Unless you’re taking a Shakespeare class right now, you might need me to refresh your memory about iambic pentameter. An iamb (pronounced “I am”) is a beat or foot made up of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable, e.g., Phi Mu (for those non-sorority/fraternity types, the accent is on Mu).
Pentameter means five pentas or meters. So, a line written in pentameter has five feet or five sets of unstressed and stressed syllables. For example, “beat State” is an iamb.
So what does this have to do with writing broadcast copy? Using IP, especially for the lead of a story, allows the content to flow in a nice natural rhythm.
The most natural rhythm is the heartbeat of a healthy person at rest, which is also a good example of iambic pentameter. When a sentence is spoken in iambic pentameter it has a natural flow, that is, if each syllable is given the proper emphasis.
Multimedia specialist Abbie McIntosh is a fan of the IP approach. “Broadcast (TV and radio) is about communication,” Abbie writes, “and using IP enhances effective communication. Usually, on TV and radio, you have a limited amount of time to tell a story/share an advertisement – usually about 20 to 30 seconds. That sounds like a lot of time, but once you start writing your script, you realize it isn’t. You always want to be as clear and precise with your words as possible. IP is your golden ticket for awesome broadcast copy and radio advertisements.”
Now, see how well you do in reading out loud the following line:
The Rebels have shutout the Dawgs in Oxford.
Did the iambic pentameter come naturally?
REB / els HAVE / shut OUT / the DAWGS / in OX / ford
I challenge you to read these three leads and identify the one that is not in iambic pentameter. (The answer is at the bottom of this post.)
- A four-car accident has happened near Oxford.
- A man from Maben won the big Toyota.
- A fire today leaves people perplexed statewide.
Did you get it right? Here are five reasons why I recommend putting a broadcast news or sports lead in IP:
- It has a natural flow, which we need in broadcasting. No Sweat Shakespeare points out that Shakespeare used IP because it closely resembles the rhythm of everyday speech, and he no doubt wanted to imitate everyday speech in his plays. Shouldn’t our objective be the same for content delivered on the air?
- Something written in iambic pentameter is easier to remember. News writers and anchors should want their content to be remembered. Iambic pentameter is a mnemonic device. A story should be written so that any reasonably intelligent audience member who hears it would be able to diffuse it with a high degree of accuracy to someone who was not in the audience when the story was reported.
- A sentence in iambic pentameter is concise, written in an economy of words. Conciseness is one of the greatest qualities of broadcast newswriting.
- It engages the writer in critical thinking. It is not possible to create a sentence in iambic pentameter without a significant amount of critical thinking.
- It’s ideal for oral writing style. Broadcast journalists must remember that we are writing for a listening audience. Iambic pentameter was made for listeners.
So, have at it. I leave you with a line in iambic pentameter.
Don ROD / nee VAUGHAN / says USE / i P / to DAY.
Because the first sentence includes more than five units, it is not in IP.
Don Rodney Vaughan earned a Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Southern Mississippi and a master’s in journalism from Ole Miss. He teaches journalism and public speaking at East Mississippi Community College.