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When This Guy Talks, NPR Listens

Many of NPR's most prominent announcers have received voice training from in-demand consultant David Candow.
Many of NPR's most prominent announcers have received voice training from in-demand consultant David Candow. (By Dominic Bracco Ii -- The Washington Post)
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So, he advises using words common in conversation, and keeping the sentences short and declarative. His rule of thumb: Scripts should have no more than one thought per sentence, and no more than one sentence per line. Compound sentences are "too hard on the ear."

One more thing to remember: In radio, "the big adjective is a verb."

A verb is an adjective?

What he means is that a single punchy verb can describe someone better than a string of flowery adjectives. For example, Candow recalls a radio story about a 105-year-old woman named Alice. The reporter told her listeners that upon their first encounter, Alice "flits" into the room. "Flits!" repeats Candow. That one verb is "more powerful than any description I can make up."

During a recent two-day training session at NPR headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue NW near the Washington Convention Center, Candow's lessons began to hit home for Ari Shapiro, a reporter and substitute host on such programs as "Morning Edition" and "Talk of the Nation." After taking Candow's counsel, Shapiro struck the word "blaze" from a script he'd written, substituting the word "fire." Another reference to "numerous residents" became "a lot of people in town."

Shapiro, 29, says he also took to heart Candow's advice about imagining that he's speaking to a trusted and respected friend on the air, rather than an audience of millions. He's practiced this technique by taping a smiley face to the back of a chair and talking to it. The exercise encourages what Candow calls a "mouth edit." The idea, says Shapiro, is that "if you say the words differently than you've written them, you should consider changing the script."

Per Candow's suggestion, Shapiro has also made a subtle change in the way he records a story. Now, he says, instead of beginning a recording with a traditional countdown ("3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . "), he puts himself into a more conversational frame by saying, "Now I'm going to tell you a story."

"I'm getting it," says Shapiro, "but I'm not there yet."

Scott Simon, the host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday," says some of his fellow radio veterans were initially resistant to having their well-honed deliveries critiqued by the likes of Candow. "The reaction is, 'Wait one damn minute. I've been doing this for a certain period of time and what could a guy like this show me,' " Simon says, adding that as an NPR host for decades, "I can't say I was immune from those immediate reactions myself."

But after a few sessions, "I was transformed. He's just totally sensible." Simon won't disclose Candow's specific advice, but he says he has absorbed one particular tip: Simon now moves his eyes several words ahead when he reads a script on the air, looking up and away from the page before he hits the end of a sentence. This enables him to absorb the words, making him sound more conversational "and less like you're announcing."

Candow spent the bulk of his career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. away from the microphone, working primarily as a program producer. He later became the CBC's principal vocal coach and trainer, a job that provided the foundation for his current incarnation as a globe-trotting consultant.

Candow's own voice doesn't exactly suggest the makings of a radio superstar. It's a high and reedy thing, and he has a tendency to speak quickly, which causes his words to bump against each other like rush-hour fender benders.

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