John Kelly, who writes for the Washington Post, is one of those columnists who makes a living commenting on quirky little things that confuse or bother them. (Think a much younger Andy Rooney)
In the paper today he asks why TV news people nod so darn much. He uses this example:
An “anchor and a correspondent in the field are appearing side by side on your TV in a split-screen shot. The anchor says, “We have some disturbing news from Greenbelt, where a man has eaten a fire hydrant.”
The correspondent, upon hearing this introduction through her little earpiece, can’t help nodding: Nod, nod, nod, nod, nod.
It’s as if she thinks she has to agree with the anchor back in the studio.
Why do they do that? he asks.
There are a couple reasons. If the person listening to the question just stares at the camera motionless — it gives the “deer in the headlights” impression. The nodding tells the anchor you are hearing and understanding the question and perhaps implies to the viewing public that man, that anchor is asking a good question. Providing some movement in a static shot helps prevent the viewer from — well — nodding off.
But the nod technique does not need to be limited to anchors and reporters. We tell our clients who may be subjects of television news interviews to do it (judiciously) as well. The simple movement adds a little energy to the shot and helps draw eyes from the questioner to the person about to answer.
While the nod can be useful and effective, we warn the folks we train that it is essential that they listen carefully to what the questioner is saying before launching into a head bob. You don’t want to appear to be agreeing if the reporter is saying: “People say you are the most incompetent and corrupt person in your field.” In that case you don’t have to stay as still as a mug shot — but you ought to start the back and forth head movement signifying “Boy, you got that one wrong” as opposed to the up and down “You got me!” signal.
There is not doubt, as Kelly points out, the nod can be over done. But it is a useful tool to help interviewees make sure their TV appearances don’t look like hostage videos.
Update: Some readers point out that the nodding also helps cover for possible time lag in satellite or microwave signal transmission. While true – if you watch a lot of TV you will see the nodding goes on with people who are sitting next to each other on the set as well.