How dyslexia has made Matt Baker better at his job
Autocues, scripts and emails – which he has to read out live on TV – have proved a nightmare over the years for Matt Baker, who has dyslexia.
Now 44, The One Show and Countryfile presenter – who was recently awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours list – says he has developed a photographic memory, which helps him cope with scripts. But he recalls how, at school, he how he would look at the words on a page and they would jump around or just look jumbled and he would stop mid-sentence, often making up the end of it.
In his world, full stops are non-existent, he can’t fathom where one sentence ends and the next begins. Being a countryman and making the most of the great outdoors has helped him escape from his struggles with dyslexia though – and Matt recently wrote a book, a memoir called A Year On Our Farm.
Today, he’s back at home on his smallholding in the Chilterns with his wife Nicola and two children, Luke and Molly, after a year at his parents’ farm in the Durham Dales, where he made the Channel 4 documentary, Our Farm In The Dales, which has been commissioned for a further two series. Here, Matt tells us more about his life with dyslexia…
When did you know that you had a problem?
“I’ve never not known that I had a problem, because my dad’s heavily dyslexic. I’ve grown up knowing that things are quite tricky in that department. As soon as I started having problems at school, it became very evident, really.”
Was it ever officially diagnosed?
“Dad was officially diagnosed and I just went along with everything he does to get through it.”
How hard did dyslexia make school life?
“I just wasn’t interested in the subjects I really struggled with – and I didn’t realise at the time. Reading was always an issue and even now, reading aloud is a nightmare. No matter how hard I try, I can’t read aloud.”
How does that affect you working on TV?
“The scariest thing someone can do to me is hand me an email on live television and ask me to read it out. It does something to me. It’s absolutely petrifying. Whatever I read, I learn. I block it all out in ways which means I can recognise sentences.
“We [people with dyslexia] recognise words but we don’t read them as such. It’s like flash cards all the time. If you see something, you say what you think it is and then you dig yourself out of it if you’re wrong.”
Before you were a TV presenter, you went to drama school in Edinburgh. How did dyslexia affect that path?
“Acting was great because it meant I could learn the words. I’d get books and plays at the city library on audio books so I could listen to them.”
How did you cope with autocues and scripts on TV?
“Script meetings were horrible for me, where somebody wants to sit down and read a script – that was awful. I’d get in and read ahead of time and make suggestions from that.
“With autocue, I found a font called Dyslexie, which stops the words from jumping on the line and we got it put on the autocue. I always get my autocue spaced out, so that I can see the phrase and I say what I think it says. It’s as hard for the autocue operator as it is for me.”
Have you ever made any howlers using that technique?
“Oh, every show. It’s constant, never-ending. If I started working with a producer who didn’t really understand my challenges and they said, ‘I’ve changed the last thing, just read what it says’, now that is hideous for me.”
Has dyslexia helped your interview technique at all?
“I listen to people more in my interviews because I’m not reading from the autocue. I will only ask what’s relevant to what somebody is saying to me, because I’m listening to what they are saying.”
Have you developed any techniques for managing dyslexia?
“Trust me, I’m the world’s biggest try-hard. I have tried everything, and the best system I’ve got is that when I do read aloud, all of my full-stops are slashes. I will print out on blue paper because the reflection of the white doesn’t really help. I put certain key phrases in bold and then you don’t get hung up on incidental words.”
Do you have any advice for other people with dyslexia?
“Don’t fear it, because it’s the best thing ever. My dyslexia has inadvertently gifted me with an interview style people seem to find relaxing. If somebody asked me if I could live my life again without dyslexia, I would say no, because you recognise things and you do things differently to the way everybody else does, and that gets you to the front of the queue.
“You see things which are very obvious to you. I’m very practical and visual – that’s what I’m drawn to. And you find ways around challenges and it gives you a different perspective on life.”
A Year On Our Farm by Matt Baker is published by Michael Joseph, priced £20. Available now.