How can I present myself well on television?
January 6, 2004 4:46 PM   Subscribe

I need some advice on how to present myself well on television. It seems that this has become a (very unwelcome) side effect of my current job [details thither...]

Here's the situation.

I work in a smallish town, for the local government. I work on a project that gets a lot of press, both due to local interest and my department-boss' constant pimping of it to the media (print & TV).

I have 3 people above me. The top most (the pimper) likes to set things up but rarely is around when the media comes knocking. Directly below her is my longsuffering next-higher boss, a sweet man who is absolutely paralyzed in the face of a TV camera. My direct boss, well, quite simply, is fearsomely ugly, which is why I suspect he's not thrust in front of the spotlight.

I'm comfortable speaking with the media and not entirely racked with the fear of screwing up, but I *hate* being on camera. I suffer through it because really I have no choice, being the bottom of the totem pole. To make it somewhat worse, these things are usually sprung on me at the last possible moment -- as in, "Oh, by the way, Channel 8 is coming by in around half an hour." Then the cameras show up and they all high-tail it out of there, except for our media lady who's really only there to make sure the interviewer doesn't ask any controversial questions. This has happened perhaps 4 times in the last two months.

Does anybody have any experience speaking in front of a camera? Is there any way to do this without looking like a complete doofus? Should I wear a ton of makeup? I am not in any position to refuse this task.
posted by contessa to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Record yourself with a friend. Watch. Modify.

Have a american flag badge on your lapel.

Arrange someone nearby to be your Joe Lunchbox and explain the story to them a dozen times so you can learn the clearest explanation. Choose this person carefully.

And get some dirt on the interviewer.
posted by holloway at 5:24 PM on January 6, 2004

Discuss this with your bosses. Request, that since they're effectively making you their media spokesperson, you require some training in dealing with the media. Don't take no for an answer - it's the least they can do.

Either get them to find you a weekend course or something, or find one yourself and submit it to them, before you bring it up.
posted by Blue Stone at 5:42 PM on January 6, 2004

my husband's old boss was on TV all the time, sometimes at the last minute. They made sure he kept a good suit jacket, shirt and tie in the office for emergencies.

and you should def. get advice on what you think you'll say. what may make sense to you doesn't always make sense to others. plus it gives you a chance to flesh out ideas before the spotlight is on you (so less chance of ums).

Good luck!
posted by evening at 7:04 PM on January 6, 2004

I was a product manager for a high-profile product in the mid-90's and had to do a lot of press interviews, short tv appearances and even some educational videos. I can share some things which took me a while to learn:

- Always act professional. Dont use slang. Speak precisely not casually.
- Look directly at the camera (or your interviewer.) Do not get distracted by other things around you.
- Watch yourself for 'ummm's and other speech fillers.
- Be conscious of any nervous movements you may have. It may be helpful to practice in front of a friend and have them point out that you e.g. smack your lips, rub your chin constantly, slowly sway from side to side etc.
- Be conscious of what your hands are doing. Using them for occasional punctuation is ok but dont have them constantly flying around. clasping them in front of you may help if this is a problem.
- The press is not your friend. Give them a warm smile but avoid saying too much or getting drawn into leading questions. The best press interviewers will try to make you feel as if they are your best friend and confidant, that you can tell them anything. Don't say anything you wouldnt want to see splashed on the front page. (This is why PR people talk the way they do)
- Try to remove pronouns whenever possible for important points. This allows the press to take your staments as individual units suitable for framing in a clip or a quote. That is, instead of "...We believe that this product is ideally suited to this market", try "XYZ Widgets believes that Widget-maker 2.1 is ideally suited for the gizmo market"
- As a spokesperson, don't use "I"
- Do all the above without sounding like a robot. Convey enthusiasm and energy.
- Dress as befits your audience. If you are uncertain, err on the side of dressing conservative. Anyone that knows me, knows I am not a blue-shirt/khakis kind of guy and yet that is generally what I wore for these interviews. (But, this was aproppriate for high-tech. i'd dress differently for music or fashion)
- Study your face in the mirror beforehand to make sure you dont have, say a stray hair or anything else that is even a minor distraction. People will focus on anomalies like this and ignore your message. For me, this was done by one of the camera crew who would stand in front of me and look closely at me after they had applied a little powder to avoid reflections from the face (also helps in case you start to sweat)

Thats about it off the top of my head. Hope that helps.
posted by vacapinta at 7:13 PM on January 6, 2004 [1 favorite]

I've had to appear on camera a few times, too, though under pressure with no prep time. Lots of good tips here.

One point I disagree with Vacapinta on: in general, don't look at the camera -- just ignore it and focus on the conversation with the interviewer. Occasional glances into the camera make most subjects look nervous, self-conscious, and inexperienced. Of course there are exceptions: very confident folks may know when to address viewers with a grin. But if in doubt, best to ignore the camera.

