I’ll never forget a segment with Anderson Cooper on CNN. His three guests were discussing a hot topic and none of them would shut up. Clearly frustrated, the normally mild-mannered Cooper stopped everything and said,
Nobody can understand anything you’re saying when you all talk at the same time. Our viewers hate this. Research proves it. Do we have to turn off your microphones?
Anderson is right. And that is on television, where most viewers are watching as a foreground (primary) activity and have the advantage of seeing who is talking. But radio listeners are blind. They can’t see the performers, which adds to the chaos. And they’re far more likely to be listening as a secondary, background activity.
The #1 cause of listener tune-out is confusion. And the primary cause of confusion is when personalities talk at the same time. This comes back in research projects and focus groups. When personalities talk on top of one another, all the audience hears is noise. This causes stress. And they will relieve the stress by tuning out.
How To Fix The Problem
There are several ways to fix this issue.
- First, learn to listen and respond. Much of the problem happens when personalities think more about what they want to say than what is being said. Relax and engage in the conversation instead of just trying to cram your point on the air.
- Each cast member must trust the leader (host) to manage the conversation. Content should always be flow through the host, who must learn to direct the conversation.
Over time, shows learn one another’s tendencies and habits. Timing improves and a natural rhythm follows. But most shows could use some simple hand signals to help everything flow more smoothly.
Here are some of the most basic and useful hand signals to consider:
- Raised Hand: As the topic develops, cohosts should raise a hand if they have something to contribute. The host then has the option to bring the cohost into the conversation or not. If the discussion progresses and the cohost’s point is no longer relevant, drop the hand. And don’t be upset if you don’t get called on!
- Point: When the host is preparing to bring the conversation to a cohost, point to them so they are prepared. If the cohost has nothing to add, they should shake their head “no” or wave it off with a hand signal.
- The Raised Finger: When a host or cohost is speaking and does not want to be interrupted, raise a finger as a “stop sign”. Nobody else is allowed to speak or interrupt while the stop sign is up. This allows the speaker to apply vocal skills (pause for effect, slow down, change tone) without the fear of losing the moment. When finishing the point, drop your finger to remove the stop sign.
- Crossed Wrists: Nothing is worse than a cohost talking when they have nothing to say. To prevent that, raise both arms in front of you and cross your wrists or fingers to signal “Don’t come to me. I have nothing”.
These are just a few hand signals that can help team shows sort out potentially chaotic moments on the air. Of course, for hand signals to be effective, personalities must maintain eye contact. Don’t bury your face in a screen or even allow the appearance of being distracted. Being in the moment is critical to having a healthy, cohesive team. It matters.
As team chemistry improves, you may discover that hand signals are not as important. A raised eyebrow or nod of the head may be all the non-verbal communication needed. But in the meantime, use them as a critical tool in developing a better flow to avoid a major cause of listener tune-out: talking over one another.1