BBC Radio 4

    Advice of a rather unnatural kind

    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


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