10 Tips for Talking Heads

10 Tips for Talking Heads

What to do when you are on the air.

By Dave Yewman


Andy Warhol once said that everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes. So when that time comes, don’t mess it up. Follow these 10 tips for broadcast success, whether you’re talking to Matt and Katie via satellite uplink or your employees via a Webcast.

1. Eye contact is king. If you’re on-set, focus on your interviewer and never, ever look at the camera. However, if you’re on a satellite hookup you need to maintain eye contact with the camera lens at all times. When pausing to think, look down – not up – so viewers don’t think you’re rolling your eyes.

2. Dress for success. Dress conservatively, wear solid colors – blues, browns, no white shirts, no plaid, no checkered patterns. It’s a good idea to have a backup outfit on hand in case of coffee spills or rising levels of perspiration (TV lights can be extremely hot). Don’t wear a hat or anything that would cast a shadow on your face. Men: hair combed neatly, clean shaven. Women: hair pulled back off face (if it’s long), light make-up. If possible wear contacts, not glasses (TV lights can reflect off the glass, even if you wear nonreflective lenses).

3. Strike a pose. Posture matters; if you’re on-set, you’ll want to lean forward around 20 degrees when you talk – it’ll open up your diaphragm, which increases your air supply. It also prevents you from slumping, plus you’ll look engaged in the discussion. A good rule of thumb is to not let your back touch the back of your chair. Sit with your feet flat on the floor, shoulders square and your rear planted firmly in your chair.

4. House of Pancake. No one wants to look like Nixon in the 1960 debates – a layer of pancake makeup will prevent the glistening that hot TV lights can produce. Guys usually cringe at the thought of makeup but hey, if it’s good enough for the leader of the free world, it’s good enough for them.

5. Acknowledge and bridge. You have “must air” points or key messages prepared – use them. Attention spans are short. Your on-air time is also short. Acknowledge and answer any questions you’re asked but always try to bridge back to those key messages during your interview. Also, reiterate those messages if you’re asked to provide a sound check or give a summation or closing thought.

6. Practice makes perfect. Being on TV under lights, wearing makeup and looking into a camera is an artificial environment and can be extremely stressful. You literally have seconds to sell your story. Practice in front of your bathroom mirror with a stopwatch – or, if you can stand it, use a video camera and have a trusted friend, family member or colleague critique your delivery. This sort of preparation will enable you to exude cool confidence during the actual interview. It also prevents a case of the “ums” – a disease that causes a lack of future TV appearances.

7. Remove distractions. Turn cellphones and pagers off, lose the gum, remove coins from pockets, don’t hold a pen unless you’re Bob Dole or disciplined enough not to play with it on camera. If you’re on a satellite hookup, ask the technician to turn off the TV set by the camera so you’re not tempted to look down and see how you look during the interview. Request that you be outfitted with an earpiece and a lavalier microphone before going on-air to make sure it fits, works and is comfortable. Also, avoid chairs that swivel and rock – they’re simply too tempting, especially when you get nervous.

8. Energy matters. Everything counts on TV – posture, energy and facial expression included. For proof, just watch the delivery of TV news anchors. Smile, you’re not under deposition! This can be fun. If possible, exercise before going on camera so your blood is flowing and you’re fully awake (a little caffeine might also help). This will help avoid what one CEO called “Dead Man Talking” syndrome.

9. Tell stories. Media outlets tell stories for a living – help them do their job and it will benefit you and your company. Examples, anecdotes and graphics can all help communicate your message – use them! Telling stories also helps break your conversation into soundbites – the lingua franca of TV.

10. Expect the unexpected. TV news is dynamic – an in-studio interview can quickly change to a satellite hookup; what was to be taped can suddenly be carried live; reporters will sometimes try to ambush you. Remain calm, be prepared and try to accommodate any unexpected changes.

Finally, someone once asked Dan Rather what he’d learned in 30 plus years of broadcasting. He replied, “Don’t eat spinach before you go on the air.” Good advice. No one wants to be remembered from those 15 minutes of fame as the person with a green glob on his teeth.


 David Yewman is a member of the Vancouver Club in Vancouver, Washington, and is a media trainer and presentation coach.

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