindergarten play, they probably aren’t going to become a top-flight presenter later in life.

    Engaging an audience and telling your story is about 80% speaking skill, and 5% actual technical or subject knowledge. (The remaining 15% is mostly preservatives and water.) Great speakers can take unfamiliar material and make it theirs quickly — people with a granular command of a subject usually bore their audience to death.

    I’m seeing this today in what tech companies are calling “webcasts”. (More accurately they are “boring-techie-droning-on-for-an-hour” casts.) Put some wordy PPT slides up, or a bunch of tiny code snippets, and start droning along. No need for an outline, a story, a plan — just talk there into your microphone, all alone.

    God save us from easy media.

  2. Darren, off subject, but hopefully, you’ll help me answer this question :

    Why do Google still call Gmail a Beta ?

    Christ, Gmail must have 10 million+ accounts? Beta ? Anyone?

  3. Bobby – I’m betting they call it Beta so that if it ever melts down, there is always the ‘Well it WAS in Beta’ caveat.

    Darren – Amanda Congdon? Where is she these days? I really can’t say enough good about her replacement. Joanne Colan is amazing (and she sent me a bunch of MAKE Magazine issues!) and a worthy replacement.

  4. One of my least favorite writer/new media mashups is Two columnists face off over webcam, and it looks like hell. I’d be much better served, given that they’re usually discussing topics like politics, by reading some sort of back and forth email exhcange (which Slate and Salon already do, I think.)

  5. I think Yoffe is a pretty dismal advice columnist, although I definitely agree with you that she’s an excellent writer. That said, she was less stiff on SlateV than I expected from your discussion. I think she’s going to be all right.

    Walt Mossberg? Well, uh, I can’t, uh, defend him.

  6. Great points. There is a HUGE difference between knowing a subject and presenting it. Just look how few people in a roomful of experts could actually keep the room entertained and engaged on a subject. That’s talent.

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