The rise of the professional talking head
I take a look inside my own rapidly expanding trade of the not-quite presenter
ON WEDNESDAY I’ll be filming some more contributions as a talking head for the latest season of What On Earth, which appears on the Science Channel. For those who aren’t precisely sure what a talking head is, it’s a person – usually some form of expert – who is interviewed for a TV programme and who doesn’t usually talk to the camera, but instead talks slightly off-camera. This distinction is important for reasons that will shortly be explained.
If you haven’t seen the show – and it’s a lot of fun – each episode investigates a selection of aerial views of some things on earth that aren’t easily identifiable. Think weird structures in Antarctica, strange rock formations in Spain, odd buildings in Nebraska, mysterious hills in Wiltshire – and you get the idea of what it is about.
Each episode features a load of talking head experts whose job it is to work out what the things are, and by the end of each segment – after some outlandish theories are entertained – the audience is presented with the answer, which often can still be a bit strange.
My job is to act as an historian and also as a bit of a generalist, because, well, that’s what I am. There are also geologists, volcanologists, archaeologists and a whole pantheon of other flavours of expert. I’ve worked on five seasons of the show, and I really enjoy it, not least because the team is fun, I learn a lot, and the production company always pays quickly.
As well as being on What On Earth, over the past ten years I’ve been a talking head on some forty other shows, many of which have run for several seasons. These include shows such World War Weird and War Factories on Yesterday, Hitler’s Circle of Evil and How To Become A Tyrant on Netflix, The Great Escape and Dunkirk for Channel 5, as well as numerous other shows for channels such as ZDF, Smithsonian, Sky, Arte, AHC, Channel 4, and Viasat. In fact, so regularly do I appear on the Yesterday Channel that my friends regularly check my hubris by calling me ‘Yesterday’s man’.
I mention all this not because I’m showing off, but because I want to lay it on a bit thick that I speak about being a talking head with some authority. Because what I want to do is to not only let you inside how the talking head industry works, but also to show you that being a talking head involves more than just owning a head complete with a mouth.
If you’re a first-timer – and especially an expert who really knows their stuff – being a talking head can be a frustrating experience, even if you are accustomed to public speaking.
You’re thrust into a darkened room with several people you’ve never met, and they use a language you don’t understand. You’re offered a coffee, and while you drink it, a complete stranger unbuttons your shirt and trousers and attaches a cable to you.
You’re then asked to sit down, and for twenty minutes you’ll do nothing. Why? Because the lighting isn’t quite right, or there’s a problem with the fact that the supposedly soundproof studio cannot smother the noise of the chainsaw-testing factory next door. You may now get a bit nervous and/or impatient, and decide you need the loo, and there may be some mild tutting as a result.
When you’re back, the questioning starts, and you’ll gabble and splutter and stumble over your first answer like a total amateur. The director – the person you are addressing off camera – will then smile patiently, and ask you to answer the question again. Which you do, and this time you do it brilliantly, but what you haven’t realised is that you’ve spoken for seventeen minutes and the director only wanted a twenty-second answer.
You tell him that it’s impossible to be so short – this is, after all, your expertise, the fruits of your life’s work, you cannot possibly distil it down to such an extent.
Nevertheless, he asks you to give it a try, and you manage to talk for under a minute. He seems happy, and mutters to the cameraman that ‘there’ll be something there for the edit’, and then asks whether you can answer the same question, but instead of saying black is white, could you instead say that white is black?
You refuse out of principle, harrumph a bit, and he diplomatically asks whether you could merely say this is something that some people think, even if you don’t agree with them. You reluctantly agree, slightly aware that you’re being trapped, but by now it is too late.
And on it will go. For hours. You may get a sandwich, and even some fruit if you ask nicely. You find the process tiring and bewildering, but at the end of the session, you think you have done okay. The director seems happy, and says you ‘really got into your stride’. A production assistant now emerges from the gloom, and gently asks you to sign a piece of paper, which is ‘just our normal release form’. You’re too tired to give it much thought, sign away what looks like the lives of your children, and then head to the pub.
Six months later, you will excitedly watch the show, after which you’ll be livid.
Not only have you been cut down to a total of about forty-five seconds, but they’ve somehow got you saying something that you don’t agree with at all. You angrily vow never to appear on TV again, and tell everyone as much. I shouldn’t worry – that decision was made by the director the second you walked out of the studio.
The fact is, you were crap.
What you will now do is to spend many years moaning that TV programmes never get the right experts on their shows, and they always end up using people like that Guy bloody Walters, who really doesn’t know half as much as you do.
In essence you may be correct, but what you – and many – forget is that the right person for a topic may not be the right person for that topic for a television programme. What directors want from talking heads is not limitless expert knowledge, but an ability to transmit a relatively basic amount of knowledge in a way that is watchable.
What this means is that you have to add emotion.
You also have to keep it succinct, fluent, and simple.
You also have to radiate some warmth and charisma.
You often also need to drive the story forward.
You need to be patient and be prepared to answer the same question many, many times.
You need to have a sense of humour about the technical problems that beset every shoot.
And you may sometimes need to express – in some way – an opinion you may not agree with.
In short, you need to be an actor.
It’s at this point that you may well ask whether there is any difference between being a talking head and a presenter. This is a good question, because increasingly there isn’t much difference. And it is this ever-diminishing distinction that tells you everything about the talking head industry right now, and why being a professional talking head is now becoming a potentially more lucrative activity than being a presenter.
The reason why talking heads are on the up and presenters are on the way down is because so many shows are now sold abroad, or appear on global platforms such as Netflix. Almost none of the shows I have worked on have presenters, because a household name in the UK is often a nobody in the United States or Brazil. And whereas a talking head with subtitles is fine, a presenter with subtitles loses their impact and therefore the whole point of their presence on screen.
In short, why have an expensive and often redundant presenter to drive the narrative, when that can be done with a relatively cheap voiceover and a host of decent talking heads?
What this means is that talking heads are not only in more demand – my own experience bears witness to that – but it also means that I have to seemingly become an expert in a lot of topics.
So how is this possible?
What it requires is a lot of preparation, but it also means I am sometimes presenting someone else’s lines rather than my own. To be frank – there often is a script. Sometimes, there is even an autocue.
This may seem like a cheat, but I do not feel that it is, for the simple reason that I always check the lines for accuracy before. I correct and tweak, and rephrase them in the way I myself would say it. And if there is anything that I do not wish to say, I am upfront with the director and tell him that I won’t say this bit or that. It should be stressed that while a presenter often cannot do this, a talking head most certainly can.
So where does this leave the viewer?
At one level, it might feel like a con. “What?!” I hear you go. “I really thought you knew all this stuff!”
But then again, I can’t believe that those who watch my shows really think that I am polymathic enough to know as much as about the development of the Colt 45 as I do about ancient ways of hunting for catfish in Namibia. The reason why I’m incessantly on your screen is because the directors and producers know that I – and others like me – can speak with all the necessary qualities that are required. It’s quicker – and therefore cheaper – to use me, rather than tracking down specific experts who may end up being televisually useless.
This may not seem fair, but television is an expensive medium to produce with fine margins. Channels and streaming platforms are screwing down budgets with every commission, and production companies simply cannot risk the time and expense to film someone who may well be very knowledgeable – but also very dreary.
Meanwhile, my responsibility is to make sure that what I say on screen is as accurate as possible, and even if I am not an expert, I should reflect the expertise that can be garnered. It may sounds pompous, but I take this duty seriously. After all, to be a good talking head does require a little bit of a brain.
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