BBC Radio 4
The Radio 4 Blog

I can always tell when we've recorded a good edition of The Bottom Line: it is one where I have not had to speak very much.

Don't get me wrong. I love speaking. It's what I'm paid to do. And before we record the programme I always make sure that I have plenty to say on the topics we're discussing.

Fortunately, however, I'm modest enough to know that the Bottom Line is really about the guests rather than the presenter. And for the programme to succeed, it needs to show the guests at their most fluent and expressive.

And that is where the challenge of the programme lies.

To succeed, the conversation has to fizz; the guests have to bounce comments off each other and push their point out, rather than have it pulled from them. In short, the guests have to converse like the professional talkers who fill the airwaves - journalists, politicians, artistic performers and academics.

But the interesting fact is that when you take a significant number of business people out of their comfort zone and put them in a radio studio, they are not relaxed about practising the art of conversation.

Business-people are trained in all sorts of communication: they can bark orders or sell washing powder or talk to Powerpoint presentations. They are just not bred to appear on Midweek.

Put a microphone in front of many of our guests they are a little taciturn; they like to think about what they're saying; they are worried about disagreeing with the other guests or speaking out of turn. Sometimes, they even wait to be asked a question.

Unchecked, none of these habits give the programme the natural flow we are looking for. (After all, you would never feel a dinner party had been very stimulating if it consisted of the host simply asking a sequence of questions to one guest at a time). So my job as presenter is to make all the guests feel comfortable with the task at hand.

Now, over time I've made an interesting observation on what works and what doesn't in making the more reticent guests relax.

I used to give a rather vague pre-show chat to them all, emphasising that they should feel free to speak without being spoken to; that they could make their point when they wanted to, and even interrupt if it sounded natural.

But this turned out to be too imprecise. Business-people are task oriented and hungry for new skills. They want their briefing to be more target-driven.

So I have discovered that if, before the recording, I instead tell them that "on at least three occasions in the programme, you should make a comment without having been asked anything by me", they converse in a far more casual way.

In fact, some of the best conversations occur when I jokingly suggest the show is a competition to see who can initiate the most points and talk most.

Tell them that, and the discussion flows. I have to do very little work. To the listener the result is a programme that has a more variable pace and one that is altogether easier to listen to.

But I expect it's only programmes with business guests that would find the way to foster a natural-sounding round-table chat by giving specific advice upfront of a rather unnatural kind.

Evan Davis presents The Bottom Line, Dragon's Den and Today


This entry is now closed for comments.

  • Comment number 4. Posted by David Smith

    on 5 Feb 2010 00:50

    I am not sure if Evan is expressing surprise or dismay about the inability of his guests to slip into conversation - it is what we learn - when we go to primary and then secondary school we learn to be quiet - conversation is only allowed when the teacher says so - the University system is not much better - at work we are conditioned further by 'Presentation' - is it little wonder then that conversation does not come natural to us
    D W Smith

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 4: 0
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 4: 0
  • Comment number 3. Posted by pithywriter

    on 3 Feb 2010 07:57

    Isa this the right place for the following?

    Re the Today Programme 3-2-10… I sent the following complaint to the Today team via their web page but as there (strangely) is no internet interactivity with listeners there I am putting my complaint onto BBC Message Board ‘The Choice is Yours’ to see what others think.

    “Alzheimer’s etc... As usual the story you tell is about the uk situation as if we are in a bubble and then as usual, followed by the 'reinventing the wheel' discussion, ie are charities in UK working on solutions, isolated from their contemporaries in other developed countries? And why no coverage of the epidemiology?
    I find it very strange and frustrating that Today presenters and reporters rarely ask the obvious. i.e How does this situation compare with our EU partners experience and care and treatment? and could it be CJD in disguise? Do elderly vegetarians get Alzheimer’s etc etc?
    Which countries are suffering this problem and by how much and other factors would be interesting to know. Does the World Health Organisation know? 'Today' has the luxury of 3 hours every day so why not more in depth and probing with obvious questions answered?” Thank you

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 3: 0
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 3: 0
  • Comment number 2. Posted by EvanDavis

    on 1 Feb 2010 12:11

    Thank you Stewart.. a good idea. But picking the topics is quite an art. We try to select items at least two of the three guests will feel comfortable with. So when we have some water-ey business-people on, water will make a very good topic. When we have dry guests, we'd probably better steer clear of it.

  • Comment number 1. Posted by stewart dakers

    on 31 Jan 2010 13:19

    re yesterday`s programme, the lack of originality and imagination revealed by your experts was disturbing. In their speculation about the origins of future economic growth, they appeared to be locked into a parochial retail mind set.

    May i suggest for future discussion a UK product which can never run dry and for which there is a growing and assured international market. WATER. Many areas of the world, including within the continent of Europe and the Middle East are and will continue to be experiencing serious water shortage.

    The location of the UK ensures, whatever climate change occurs, that we will remain water rich. Water has been described as the oil of the 21st Century; we possess a naturally renewed and potentially massive surplus. That potential relies on applied attention to water management.

    Unlike oil, such management, through location, harvesting, collection, conservation and distribution is technically straightforward. Investment in the hardware required to undertake these functions, together with the establishment of collection depots strategically located for export transport would guarantee an income in perpetuity. Such an investment invites comparison with the Victorian initiative in waste water management/drains and sewers. With a direct financial dividend.

    Such an investment would create a vast new industrial employment market, as well as challenging technological and scientific enterprise.

    Water is a product, with a value which exceeds such traditional mineral resources such as gold, coal and so on. The present environmental crisis offers a no-brainer business opportunity, which would impact on our national fortunes financially, technically and diplomatically. Perhaps above all it would restore national confidence in ourselves as producers of a primary product.

    surely it deserves serious attention,

    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of positive ratings for comment 1: 0
    • This entry is now closed for comments. Number of negative ratings for comment 1: 0

More Posts