How to stand out as a researcher

So you’re a researcher, you’ve undoubtedly passed through the rite of passage of being a runner, or maybe that specialism in 19th century Russian literature has propelled you to your first researcher role. Either way you’ve got the job, you are well chuffed and you are raring to go! So what is going to make you stand out amongst the crowd? How are you going to play the game but be seen for all your hard work?

Here are a few hints and tips to get you noticed for all the right reasons, and get you on the right path for a long and wonderful career in television.

Triple check everything

Check check and triple check everything. Don’t rely on a whim or a hunch or a google search. Verify your facts and at least if possible with a variety of sources. Your producer will expect this and I know it sounds like common senses but you’d be surprised. Have you ever been sat at home and watched something and know the programme not to be factually correct, not often I imagine but when you do, you really remember. No doubt as well these times are usually accompanied by a string of letters to Points of view and the Daily Mail. If you are wanting to make a great first impression then get the detail right. This is even more especially important on consumer shows or current affairs shows, where incorrect information can result in legal action. If you are unsure then ask someone, ask how they would go about it, but make sure this doesn’t become a common occurrence as it will make you look incompetent.

Get to know your contributors

A contributor can look amazing on paper, that professor from Oxford to talk about Greek history for your BBC 4 doc, well this guys super qualified, the woman with OCD, but addicted to having sex whilst wearing oven gloves, brilliant for the obs doc.. They might well be, but dig a little deeper than an initial chat and some information. The team will expect and insist on this but sometimes when deadlines are looming and you want to get a contributor quickly you can go with what’s easiest. That can backfire on you. Always meet with people and screen test them, someone can be wonderful in person but put a camera in front of them and they can clam up, act strange, or talk in a fashion that really isn’t them. Now you know that, and you know to do that. Talk to them in a lot of detail about themselves, what they feel comfortable talking about, put the contributors at ease, be their friend. You are often the first person they meet and often the person they feel the most comfortable with. When you get bits of information, it’s imperative that you share this with the Producer, ie “Mary is ok with talking about this, but not this, or she feels better with only two people around when she is being filmed. Make them feel safe and that they are not being exploited. Sometimes it’s good to get them to reassert why they have agreed to do the documentary, what they want to go out of it. This gives them a bit of control and also makes for a better working environment.

The best researchers are the ones that are the most empathetic and the most socially aware. They know how to read a situation and how to respond in the most appropriate way. There is nothing more off putting for a potential contributor than a researcher who has no interest in them or patronises them or makes them feel stupid. You won’t always get on with your contributors and you won’t always be treated that well by them. If you show them respect though, value why they are there and do your homework about them, then the production will run much more smoothly.

Don’t rely on google

One of the pet hates of many a Series and Exec Producer is the researcher’s reliability on google. The need to stay at their desk surfing the net for information rather than pick up the phone and engage with people. Now many of the producers will have researched pre the launch of google and most will say there is no better research than speaking to someone, many people, going to libraries, checking records, verifying facts, and doing it all again. It’s often whilst doing this that you can come across new contributors or find different angles to the documentary that you would not find on the internet. By engaging with the experts you are more likely to find hidden gems and facts. So make sure your Series Producer sees you on the phone, surrounded by books and ultimately passionate about the documentary on fly fishing. Be passionate, have ideas but always back it up with evidence.

Be multi skilled

In this day and age it’s essential to be multi skilled. If you can shoot and edit amazing, you will be much more helpful on a shoot. If you have web skills then great start thinking about different platforms for the content. If you don’t drive, you are also at a distinct disadvantage. It doesn’t mean that you won’t get work but may limit some opportunities available. Think as a researcher, think outside the box. “Oh we are filming abroad and I speak the language” That could save on a translator. One of my former trainees whilst working on a hard hitting current affairs doc in Central America was the only person on the team who could speak Spanish. This saved so much time and also helped with the local fixer. She also gained instant credibility with the contributors and ultimately their trust. You’d be surprised by how your passion and knowledge for something can really help a production. A researcher on another current affairs programme on pay day loans had previously worked for a similar company and gained access and trust immediately. Simply because she’d been there, she knew the right questions to ask and was seen as “one of us” rather than some snotty researcher from a giant corporation. Don’t down play that, it’s essential when dealing with people.

Come up with alternative solutions

Production can change with the wind, contributors can drop out, access can fall through, budgets can be cut and weather can stop filming. The best researchers always have a back up plan and always come up with alternative solutions. So have that “save the day” mentality. Be careful not to tread on people’s toes or take over too much, but do try and save the day. Think about different locations for shooting, is there someone else that can come in and be filmed at short notice? Not always possible but if you’ve been speaking to a number of people it might be. Don’t be complacent and don’t think oh my job is done now. Think always how best can I help this production.

Be a team player

In television team work is essential. Long hours, time away filming, quite frankly people want to work with people that they know and trust. That are easy to get on with, can muck in and that can just really get on with it. Don’t be particular about what you will and won’t do. If everyone is busy and you’re just stood there, then pick up that kit, help out. Even just make some busy and stressed people cups of tea, that truly can be something that paints you in a great light.

Support the runners

You’ve undoubtedly been a runner, you know what it’s like. Sometimes it can be really shitty. Oh yes and you remember the condescending researcher who in some perverse universe thought they were Lady Mary Crawley and you were there willing servant. Well don’t become that person. Just because someone has treated you in that way doesn’t mean that the cycle has to continue. Be a wise friend, make sure they do what they need to do, but pass on some tips of your own from your running days. You can also get them to make your job easier, they will often be dealing with contributors and you can find out all sorts about a person just simply from their journey from reception to meeting you. People are more likely to chat to runners and this in turn can be a source of good and useful information when working with them.

Smile through it.

The hours might be long, the information that you need is not easy to find. The item that you spent ages on has been dropped for whatever reason. The producer is having a bad day and taking it out on you. We all have those days and all you want is a large glass of wine, a bowl of chips and a good friend to bitch to. It’s all part of the production cycle and you have to remember to smile through it. We can get wrapped up in the importance of our own little world but hey you are not on the front line at warm or saving lives in ER, it’s only telly. It can be so reaffirming on a stressy day just to take a deep breath and say that to yourself over and over again.

The production manager is your friend!

On any production always remember make the production manager your friend. They are the heart and soul of the production, the logistics, the money, the nurturing support figure and the one who has everyone’s ear. They are often overlooked in the hustle and bustle if editorial egos, but they do have a lot of power. Take time to get to know them, make their life easier. Think about ways to do things more cost effectively and reflect that I your research, none of this “I’ve been doing some research in Antigua ” for your documentary on pork pies.. The PM can also be the key to your next job and next gig. Series producers and talent managers will often go to them for feedback on researchers so don’t piss them off.

Right you are ready to go, you’ll be brilliant researchers. It can be stressful, it can be full of egos, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun! Enjoy, be professional and keep everything focused on the end programme. Then you’ll be really proud.

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2 thoughts

  1. Hey Simon, have you ever written anything about making the jump from radio to TV? I’m currently a freelance radio assistant producer but really want to get into telly as well…

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