Also, I beg interviewees everywhere to speak professionally, but conversationally. Don't fall into the "Cops"® crutch of padding out a monologue with pseudo-formal dry-toast big-wordery. ("We responded to the request of an individual for immediate assistance and discovered the gentlemen in question presently engaged in an illegal vehicular activity outside the homeowner's residence..." vs. "We responded to her 911 call, and caught a car full of teenagers doing doughnuts on her lawn.")
posted by Tubes at 9:28 PM on January 6, 2004

All of these suggestions have been very informative. Lots of things I never would have even thought of. Thank you everyone!
posted by contessa at 9:58 PM on January 6, 2004

yep lots of good tips here.

i presented some stuff on a uk tv show , shhh !

just be natural and keep your physical movements as small as possible, the rule here is less is more.
posted by sgt.serenity at 1:58 AM on January 7, 2004

Don't wear anything white, it will wash you out.

Sit on the bottom of your jacket to make your shoulders crisper.

Always wait a beat before answering, it will make you appear thoughtful.

ALso, for shits and giggles ( and other TV anecdotes ), read Tucker Carlson's new book. It's a fast read and VERY entertaining.
posted by remlapm at 7:05 AM on January 7, 2004

Don't wear stripes.
posted by rocketman at 7:22 AM on January 7, 2004

A couple more ...

The question of looking at the camera versus looking at the interviewer really depends on the type of situation you're in. If it's a face to face interview with an interviewer, you'll want to look directly at him/her, and ignore the camera altogether. If you're in a talking head situation where you're simply sitting in front of a camera and the host is elsewhere, then look directly into the camera.

In terms of wardrobe, white and black are bad because they are the extremes. Stripes and other complicated patterns are trouble because they tend to vibrate on the screen. Also, red is usually not a good choice because it bleeds. Try to stick with blues and earth tones. Solid colors are always better.

Smile. Don't squint. Address the interviewer by his or her first name when answering questions.

All of your movements are exaggerated when you're on screen. Be aware of that.
posted by marcusb at 9:13 AM on January 7, 2004

Big-wordery has its place. You learn it in boot camp and, I presume, the police academy. If you're a skilled professional and you're talking to other skilled professionals, or you need to be highly technical because of complicated nuances (or, in my case, if misunderstandings could get people killed), then feel free to be as precise as you need to be to get the job done.
posted by taumeson at 11:22 AM on January 7, 2004

If you're in a talking head situation where you're simply sitting in front of a camera and the host is elsewhere, then look directly into the camera.
--Agreed. I wasn't thinking of the camera-as-host scenario.

Big-wordery has its place.
--Also true, but that's usually not a public forum like a news show or interview.

I like the wardrobe points some people have made. I remember seeing someone's contrasty tweed sportcoat on TV appear to be crawling with ants...
posted by Tubes at 12:31 PM on January 7, 2004

Unless the interview is being conducted live, do not feel pressured to begin answering immediately after the question is asked. Take a few seconds (or more, if necessary) to consider the best response, then begin speaking. The pause will be edited out before it's broadcast, and even if it is not, you'll look like less of an idiot to be thoughtfully considering the question than if you simply blurt out an answer.
posted by bradlands at 2:38 PM on January 7, 2004

For most Americans, talk much slower than you normally do. Explain ideas (especially ones relating to your work) as you would to a relative you meet at a wedding who doesn't really understand what you do. And I heartily second all the advice above, especially Vacapintas.

Also, try to accept the cruel reality that TV will make you look fat.
posted by anildash at 3:47 PM on January 7, 2004

Good advice from lots of people above. (My credentials? I'm a video editor/producer at a national TV news network.) Especially second the "no stripes" rule, particularly when they're thin stripes set closely together. (They can create an unpleasant moire effect.) (A pinstripe suit is generally okay, because the contrasts aren't as noticeable.) White and black are okay, but not great -- you run the risk of being overexposed or underexposed by less than perfectly with-it crews. Sitting on the back of your jacket is also a good tip.

All of your movements are exaggerated when you're on screen. Be aware of that. Indeed.

I would definitely ask for media training. Lots of places have people that do this (often ex-reporters or anchors who want a more normal schedule) -- you may have to ask around a little. If there's a big company nearby that yours either a.) has a good working relationship with or b.) doesn't compete with, you may just want to call their PR offices, talk to the head flack, and see who they use for media training.

and regarding talking to the press: The thing to remember is that they're trying to tell a story. (So are you....and ideally, the story they tell is the one you'd like them to tell.) Help them tell their story by making it easier to tell your side. Many people think they've been "ambushed", quoted out of context, or are otherwise unhappy with the results when they've actually told their story in an unclear or difficult-to-use fashion.

Good luck.
posted by Vidiot at 6:31 PM on January 7, 2004

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